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Pareto Principle

34 - The "80/20 Rule."

Quality of Words, not Quantity

How to stop wasting time in the exam

Focus on delivering information, not words.

In business, people often talk about the “80/20 Rule.” It is used in many contexts. For example businesses often find that around 80% of their business comes from 20% of their customers. Good businesses then concentrate their efforts on this important 20% of their customers. This is part of thinking “strategically.”

It was an Italian economise called Vilfredo Pareto who notes this 80/20 connection back in 1896. The formal name for this concept is the ‘Pareto Principle’ and it refers to how roughly ‘80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes’.

You can apply the 80/20 Rule to your exam technique. You may find that something like 80% of the information you wish to give in your answer comes from 20% of the words you have written.

Sometimes, when marking an exam, we look at a student’s answer and see long paragraphs where the student has been working very hard in the exam. Often when we read through those paragraphs we can not find much of the information needed to award marks for the question or sub-questions.

Other students have written far fewer words but you can find a lot of information relating to most of the sub-questions. These guys will get the better marks.

Some students write 500 words to answer a question. Others write 100-200 words and get the same mark. The students that write less words are often able to do so faster and so have more spare time to think of additional detail to add or to work on another question.

Sometimes the shortest answers get the best marks.

A common mistake made by students is that they may write as much as they know about a particular issue, related in some way to the question. Possibly 80% of this is “guff” (ie. pointless) and gets no marks. 20% of it is useful. There are lots of times when marking exams that we find it is only in the last sentence or two they actually write something that we can give a mark to. This can be because during the course of all that writing these students slowly realise the actual information that is required to earn marks. This is a huge waste of time in the exam.

Other students have laid out the answer in a structured way. We give examples of this next.



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