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Wednesday, October 15, 2008
  Exam technique
It's almost the exam season down here, so here are links to my series on Exam technique for anyone who is interested ;)

Photo Jack Hynes

An exam is like a military campaign, first comes the strategy, so the first post deals with how to plan your campaignHow to pass exams: Part One: Revision it covers issues like selecting topics to revise and preparing notes (rather than just writing down everything). Working with others is an important way to focus and sharpen your revision (by collaborating you get more bang for your buck, or more % for your hours) so take a quick look at How to pass exams: Part Two: Collaborative Revision and then even if you are not naturally sociable get working in a team and talking to others with the same exam as you.

You won't need it now, but as the "big day" gets nearer you might want to read up on how to best prepare and actually site the exam ;) that's covered in: How to sit exams

I'd say "Good luck!" except as the advert said (before Banks had other things to worry about than annoying us with adverts) "Luck has nothing (or at least as little as you can arrange) to do with it!"

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Saturday, October 27, 2007
  How to sit exams
OK, at last its time, all the preparation and revision done (well almost all that's going to get done anyway ;-) the exam is tomorrow... What is left to do?

Photo David HC

  1. Prepare your survival kit:
    • two pens
    • two pencils (if it's an exam for which you have to draw graphs or whatever a sharpener too)
    • eraser
    • ruler
    • the essential damp face cloth in a transparent plastic bag to wipe your hands - they get sweaty in exams and to cool your fevered brow and neck. It is astonishing how refreshed you'll feel and how much more cool and calm too ;-)
    • Tictacs or if you are like me and 3 hours is too long between coffees caffeine tablets (but do NOT take too many, or you will swallow too many, NOT a good look!

    Photo Jack Hynes

  2. Before the exam:
    • plan how you will get there, if it is by public transport make sure you get an earlier bus or train, if by car allow extra time for parking - you do not want to arrive flustered in a hurry
    • the best advice comes from the famous Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy - Don't Panic!
    • really, do not panic, however bad it seems, you will survive, and if you keep calm pass with a better grade than you expect or deserve ;-)
  3. During the exam:
  4. Photo Mr.Tea

    • you planned how much time to allow for reading the paper and planning your answers (probably about 15mins, maybe 30mins for a 3 hour exam) and how long for each answer (30 mins?) write down the timetable - if you don't write it, you won't stick to it!
    • read the questions - SLOWLY - work out what they mean (really mean) you are NOT going to write a brain dump "all I know about..."
    • mark the questions you will answer
    • write headings for your answers - you can easily add more headings (the ones you forget now) later - but if they are written on the pages that count you already have some marks
    • sit back, stretch - hands locked behind head stretch your back and look at the ceiling, relax, do it again, wriggle a bit - this sounds daft, but you'll be surprised how calm it makes you feel, and calm is your friend ;-)
    • keep to the timetable, be ruthless, and start the next question
    • take regular breaks, use the cloth, do the stretch, relax, noticed how funny and worried everyone else looks - remember you are calm!
    • If (despite the timetable, and my advice above) the 15 minute warning comes before you have finished, try to fill out the headings that are left with some key points each... that way you can get most of the marks...

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007
  How to pass exams: Part Two: Collaborative Revision
Stephen (in an email) reminded me of one major area I left out of the previous post, collaborative revision. Sharing the load, sharing expertise, the wisdom of crowds... all the advantages of "2.0" and "open" can be claimed for collaborative revision. Stephen's experience and mine were very similar. A small group (mine was four of us) planned our revision together, shared out the topics and each prepared notes on one. We then pooled these and each made our own copy (with our own additions and changes) to the sheets the others had prepared. This process meant we talked through what was on the sheets and why, how the different parts worked together... in short we gave ourselves a revision tutorial.

Photo SamGrover


The key things are:
  • keep the group small so there is real accountability and commitment
  • process the notes others prepare - if you just use them 'as is' you will learn much less and it won't stick, revision is 'about' integrating knowledge into a system not merely cramming 'facts'
  • keep talking - the more you talk the notes through together the better

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Sunday, October 14, 2007
  How to pass exams: Part One: Revision
For years I sat exams, my school had exams three times a year, and I did two separate "first degrees", since then I've spent most of my life setting exams for others to sit! So now it is time to write the definitive "How to pass exams" series ;-) Warning: this post only covers exams in Arts-type subjects, with a small number of essay-type questions, for advice on multi-choice and short answer exams and for science exams look elsewhere.

Photo from Jez

In this first part I'll cover revision, the next post will cover the exam itself. (I covered "How to avoid reading books" in a previous post...)

Stage One: Select topics

  • Do NOT try to revise everything - that might be good for you, even great for your future usefulness to an employer ;-) but it won't help much with passing the exam!
  • Identify likely topics: make a list of the topics that the exam is likely to cover. At this stage you are aiming for a longish list, but not one that includes unlikely topics. Sometimes you will even be told the topics the exam covers, if not try to identify the most important topics from what was covered in the classes and the required readings. The "learning outcomes" (or whatever your institution calls them) may help you identify topics also...
  • Select the topics you will prepare. You want a list about 60% longer than the number of questions in the exam (to allow for bets that don't win), so for a 4 question exam you need a list of 6-7 likely topics, choose the most "important" first.

Noddy GuideTM
Is my name for a short simple summary of a subject or topic.
A good noddy guide will be:
- brief,
- simple but
- complete
Ideally, however, it will be written by a real scholar - avoid people with an axe to grind!
For smaller subjects, and for topics, subject "dictionaries" and "encyclopedias" are often a good source (e.g. in Bible the Anchor Bible Dictionary contains thousands of topic level noddy guides it also has quite a few subject level guides).

Stage Two: Prepare notes

Choose a noddy guide, it is worth spending some time to get the right one - ideally you will do this during the term (but I was seldom that organised ;-). The goal of this stage is to prepare a page or two about each topic, how you do this is up to you, as is what you include, but aim to cover the topic thoroughly - check this against your "noddy guide". Finding a good noddy guide for the topic is a real help, it may well also suggest ways to organise the material and headings.

Double check that you have all the most important information and ideas on these sheets.

Now, having gathered the material, reduce each topic to notes that cover at most one sheet. Do NOT use full sentences and connected paragraphs, but bullet points and headings that summarise the essentials.

Photo from CraigBoney

Another good approach is to divide your pages for the initial notes into two-thirds and one third, then to use the bottom one third to prepare a draft of the one page notes. If you do it this way it is still a good idea to copy the final brief notes onto a separate page.

Stage Three: Read and re-read

Now you read and reread both sets of notes... As "the day" gets near focus on the short notes - you can even take these with you to the exam room door (opinions differ, some people, like me, prefer to cram to the last minute, others like my wife prefer to have a rest in the hours just before the exam - I take my rest the day before that gives a longer rest ;-) but find the pattern that suits you) some institutions expect this and have a waste bin near the door, if not just place them in a corner and if need be retrieve them after the exam.

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