‘Spatial’ vs. ‘temporal’ exam technique

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Whilst studying for my own A-Levels I was given some advice that, without overstating the issue, completely repositioned my thought process of how to approach exams involving extended essays. The advice was simple; visualise the length of your writing, not how long you are writing for.

Now I should state; this is not necessarily going to work for everyone. But, here’s how it worked.

As students, we were asked to write solidly for 30 minutes. We were told to write a story or copy from a book. The exercise was for no other purpose than to identify what was physically possible when writing for that length of time. This knowledge then formed the basis for every practice response we were asked to carry out. If I knew 30 minutes was two sides of paper (or 500 words), then an exam where I was required to write an hour response became 4 sides.

Now this may seem rather obvious, but consider the practicalities of this knowledge. We as teachers are all too aware of the issues students often have with timing in exams and in these high pressured situations time doesn’t appear to follow its normal rules: what seems like 5 minutes in an exam can actually be closer to 25 (just try asking a student to present to the class, then ask them to estimate how long they spoke for – they will be horribly inaccurate). Is it any wonder that structure, flow and even the ability to finish the requirements of the paper on time, are diminished if they are writing to timings that appear to be playing tricks on them?

Instead, seeing a 60-minute response as 4 pages (or whatever students have identified as being physically possible) changes the mindset. Students begin to visualize the structure of what they are saying. If they want to address 4 points in their answer, each becomes a page. As they are approaching the bottom of page four, they start to conclude and summarise their points.

Now of course this requires a little leap of faith, and it requires students to be confident about what 30, 45 or 60 minutes ‘looks like.’ But with practice and commitment some of your learners may be able to make this approach work for them. And if they can, they will hopefully shake off the tendency to write unstructured responses, governed by regular glances at the clock. They will hopefully write responses that are balanced and that avoid the need to ‘tack on’ an extra ‘ps.’ or ‘and also’ at the end. They will, with luck be confident assured responses.

What’s more, they will soon realise that writing a 3,000-word practice answer to an exam where physically 750 words would be the maximum, is not such a great idea.