7 exam mistakes Singapore kids make – and how to prevent them

You prepped your kid well for the big exam, so why did he make that careless mistake or leave that MCQ answer blank? EVELINE GAN polls the experts for ways to help your child score better.

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A missed multiple-choice question (MCQ) here, an unanswered problem sum there. Add them up and preventable mistakes could make the difference between an A and B grade, or a pass and fail. 

When it comes to doing well for exams, ample practice and smart strategies make all the difference. Young Parents asked the experts to share tips on overcoming common exam boo-boos and the skills that every kid needs to tackle an exam paper. 

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MISTAKE 1 Leaving revision to the last minute

Last-minute cramming does not help, says Vyda S. Chai, clinical psychologist of Think Psychological Services and Think Kids Intervention and Developmental Services. “Research has shown that attempting to pull an all-nighter can affect your long-term memory up to four days. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain can lose grip of important information we need to absorb,” she explains. 

“Research has shown that attempting to pull an all-nighter can affect your long-term memory up to four days. When we don’t get enough sleep, our brain can lose grip of important information we need to absorb,” she explains. 


Ensure that your kid gets enough sleep before the exams. “When we sleep, the brain absorbs information learnt and stores it in your long-term memory bank,” Vyda explains. Schedule a study plan as part of the pre-exam preparations and revise bit by bit throughout the year. Keep revision sessions short and regularly, advises Billy Clucas, a teacher at the British Council. “I tell students that it is about quality, not quantity – and this applies to revision, too. Instead of completing piles of worksheets and past papers, consider dividing each part of the exam into sections and focus on specifics,” Billy says.

To keep things fun and stimulating, vary your revision schedule and invite friends and family members to test each other, he adds.

Be sure to pencil in snack and exercise breaks between study time, so that your kid can de-stress, Vyda says.

Take note that younger kids usually have shorter attention spans and may need more frequent breaks between studying to help them crystallise and absorb information, Vyda shares.

“A balanced schedule will help your child study smart and not procrastinate. It helps them highlight more important information they are required to learn,” she says. 

MISTAKE 2 Rushing through the questions

Students often feel compelled to gloss over texts, particularly for comprehension open-ended and cloze passages, shares Therese Cheng, academic director of The Learning Lab at Marine Parade Central. “They tend to rush to fill in their answers as they feel hard-pressed for time during the examination. As these components test the students’ understanding of the text, they will likely lose marks due to incorrect interpretation or missing information if they do not read it thoroughly for context,” she says. 


Explain to your kid that questions in a comprehension exercise test understanding of the passage, Therese says.

Taking the time to read and understand the text and questions are important in finding clues to the answers.

When your kid does cloze passages, he should resist the urge to fill in the blanks with the first answer that comes to mind, she adds. Always read the text once for understanding before filling in the blanks. 

After the exam results

Stress, a poor grasp of concepts and insufficient revision may be some reasons why your child did not perform as well as expected, explains Therese Cheng, academic director of The Learning Lab at Marine Parade Central.

Try her practical tips to motivate and support your kid in the term ahead. But always remember, there is no standard revision strategy as every child learns differently. 


A strong foundation in each subject will help your kid master answering techniques more efficiently. Take time to sit down and identify areas that he may need help with.


Review mistakes made in the exam paper, and give the questions a second go. This helps him become aware of where he went wrong and learn from it.


Some questions you should ask about his revision: How many hours did you put in? How many times did you review the material? Knowing how he revises his work will help you better understand how you can improve the preparation process. 

4 ways to improve your kid’s focus

Try these strategies by clinical psychologist Vyda S. Chai to help Junior study better.

USE DIFFERENT MEDIUMS, such as summaries and bite-sized information.

USE VISUALS like pictures, graphs, highlight different facts in various colours

READ TEXT out loud.

ENSURE THAT THE STUDY AREA IS DISTRACTION-FREE. That means no TV, iPad, gadgets or loud noises. 

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“If you find that your child is losing marks because he is confused about what the passage means and cannot source for clues accurately, encourage him to go back to the passage and read it again. This time, do it more slowly,” she says. 

MISTAKE 3 Running out of time to complete the paper

There are many reasons why your primary schooler didn’t complete his examination paper, but an overlooked factor is confidence – or the lack thereof, shares Rachel Mumberson, a teacher at the British Council. 

Therese of The Learning Lab reveals that Section C of the maths Paper 2 tends to be the most challenging component for most primary schoolers, leaving them feeling overwhelmed. 

This is because problem sum questions can appear unbelievably long, contain many words and numbers, and require more time and critical thinking to solve.

“When students don’t have the right time management, they end up spending too much time on questions they cannot manage and don’t give themselves enough time to attempt all the questions,” Therese says.

The result? An immediate loss of marks or missed opportunities to score for questions they actually can manage, she adds. 


