When final year secondary students sit written examinations in VCE Drama or Theatre Studies (Victoria, Australia), it is important to be well prepared for all eventualities and have a few tried and tested examination techniques up your sleeve as well. Here are the exam techniques I practice with my own students:
A successful result in a Drama or Theatre Studies exam begins weeks and months in advance of sitting the paper. Think of it as a mini US Presidential campaign. This exam is not conquered overnight. But if the exam is in just a couple of weeks time and you’re yet to begin the campaign, it’s not too late to start now.
The best preparation a student can have is to sit multiple past exam papers, starting with the most recent one and working your way backwards. Be wary of matching past exams up with current terminology. Old exam papers can contain outdated terms, so ensure current terminology replaces old terminology in questions and responses. VCE Drama and Theatre Studies current terminology exists with the most recent version of these two subjects’ study designs (2014 onwards).
Once a student sits half a dozen or more past exam papers, a certain familiarity exists with the types of questions asked. One can even see patterns emerging over the course of several years. Try sitting past exams under the following conditions:
- open book / untimed (easiest > good to start with)
- open book / timed
- closed book / untimed
- closed book / timed (genuine exam experience)
I am still flabbergasted as to how many students don’t use the rich, quality feedback an examination report offers after sitting a past exam paper. From the general to the very specific, past examiners’ reports tell students exactly what the examiners are looking for in high quality responses. These reports also offer genuine past student example responses to illustrate points made. Just as importantly, they also list common mistakes, pitfalls and other information outlining what NOT to do in the exam!
Did you know there is a specifications document for these exams? In theory, this is the document the exam setting panel uses to create the questions on the exam. It clearly outlines what Outcomes in which Units are examinable. It also outlines mark allocations for each section, format (exam sections), types of responses needed and where (e.g. short or long answer responses), plus highlighting the importance of key knowledge and key skills in the subject study design. I carefully go through this document with my students. We then go through the relevant sections of the study design, underlining the key knowledge and key skills of the examinable Outcomes.
Exam Cover Sheet
Ridiculously difficult to locate on the VCAA website (search via Google instead), the Drama and Theatre Studies written exams have a cover sheet published in advance of the exam (usually at the very start of Term 4). Although subject to change, these cover sheets are normally the real deal and offer important information such as section mark allocations, plus the content of the instruction boxes in each section. This helps (if for no other reason) familiarise students with parts of the actual exam paper in advance, hopefully eliminating any nerves in the exam room.
Weak students consider reading time in the exam as a waste of time. Middle band (C/C+) students do use reading time, but have little or no technique on how to use it properly. This is often because they did not employ reading time when they sat past exam papers as practice. If you want to mimic the conditions of the exam room as closely as possible, students should use reading time in practice exams prior to sitting the actual exam paper. High flying students use reading time wisely. In reading time, these students:
- read the instruction boxes at the front of the exam paper and at the start of each section
- decide in advance of writing the order of questions/sections in which they will respond
- calculate how long it will take to respond to each section of the exam
- take a close look at the weighting of various sections and questions
- try to decipher reasons behind mark allocations (eg. …two examples of = /4, therefore likely to be 2+2)
- look closely at bolded words and key words in questions and the reasons behind these
- look for “and” & “s” (pluralisation) in questions in order to minimise missing part of a response
Reading time is the most important part of the exam, hands down. It is not assessed.
If reading time is the most important part of the exam, then time management is a student’s most important skill needed to be mastered. One can have all the content knowledge in the world, study for endless hours, sit ten past exam papers, and then not finish the exam paper due to poor time management – thus handing back a swag of marks you never attempted. I’ve seen potential A+s end up as B’s purely due to poor time management in the examination room. Finish the paper. Period.
Responding To Questions
I advise my students to spend the first two minutes of writing time underlining or highlighting key words in questions. Do not take any longer than three minutes if undertaking this process. The aim here is to ensure your responses are rich and accurate, but the reality is you are eating in to writing time without actually responding to any questions.
When responding, students must use Drama and Theatre Studies terminology, ensuring in consultation with their teacher it is current, correct and appropriate for particular responses. Terminology can be found in the subject study design, past exam papers and examiners reports.
One of the things that makes examinations in The Arts so difficult, is that students need to use both sides of their brain at the same time. Purely creative students often present wonderfully imaginative and conceptual responses to exam stimuli, but sometimes go off tangent, respond to only parts of questions, and/or don’t finish the paper in the allotted time. Purely analytical students sometimes offer pedestrian responses to exam stimuli that show the examiner little creativity, yet they respond to all parts of various questions and even finish the paper with plenty of time left over.
In a Drama or Theatre Studies written exam a student needs to be both of these people, outlined above. Left and right brain working concurrently, the student needs to be both analytical and creative. Easier said than done! Be busy. Be worried if you finish the exam paper with 15 minutes to go. It was not designed for this to happen. With a few minutes spare, read over responses and make any last-minute adjustments if necessary.
I’d say “good luck” with your exam, but luck has little to do with it…
Note: Justin Cash is not a VCAA examiner for the VCE Drama or Theatre Studies written examinations. Disclaimer.