How to tackle the stickiest exam questions

As Psychology teachers we want students to actively focus on:

  1. Knowing the spec. inside-out, so that they can…
  2. Spot opportunities to use the spec. content and its terms in their answers, and then…
  3. Elaborate on their answer to gain maximum marks

But in addition to this, when applied (A03) questions require students to address information given in the question stem, our students face an extra sticky challenge. To help them meet this challenge, we can encourage them to develop meta-cognitive skills: we want our students to be aware of a range of strategies so that they have a mental Swiss-army knife of techniques at their finger-tips to tackle the most troublesome of questions.

One such set of strategies is MURDER, an acronym which students can recall to ‘kill’ difficult questions.

How to Kill Difficult Questions:

Mentally step back…and consider W.E.L.F.

Use the information given

RTQ and ATQ (systematically)

Don’t just do something, sit there!

Exercise mastery – use what you do know

Return to it later in the exam

So here is how I explain these strategies to my students:

Mentally step back…and consider W.E.L.F. Examiner feedback on past paper questions often refers to the idea that examiners can really see the difference between candidates who ‘mentally step back’ before answering a question, and those that don’t!  W.E.L.F. is short for: What the Examiner is Looking For. It links back to the idea that if you know the specification that underlies all the exam questions then you can work out what a question is trying to elicit from you and what is on the mark scheme. Students who have practised taking a pause to consider their strategy, making use of this sort of technique, do better. You could even use an egg timer to force thinking time when practising exam questions in class: 15 seconds per mark.

Use the information given. Many questions actually include information that students can use in their answer. For example, operationalised variables are often given in the stem that can simply be lifted whole-sale, for example when candidates are asked to write a hypothesis, table heading, or axis labels. Advice for dealing with applied (A03) questions that have an explicit requirement to address the question stem is slightly different however. Whilst quoting parts of the question stem word-for-word in their answer is better than not addressing those bits of the stem at all, better marks are gained by candidates who change bits of the stem into their own words i.e. paraphrase not copy.

As an example, consider this question:

Robert has right hand side paralysis and though he can understand speech, he cannot speak. Use knowledge of research into hemispheric lateralization and language centres to discuss his case.

A student answer addressing the wording in the stem such as ‘Robert cannot speak so this suggests he has Broca’s aphasia’ is essential to gain a good mark but an answer that paraphrases the stem such as ‘Robert’s speech production deficit suggests he has Broca’s aphasia’ is much better in the examiners eyes because it shows the stem has been processed.

RTQ and ATQ (systematically). That is RTQ (Read The Question) and ATQ (Answer The Question). If students are trained to do this, and to do this systematically, they will break questions down into tasks and deal with each task separately.

For example, for questions that ask for two differences students do better if they use a word to signpost the comparison being made such as whereas and should leave a line between their two differences, as this helps organise their thoughts (and those of the examiner).

Another useful piece of technique to practise, in terms of being systematic, is making sure that students ‘wrap up’ their point before moving on, in both in essays and short answer questions. For example a student might write: ‘Participants may have responded to demand characteristics because they knew they were being observed. This is a threat to the validity of the study.’ Good students often miss out the second, ‘wrap up’ sentence I’ve included here, and leave their point implied. That loses them marks that they could gain, with just an extra dash of exam technique.

Don’t just do something, sit there! Really this is similar to the first point, but it needs emphasising. Moreover, it might be an opportunity to introduce mindfulness skills to your students. Whilst students might not be ready for a regular mindfulness practice in their daily lives, students can put mindfulness skills to use in emergencies to re-centre themselves when under pressure and avoid a panic setting in. For example, I have known students say that mindfulness techniques have helped them after flare-up arguments with their family or their friends, in the lead up to exams, and indeed during the exams themselves, when faced with a dastardly difficult question.

Exercise mastery – use what you do know. So often, students fail to think flexibly in the exam, to find alternative solutions when they think they don’t recall the most obvious content they think is required by an exam question. It is frustrating when, through poor technique, students don’t make full use of the wealth of knowledge and understanding they have amassed during the course. Sometimes they panic, putting down a poor answer or, worse, no answer at all, when they could have made good use of research they do know, creatively ‘signposting’ its relevance to the question. For example: Tulving’s research using brain scans to show different areas of the brain active during different types of memory tasks can be put to use to answer questions about memory or about neuro-imaging or about functional localisation. Students often mentally ‘box off’ research studies into particular topics, and fail to spot opportunities to make the most out of their knowledge.

Return to it later. Tricky questions are sometimes best tackled early in the exam when the mind is fresh, but if questions are so tricky that they are causing a mental block, then the brain needs time to incubate and process. These types of ‘brain freeze’ questions are best returned to later. This can be a useful strategy to consider helping curb a sense of rising panic. Not only that: tackling a challenging question after success with one or two easier questions brings a powerful optimism to the challenge.

With this MURDER strategy I think students can intellectualise their potential fears, which can give a beneficial sense of control, of benefit in itself and they can ‘kill’ those hard questions. Whilst I’m not really down with this sort of violent vernacular, ‘I killed it’ is a phrase I don’t mind hearing students say when exiting their Psychology A level exam!

Harriet Ennis is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, who has been a Head of Psychology for over 15 years. Harriet also writes articles on teaching psychology for the ATP Today magazine and the BPS DARTP Psychology Teaching Review. Her favorite type of teaching is delivering psychology masterclasses for YorkISSP (one of the best partnerships of its kind in the country) because it gives her freedom from ‘the specification’. This year she was given a BPS award for public engagement in the North East.