A number of skill problems are listed below to support you when preparing for exams. Click on your skill problem and find more detailed information how to deal more effectively with this skill problem related to the preparation of exams. The Skill Sheets book gives you even more detailed information on subjects related to exam preparation.
I have difficulty...
Why do you have problems in remembering the material that you have studied? The answer to this question requires that you understand the distinction between (1) Short Term Memory (STM), (2) Medium Term Memory (STM) and (3) the Long Term Memory (LTM). Mastering your STM will help you in studying material more efficiently. Mastering your MTM will help you to create a feasible week plan (B11) and learn how to efficiently spend your time in the days before an exam. Mastering your LTM will help you to develop a more feasible plan for the semester (B12) and engage in a more continuous (virtuous) cycle of learning and relearning. In particular for your MTM and LTM a number of techniques are available like Mind Mapping.
Preparation Many students use their MTM incorrectly in the immediate period preceding an exam. This happens in particular when they want to study new material. This information is automatically stored in your MTM, which might saturated and can not be used for repetition of already studied material. For instance, in case you have already digested (studied and repeated) 80% of the material, studying the remaining 20% one day before the exam, might substitute that information for the 80%. What can you do, then? Primarily repetition and understanding.
A few days prior to an exam you can use your MTM to learn by heart particular kinds of detailed information which are tested regularly, but which you yourself might not find particularly relevant. What you consider relevant depends on your learning style (B7). You might for instance find it much more important to know where you can find the information than to reproduce it. For an exam this attitude contains considerable risks, since you are supposed to reproduce substantial amounts of information and are not sure what level of detail the teacher might ask (B5).
Under these circumstances you make more actively use of your MTM. As long as you know where to find those details in your memory while you do the exam, you do not have to store them permanently in your memory. For example, when you are studying tax law it might be useful to know that there are different types of taxes, the amount and the approximate applicability of those taxes to different income levels. A few days before the exam you should memorise the exact data on all the different income levels by repeating the figures a number of times. The more you have been able to figure out a system for the material that you have been studying – for instance in the form of a Mind Map - the more knowledge can be transferred to other parts of your memory. Therefore, there will be more unoccupied space left in your MTM for details like names, technical terms, figures, exact historical dates.
Moreover, a large number of exams in a short period of time (the practice at many universities) present the student with a substantial assault on the physical condition; Especially in the case of studying from early in the morning to late at night for a number of weeks consecutively. The more time you have during the exam period to do short repetition exercises and get a good night’s sleep, the bigger the chance that you will keep fit, even for the last exam.
Use Table B.5 as an aid to assessing the intentions of the teacher. The first column contains a number of possible assignments given by the teacher. The second column refers to possible interpretations of ‘understanding’, ‘perception’, ‘critical’, and ‘application’. These interpretations can then be used to decide which kind of study method should be used to comply with the intention of the assignment/teacher. When filling in the third column you confront two aspects of intentions for studying: what you want to do, and what the teacher wants you to do. You will see immediately where discrepancies lie between your preferred style of studying and the teacher’s demands. Talk about this problem with your teacher. Many teachers are often open to changes, once they are confronted by serious and dedicated participants.
If you prepare for an exam it is relevant to know whether the teacher aims (and tests) at understanding, critical perceptions and/or applications. Old exam questions can come at hand, certainly if the teacher is prepared to explain the intentions behind the past questions.
Plan your time in steps Take the whole period into consideration. List the months in the semester (probably five) and start planning backwards from the deadlines that will appear. There are a number of different deadlines which have different consequences for your planning: related to exams, papers and extra-curricular activities.
2.1 The consequences of exam deadlines are easiest to take into account:
- As a rule: one week before the exam period you should have studied all of the required literature for an exam and repeated the material at least once. Remember that if exams are all together in one period (mostly in the last weeks of the semester), it is almost impossible to study new material. Reserve the exam period for short repetition, in order to keep fit during the exam period and use your memory in the correct manner (B8).
- Acquire all the required literature as soon as possible at the start of the semester. Assess the literature for all of the courses: the nature of the books and other literature (heavy, easy to read, link to what you already know) (C*). If the course has not changed much, ask other students who have already attended the course for their experience, in particular on courses that are considered hard to pass. Test your reading speed with regards to the literature used: take a section of the book at random and check the time it takes you to read and understand the argumentation. Calculate, approximately, the total amount of hours you personally (not anyone else) will need to read, understand and repeat the literature. Do not take the official calculations for granted, because they are aimed at an ’average’ student, and you are not ‘average’!
2.2 The consequences of deadlines for papers and essays are more difficult to assess, because writing a paper always requires several skills at the same time, often including mastering group dynamics, which can easily lead to general time management problems (B10, B11).
- As a rule: try to have your paper finished a couple of days before the official hand-in date. The last few days are vital for editing, rewriting (A*), and coping with ‘unhealthy’ group dynamics (G*).
- Make a general calculation of the amount of time that you will have to spend finishing the paper or essay. Plan deadlines for intermediate versions of your papers which you would like to generate feedback on and specify whether you would like that from other group members or a tutor.
2.3 The consequences of deadlines for self-study groups and extra-curricular activities are the most difficult to assess. The result then often becomes that these activities are squeezed and are not organised at all. For that reason you should also set clear intermediate deadlines for them. Plan deadlines when you want to generate feedback. Self-study groups - if they run parallel to a course - are easier to plan (see point 2.1).
If you have carried out the instructions included in points 2.1-2.3, you can try to spread the hours required for each activity over the whole semester. Plan to work on many parallel activities each week (but with varying intensities, and never at the same time). Do not plan to spend a whole week on one course.