During revision, give your kid more timed trials to build confidence in managing a set number of questions within a given period of time, Therese says.

For example, when tackling maths papers, he should spend no more than a minute per mark for every question, and a maximum of two minutes for every two￾mark question, she adds.

Having a plan helps. Therese suggests helping your kid come up with a “battle plan” by taking him through the following questions.

• Which section of the paper should you tackle first?

• If you are weaker in this component, should you work on it first?

• What will you do if you do not know how to answer a question?

• How much time will you spend on each question or section? 

To boost confidence at the start of the exams, Rachel suggests: “For children who are hesitant at the beginning of the exam, I advise starting with the task they feel most comfortable with to get a nerve-settling confidence boost. 

“For those who feel like they have ‘hit a wall’, they should try to move on to another task and revisit the tricky one with fresh eyes later,” she adds. 

MISTAKE 4 Leaving multiple-choice questions blank

Compared to open-ended questions for example, MCQs are considered one of the sections in an exam paper. But it is not uncommon for panicky students to skip questions and lose marks in the process. 

The most easily avoidable MCQ mistake is simply leaving the answer blank, Rachel says.

“My experience of teaching in Singapore is that students are well-drilled in the ‘process of elimination’ (when tackling tricky MCQ questions). In reality, very few know how to apply the strategy,” she adds. 


Rachel encourages students to “select something, anything!”. After all, if students are running out of time or are genuinely flummoxed, they will not be penalised for giving an incorrect answer, she says.

Another tip for tackling tricky MCQs is not to agonise over the right answer, but really think about the reasoning for which options are wrong, Rachel adds. 

“When students don’t have the right time management, they end up spending too much time on questions they cannot manage…” 

MISTAKE 5 Tackling the easiest questions last

Leaving the “best” or easiest questions for last is a bad idea if your kid doesn’t have good time management.

Teachers at The Learning Lab generally advise students to focus on getting easy and medium-difficulty questions correct first, before taking a crack at harder questions. That said, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to exam strategies. 


Once again, time management is of the essence.

Having ample practice with timed trials is important as it allows your kid to estimate the time needed to complete each section, and adjust his strategies accordingly, Therese says.

During the exam, if Junior does not know how to answer a difficult question, skip it after a short attempt and move on, before returning to it later, she says.

In a science paper, there are often a few parts to a question. “If your child cannot answer part (a), move on to other parts of the question. At times, the other questions provide clues to how you can answer the earlier part,” Therese shares.

Completing the first few exam questions with confidence will help keep your child’s nerves at bay and help him to focus for the rest of the exam, Vyda adds. 

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MISTAKE 6 Jumping straight into an essay or composition without a plan

When your kid is pressed for time during a composition examination, it may seem counterintuitive to take additional time to plan his essay. But failing to do so can affect how he puts his ideas from pen to paper.

Without a clear direction, the writing often becomes muddled, says Billy of the British Council.

He explains: “Imagine looking for treasure without a map. Where would you start? Which way would you go? How would you get there?”

“When students understand that planning acts as a vital piece of a linguistic jigsaw navigating them through various events, time and ultimately a conclusion, they soon see improvements in the clarity and accuracy of their writing,” Billy says.


A good essay plan helps students to sequence their ideas logically, he adds.

This can be done in the form of mind-maps, storyboards, listing, boxing and concept maps. Experiment with what works best for your child.

In a timed examination, it may not always be possible to plan in detail.

“However, for students who have been exposed to planning techniques previously, it gives them the head-start into clearly forming ideas, ordering them and getting started in a limited time,” Billy says. 

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MISTAKE 7 Repeating the same exam boo-boos

We have all heard the phrase “failure is the mother of success”, so why does your kid keep making the same silly errors?

Chances are, he has not developed the right skills and attitude to think more deeply about what went wrong.

Expecting children to be “perfect” and over-praising them for their intelligence can also make them less likely to learn from – and persist – in the face of failure, according to research conducted by Dr. Carol Dweck.

A professor at Stanford University, she has done extensive research on how the right mindset can help fulfill one’s potential.


One of the most important things to do after the exam is to help your child review and reflect on mistakes – without turning it into a blame game.

This involves setting time aside to look through the papers together with your kid to identify specific challenges, Therese says. 

Don’t be a nag, mum!

Clinical psychologist Vyda S. Chai shares some do’s and don’ts when motivating your child to get motivated about his exams.


Reassure your kid that you’re proud of him no matter what, and that you are pleased with the time and effort they have put in for revision.


Practise deep breathing with your kid. This not only reduces heart rate and tension, it also alleviates stress, and has a calming effect – great for managing anxiety when tackling tough exam questions.


This only induces anxiety and gets your kid into panic mode.


Don’t compare. This type of statement tells Junior he is not as good as others.