One thing I found about coming to university is that I had no idea what the exams would be like, particularly as I’d never taken an archaeology exam before. While I don’t know about other courses, the format of most of the exams I’ve had to do in history and archaeology is very simple and involves answering two essay questions in two hours. Normally there are eight possible questions, which means that you can generally get away with revising only five or six of the topics covered in lectures in detail. For example, for my Anglo-Saxon Exam on Saturday I revised in detail medieval kingship, the arrival of the Saxons in Britain, the conversion of the Saxon Kingdoms, missionary activity abroad, the Mercian supremacy, and the rise of Wessex in the ninth century, as well as touching on the Viking activity of the ninth century.
I think the exam went okay, but while I knew the facts and sources, the questions approached the topics from very odd angles and everyone I spoke to agreed that they were pretty nasty essay titles. However in the end I answered questions on conversion, and the rise of Wessex in relation to Viking activity, and I managed to write four or five pages. I don’t think it’s really possible to write an excellent essay in an hour, so I try and write an introduction that answers the questions because it shows the examiner that you actually know what point you’re trying to make, even if everything else ends up being rushed.
Aside from essay questions, I’ve also had exams that are a series of short answers, or a combination of short answers and essays. For example, the fieldwork exam at the end of First Year Archaeology involved short written answers rather than essays, and also included drawing diagrams such as Harris Matrices.
But overall, most of the marks in history and archaeology come from coursework, particularly after First Year; I’ve only taken one exam this year which accounted for 50% of my module grade, and there don’t seem to be many next year either. Which is wonderful for me, because I hate exams, but less useful if you love them!