Love them or hate them, it’s hard to get away from exams. All that preparation before the big day, a race against the clock as you sit at the desk, and the aftermath that sometimes feels as stressful as the exam itself.
Effective technique goes beyond the exam hall. You’ll never be stress-free from the examination process, but you can limit it greatly by following these tips:
Before the exam – Preparation
- Link relevant concepts together. You need to see the bigger picture, not isolated facts. Immersion in the subject itself is better than remembering individual facts.
- Don’t fuss about rewriting your notes again and again. Simply copying your notes out won’t help you revise effectively. Rewriting does help some people take in key concepts, so restrict it to writing the main point as an anchor rather than regurgitating everything.
- Use all your senses. Don’t just read; write out brief points that you want to solidify. Don’t just use your eyes; discuss key topics with other people on your course.
- Revise in different locations to vary your intake. It also helps you recall later,
- because you’ll store different information at the different places. In the exam, you could recall more by picturing the different places you were and remembering what you studied in each place.
- Use pictures and diagrams in places you’d usually rely on words alone. If nothing creative is forthcoming, at least try setting out your ideas in a mindmap of some sort.
- Don’t go to heavy on the memorising. Some detail does need to be in your head clearly and correctly, but much of what you study is about arguing and analysing a subject, as opposed to exact recall of specific points and quotations.
- Read (and attempt) past exam papers. This advice is often dished out, but many either don’t bother, or don’t take it seriously enough. When you do read through the papers, see how the questions are worded and try to grasp what is being asked of you. Look for any recurring themes across past papers so you have an idea of the kind of topics that crop up again and again.
- Time yourself at writing answers to essay topics. You may be confident that you’ve got the knowledge, but it’s no use when you know it’ll take four hours to write that knowledge in a two hour exam! Learn to gauge the time you have and get the important factors written out first.
On the day and during the exam
After the exam – Letting go
- Give yourself a break. When it’s all over, some students act like they’re still in the exam and think up more points they could have made. It’s like they can’t switch off. But there’s not point in stressing further. You’re through it, so breathe a sigh of relief.
- Don’t beat yourself up. No matter how you did, it’s time to let go. You did what you could and you have to draw a line under it. Look to the future, not the past.
- Students around you will be comparing notes and how they fared. You don’t have to join in. What other students wrote in the exam is irrelevant and only serves to worry you and make you second guess your own effort.
- Keep your performance in isolation. If you have more exams to go, it doesn’t matter how well or badly you think you did in this exam. Each one is different.
- Take a break. Stop for a moment, even if you’ve got another exam that day. Always leave a gap. Due to crazy timetable issues, I’ve seen some people (fortunately not me!) who’ve had three exams in a day. Can anyone beat that!? Have a breather, even if it’s for a mere 5 or 10 minutes. Your brain deserves a rest!