Short answer exams

The key to doing well in short answer exams is demonstrating your understanding, not just your memory.

Short answer exams test your ability to remember and apply knowledge. They usually ask you to write one or more paragraphs, although you might be allowed to use dot points and diagrams.

Doing well in short answer exams relies on your ability to:

  • Answer the question directly (rather than write about the topic)
  • Write clearly, precisely and succinctly.

How do I analyse the question?

Read the question carefully. You might want to underline or highlight different parts. Try to identify:

1. What content or knowledge you are being asked to express. What part of the course does it relate to

2. How you are being asked to present your knowledge. Look at the direction words – verbs that tell you what to do. These will tell you if the question focuses on memory or analysis.

Memory questions ask you to present knowledge and often contain task words such as:

Describe, define, identify, outline, list …

At university, it’s more likely task words will ask you to demonstrate your analytical skills, for example by applying concepts to scenarios or solving problems. You can’t memorise these answers – they require you to think critically on the day. Examples of these task words include:

Explain, compare, discuss, give reasons for …

3. What your focus or scope is. Many questions ask you to focus the answer on a specific element of the information.

For example:

Outline the diversity and classification of marine mammals found in Australian waters.

In this question the limiting terms restrict the main topic to 'diversity and classification' and 'Australian waters’. Therefore, the answer should outline the diversity and classification of marine mammals, referring only to those found locally in Australian waters. No marks will be given for including species found elsewhere, or for referring to the diversity and classification of non-marine mammals etc.

How do I write clearly, precisely and succinctly?

Plan

Spend a few minutes planning the structure of your answer, noting:

  • Your main point (the answer)
  • Key terms you’ll need to define
  • Supporting ideas and examples and the order you’ll use them in
  • Whether you will use paragraphs, dot points or diagrams.

Logically organised dot points or diagrams can be just as clear as a well-constructed paragraph). Diagrams must be clear, well labelled and accompanied by some explanation so that your examiner knows how it relates to the question.

Rephrase the question

Start your response by repeating some of the key words from the question to help you stay on task.

For example:

Using the SWOT analysis in Figure 3, identify the most significant challenge for Cookie Catering Pty. Ltd. and recommend two solutions.

The most significant challenge for Cookie Catering Pty Ltd. is…

There are two solutions which might reduce this issue. First...   Second...

Use functional language to connect ideas and highlight relationships

Connect ideas explicitly for your reader using linking words like 'This results in...' to show cause and effect, ‘However’ to show an opposing viewpoint. And, if your question is analytical, don’t forget to use language to signal interpretation and analysis, for example: ‘This is significant because...’, ‘What this means is...’

If you’re referring to any data or graphics, label them clearly, for example ‘Figure 2 shows...'

Use language from your course

Use technical terms from your course to demonstrate your understanding and knowledge.

Compare the language used in the following examples. Example 1 uses scientific terminology and is a more appropriate answer than example 2, which is not clear and does not demonstrate sufficient understanding of the topic (the fermentation process).

1. Yeast are facultatively anaerobic which means that they perform fermentation only under anaerobic conditions. In the presence of O2, the yeast will perform aerobic metabolism.

2. Yeast can choose between using oxygen and not using oxygen. They will ferment stuff only when there is not enough oxygen around.

Adapted from: http://www.uwlax.edu/biology/communication/answeringessayquestions.html

How much should I write?

The relative weighting of the question (how many marks it’s worth) can help you to work out how much you need to write. For example, a four-mark question may require you to elaborate on two points. A 10-mark question will require considerably more elaboration and may require you to cover five points.

The question words can also indicate detail required. For example, describe, discuss or explain can alert you that the examiner wants some detail, in full sentences, whereas list or outline generally allows for less information, simply presented.

Do not simply write everything you know about the topic. First, you’re not directly answering the question. Second, if you write two competing statements, even if one is correct you will not get any marks.

