For most students, exam revision is a stressful time, a horrible period spent wondering how you are going to find enough hours in the day. There is so much to learn, yet the harder you try to force information into your brain, the less you seem to remember. This causes you to panic and exam revision becomes even harder, in a vicious circle of increasing stress. How do you avoid this?
As with many aspects of life, the key is to work smarter, not harder: Patient preparation is the key to success. Exam preparation does not start two weeks, or even two months before your exams, but is an ongoing process. The human brain works in strange ways, and often buries information, making it difficult to retrieve. However, if you work smart, you can take advantage of the way that the memory operates.
Exam preparation starts in the classrooms and lecture halls, not two weeks before the date of the test. Most students, once they have finished a lesson, put their notes away and bury them under a pile of magazines and computer games until exam tomes draws near. Stress levels increase as they frantically try to force facts into their shell-shocked and bewildered mind.
Good exam preparation involves spending a little time every day making sure that the information you learn passes into your memory. When lessons have finished for the day, take out your notes and go through them. Condense and rewrite them, adding new information from your textbooks.
Your brain needs to encounter information at least twice before it filters through into your long-term memory and this small investment in time will pay dividends when exam revision starts. You will find that the information is there and that it is a matter of retrieving it, rather than attempting to relearn it.
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It is tempting to think that revising for exams is a matter of putting in the hours, slogging away into the small hours of the morning as you try to absorb every single fact. Eventually, your days become a cycle of sleep-learn-sleep as you try to get to grips with calculus, or remember the Krebs cycle.
In fact, overdoing your exam revision is counterproductive and can lead you into burnout and illness. Your brain can only handle a certain amount of abuse before it gives up and attempts to take a vacation. Like a marathon runner, you need to pace yourself and work in short bursts, ensuring that your mind can relax and recuperate.
When you are preparing for exams, structure your day and make sure that you take regular breaks; ten minutes in every hour is a good start. Make sure that you take a complete break at mealtimes and spend an hour relaxing outside or talking with friends. Above all, avoid revising for longer than 6 – 8 hours in the day, because your brain will have ceased to learn and you will only tire it out even more.
If you have kept up with your preparation and exam revision during the course of the year, then this is plenty of time. You will be refreshed and relaxed when you confidently stride into the exam room.
One of the biggest contributors to exam stress is the feeling that there is too much information to learn in a short time. Suddenly, you have to remember an entire year’s worth of information in a few weeks, and this barrier seems to be insurmountable. Preparing and memorizing information over the course of the year helps, but another little trick is to focus your efforts.
In an ideal world, you will know every single topic in great detail and be able to answer any question, short or long. In reality, that is difficult and you need to revise smart and reduce the burden. You should ensure that you have a broad understanding of the entire course, giving you enough knowledge to answer short answer and multiple-choice questions.
After this, you can concentrate upon looking at a few topics in depth, based around those that you have an interest in and those that are likely to turn up. Looking at test papers from previous years and the latest study-guides will help you develop a shortlist and you can concentrate upon studying those in detail .
With this ‘Less is More’ approach, you will move from being a student who just passes to one who gets the good scores, without spending much more effort. If you learn six essay topics for a two-essay exam, you should be covered for every eventuality.
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For many students, essay exam preparation involves working through lecture notes or reading textbooks, in an attempt to learn a range of topics. This is admirable, and is the foundation of exam preparation, but finding past papers is the real key to success. For most subjects, your teacher or lecturer will be delighted to give you copies of papers from previous years, allowing you to see the range and type of essay questions that may turn up. You will be surprised at how often variations of the same question are recycled every two or three years.
These papers also give you a chance to practice and hone your technique, an opportunity to maximize your effort. Try to answer a few of these essays, preferably within the given time limit and without your notes. Afterwards, assess your work and relearn the parts that were incorrect or badly explained. Once you are happy with this, you can move on to the next paper.
The logic behind this is that not only does it help you to remember the information, but this process will help you to avoid panic when you are in the exam room. By repeating the essay questions until you are sick of the sight of them, your brain will know exactly what to do in the exam room. Instead of freezing or panicking, you will be able to answer, confident that you will be able to write a top quality essay.
It is a tired cliché, but practice really does make perfect
For one moment, imagine that you are a test examiner, faced with grading a huge stack of essays. Now, imagine that each of these essays says pretty much the same thing: How dull is that?
As a result, most test examiners work through papers mechanically, skimming over paragraph after paragraph and assigning a grade. This is extremely tiring and, ultimately, examiners are human and just want to get through the day’s work as quickly as possible.
This is where you can use human nature to ensure that your paper stands out from the crowd, simply by using appropriate diagrams. Instead of writing a couple of rambling paragraphs, why not use a diagram and refer to it. Believe it or not, this gives the examiner a temporary relief from the thankless task by breaking the monotony. Your paper leaps out and, instead of a Grade B for doing just enough, you start to move into Grade A territory.
