Skip to Main Content

Revision and Exams: Exam formats

Boost your exam revision and explore strategies for essay exams, online tests and MCQs with our online study guide and resources.

This section of the Skill Guide focuses on the different strategies and approaches required for different exam types:

  • Short answer exams
  • Vivas and assessed presentations
  • Seen exams

Short-answer exams

Short-answer exams consist of multiple questions that require you to give concise answers that demonstrate your ability to recall and apply key information from your module. Marks awarded for each question will vary from 1-2 marks for simple factual recall, up to around 20 marks for longer answers (although these will not take the form of an essay). Questions in these exams generally fall into one of the following three categories:


Factual questions test your core knowledge and your ability to recall key information. One mark will be awarded per fact or piece of information you provide, and therefore you will not need to give lengthy explanations or your own opinion. These questions are usually worth the lowest number of marks and come at the start of each part of the exam to settle you into the topic.

Below is a list of common instruction words used in this type of question, along with some examples:

Define Give Describe
List State Outline
Identify Name Provide
  • State the correct medical term for a ‘boxer’s fracture’.
  • Describe three functions of cellular membranes.
  • List the six stages of Bloom’s taxonomy.
  • Give an example of a word that begins with each of the following sounds: 

(a) a voiced fricative 

(b) a plosive


Interpretive questions require you to show how basic facts and information are connected, and how you can apply your knowledge to real-word situations or practice. These questions will often ask you to explain a processing detail, showing knowledge of cause and consequence, or of how one part affects another. You might also need to show multiple examples to illustrate your point, demonstrating a wider knowledge of the subject:

Compare and contrast simultaneous and consecutive interpreting.

Consider how mixed attainment may affect academic outcomes in a primary setting.

Explain how mindfulness may be used to enhance organisational performance.


These questions will often come in two parts, where you are asked to give a fact and then apply that knowledge to a scenario or process. If you are running out of time, answering the first part of these questions is a good way to pick up marks. Here’s an example of this type of question:

Multiple factors regulate growth in the oceanic microbial food webs. Present and discuss the two basic categories of controlling factors.


The longest questions you will encounter are those that ask you to develop an argument or give your interpretation and opinion on a topic. These should be structured as mini essays, where you use evidence to back up your point of view, while acknowledging any alternative viewpoints or counterarguments.

Below is a list of common instruction words used in this type of question, along with some examples:

Evaluate How far do you agree with...
Justify To what extent...
Critically discuss Assess the role and significance of...

To what extent does breastfeeding explain Birth-interval effects on early childhood mortality?

Assess the role and significance of the NAACP in the American Civil Rights movement.

How far do you agree with the assertion that Bram Stoker’s Dracula can be considered an archetype of Gothic literature

Vivas and assessed presentations

What is a viva examination?

  • If you are required to undertake a viva examination during your studies, you will be expected to give a verbal defence of your written dissertation.

  • You may be asked to take a viva examination either during or upon completion of your research, depending on your course.

  • The purpose of a viva examination is to:

    • Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of the dissertation in question.

    • Determine a solid understanding as to where the dissertation sits in relation to existing research and subject field.

    • Explore and clarify any points of ambiguity within the theories proposed in dissertation.

  • A viva panel will typically be formed of two or three examiners, including an appointed chairperson from your faculty/college. The chairperson should have some background knowledge of your research field but must not be directly involved in your work. Additionally, there will be an external examiner present for your viva and in some cases, your supervisor will also be present, though they will not be able to participate in the proceedings.

  • There are no guidelines concerning the length of time a viva will take. The panel will use their discretion to conclude the Viva when they feel is necessary. 

How to prepare for your viva examination

  • The most important thing you can do to prepare for a viva examination is to familiarise yourself with your dissertation. So read, read and re-read your work!

  • You should make summary notes as you read through your work. Try to be as concise with your notes as possible and avoid rewriting chunks of your thesis. Brief, summarising notes are much more effective and easier to learn.

  • Try to identify strengths and weaknesses throughout your dissertation and integrate these into your summarising notes.

    • Do not panic if you notice any mistakes in your work! If you do recognise any errors in your work, you will be able to make corrections accordingly before your final submission.

    • Identifying weaknesses will give you time to prepare appropriate responses in case the panel make reference to these during the Viva examination.

  • In addition to your summary notes, you may consider alternative ways to revise your dissertation. Here are some ways which you could do this:

    • Using your list of contents, write out a brief summary of the content below each heading

    • Practice telling the story of your research within a given time limit. You could practice rehearsing individual chapters or your work as a whole.

    • Record yourself reading your notes and listen back to them.

