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:

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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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