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Success in exams made easy

Updated on May 16, 2013

Exam time - better grades and less work!

Are you studying in university or school and are constantly under pressure to mug huge quantities of content in no time and then reproduce these in exams? Are you struggling with writing such exams in a vast variety of subjects in a very short span of time, hardly being able to prep yourself only half as good as you would like? And last but not least, do you have difficulty passing your exams or are regularly disappointed with the results you get?

This is the last part of an article that I have written for students who feel like I have described above and want to improve finally have success in exams. It is best to read all three parts so you can go back to the first two parts here: Get organized from day 1 and Know yourself and keep yourself motivated

Success in exams in 7 simple steps

11. Analyse the psyche of your exam (or: How to psychoanalyze your professor)

This is the most important step towards a successful exam, so read this carefully. You have to get it right what the exam will be all about before you start studying for it. The most helpful tool for this is old exam papers from your faculty! Usually the students will have created a network in which they exchange the old question papers. In these times of the internet you will most likely get the information online. If on the other hand the students in your course aren’t that organized yet, it is high-time you start this innovation and get into the habit of getting together with your study group after an exam to brainstorm as many exam questions as possible. Post it somewhere or leave it in paper format in a specially designed folder in the student committee’s headquarter or café. The following generations will thank you forever! If you can get hands on many old exam papers for one subject you might have an easy job preparing yourself! I know at this point many of us get into a conflict with themselves – “but I am studying for myself, I don’t just want to mug for my exams…” I understand where you come from; I have felt the same way. I once was so interested in a subject that I attempted to really learn EVERYTHING about it. I spent half of my semester breaks doing so. When the exam date came close I decided to look out for old exam papers – and to my shock realized that I could hardly answer anything at all! I had to postpone the exam another year and by then luckily followed this new strategy – I studied for a week and scored 100%! That happens due to our prioritisation, which very often does not match the exam. While I in the beginning thought that the main objective of an exam was to check if I had understood all the main concepts and had a fairly detailed knowledge I soon was to find out that a lot of exams are mainly build to select the muggers from the non-muggers. You will be asked incredible irrelevant details that any clear thinking mind would refuse to learn-by-heart as it simply doesn’t make sense – we have books to look up exact values or figures, but our brain to understand the meaning of them. Not so in exams! Very often you will be asked to reproduce minuscule details that without the exact preparation for them you can’t derive from understanding. That is why I mentioned earlier – exams are not about your intelligence, not even about your interest in your subject. They are about how hard-working and self-sacrificing you are willing to be (according to your lecturers) – or if you twist it, how street smart you are (according to me)! So drop that nostalgic thought that you are studying for yourself when you are preparing for an exam, you are certainly not; these exams are not for you but against you. So see it as a fight to win, you can worry about your personal expertise later and you will be surprised that you will still gain quite a bit despite your studies.

Now, how to analyse your exam? If you have many old exams have a look at how maybe certain questions start repeating, sometimes you will find out that an exam is every year re-assembled out of a very narrow pool of questions, maybe only adding one or two new questions every year. So as long as you aren’t aiming for 100% your job could be done in a week (no other work during the semester required either)! Either way the first thing you should do is make a list of all old exam questions and work your way through them. Do this by yourself and only after you have finished get together with your study group. This way you will have really understood all the main concepts and can answer a lot of similar questions, as very often lecturers have favourite topics they will never fail to ask about. Once you are done with that, but still have time left before the exam, go into the semester’s materials and check how many pages your lecturer has spent in a presentation on other concepts that haven’t been asked for yet. Start of course with the more covered ones first, working your way down.

If your exam questions are more thoughtful then study more thoughtful yourself – means: work mainly on your true understanding of concepts. If the exam questions are stupefying details then that is the way to go. If you know from the start of the semester that the exam will be a mugging one, I highly recommend transferring the lecture’s content into handy learning cards throughout the semester that help you structure the vast content. Sometimes you will face a mugging exam combined with too little preparation time. I have managed to write successful exams in the span of only a few days with a simple technique: Go through the complete lecture’s presentation and write for every slide one possible exam question down and add the answer to it immediately. Then go to Ready to mug.