Examples

Below are some examples of short answer questions with answers and feedback from different disciplines.

  • Biology

    Question:

    Consider asexual reproduction and sexual reproduction in animals.

    Define asexual reproduction and sexual reproduction, and give two examples of each.

    What are the advantages and disadvantages of asexual reproduction and sexual reproduction?

    (10 marks)

    Sample answer 1

    Asexual reproduction occurs only by self-fertilisation. This produces offspring with no genetic variation.

    Sexual reproduction occurs when separate male and female gamete from the same species unite to produce offspring.

    Asexual reproduction has several advantages:

    • reproduction can occur without a mate
    • it is usually faster

    However, there is no genetic variation.

    Sexual reproduction has the advantage of producing genetically varied offspring.

    However, both a male and female from the same species are needed for this to occur.

    Feedback for sample 1

    Score: This response scored a total of 4/10.

    Comments: The definition of asexual reproduction is incorrect (zero out of two), while definition of sexual reproduction correct, but not enough detail given (one mark out of two). No examples given for either form of reproduction (zero out of two). One disadvantage for asexual is mentioned (1 mark). Advantages of asexual are correct and one advantage of sexual is mentioned (1 mark) (three marks out of four).

    Sample answer 2

    Asexual reproduction is the formation of offspring entirely from one parent. Cell division is via mitosis. Sexual reproduction, however, requires two different individuals (parents) that each produce gametes via the process of meiosis.

    Each haploid gamete (sperm for males and egg for females) needs to fuse with the opposite gamete (from another individual) to form a diploid zygote. This becomes a new individual, containing genetic information from both parents.

    Examples:

    Asexual                        »             Sexual

    Planaria                       »             Fertilisation in mammals

    Parthenogenesis      »             Fertilisation in earthworms

    Sexual reproduction produces a huge variation in offspring. Variation is the key to survival in an ever-changing environment, however, sexual reproduction requires finding a partner and this may not always be easy (self-fertilization in plants overcomes this problem).

    Asexual reproduction does not require a mate, and so in this sense it can be desirable. However, no genetic variation can be costly in an ever-changing environment.

    Feedback for sample 2

    Score: This answer received 10/10.

    Comments: The response received a maximum score because:

    • it defined asexual reproduction (the offspring comes directly from one parent, via mitosis): 2 marks
    • it defined sexual reproduction (requires two different parents - fusion of the haploid gametes of each - which are formed via meiosis): 2 marks
    • it provided two examples of each type of reproduction ½ a mark per example = 2 marks in total
    • it explained the advantages and disadvantages of each type of reproduction (sexual reproduction produces genetically varied offspring, however it requires that a partner be found): 2 marks, and
    • noted that asexual reproduction doesn't require a partner, however, it also doesn't provide any genetic variation between generations: 2 marks.

    The second sample answer is clearly a complete, well-organised, logically sequenced response which uses the language of the discipline appropriately.

  • Food Science

    Question:

    What are dietary fibres? Discuss one health benefit associated with dietary fibres.

    (4 marks)

    Sample answer 1

    Dietary fibres are found in fruit. It is different from starch. It is good for constipation. People should eat a lot of fruit.

    Feedback on sample answer 1

    Score: This response scored a total of 1/4.

    Comments: The response received a score of 1 for defining dietary fibres and identifying a health benefit associate with taking dietary fibres. Dietary fibres definition is vague, constipation is not defined and links between fibres property and alleviation of constipation absent. No marks were given for associating dietary fibres with fruit and alleviation of constipation with fruit intake, as this was not asked in the question.

    Sample answer 2

    Dietary fibres are defined as non-starch polysaccharides and are not digestible. As such, it is passed from the small intestine to the large intestine intact. One of the health benefits of dietary fibres is in the prevention of constipation, which is having difficulty in passing stool. This could be due to dry and hard stool and/or to insufficient stool mass. Soluble dietary fibres soften stools by holding onto water, and both soluble and insoluble dietary fibres contribute to stool mass by increasing stool bulk. Thus dietary fibres can prevent constipation.

