skip to content

Transkills: supporting transition to University


Increasingly, you will find that some of your examination-papers have a section of short-answer questions. These should be regarded more as problems for solving than as mini-essays. You have much less time per question in these short-answer sections, so practise being succinct and organized.

Here are some thoughts on tackling short-answer problems. If you can’t get started on a problem, try the following:

  • Reread the question to check that you understand what is wanted;
  • Reread the question to look for clues: the way it is phrased, or the way a formula is written, or other relevant parts of the question. (The problem-setters are not trying to set difficult questions to catch you out: they are more likely doing all in their power to make it easy for you by trying to tell you what to do.)
  • As in writing an essay, try to understand what it is that you don’t understand. For example, look up the definitions of the technical terms – often this will open up new vistas.
  • Look for a similar problem in your notes or in a texbook.
  • Simplify the notation.
  • Look at special cases (e.g., choose special values which simplify the problem) to try to understand why a result might be true.
  • Draw a diagram and try moving the curves in the direction implied by the problem.
  • Write down your thoughts – in particular, try to express the exact reason why you are stuck.
  • Go onto the next question and go back later.
  • Remember, you don’t have to write a long essay in answer to a short problem: it is better to practise giving concise and specific answers to short-answer problems.
  • Take a (short!) break. (The distinguished Cambridge mathematician Littlewood used to work seven days a week until an experiment revealed that when he took Sundays off the good ideas had a way of coming on Mondays.)
  • Ask a friend (but make sure you still think it through yourself – friends are not infallible.) BUT: remember that following someone else’s solution (whether supervisor, lecturer or friend) is not remotely the same as doing the problem yourself. Once you have seen someone else’s solution to a problem, then you are deprived, for ever, of most of the benefit that could have come from trying it yourself. Even if, ultimately, you get stuck on a particular problem, you derive vastly more benefit from seeing a supervisor’s or friend’s solution to something with which you have already struggled, than by simply following a solution to something to which you’ve given very little thought.

Having solved the problem...

Once you have got the problem sorted, then:

  • Write out the solution fully, making sure you understand all the steps in your answer and all the assumptions on which you are basing it.
  • Look back over what you have done, checking that the arguments are correct and making sure that they work for any special cases you can think of.
  • Make sure that you are not unthinkingly applying economic tools which you don’t fully understand.
  • Try to see how the problem fits into the wider context and see if there is a special point which it is intended to illustrate.
  • Make sure that you actually understand not only what you have done, but also why you have done it that way rather than some other way. This is particularly important if you have worked from a similar example in your lecture-notes or a textbook (or if you sought advice from a friend).