Youth development – Exam technique

You can study all you like but, if your technique for studying and writing exams is poor, your results will likely not improve. Below is some of what I learned about learning and tackling exams.

Firstly, and most importantly, it’s best if you understand that you are studying for yourself and no one else. You can rebel all you like, rage against school, teachers, studying, how challenging your life is, “what use will geometry be to me after school anyway?”, but it is YOU will suffer from achieving results below your potential. Results that will stick to you and follow you around for the first ten, if not more, years of your working life.

In fact, your grades at school will act as a key for unlocking opportunities, if they are good, or a bolt across doors you want to open, if they are not up to scratch. This is not a lost cause, by any means, but, it will make it significantly harder for you to access learning and career-related opportunities.

If your teacher is good, they will genuinely care, but they do also have limited time and energy and numerous other students and admin to focus on as well. Your parents might jump up and down, if you are lucky, but it is your life at the end of the day. Remember that success is attractive, people want to surround themselves with people who are independent and who achieve in their careers. It might not be cool to spend your weekends studying now, but it will benefit you directly for the rest of your life.

It’s also important to be realistic with yourself. There are so many students with expectations of a certain lifestyle when they start working but, when you talk to them about the kind of income a person needs in order to facilitate that lifestyle, they are shocked – especially when they are not on track to secure such an income. This is not to mention the importance of being able to CHOOSE the job you want, that will make you happy, versus being forced to setlle for a certain job because of the grades you obtained.

Whatever your dreams may be, to provide for your close and/or extended family, have a nice place to live, the opportunity to travel and see exotic places – or purely material dreams such as dressing a certain way, or splashing out on that flashy car you have always fancied – making them a reality will be linked to, and in significant ways made easier by, securing good results at school.

If you are not getting the kind of results you want, more often than not, the situation can be saved. But you have to be willing to change your approach. It helps to secure help. This might entail repairing relationships with some of your teachers, making more use of their support and working together with another student/s whose strengths and learning style complement your own.

Many subjects, like maths, build on themselves year on year. You were likely taught the fundamental principles earlier on. If you are lost, you will need to go back and fill in the gaps, think of trying to build a wall, but you are missing some of the foundation bricks. Don’t avoid the tough sections that you find problematic, get help and conquer them, you will feel so much better. When I was 16, I had to start again on page one of my textbook a week before my final maths exam. I started at the beginning and didn’t stop until I got to the end, doing and redoing very many examples along the way. I studied up to 10 hours a day. From having no clue and being told by my teacher that I had no chance and would fail, and also getting dumped by my ‘first love’ in that week, I got 78%.

The more you aim in your studying to gain a real understanding of the material, the easier it will be for you to remember it in an exam, and more importantly, to apply it correctly. There are many different studying techniques and different people think and learn in different ways. If you write out and learn material ‘by heart’, you are less likely to understand and be able to apply it to different scenarios. Also, due to the amount of time it will take to write a subject out, the more you will struggle as the workload increases. The flip side of this is that there will be certain fundamental things that you may just need to learn and without which you will not be able to progress. For e.g. you may need to learn certain formulas, if they are not provided in the exam. Dates, surnames, categorisations, etc.

Mind maps work for me, but that is because I think conceptually and in pictures. There are numerous different methods, but the most important thing is to try them until you find what works for you. Ask other students what works for them. Ask top students to sit with you for an hour, explain their understanding and approach, maybe even why they enjoy a particular subject. Different people explain things differently, so something someone else says in their own words might help you to understand the material better.

Stress can be a good thing when it jolts you into action, but it can easily become counter productive as well. Stress relief techniques are almost as important as studying techniques, some of the best include exercise and meditation. I found working with other people (really working not procastinating together), helped me massively for certain subjects. I also listen to classical music, it can put your brain in a state that facilitates learning. I had Baroque classical music recommended to me and swear by it. It sounds crazy but it works for me! I also like to study and work to songs by Massive Attack, which help me to stay focused.

Make sure you are very clear in advance regarding the nuts and bolts of an exam. Ask questions and try to get as clear a picture of what to expect as you can. This will also minimise the risk of making a stupid mistake under pressure, like not turning over the page and missing the last question, or similar. How many questions are there? How much time to you get in total? Then you can calculate in advance how many marks you need to aim to get per minute. What is the structure of the paper? The format of the answers? Is it essay questions, multiple choice, etc.

The format of the paper will impact which course material is likely to come up. For example, certain sections of work will lend themselves better to being in the exam, and some will lend themselves to an essay question format, etc. and others won’t. Ask the teacher for guidance around this. Often they will have hinted at this throughout the year, i.e. which sections are particularly important in your studying. Get good at noting these hints down in your class notes. If you are not good at taking notes in class, work with someone who is. Past papers are not foolproof but can often point to the types of questions you can expect to come up. Knowing which sections to prioritise can give you an advantage and help you use your study time efficiently. Ask your peers how they remember the answers to things, you can benefit and save a lot of time from using each other’s little tricks, like rhymes or mnemonics.

Obviously try your best to get a good night’s sleep throughout studying and before each exam, but accept that it might not always be possible. On the day, do what you need to to stay calm and focused (such as avoiding your classmates, if applicable). Be conscious of your breathing, try to take deep breaths. Let go of any worries or regrets about what more you could have done in advance. While the exam clock is ticking, try to focus 100% on squeezing out as many marks as you possibly can. Show your thinking or calculations clearly, to extract any ‘method marks’ that might be available. Write and set out your answers clearly, make it as easy as possible for the examiner to navigate your answer. Make your writing neat and BIG ENOUGH.

Plan your time carefully so you can attempt to get at least some marks for each question on the paper. Don’t agonise over perfecting your answers to the beginning questions and then leave out the last few entirely. If possible, start with sections that you are strong on, this will help you get off to a good start and gain confidence. But make sure you don’t miss any out doing this. Use every minute you are given, read and reread the questions. I had a rule for myself never to leave an exam before the time was up. Have you answered each sub-part? Take guidance from mark allocations, they can indicate where there is a ‘simple’ or more complex answer required.

If you mess up one exam, don’t let that derail your studying for the next paper/s. Don’t stress yourself out by talking to friends after the fact and listening to how their answers differed to yours – it’s not a productive use of your time and energy. Reward yourself with a break and/or a nap then get cracking on the next subject.