Added to that is the fact that you will be saving yourself a lot of writing during the exam, avoiding unnecessary stress and the race to finish it all before the time ebbs away. Of course, this is not free rein to shove diagrams everywhere, but the strategic use of simple, well-drawn diagrams will maximize your chances of doing well.
Diagrams really are your friend
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The key to test preparation is more than sitting down and endlessly poring over study guides and lecture notes. Test preparation is about making sure that you are in the right frame of mind and that you make the most of your valuable time. There is no right or wrong way to revise, and everyone has their own preferences, but there are a few things that can help.
- Find a quiet area for your study that is used for revision and nothing else. This will help you to avoid distractions and excuses to procrastinate.
- Your study area should include a comfortable seat and good lighting, to ensure that you do not tire your muscles and eyes.
- Before you start a revision session, make sure that you have everything you need, such as lecture notes, study guides, stationery and a computer.
- Break up your revision sessions; you can mix and match your test preparation and you should take regular breaks, going for a walk or taking a nap.
- Take care of yourself. You are not in an endurance competition and you should make sure that you rest and eat wholesome food. With test preparation, less is more, so 6 – 8 hours of revision is more than enough.
These tips will give you a good foundation for study and will make sure that you do not burn yourself out or make yourself ill. Going at your test preparation at breakneck speed, with little thought for the consequences, can do more harm than good.
Everybody has their own preferred techniques for test preparation, ways that they feel that they learn best. For example, some people need complete silence, whereas others like some quiet, ambient music. It is all a matter of personal choice, but this does not mean that you should resist trying new things.
Some students like to rewrite their notes, eventually condensing them down onto flashcards. Others like to use lots of diagrams and memory maps, or rely on well-structured study guides. If a test preparation technique works for you, then you should base your exam revision around it.
All of these methods are excellent aids for test preparation, but one little trick is to use them all, switching between them over the course of your exam revision. This uses different parts of the brain and will prevent you from becoming too tired during a session.
For added variety, you can study with friends and test each other which, as well as ensuring that you are making progress, helps you to encourage and support each other. However, to avoid the procrastination bug, structure your study time so that you do not end up talking instead of working.
Of course, if you get together with classmates and enjoy a long and intense revision session, then there is nothing stopping you form hanging out for the evening or going bowling. You will have earned a little time off!
Organization is one of the keys to test preparation, and using a few simple study guides and aids can reap dividends. Without a structure to your exam revision, it is too easy to slip into bad habits and find excuses to avoid work. Study guides help you to focus and use your time constructively.
Of course, studying is always easier if you have kept up with it over the course of a year, but even if you did not, you should create some study guides for your test. Treat your revision days as a school or work day and create a timetable, incorporating break periods and lunch. Try to plan how much time you need for each subject, devoting a little more to the subjects and topics that you find particularly difficult.
One tip is to mix and match your subjects for maximum effect. For example, if you struggle with chemistry, follow your chemistry session with a subject that you enjoy and find easier. This helps you to give your brain a rest and will also keep your morale high.
Incorporate some time off into your study guide, allowing you to rest, relax, and recuperate. In addition, update your study guide weekly, adapting it to reflect your progress in the various subjects. If you are really struggling with a particular topic and it is eating up your time, it might be time to call it a day and move onto the next. If you catch up, you can always return to it later and, with a few days break and seeing it with fresh eyes, you will be surprised at how often it now sinks in.
However, remember not to use your study guide as an excuse for procrastination. You do not need to spend two days designing a study guide timetable; a couple of hours is more than enough.
Unless you are one of those few people who is blessed with supreme self-confidence, oral tests are a frightening experience. Any exam is a stressful time, but being placed on the spot and having to answer questions, there and then, can bring out the most accomplished student in a cold sweat.
There is no real way around this but, as with any test, preparation and practice are the key to overcoming the nerves.
- Knowledge is king. If you have followed the previous study guides and you are thorough in your test preparation, a good knowledge of the topic will allow you to meet any challenge.
- As with most exams, your teacher will generally be happy to provide you with examples of past papers and questions. Go through these with classmates under exam conditions and against the clock. This breeds familiarity and will fill you with confidence when the real test starts.
- Record yourself speaking on a tape recorder or your computer. This will let you know if you tend to mumble or speak too quickly, and you can adjust your approach accordingly.
- The first question is always the most difficult and, when you are nervous, it is very easy to misunderstand, freeze or start babbling. Take a deep breath and take your time. If you did not understand the question, don’t be afraid to ask the examiner to repeat it – nobody is going to mark you down for this.
- Take your time and think for a few seconds before answering any question, trying to use complete sentences instead of one or two word answers. This makes you appear far more confident and accomplished.
- Be polite; say hello to the examiner before starting and thank them at the end. Such little niceties create a great impression.
With these tips, you will have given yourself every opportunity of breezing through the oral examination and impressing the examiner.