Welcome to the first of three posts on Exam Technique Tips
I have been asked to write a couple of items on exam techniques, or as I like to call it, exam passing technique.
Let me introduce myself, and my academic background. After leaving school I worked in a bank. There I completed my Chartered Institute of Bankers exams. I did the whole lot, from start to finish, in 3 years. I even did one additional paper, mainly to get the £50 my employer paid when I passed it! After that I did Institute of Chartered Secretaries. I passed those in the minimum possible time except for failing one paper – more of that later. I completed ACCA in similarly short order and got a first class honours in applied accountancy at the same time. So I know what it is like to sit exams.
Currently I mark exams for the International Baccalaureate Organisation, I also moderate some material for them. I have been marking for Oxford College for some time now where I have a large portfolio of students from IGCSE up to HND.
In all of the professional exams I have taken I have only ever failed 3 papers. One in each professional body. In each case it was the exam which I knew I could pass without studying because I knew I was totally on top of the subject! Which brings me to lesson 1:
The main reason why people fail exams is lack of study beforehand!
Remember there is quality and there is quantity. Neither is a substitute for the other. You need to do a lot of reading about your subject and there is no quick way round that. I used to read my manuals on the bus on the way to work, for example. Take every opportunity to read. If you have points which need to be remembered- such as legal cases- get a friend to record them onto your phone or MP3 player. Hearing something definitely hits a different part of your brain from reading. That is the quantity side of things. Think up acrostics to help you. We all know “Richard of York gave battle in vain” to remember the colours of the rainbow. Work out your own. Can you name the Royal houses of England starting from 1066 in the correct order? I doubt if you can. “No plan like yours to study history wisely” gives the first letter of each: Norman, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian, Windsor.
Take notes as you study your textbooks. If you can’t think of anything to note down out of a page you probably have not read it sufficiently carefully. Go back and read it again. Maybe there is nothing- but I doubt it. Note taking, again, uses a different aspect of your brain from reading. You might never refer to those notes ever again but you will have gleaned a great deal of advantage from writing them.
Practice, practice, practice. Do as many old exam questions as you can find. There are only so many questions an examiner can ask. Subjects crop up with amazing frequency. You must, as you get close to your exam, practice sitting down and writing for 3 hours. Most of us do everything on a computer these days and 3 hours writing is completely strange to us. So set yourself mini exams and answer them in full. Don’t slope off half way through for a cigarette and a cup of tea! You are training yourself for the exam.
You need both quality and quantity in your exam preparation.
Concentrate on the answers to questions! That might sound flippant but you are required to write answers, not questions. There really are only so many questions that an examiner can ask. If you look at a cartwheel you will see the same spoke keep coming back every time the wheel turns. If you look at enough questions and answers you are bound to hit on something that will come up in the exam. That doesn’t mean you should memorise answers and try to fit those to the questions you are going to be asked. It just means that the more you have looked at, the greater your chances of striking gold.
Don’t be scared of reading around the subject. If you are taking an A Level in, say, Biology and you find a book which is a textbook for, say, nursing, then look at it. Do you think the human kidney works differently depending on what exam you are taking? Most decent textbooks will have something of value to you. The only thing I would say is to beware of “Coffee Table” books. By that I mean the gloss general interest type of books. Stick to serious textbooks. If you want a recommended reading list, ask your tutor for one. Also learn to be discerning with websites. Anybody can post stuff on the internet – and plenty of it is wrong. Of ten people posting are “grinding an axe”. In other words they might have some crazy belief and bend or ignore facts in order to argue their case. Avoid such sites except as a source of amusement. Having said that especially if you have strong views on a subject, read the other side of the argument. That is what you need to work on.
Which brings me neatly onto another maxim:
Play to your strengths and work on your weaknesses.
In the exam you will answer the questions which are on the areas of the syllabus which you know best and find easiest. That is playing to your strengths. Of course you will do it in the exam. In practice and revision you must do the absolute opposite. Work on the areas where you are weakest. That way you will get the maximum improvement. You cannot hope to be asked only on the points you know and enjoy so you must work on the other parts as well. This is what I call working on your weaknesses.
Well, that is quite enough for stage 1 of your exam techniques training. Remember you pass your exam through staying in and grafting at those books through the winter. It is not all achieved in that 2 or 3 hours of the exam. A boxer wins his fight by doing hundreds of hours running, swimming, punching a bag, sparring and lifting weights. Yes, of course he has to be good in the ring but that really is only the icing on the cake.
Image Courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertogp123/5843577306