Preparing for exams: Learning and remembering



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Preparing for exams: Learning and remembering

Throughout the semester


Be motivated

It is easier to learn successfully if you want to learn. It is easier to learn and remember the things that really interest you. If you do not find some of your learning tasks very interesting, try to make them more interesting by thinking about why you are studying. Thinking about your longer term goals, such as getting a qualification or finding a satisfying job, is a good way to help your motivation. The material you are trying to learn may not seem interesting now, but it could be very important for achieving that qualification. That gives you a good reason to persist with the task, and as you learn more, the material often becomes more interesting.


Take control of your learning


To be a successful learner you need to think regularly about your learning behaviour and whether it is working well for you. If your learning habits do not work well you need to take action. For example, if you attend lectures and do not seem to learn very much, it is time to think about your note-taking strategy and to try something new. If you spend time reading and you cannot remember what you read, you need to think about changing your reading strategy (see Reading and Notemaking Skills). This kind of thinking about your learning is a way of taking control of your learning.

Improve your concentration


If you concentrate on what you are trying to learn you are more likely to succeed. We all concentrate selectively. For example, when watching television or reading the newspaper, we pay attention to some stories and we ignore or avoid others. We concentrate most on the stories that interest us, amuse us, or are useful to us. This selective approach applies to learning, too. Your level of interest in a subject will affect your ability to concentrate, and how much you remember about it.
It is very easy to lose concentration and let your mind wander. Ways of dealing with this include:

  • being self-aware enough to recognise when your attention is likely to wander, and ‘catching’ yourself before you waste too much time;

  • trying to find a way of making the information personally relevant to you – for example, linking it to your long term goals.



Aim to understand


Examinations are intended to test your understanding, not just your remembering of facts. The best exam answers demonstrate deeper understanding of relevant concepts and issues. Aiming at understanding is part of taking control of your learning. It is much easier to learn something if you try to make sense of it. Learning is not just a matter of acquiring facts, so do not try to memorise something you do not understand. Instead, try to relate the new material to what you know already and see how it fits into the bigger picture.


Make an early start


It is not a good idea to leave your exam preparation until the last week or two before the exams. It is better to think of all your studies, from the beginning of semester, as part of your preparation for the exams. For example, think of your lecture notemaking as a way of preparing for exams (see Reading and Notemaking Skills). If you get into the habit of preparing for each lecture, making good notes during the lecture, and reviewing them soon after the lecture, you will be preparing for exams throughout the semester. If you do this, you will find that when exam time comes, your revision will just be a matter of reminding yourself what you have learned. Otherwise, you may find you have to re-learn all the information at the last minute.

Improve your memory


Remembering is hard work, but think positively; your memory is good! The basic rules of remembering include being interested and being active. In order to remember important material, most students need to rehearse and repeat it many times. But there are other ways to prompt your memory. Many people use a 'trigger' to help them remember something. One technique is to associate a learning task with something pleasurable. Any of your senses (hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste,) could be used to associate something memorable or enjoyable with the thing you are trying to remember. For example, you might try setting the words you need to memorise to a tune or music that you enjoy. Alternatively, you could use rhyme, or invent a short poem about the material you have to learn. If you have a strong visual sense, you could associate something important with a picture, as in picturing the house when you try to recall a telephone number. Acronyms are another possible memory trigger. ‘WHO’ is an acronym. It stands for World Health Organisation. Try using the first letter of each word in a list of important facts to make a memorable acronym when you’re studying for exams.

Before the exams

Plan your revision


(see also ‘Managing Your Study Time’ in the Study Skills section)

As the time for exams draws closer, you may need to change your social life and other activities for a while. Some of the time you spend on hobbies and recreation activities may have to be temporarily reduced. Look at the time you have available to prepare for exams, and plan the best way to use that time. Identify the gaps in your understanding and plan what needs to be done to fill them.


Use a revision checklist

Write down the things you need to concentrate on; things you are likely to forget; facts and figures you need to remember. Check your list regularly. You can help stay motivated by rewarding yourself as you carry out your revision plan. For example, after completing the revision for one unit, you may reward yourself by watching a movie.


Review each unit

Try to get an overall view and rank the topics you need to learn. Decide which are the most important topics and plan to devote most time to them. You can get an idea of the most important topics from unit outlines, from what the lecturer or tutor has said, and from past exam papers. If you are in doubt, ask!


Summarise and question

You will need to do more than simply reading your notes or your textbooks. Try to think of an activity that helps you to think about what you are reading. Perhaps the most obvious technique is to work with a pen in your hand and to summarise your notes. Summarising lecture notes helps you to rethink your lectures. Ask yourself questions as you read: questions such as



  • “Why is this important?”