    Feedback on sample answer 2

    Score: This answer received 4/4.

    Comments: This response received a maximum score because it defined dietary fibres in terms of polysaccharide class and digestibility. It identified and defined a health problem. It linked the property of soluble and insoluble dietary fibres to alleviation of the health problem.

    The second sample answer is clearly a complete, well-organised, logically sequenced response which uses the language of the discipline appropriately.

  • Veterinary Science

    Question:

    Butternut, a 28-year-old Welsh pony gelding, is presented with a frothy white discharge from both nostrils, copious amounts of clear fluid dribbling from his mouth and his head lowered to the floor. His heart rate is 60 beats per minute and his respiratory rate is 20 breaths per minute. He has normal gut sounds and his faeces is of normal colour and consistency.

    List the two (2) biggest risks of the condition to Butternut’s health, if left untreated. Briefly explain the pathophysiological mechanism leading to these severe health problems.

    (6marks)

    Sample answer 1

    Butternut probably has choke. Choke is the term used for horses that have obstruction of the oesophagus, which could be caused by an impaction of dry feed material or a large foreign body (such as a mango seed). Butternut is not able to eat or drink properly because anything that is swallowed cannot bypass the blockage and will therefore run back out of his nose. The presence of a blockage in the oesophagus will also cause pain and discomfort, which is a possible explanation for the increased heart rate. Because Buttercup is quite old, it would be important to check for dental disease, as he might not be chewing food properly, which could have caused the choke in the first place.

    Feedback on sample answer 1

    Score: 0/6

    Comment: This answer provides a lot of correct information about the likely diagnosis in this case, however it does not address the question which specifically asks for the risks which exist when the condition remains untreated.

    Sample answer 2

    If this is left untreated, a big risk to Butternut’s health is dehydration. This occurs because of an inability to drink water, leading to reduced water intake and less water available for absorption, leading to reduced extracellular fluid volume and dehydration.

    Another big health risk is aspiration pneumonia. Because Butternut is unable to swallow, material trapped in the oesophagus can travel down to the lungs. This leads to infection of the lungs or aspiration pneumonia.

    Feedback on sample answer 2

    Score: 4/6 – two marks allocated to listing each health risk (2/2) and 4 marks allocated to the explanation of the mechanism (2/4)

    Comment: The identified health risks are correct, however, the explanations of the pathophysiological mechanisms are not fully correct. An important mechanism contributing to dehydration in this case is the inability to swallow and recirculate saliva. Also, an important element of the mechanism underlying the aspiration pneumonia in these cases is the aspiration of pooled saliva present in the laryngopharynx.

    Sample answer 3

    If this is left untreated, a big risk to Butternut’s health is dehydration. This occurs because of an inability to recirculate saliva back into the stomach, leading to loss of fluid and ultimately to tissue dehydration.

    Also, the saliva pools in the throat and gets taken back up into the tissues, so that the tissues then become rehydrated.

    Feedback on sample answer 3

    Score: 2/6 – correct listing of a health risk and partial explanation of the mechanism.

    Comment: This answer has some correct information and some contradictory incorrect information. This makes it difficult for the marker to tell if the student does, in fact, understand the pathophysiological mechanism! Generally if there are two competing statements, even though one is correct, no marks will be awarded. The take-away message is that it is not worth writing every possible explanation down and hoping that one of them is right!

Final tip

Always make sure you’re answering the question asked, not simply writing everything you know about the topic. As you revise, try thinking of examples of the concepts you learn about. This will help you to process the content more deeply and put you in a better position to respond effectively to short-answer questions.

Explore all resources

Two people looking over study materials

Looking for one-on-one advice?

Get tailored advice from an Academic Skills adviser by booking an appointment or attending one of our drop-in sessions.

Get one-on-one advice