If there are no old exam papers available, or the lecturer has just changed then it mostly is advisable to visit the lecture to understand the psyche of your lecturer – is he/she very involved with the students and encouraging answer-question situations? Opt more for concepts and important facts and details (they are interested in conveying content to you). Or is he/she just another monotonous slide-show clicker, hardly giving space for questions with an air of frustration about him/her? Opt for stupefying details (they most likely will take revenge on you during the exam). In the last case you have A LOT of work ahead of you if you are aiming for high marks. I recommend you to first go to no. 12 and assess the worthiness of it.

Sometimes less is more...
Sometimes less is more...

12. Assess the importance of an exam (or: How to beat the system with its own weapons)

There are two main factors that decide how much effort you should put into an exam. Ideally of course you will only write successful exams all the time, but in real life having to scope with maybe 7 different exams in 5 weeks it can be crucial to assess the worthiness and thus divide your time. One factor is the so-called Credit Points. There are different study systems and therefore most likely different terms, but the concept stays the same. To get a certain degree you will have to work your way through a certain amount of Credit Points. Each module in your university will have a different amount of points, so the given exam will count into your final grade according to the amount of Credit Points given for it. Theoretically the Credit Points of a module represent the workload you had to face during the semester. Practically the Credit Points are often just a by-product of an unsuccessful try to force university lectures/seminars/practicals into a measurable system that suits a capitalistic marketing approach of our education. That means that many a time a module with a very high work-load will receive less Credit Points than a module that is much less work-intense. Study first for such exams that will be valued with more Credit Points and are on top of that maybe easier. Secondly study for exams that grant you more success (e.g. because the exam questions show). Then churn your stomach with the ones that require more work for less result – if you have time left.

A second factor of course is your interests. If you are planning to later specialize in a certain subject, invest extra work in these exams. Successful exams with good grades will help you getting related scholarships/internships and of course – knowledge.

13. Attend the last lecture (Or: The Last Supper)

In many lectures it is common that panicking students keep bombarding the lecturers with questions regarding the upcoming exam. It is always useful to be present and maybe ask your own questions, too. Some grumpy lecturers make sure that this happens at the second last lecture – simply to give the students who were present an advantage over the street-smart ones. But since you people should cover that through your group members they won’t be able to get you that easily.

14. Ready to mug (or: How to prepare a feast for our bulimic education)

Once all your material has been revised and put into a learnable order, major concepts have been understood and you know what your exam will want from you it is time to stuff your brain with all this information. Writing a successful exam will largely depend on your ability to remember content by-heart, but luckily this is a skill that can be learned and improved.

Start with reading out the question/title of your card and tell yourself what you still remember just from having worked on it before. Turn the card and check. It might not be so much at this stage, don’t worry about that. Maybe limit yourself to only 10-30 questions depending on the complexity and see what you remember in the second go. If the answer is related to graphs or schemes, put them down on paper, too. For the rest just speaking to yourself in a low voice or in your thoughts is very effective. If you work with cards segregate the ones which you know better from the ones you don’t know at all. If you work with questions leave a mark next to it indicating how good you knew the answer. Move on to the next batch of questions. Depending on the amount of time you have before the exam you might prefer focusing on one third of the work at first and then move on to the next third. If you have less time it is advisable that you push yourself through the complete material on every day. Of course, memorizing only works if you bring your concentration onto a really high level. You will find that staying focused is only possible for a few minutes at the beginning, but you will be able to increase your attention span dramatically throughout your studies. Whenever you start feeling distracted pull yourself together for one last question, then take a short break, take a few steps, have a bit of water or go to the bathroom. Then go back and try to concentrate on another set of questions. When the breaks you need between the memorizing spurts are getting too long, take a proper break for a few hours and completely change your setting. Even though you most likely won’t feel motivated, don’t binge but come back to a second or even third learning session every day – your brain can do it! Just always make sure that what you are doing is effective. There might be certain days on which your overall concentration is so low that it is better to take half or even the complete day off. At least this will help you regain your energy for the next day instead of beating yourself in the library, losing the time and not seeing any results either – that will just drain your already low energy even more. Once you get most questions right, focus on the ones you indicated as difficult. Once you are done with these, start from the beginning but write down the answers. This last stage will take you much more time, so if you are short of time, instead go for a last round of memorisation just speaking out the answers. Always when memorizing immediately check the answer after answering the question. Linger on for a second to see what you have missed. If you keep missing the same terms over and over again try to build yourself a memory bridge – that could be any association you get when you hear the term, maybe a word that sounds alike, a joke, a curse or whatever it is – implement that into a sentence that goes with the desired content. It doesn’t matter how stupid that sentence will be – it usually works.