Time, topic and performance Figure B.7 shows the correlation between concentration performance and time. Until you reach time T, investing in an activity can lead to an acceptable performance. After passing T, the performance drops quickly.
The ‘timing’ of time T is affected by the following factors:
- In the case of a difficult text or a new a text or topic, the T moves further to the left
- The more limited the knowledge of a topic, the further T moves to the left.
- If a text is clearly structured, the T moves further to the right.
- The more experience you have with a topic, the further T moves to the right. Figure B.7 Performance and studying time
Once you pass time T your efforts are no longer in relation to your performance. A break is necessary. Do not use your brain during the break. Do not enter into a difficult debate or have a ‘heavy’ telephone conversations. The same also applies to tv-zapping. This is not a very relaxing activity. They require the same or comparable amounts of concentration as you need when studying. You can eat an apple or any other type of food that contains ‘slow sugars’ (your brain uses a relatively high amount of sugar), do some shopping, go for a run, clean up your room, listen to music on your I-pod. If you are functioning well and well-fed, a break of fifteen minutes should be enough for you to begin concentrating again.
Beginners (starting a new course) can manage this pattern for three times one hour in a row (B14). After that a longer break is necessary. So, when you begin a new course, starting to study intensely shortly before an exam will not work. When compared to your High School performance, time T is located much further to the left, this is also because most study material has not yet been covered in class. Many students realize this only after their first exam period (if ever).
Principles of good Energy Management
- Watch what you eat. Avoid simple, sugary carbohydrates, moderate your intake of alcohol, add protein, stick to complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole grains, fruit)
- Exercise at least 30 minutes at least every other day (it produces an array of chemicals that the brain needs: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norephinephrine amongst others). The time you invest on exercise will be more than compensated with improved productivity
- Take a daily multivitamin and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement
- Moderate your intake of alcohol (it kills brain cells and accelerates the development of memory loss)
- Get adequate sleep:
- Stop eating two or three hours before you go to sleep.
- Don’t drink alcohol or coffee containing caffeine before you go to bed.
- Try to avoid sleeping during the day, you will sleep deeper during the night.
- Create regularity: go to bed and wake up around the same time every day. Sleeping out or Staying up disturbs your biological clock.
- Sleep in a clean bed with a good mattress.
- Make sure the climate in your bedroom is cool, well ventilated and calm
- Try to avoid using your bedroom as working or living room, if this is not possible make a division between different functions be using for instance a room divider.
Sources: Hallowell (2005) and NHG (2000)
Understanding a text requires the ability to identify specific argumentation structures (C6). But, argumentation structures in turn are made more intelligible by the way they are organised in a logical and transparent way in the overall text. The better you are able to quickly grasp argumentation structures, the better you can make use of, or reject, texts. It also serves as an input to formulate and organise your own writings better.
‘Clear writers, like clear fountains, do not seem so deep as they are; the turbid look the most profound.’ W.S. Landor, Imaginary conversations, 1829
Identify the organisation of the text
The structure of good analytical writing is predictable. You should be able to get a reasonable idea of the nature of the argumentation before you start studying a text in detail. If a writer has followed the general principles used for scientific texts (E*) the text has a structure that is intended to represent the main idea of the argumentation. The structure will be hierarchical or pyramidal and relatively easy to identify.
- The central theme is often included in the (sub)title. Have you ever really looked closely at the title of a text? Take a minute to look at the title, and think about the kind information you get in relation to (1) your own interests, (2) the nature of the question addressed by the author, (3) the nature of the argumentation developed in the text. Titles reveal a lot about the intentions of the author.
- Supporting themes make up the chapters and sections. In the introduction you will find a description of the problem which is addressed and the sequence in which the analysis is presented. Each chapter or section presents further introductions to these themes and refers back to the ones mentioned previously.
- The detailed components of the argumentation make up each paragraph in a (sub)section. Each paragraph will include only one thought, proof or evidence in support of the general argumentation.
- Often the author has also added (sub)headings to help you to keep track of the argumentation.
- Finally, the text and sentences include many additional supportive tools to help you to find the structure of the argumentation:
- signal words or numerical signs: 1,2,3; 1.1, 1.2, 1.3; A, B; or ‘firstly, secondly’;
- typographical signs: in particular italics or underlines are added to place an emphasis.
- Conclusions are announced as such and include a summary of the argumentation and the way the evidence has been collected (inductive or deductive) to arrive at the conclusion. If an author has used this kind of organisation it is relatively easy to decide whether this line of reasoning appeals to you and/or fits into your own research aims. If you understand the basic structure well, it is also far easier to memorise the text if you read it in preparation for an exam (B8).
Effective speed-reading First pay attention to the environment in which you read. It is important to have a dedicated area for studying with basic attributes such as adequate lighting, proper ventilation, decent sized desk and good seating. This room should preferable not include a TV, stereo, other people and telephones, which will lead to distraction (C series). Secondly, some pointers can be given on how you could try to speed up your reading speed in Do’s and don’ts of speed reading.
Source: Speed reading online (2004)
There is no one best way to actually read texts. It is often suggested that you have to move your eyes diagonally over a text. But there are other speed reading methods as well. Below a number of them are shown. You should try to find out which method best suits you (see: www.utexas.edu/student/utlc/handouts/512.html).
- Move your eyes diagonally.
- Read the words at the beginning and at the end of each line.
- Read the words in the middle of each line. Besides all speed reading tricks there will always be a difference of reading between people caused by different intelligence levels, motivation, interests and vocabulary.
Besides all speed reading tricks there will always be a difference of reading between people caused by different intelligence levels, motivation, interests and vocabulary.