It’s that time of the year again: end of year exams are about to start. If just reading these words you start feeling anxious, don’t panic and remember: very few people would be happy at the thought of having to sit exams (I don’t know any). And the good news is, we can all learn to deal with exams and to prepare for them. Here are 10 tips to get you started.
Remember the $64,000 question: What are exams for?
Many students make the mistake of looking at exams as a test of how much you ‘know’. But in the UK, university exams are not pub quizzes where you show how many things you can memorise. Learning is not about ‘regurgitating’ knowledge, i.e. simply reading information, learning it by heart and repeating it.
Instead, you’re expected to show that you ‘understand’ your topic and the main issues. And that you can use your knowledge to analyse and evaluate new problems and situations. This is what exams usually test.
Tip: As you’re revising for your exams, stop and repeat to yourself what you’ve just learned. Could you explain it to someone in a few words and without repeating the exact words you’ve read?
You ask: How hard are exams?
I ask: How much have you been studying?
Ok, here’s the good news: the more studying you’ve been doing throughout the academic year, the less stressful your whole exam experience will be. As you know, your exams will be about topics and issues that you’ve covered in your classes and assignments. The more notes you have already, the less time you need to spend on ‘catching up’. Instead you can focus all your efforts on revising the material you have.
Tip: Go through your notes and make summaries of the material you’ve covered. Focus on the main issues only and create mindmaps as they’ll help your learning (I’ll cover these in my next ‘exam revision’ post).
Not been studying much? There’s still hope
If for whatever reason you have a lot to catch up on and your exams are coming up…like, next week…remember this: you won’t be able to catch up on everything now. It’s practically impossible. Also, by trying to learn everything now – you’ll probably end up learning nothing. I’m not saying it’s too late to prepare, it isn’t. But you will need to be smart about how you’re going to do it.
Tip: Aim to catch up on about 50 – 60% of the subjects your module has covered. Don’t try to read whole books about them. Use chapters from books, journals, newspapers and other online publications to do your research and find out enough about each topic. You need to achieve a level that allows you to show in the exam that you have a decent understanding of the topic – even if you have knowledge gaps.
So how do you know what topics to focus on?
At the start of the academic year, you would have been given a course outline that has details of your lectures, seminars and assignments. I remember that the outlines for my courses all had a brief summary of what we were going to learn each week. There are a lot of clues in these outlines – as well as in the essay questions for the module.
Tip: Go over your course outline and make a list of the main topics covered each week. This will give you an idea of what you’re supposed to have learned by taking this module.
There will a review class: Attend it.
For all my undergraduate and postgraduate modules, the lecturers would organise ‘review classes’ where they would go over the main material covered in the module. Make sure you attend any that are organised for your courses, they can be immensely helpful as they’ll remind you of the main topics and issues covered.
Tip: If you’ve missed your review class, get in touch with your lecturer and ask if they can send you any information. Or make a list of the main topics / issues you can come up with and that you want to revise. Then ask to see your lecturer for half an hour or so to discuss any doubts with them.
There may be ‘tricky’ questions but no ‘trick’ questions
This may surprise you but no teacher wants their students to fail and your lecturers will want you to do well in your exams. Another surprise perhaps: there can be no surprise questions in exams. That’s because any questions included in your exams must be perfectly possible for you to answer based on what you’ve learned throughout the year.
Tip: Some of your exam questions may be ‘tricky’, meaning they may be difficult for you to understand at first. But there won’t be any questions that are designed to ‘catch you out’ or make you fail. Remember this during your exam and if necessary read any difficult questions again and again until you understand what’s being asked.
Past exam papers are great – but use them carefully
For all my undergraduate exams, I was able to get a copy of the exam papers from the previous years. These are really very helpful but you can’t use them to 100% predict what exam questions might come up – although they are reliable to some extent. It’s best to look through them to spot ‘core’ topics: these are topics that always come up and are an essential learning outcome for that module.
Tip: You should be able to get past exam papers for your course from your university library, from your department or an online repository of your university. As you use the papers to predict exam questions, bear in mind that the lecturer, the course outline or the question focus may have changed over the years – so don’t rely on the papers 100%. Also, if your course is new, as was the case with my Masters degree, there wouldn’t have been any exams yet and therefore no past exam papers to look at.
How important is the exam?
Not all your exams may count towards your final result in the same way. Some may count 100% towards your grade for that module, others may be 70%, 60% or less. It’s a good idea to prioritise the exams that will count the most. However, this doesn’t mean you should neglect any of your exams. You don’t want to fail an exam and thereby fail or risk failing the entire module. Especially as some modules may be compulsory for you to pass if you want to progress to the next year.
Tip: Find out how much the exam will count towards your final mark for the module. Also, work out how much you need to score in the exam to get the final grade you want / need. Remember though, you don’t want to be haunted by poor grades on your degree transcript.
If you have too many things going on
The final year exams period is a high pressured situation. Do well now or regret it later. You may have other things going on, like a part-time job, a volunteering position and / or a relationship. Decide for yourself if you can continue with your commitments as before, or whether you need to create extra space for yourself for the next few weeks.
Tip: If you need some time out to focus on your revision / exams, speak to the people involved. I carried on working in my part-time job during the exam period but I worked less hours and told my employer when my exams were so they knew in advance when I wouldn’t be available for work. For 4 – 5 weeks I made my exams my absolute and only priority – you may want to do the same, the results will be great.
Exams are just exams, you’ll never need them again, right? Wrong!
Ok, here’s my experience with exams: most of what we learn for our exams we tend to forget within days of sitting the exam. But this doesn’t mean exams are useless or something that universities do just to make our lives difficult. The very act of revising for an exam, preparing, working to a deadline, performing under pressure, organising your thoughts, focusing on the main issues – gives you such important skills for life. In other words, exams are an essential part of your learning and personal growth.
Tip: Considering your career plans after your degree, try to think if there are ‘exam-like’ situations you may have to go through at some point. Look at your exams as preparation for these.
Just to carry on from my last point, I wished I could tell you ‘once you’re done with university you’re done with exams forever’, but it isn’t so. In my last job, whenever we interviewed a candidate for a position, even if that position was not high up on the responsibility and pay scale, we would set them a test as part of the interview process. So the candidates would be put in an exam-like situation where they would be given a task to complete within a limited time. This would test their understanding of the job they’d applied for but also how they performed under pressure.
See how your university exams may be relevant and can prepare you for this type of selection method in the work place?
Next week, I’ll be bringing you more exam tips – this time on what to do on exam day.
If you have your own exam tips to share with them, post them below or join our private Facebook group here.