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What’s it like to take an exam?

May 28, 2013

Last Tuesday afternoon I took my first exam with the Royal Statistical Society. It’s the first of two modules towards their Ordinary certificate in statistics and I’ll take the second module next May. I hope to carry on with the other exams in subsequent years.

I chose to take the exam because I like statistics. This was quite a big factor in choosing to do it and I’m obviously in a position now where I don’t have to take exams I don’t want to. I also wanted to take the exam because it’s been about 13 years since I last took a written exam and, basically don’t really remember what it was like. I thought it might give me a chink of insight into what I see students going through year after year and also show a little solidarity with my year 11, 12 and 13 students.

It’s fair to say that most students’ reactions were along the lines of “so you’re taking this exam even though you don’t have to?” I usually responded with something about liking the challenge and actually enjoying the subject I teach.

In preparing for the exam, I spent some time going through the books on the reading list and fairly early I looked at a past paper do I could get a feel for it. [This is something I don’t do with current students but will do from now on.] more recently, I’ve been reading through and/or doing the past papers along with suggested solutions and examiners’ reports. I also tried to sit down an do an exam but couldn’t do this because it’s 3 hours long and I have two small children along with planning and marking to do!

In the exam, I read through the 7 questions first to get a feel for it. There didn’t seem to be anything too nasty but there were a couple of bits I wasn’t sure about and something I’d not heard of. I launched into the first question as I decided it was a reasonable one to start with (ie not too hard) and it was worth a total of 19 marks out of the 100 available.

4 sides of A4 later I’d finished that question and looked at the time. I was definitely horrified to see I was 55 minutes into the exam and only one question down. Trying not to worry, I went onto question 2 as it was short (8 marks) and I though it’d be quick. It took 15 minutes so I felt a bit more on track and could relax a little more. Question 3 was 25 marks and looked lengthy so I skipped it and did the other 4 in order to make sure I’d covered more questions. Having done the others at quite a quick pace, I was left with about 40 minutes for q3. It all worked out ok but I obviously shouldn’t have taken so long on the first question!

I’ve learnt that writing for 3 hours is tough. I certainly wasn’t ready for that.
I also, didn’t quite know all the things I should have done (coding of responses anyone?). I think I did a good amount of reading and preparing but I could have done more to make contact with people that could have cleared some things up.
I also realised that there really are tonnes of things I like about planning and collecting data. I also suspect it’s something that’s not given enough thought by most people doing a survey.
I actually enjoyed the process and would encourage you to consider it for your own subject.

Finally and brilliantly I feel, is that in this 3 hour statistics exam, I didn’t use a calculator once. Not at all. It’s not even that I’m good at mental arithmetic, there simple weren’t any sums to be done!
Statistics does not necessarily equal number crunching.


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  1. Superb! Sounds like an enjoyable and worthwhile thing to do!

  2. It is a good thing to do. I did A Level Computer Science as a teacher (when I was teaching O Level Computer Studies). I agree it makes you think about exam preparation and reminds you what it feels like to actually have to sit an exam.

  3. Good for you … A couple of us at our school are tempted to retake our A levels .. For no other reason than “because we can” … I’m even more tempted now 🙂

  4. Luce permalink

    So glad I fell across your blog – I have just registered for my RSS exams and really am not sure what I have let myself in for and whether registering for both Ordinary certificate exams this year was a big mistake or not (yet to see!) but with the exams being phased out I decided it was worth at least trying than gambling everything on next May. You made me feel that I hadn’t gone completely mad at least!

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