  • “What examples can I think of?”

  • “How does this relate to what I know already?

  • What connections can I think of to help me remember this?”

As you focus on the material and think about how it relates to other aspects of the course or unit, you are seeking understanding and taking a deep approach to your learning.
Consolidate

As you review your notes from different sources, such as lecture notes, textbooks and other readings, try to consolidate what you have learned, and to summarise it in point form, or in a diagram. This can help identify gaps or weak spots in your understanding, as well as giving you a better overall view of the unit. If you do this with time to spare, you will have a chance to follow up the things you don't understand well.


Practise with past exam papers

One of the best examination preparation strategies is to practise writing exam answers under exam conditions. Past exam papers will give you an idea of which topics are important. Choose a question, and analyse it carefully to see just what is required. The first essential is to be sure what the question is about and to understand what you have to do. Ask yourself:



  • What are the topic keywords?

  • What are the directive keywords – for example, words like ‘discuss’ or ‘compare and contrast’ - that tell you what to do?

  • What is the main question?

Spend a few minutes to quickly develop a plan for your answer. Then write your answer in the time period that would be available to you in the exam.

Try different learning strategies for the same material


Remember to use your personal strengths when you are studying (see What is My Preferred Learning Style? In the Study Skills section). As a change from rewriting and summarising your notes, you could try speaking aloud. Alternatively, you might try drawing a mind map (like a diagram) of the material you are learning. Once you are confident about the material, try a practise exam answer.

Take care of yourself


Remember that when you are preparing for an exam you are preparing for a performance. You need to maintain a healthy diet, get plenty of exercise and plenty of sleep in order to stay healthy. If you arrive at the exam exhausted from too much study, you will not perform well. It is not a good idea to study late the night before an exam. You may be better to get some exercise, read something briefly and have an early night.

Avoid excessive stress


Stress is not all bad; it actually helps you to perform better. But if your stress is so extreme that you cannot think properly or you experience symptoms such as shaking, shortness of breath and/or a racing pulse, then you need to take control of your stress. Simple remedies such as controlled regular breathing for a few minutes, or tensing and relaxing exercises can help. Positive thoughts (“I can do this” or “It will be over soon”) also are useful for some people.
Avoiding excessive stress is part of taking control of your learning. If you take care of your diet and get plenty of exercise and sleep you are more likely to avoid symptoms of excessive stress. Starting revision early, rather than leaving it too late is another way to avoid excessive stress. On the other hand, intensive 'cramming' over the last few days may lead to lack of sleep and general exhaustion.

Just before the exam


Make sure you know what the format of the exam will be. How long is it? How many questions do you have to answer? Will you have to answer multiple-choice questions, write short answers, or write long essays? Check with your lecturer if you are not sure.
Double-check the time and place of the exam and plan to arrive in plenty of time. Make sure you have your identity card with you.

During the exam


Use the reading time at the start of the exam to read the paper carefully. Take special care to make sure you understand:

  • Are there separate sections in the exam paper?

  • Do you have to answer a set number of questions from each section?

  • How many marks is each section worth?

  • How much time should you spend answering each question? Write the times in the margin.

Plan your answers. Jot down ideas for each short answer and essay question before writing the answers. Make sure to keep to your time allocation; you may have time to come back to an unfinished question later, but you will earn more marks by making a good start on every question you have to answer.

Types of exam questions

Multiple choice


  • Read all the alternatives.

  • Eliminate answers you know are wrong or simply don’t make sense.

  • Be wary of options that include words like ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘all’ or ‘none’.

  • Be careful of negatives “Which of these is not…” “All of these except…”.

  • Be careful of statements that are actually true and factual, but do not, however, answer the given question.



Short answer questions


Stick to the point. Make sure everything you write is relevant to the question.

Essay questions


First, take a few minutes to analyse the question and plan your answer. Make sure you know what the question is about and what it is asking you to do. Jot down your initial ideas and then try to organise your ideas into a plan.

A good exam essay is like the essays you write as assignments (see Essay Writing). Try to make it very obvious where your essay is going. Write a brief introduction that outlines your argument and what you will discuss in your answer. Remember to write topic sentences for your paragraphs. Use transitional words and refer to the essay question. For example, “The second important contribution that Information Technology experts can make to the organisation is…”



Open book exams


You will not have time to read your textbook or find new information. This means you need to be familiar with your textbook and notes before the exam so you can find information quickly. When preparing for an open book exam, you could write summaries of key topics with references to page numbers in the book. It is also a good idea to write practice answers to questions you think might be on the exam. Bring these answers to the exam, if this is allowed.



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