As I sit writing in the PhD office at the University of British Columbia, I have noticed the pile of marked exam manuscripts tipping like the tower of Pisa. As my fellow PhD students mark these scripts the piles get to around 2 or 3 feet, tottering dangerously. it's a sure sign exam season is upon us.


The exam appears to be the one time that speed is unquestionably of the essence. There is a set of instructions and you have a limited time to respond to them.

If it's an essay style exam, the most common in the social sciences, you're often required to demonstrate knowledge and analytical ability. Yet this can easily translate into a knowledge dump on the page where we write everything we can remember. In doing so, we sacrifice the quality of our argument for the number of words we produce. Most of us will be writing until we're told to stop two or three hours later.


It's a strange artifice of exams that encourages quantity over quality. Think of any other medium for an argument or debate. The most convincing responses rarely relies on the volume of words spoken or written. Essays have word limits and presidential debates have strict rules on how long a candidate can talk for (although interestingly, the average time the president speaks at the State of the Union seems to be getting longer).

Exams are efficient for assessing large numbers of people. They can be written and marked in the minimal amount of time. They are useful for large student intakes and they aren't going anywhere soon. The ooze fast scholarship.

But this doesn't mean they can't be approached slowly. Any marker will tell you an answer that is shorter but well planned and structured is better than a waffley and indirect response. Selfishly for us markers, less words means less marking. A stronger structure means we spend less time piecing together the argument you're trying to make.

A slow exam response is one that balances knowledge comprehension (knowing and understanding stuff) with that other critical scholarly skill: communicating an argument effectively. In other words, how you write is just as important as what you write.

So here are three slow tips for the essay-based exam:

  1.  Spend longer planning: The more time spent on the logical arc and narrative of the argument, the clearer your argument will be. In exams, points are often remembered in the last few minutes and tacked on the end, sometimes after a conclusion. The more time spent thinking about what you want to say at the beginning, the better the structure will be.
  2. Slow down the speed at which you write: For the moment, exams haven't been migrated to computers, unless you have a learning disability. This means your writing has to be legible, and often it is not. Markers have lots of scripts to mark and often are paid by the script, not the time taken to mark them.  Deciphering your scrawl is not only frustrating, it's expensive. Taking longer to form words on the page also gives the brain more time to process the structure of the next sentence. More structured versions of Slow Writing are used by secondary school teachers to improve their pupil's creativity and handwriting.
  3. Work at your pace, not the pace of others: One researcher tracked hoq quickly a student finished their exam and the mark they got. They found no relationship whatsoever. So don't worry about if people around you are getting up and leaving with 25 minutes still to go. Conversely, if you feel you have aced a final with 20 minutes to spare and fancy beating the queues to the pub, then go get a well-deserved drink. Just make sure if you do have spare time, that you read through the answer at the end of the paper, catching any obvious errors in the writing.

Comment