Lots of students prefer doing problem questions over essays in exams.
But how can you make sure that you do problem questions well and maximise your mark?
Problem questions require a different approach to essays, and the more practice you get the more comfortable you will feel answering them.
Whether it is criminal, tort, contract, equity or land law, these ten steps are an excellent start to answering problem questions!
After you sit down in your chair in the exam hall, don’t panic.
Lots of students rush exams without really thinking about what they are writing.
Reading the problem question properly is one of the most important things you can do. Make sure you think about how you will actually approach the whole answer rather than just scribbling down your answer immediately.
By setting out a brief plan at the very start of your answer you will improve its structure and make it easier for the examiner to read it!
- Read exactly what the questions is asking
After the text of the question- what have you actually been asked to do?
In a criminal question, for example, you might be asked to ‘Discuss the criminal liability of David and Paul’. In contract law, for example, you might be asked to ‘Advise Richard on whether there has been a breach of contract’.
The criminal question here is expecting discussion of the two specific individuals. The contract question is focused on one specific issue.
Understanding what you are actually being asked will help you structure your answer and maximise your mark.
- Check who you are being asked to consider
Problem questions will be full of individuals- some more important than others.
You need to focus on the most important people in the question. If you start discussing people who don’t really matter, you will waste your time and lose marks.
- Look for how many issues arise
Every mark scheme allows examiners to give students marks for covering the main issues involved in the question.
A key question then is, how many issues are there?
Identifying the key issues is an important exam technique!
You must remember to cover the main issues FIRST and then consider other secondary issues after.
- Avoid irrelevant discussions
After planning your answer and identifying the key issues involved, you must then remember to stay focused throughout your answer.
Students get tempted to start discussing issues just because they have revised it when preparing for the exam.
This is a major exam mistake!
Trust your judgement– if you know there are 3 main issues in a question then address these first. Don’t start talking about an issue just because you know something about it!
Ask yourself: is what I am writing directly answering the question?
There is more than one way of answering a problem question, but a good structure will always increase a student’s mark. The use of clear headings, sub-headings and paragraphs is vital. Look at this example:
Separating each issue with sub-headings is always a good idea. This is called ‘signposting’ and will let your examiner know exactly how you will address the issues.
Also, make sure your answer is spaced out with paragraphs. This makes your answer easier to read and will help the examiner follow what you are saying.
- Covering issues v critical analysis
Your number 1 objective in a problem question is to identify the issues raised by the question and discuss them.
This sounds obvious, right? However, sometimes students ignore the main issues and instead talk about whether the law is satisfactory and how it can be reformed.
This is called ‘critical analysis’.
In problem questions, you must remember that any critical analysis must ONLY be discussed after the main issues have been addressed.
For example, after discussing all the main issues you might discuss some reforms proposed by the Law Commission.
Getting a balance is very important. If you firstly cover the main issues, adding some critical analysis can increase your mark.
- Value of added reading
Your examiner will probably have to read hundreds of other exams like yours. How can you make yours stand out?
One way is by demonstrating additional reading beyond your course specification.
For example, reading a different journal article will impress your examiner and show that you have really thought about the topic.
- Time management
Exams are about 2 things: 1) remembering information and 2) time management.
Even if you have done lots of revision and know the topics really well, you have to answer the questions within the time period allowed.
The best thing students can do is to do lots of practice exams. Work out how you cope under time pressure and start to get used to managing your time.
In the exam, watch the clock to make sure you don’t spend too long answering one question!
Just as structuring your answer is important, so too is reaching sensible conclusions. You have to show your examiner that you have taken a view and can support it.
There are 2 ways of doing this:
1) Reaching ‘mini conclusions’ at the end of each issue throughout the answer. For example, once you have finished dealing with the first issue, you can explain what your conclusion is. Then you can move onto the second issue.
2) Have a separate ‘Conclusion’ paragraph at the end of the answer explaining your overall view of the issues.
Both of these are acceptable.
The main thing is to cover all of the issues and don’t leave the examiner wondering what your view is!
These ten points will help you to write better answers to problem questions.
Make your answers stand out- structure them clearly, address the main issues and reach sensible conclusions.