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What to say when words fail you part 4. Examination tricks

Examination tricks

by skyblueteapot

Many clever, thoughtful people, with an excellent grasp of the language they are studying, get very nervous about speaking in examinations. You can hardly blame them. The idea of answering questions from a total stranger, on complex topics that you get no advanced notice of, and demonstrating your full command of a foreign language, is a scary one. It is all the more scary if you we never taught to express your opinions during your education, but to memorise phrases and grammar rules from out of a book. What if I really have nothing sensible to say about global warming or the American economy? Just how stupid am I going to look?


Take heart. They are not expecting you to be a very clever person. If you are indeed clever, you can use this as your secret weapon.


First you need to recognise that a lot of the questions that examiners set students are actually quite silly.


Here’s an example. The student must speak on this subject for two minutes, then answer questions for a further five:


“Has society become too dependent on modern technology?”


There are three problems with this question:


1) It is a closed question. You could answer it with “Yes!” “No!” or “Maybe”, sit back and smile. The examiner now has to find an additional two minutes of questions.


2) The words “too dependent” tell you that it is a value judgement question. You can’t properly answer it without considering how much, in your opinion, society should be dependent on technology, then consider how much society is dependent on technology, before you can say whether society is too dependent on technology. A fully-considered answer could take you 40 minutes, which you don’t have.


3) It is a leading question, in that it directs you towards the answer “Yes”. Many examination questions are worded so that either “Yes” or “No” sound like the ‘right’ answer. Graduates have been trained to argue both sides of an argument, so they prefer to answer “Well, it depends on your definition of…..” which will take too long. You need to start your answer “Yes, because….” or “No, because….” and stop talking two minutes later.


If you think that the question is stupid, try to rephrase the question and then answer your question not theirs.




“Yes, we ARE dependent on technology, because…..” You have lost the word ‘too’ from the question which changes it to a factual question. The examiner, if he is paying attention, will notice this and will ask you a question later, with the word “too” in it. That’s OK. Knowing in advance what the next question will be will help you to control the question and answer session.


It would be useful to know some facts. Did you research world dependence on technology before the exam? No? Then you can make them up.


Learn these useful phrases:


“Statistics indicate that the number of people who regularly use [pick a technology] is increasing by …% year-on-year”


“Government experts predict that by the year 2020. …% of school-age children will own a [pick a device]”.


“Some scientists believe that [pick a technology] will play a vital part in addressing the issues of global warming”.


My Chinese student had assumed that she was supposed to memorise official facts and figures, and that she would lose marks if she got them wrong. She also thought that one side of the argument would be the “correct” one and that she would lose marks for not knowing which side she should be on.


Possibly this was realistic for her, given how the Chinese educational system works. Nevertheless, you will have a much better opportunity to demonstrate your language proficiency if you say something definite and controversial. Fortunately neither you nor the examiner needs to believe what you say. What’s important is that you keep him awake and listening to you.




“Yes we ARE too dependent on technology. The gods intended us to live in caves and hunt bears. We should all return to this lifestyle immediately or we are DAMNED!!!”


“No! Technology is vital to enable the worlds’ governments to spy more effectively on other countries and their own citizens!”


“No! Our only hope of surviving climate change is to become MORE dependent on technology. Genetically modified foods are our future!”


“Ever since the invention of the stone axe man has been dependent on technology. Whether you approve of it or not, Homo Sapiens has always been and will always be a geek.”


“Well, I’m definitely dependent on technology. If you tried to take my iPad away from me I might try to kill you!”


Next time:


Using humour.

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