15. Write a test exam (or: how to Exam-ine yourself)

This is a very good last exercise a day or two days before the exam. You can do this in your study group, with a partner or even alone: Set the timer for the same time you will have during the exam and pick a random old exam paper (or in a group someone else picks it for you). Write everything down just like you would during the exam. Then discuss the answers one last time with the group. A very important point about this exercise is to adjust your time-management. Many students are decently prepared, but fail to manage their time. There are lots of exams that require an incredible speed to be able to complete them. And yes, you are able to work speedily. You know the answers already; now just also write them down as fast as you can. Don’t worry about your hand-writing or about missing something. Complete first, then add-on. If you have incredible problems with your time-management then repeat this exercise maybe once or twice again, gradually you will adapt to the required speed - a key to a successful exam.

16. The last day before the exam (or: Walking the green mile)

Ideally you meet with your study group one last time during the morning, run a test exam and then take the rest of the day off. If you have a lot of gaps you can make a concentrated gap filling session, but keep it to a minimum. The best you can do right now is to relax, do something that you enjoy and rest assured that you have done what you could do. Over-working yourself the last day before the exam can have an adverse effect on your ability to focus the next day. Instead try to recharge your battery for a full performance the next day. If the exam takes place in a building or room you have never used before, take a stroll and find out where it is. At least in my university regularly students would come late for exams because of confusing room or house numbering. If your exam takes place on a weekend confirm with the watch man that a certain gate will be open to the campus on that day. I once had to climb a really high gate, because I hadn’t know that this particular entrance would be locked on Saturdays and going to the main gate would have cost me too much time – don’t follow in my footsteps here.

17. Keep calm and focused during the exam (or: The Grand Finale)

Put three separate alarms to get up on time and save yourself from getting up randomly before to check the time. Try to eat only little before the exam and take some dextrose in case your exam will be taking long. Also always take a few extra pens. Have a plan for something nice that you will do after the exam, maybe even with your study group mates. Don’t open your cards or books anymore in the morning, even if it’s tempting. If you have huge gaps then maybe a few minutes of focused revision of problem questions is ok, but overall you want to save your energy and concentration power now for the exam and not for the learning. Go a bit early to the campus and maybe meet your friends for a coffee before.

When you get your exam paper try to first screen all the questions quickly, if points are indicated for each question, keep in mind that a question giving more points usually requires a more detailed answer than a question which gives less points. Remember the speed you had to write in during your test exam. If you get stuck in a question don’t hesitate, but leave a huge gap and continue with the next one. If you work with the required speed you will have enough time to come back to it later, if not than at least you didn’t waste your time on one question that you couldn’t answer well, but answered a bulk of others instead. Don’t get lost in too much detail. You can always leave some space and add more details to each question after you have answered all the main aspects you are being asked for. Otherwise it can easily happen that you write a few super-answers, but only manage finishing half of your paper! And: Don’t even think about cheating. It will cost you too much nerve and time, will hardly give you any useful information and you will risk being busted and having worked so hard for nothing! Trust yourself - you will write a successful exam.

Party it up - you deserve it!
Party it up - you deserve it!

18. After the exam (or: Party it up!)

After an exam you should really go out and reward yourself, no matter how well or bad it went. You have done all that you could and even if not, it is over now. So do something really nice, have your favourite food and waste the rest of the day. Try to avoid going directly back to the library to prepare for the next exam – that is a real motivation killer!

If you haven’t read it yet visit the first two parts of this article:

Get organized from day 1, Know yourself and keep yourself motivated

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      shiwangi 3 years ago

      Really interesting but self study must benefits more