  • The infographic below summarises some of the strategies you can use to prepare for your viva examination.

an infographic summarising different revision strategies

  • Although specific questions during the viva examination will vary depending on your research field, you are likely to be asked a mix of questions in relation to the following areas of your work:

    • Research context

    • Research methods

    • Findings and analysis

    • Discussion

    • Conclusion and implications

  • We recommend you spend some time thinking about any potential questions the examination panel may want to ask you and consider how you will respond to these questions.

  • You should also consider your thesis within a broader context as you may be asked to comment on the wider implications of your research. Think about how your thesis ties in with existing research and your work could be followed up on in the future.

Seen exams

What are seen exams?

  • Seen exams are where students are given the exam question ahead of the exam, giving them time to research and prepare content.

  • Seen exams do not permit students to bring in additional notes or academic materials such as books or journals.

  • Seen exams can reduce stress and anxieties around exams as they allow students to target their revision around the essay subject, rather than revising masses of content which may otherwise prove to be irrelevant under non-seen exam conditions.

  • Testing students using a seen exam format can enable a deeper demonstration of knowledge and understanding around the essay subject. You should put considerable time into the research and analysis of the question.


​How to prepare for a seen exam

  • You should begin by examining the exam question and building up a strong understanding of exactly what it is you are being asked to write about. Identify key terms and instruction words within the exam question. The illustration below helps you to unpack an exemplar essay question.


  • Once you have made yourself familiar with the exam question, begin to explore the subject through a range of different academic materials.

  • Read, read, read! That’s right, in seen exams you will be expected to reference to academic materials in order to achieve the higher grades. Reading will help you build a greater understanding around the subject. You should make notes from any relevant materials you have read and cite any arguments/findings you may wish to use for your final response.

  • Unless instructed otherwise, you should prepare your response in essay format, including an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. You can then start to populate each section with any content you wish to include in your final response. So, in theory, planning for a seen exam is a lot like planning for a regular essay-based assignment.

    • The introduction will introduce the key terms within the essay question and the succeeding points you will talk about in the main body.

    • The main body of your essay will feature the main points you plan to discuss in your response. We recommend you plan your main discussion points using the TED paragraph structure. Here is an example of how you may implement the TED framework in your essay

The subject of procrastination is relevant  in organisations with regard to productivity, and researchers in universities are becoming more concerned with procrastination and its impact on student success. Topic
Hussain (2019) in a cross-university study reports that 87% of students  identify procrastination as a key barrier to achieving academic outcomes, 46% use postponing work to motivate them to last-minute action, 23% believing that  such tactics are detrimental to wellbeing and overall course achievement. Evidence 
The reasons for procrastination are complex, but our understandings are finally developing beyond the usual expressions of procrastination and its antecedence in perfectionist mindsets, Sirois (2019) argues that procrastination functions as a mood-repair tactic, which could fundamentally be described as misregulation as it is based on false assumptions which ultimately serve to undermine self-control in the longer term. Therefore procrastination could undermine  identity beliefs and create more stress  for individuals concerned with competence and performance. Discussion
    • Your conclusion should sum up your main points and give an overarching statement based on the evidence you have provided.
    • Ensure you plan in accordance with the allocated time for the exam. If the exam requires you to answer more than one question, think about how you will weight your time for each question.

  • Once your plan is complete – have a go at drafting out a response using your existing plan and notes. Timing yourself will enable you to figure out if your current volume of content is sufficient for the allocated response time.

  • Keep re-writing your response, relying on your notes as little as possible until you feel you can comfortably rehearse your points without your notes.

  • It is important not to get hung up on consistent wording when writing out your draft responses. The most important thing is that you have revised your notes thoroughly. It would be almost impossible for most of us to recite a whole essay word-for-word, so we highly recommend you don’t do this. If you can recite your notes comfortably, your overall style and flow won’t vary too much between your drafts.

  • Avoid writing out your notes in full sentences. Instead, you will find it much easier to revise content through quick, concise bullet points.

  • Provided you have put sufficient time and effort into researching and revising your notes, you will easily be able to expand on and develop your points without needing to recite big chunks of text word-for-word.


On the day of the exam

  • Familiarise yourself with the exam conditions and ensure you have any necessary materials and equipment to complete the exam.

  • Remember to set some time aside during the exam to quickly plan your answer. We’d recommend using this time to note down some of your most important points, or to write down a list of your references with dates.

  • Wear comfortable clothing, this will help you to feel more relaxed.

  • Remember to bring a water bottle in case you feel dehydrated during the exam

  • DO NOT leave the exam early! If you finish your paper early use this time to proofread your response. It is more than likely you will have made some errors while writing your response.