Exams are stressful but I firmly believe that they can be mastered. It’s like decorating – it’s all about preparation. So I have four steps for you:
1. Gather intelligence
The key message in this blog is preparation and planning. And you can’t do either of these until you know everything you can about the exam. Usually lecturers will give standard information out to students during lectures and online. Do pay attention to this extremely closely – length of the exam, number and format of the questions, broad indication of the subjects to be covered. There is usually more to be found if you look for it. For example, you might find that not all topics covered in the lectures and reading will be set in the exam. Or that certain combinations of topics will be presented meaning that you can narrow the focus of your revision. Of course a particularly enjoyable contact sport is trying to fool the lecturer into giving more away about the exam then they planned to. I tell my students not to bother trying that with me as I have undergone resistance to interrogation training! Whilst this is actually true, the real reason they shouldn’t ask me too much is that I can’t remember and quite often inadvertently say something that means they end up with the wrong idea. So do make sure you aren’t pushing too much as it might not help you in the end!
Of course, previous papers can be a great help in working out what the exam is going to be like. However, do be very careful that you check on any changes to the content or style of the exam. Lecturers tend to make improvements to their modules every year – we absolutely have to show that we respond to student feedback and keep our teaching current. So previous papers might not give all that direct an indication for your exam. All these things can be made more effective if you consult your fellow students which is my next piece of advice.
2. Work with a group of like-minded people
Ultimately of course exams are individual assessments so it will be down to you to make sure you are ready. But this process is made FAR easier by teaming up with a small group of your fellow students. You need to be sure that they all have the same aim in mind as you do so you can trust that they will all contribute to the revision. I recommend a group of 4 or 5 maximum for this. I have seen it work best when the group allocates specific topics to revise and then joins together to share their learning. It is probably effective because peer pressure makes you ensure you really have learned the topic and that you are far more likely to understand something if you have to explain it to somebody else. At Birkbeck we have an app that enables groups to have a dedicated channel of communication for this sort of work but you might agree on something like a WhatsApp group. You don’t necessarily have to meet all that often but when you do, it is best to agree beforehand to focus on the work and if you do want to socialise, then this happens after the work is done. A common form of tension in these groups is that some people free-load and don’t contribute. Setting out the rules clearly will help get round this and other potential difficulties.
The benefits are significant though and worth the effort of assembling a group. The key one is that you can derive confidence in the material by presenting summaries of your revision to others. You can learn from their work too and know that others have similar worries and concerns to you. And working with others give you a sense of purpose that you might not find when working alone – perhaps unsure whether you are doing the right revision.
3. Decide on theories to learn
Having assembled all the information about the exam and gathered a group of like-minded people to revise with, you now need to work out what you need to learn. I recommend starting off by reading a general text about the topic. Go for something manageable in size – so probably not an entire book on the subject. Of course, there will be material that your lecturer points you towards and this might be sufficient. But if this is too bulky or perhaps isn’t written in a way you find accessible, you can search the electronic journals database for a recent paper in the subject. Ideally if you can, find a review so the current thinking will be in one place. But often you will find that even quite advanced papers have a neat literature review that you could find helpful. I would counsel against searching the web though. You will tend to find descriptions of most theories used in business for example BUT you could well be reading something that isn’t accurate. Remember that academic study demands that you have your evidence base completely correct so make sure you are using proper sources.
Having read about the subject generally, revisit all your notes and readings. These days lectures are often recorded so you can go back to those and review the parts that are relevant. But keep it general at this point – you can jot down some theories that seem to be important.
Next you need to focus. You need to end up with a list of theories that you know off by heart. That you can reproduce fully and confidently. Examiners sometimes say they are less interested in the date of a theory and more interested in your showing that you understand it. My view is that if you show understanding AND have the full details about the name and date right, this is always better. This is the rote learning phase and there isnt a short cut. The key is to find different ways of testing yourself and this brings us to my last point.
Find different ways of testing yourself. A really good way of doing this is to create flash cards with a question on one side and the answer on the other. You can then test yourself.
There is something odd about physically writing something down that means it tends to be learned. I recommend that you write out the theories you are learning and do this again and again. If you are struggling to remember certain parts, a useful trick is to have the information you need surrounding you. So have it written on large post it notes and stuck on your bathroom mirror. Or buy flip charts (you can get them now with post-it type glue so you can stick these on the wall) and write out the theories you are learning. Many people use mind maps to summarise subjects and this seems to be a really useful aid to recall. And get your friends and family to test you. The more frequently and the more different ways you do this, the better the memory trace and so the easier it will be to recall the information in the exam.
I have some tips about the actual exam in my next blog but I will leave you with this final piece of advice. Try to stay calm. The prospect of sitting an exam can be stressful but the best way of performing as well as you can is to put the work in before hand. Regardless of how late you leave your revision, there are still things you can do.
And that’s it. Most of all you need to get going! Even if you think it is too early or too late, make a start. Direct your efforts into preparing for the exam and try not to waste energy on worrying. And the next blog will tell you how to cope with the exam itself.
I have written a book which gives more details about this and everything else you need to know about studying at university.
Now stop reading this and get on with it!