Shift your whole approach......

Most university students’ approach to exams is shaped by their experience of exams at school, but this means that most are often poorly prepared for the different style of learning at university and the way in which exams are used, from undergraduate through to postgraduate level.  Other forms of assessment are also increasingly utilised at university to assess the attainment of learning outcomes intended by the curriculum.  But exams still have a role and understanding how that differs from secondary school is critical to being able to get the most out of exams as a means of learning – through problem solving - rather than just as a summative assessment of what you know.

As you are faced with more in-depth and/or more breadth of material at university so you are faced with a challenge – how do I remember all this stuff?!  It seems impossible, because of course actually it is impossible.  Simple recall of knowledge is at the bottom of the ‘hierarchy of the cognitive domain’ and at university – and even more so at postgraduate level – you are expected to be applying higher order learning skills – analysis, synthesis, evaluation, creativity – beyond simple knowledge recall, comprehension and application. 

What does this mean in practice?  Well at the most basic level it means developing an understanding of fundamental principles and concepts of the subject that you can then apply to problems you have never seen – quite the opposite of recall of remembered knowledge (i.e. situations you have been taught about and memorised).  Faced with this – and files of notes galore from lectures and assignments – a typical passive approach is to read and re-read your material in the hope that it will ‘go in’ and be remembered so you can recall it when needed; more in hope than expectation.  Except that even if you can recall some of it most likely it will be framed as you have memorised it and therefore far less likely to be amenable to tailoring to the question being asked in the exam.

Active revision, on the other hand – i.e. using past exams papers and questions as a way of framing your revision is, as its name suggests, a much more active process; one that helps you frame your knowledge and understanding in a way that is more relevant to the way exam questions are designed and posed.  This in turn can help build confidence that you can then utilise fundamental principles of the subject as your basis for answering exam questions.  It is especially useful for essay-type questions, but the principle of problem solving applies also to quantitative questions. So how?

  • First, take a past exam question – perhaps as one of several relating to the same subject area from past exam papers – and begin to break it down into its constituent parts – what is it actually asking? 
  • Use a highlighter pen and highlight key words, e.g. describe, discuss, explain, analyse, compare……. Are you clear what each means and what the examiners are after?  This is where you apply the higher order learning skill of analysis – what are the component parts to the problem posed? Are there tables or diagrams you could create to help construct the analysis?
  • What evidence/knowledge and first principles of understanding can you apply to this situation – to each of the component parts?  Look at your notes and find the key elements you want as a prompt, getting familiar with where in your notes the evidence is to be found. 
  • Write down an essay plan – time spent planning is critical to being able to construct a meaningful answer rather than just a ‘download’ of remembered stuff that is unlikely to be well focused on the question asked.  Start with some key headings and sub-headings (headings create structure) – or maybe a mind-map (bubbles and arrows to link ideas together – the bubbles may give you key headings for the essay).  This process of brainstorming is critical, working out the scope of the question and the issues you need to tackle.  Allow time – at least 10-15 minutes out of 60 minutes answer time (so c.20-25% of your allotted time on planning the answer). Don’t rush into writing without a plan.
  • What can you draw together from this evidence in order to answer the question – synthesis – the process of pulling the component parts (the evidence marshalled) together.  What are the most important aspects to focus on and construct into a logical argument? What examples can you use or create to pull things together? (Yes - create your own hypothetical examples if you don't have actual ones to hand; you want to show the extent of your understanding and ability to applying higher cognitive skills - your own examples are just the thing.)
  • And then – evaluation – draw conclusions on the basis of the evidence synthesised, and don’t throw in extra material at the last minute into the conclusions.  The conclusions should come out of the analysis and synthesis, and show how you have weighed up the evidence and drawn your own conclusions – the application of your own critical thinking. 

At this point all you have done is create a plan – but a plan that now just needs the gaps filled in, a narrative text that flows and connects the elements you have sketched out.  That’s what you do in an exam; when revising it is not necessary to spend time writing out whole answers, although practising timed essay writing is another useful technique.  Instead, use the revision time to get as familiar as you can with past questions in a specific subject area so you become adept at judging what is being asked for, working out what the main sources of evidence are from your notes and in developing a skeleton plan for how to answer the question – whatever the question posed (you are not – repeat not – attempting to question spot; that is a fool’s errand!).  Elaborate some headings a little by all means, but getting used to doing a decent plan is half the battle – filling in the gaps is about creating a logical flow of argumentation and that is more likely to flow in exam conditions if you have a plan and structured framework to work with.

So, you’ve practised a few past questions and feeling OK now about planning answers in that subject area, gradually building confidence about how you can use not just knowledge but your understanding of the core concepts so you can problem solve, even things you might not have covered in class – new situations – because you now have some simple techniques and skills that can get you started and allow you to work through the problem.  Take a look at one of your plans – as you read through it try sitting back, closing your eyes and imagining your notes on that subject, sensing – maybe visualising – but imagining in whatever way works for you a mental map of where in your notes that key bit of evidence comes from, using it as a trigger for perhaps recalling (however vaguely) the lecture that covered that topic. (Note that this works better for hard copy notes than digital ones on a laptop.)  You’re now developing associations between your written notes and your techniques for dealing with questions, building confidence that it’s not so much how much you know as how you use what you know. This is a form of ‘imaginal rehearsal’ and is not about trying to visualise actual information, but to recall patterns and associations - try it and see if it works for you!

Exams are so much about technique, but it is actually a technique that has uses in real practice – the ability to problem solve on the spot.  Having loads of knowledge on the other hand may just mean you write loads of stuff with little to do with the question asked, leading to the most common examiner’s comments: “What about the question?  Off-track.  Missing the point.” Or, “Could have made so much better use of this information if only had planned and structured the answer.”  Structure provides a frame of analysis in itself and so you get better value out of even very limited knowledge or understanding.  So, it makes sense to practice exam technique – planning answers, rather than trying to remember so much stuff your brain hurts and you build anxiety rather than confidence!

Having done this for one subject, move on to another and do the same again – the more you practice planning answers the more you will start to enjoy the process of working out what is wanted – solving the problem; being a detective; being curious – and bringing your own unique perspective and insight to the question posed.  As you do this, the more you will have a mental map of your notes, knowledge and understanding and a belief that you are now more able to access it more easily and create illustrations from first principles; and in that way, begin to understand the point of exams in higher education.  As I’ve discussed elsewhere, you can then enjoy the learning process and so – ironically perhaps – by practising exam technique you can shift your focus on to the process of exams as a means of learning rather than on the outcome of the exams – the results; they can take care of themselves because you’ll have got a lot more out of the process than a grade: enjoyment in problem solving, and life-long skills.

Enjoy your learning!

Bill Sheate, 6 December 2017