Monday, 25 May 2015

Four really useful exam tips

Recently I asked the staff teaching biomedical sciences at Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) and at Newcastle University UK for some revision and exam tips and this is what we came up with:

1. Do you know where and when the exam is being held?
Sounds obvious but it is worth checking you know where and when your exam will be held. Nothing worse than spending weeks (hopefully) revising and then turning up at the wrong time and wrong venue and missing the exam. Also, make sure you set more than one alarm clock if your exam is first thing in the morning, or get a friend or parent to phone you up to make sure you are out of bed and heading to the exam hall. 

2. Try to get plenty of sleep before your exam

Try to get plenty of sleep the night before the exam. Being sleepy during an exam is not good.  Don’t try to boost your alertness with caffeine etc., and do not pull an ‘all-nighter’ revising the night before the exam. That last minute ‘cram’ very rarely works. 

3. Think Positive
In an exam don’t panic, and think positive. If you encounter a question you don’t understand move on. Don’t sit there dwelling on it, leave it and come back to it later. Be positive. Don’t panic.

4. Don't Dissect!
Do not post-mortem your exam as that will only cause anxiety and distress. Resist the urge to talk to friends about the exam. As soon as the exam has finished go off for a walk, or a treat, and don’t hang around with your classmates that think either they did brilliantly (“that was so easy!”) or who think they have failed (“that paper was impossible”). Resist the urge. 

17 Revision Tips....

Recently I asked the staff teaching biomedical sciences at Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) and at Newcastle University UK for some revision tips and this is what we came up with:

1.  Try answering questions from past papers
Have a look at past papers and try some of the questions. However, don’t fall in to the trap of thinking that just because a similar question has come up in recent years it will be on the next paper, or thinking that as a particular question hasn’t been seen for a number of years it must be due to make a return. Lecturers are sneaky…..

2.  Don’t become a revision Zombie
Revising for an exam is hard work, but if you work smart, and you start your preparation early you will reduce the risk of becoming a Zombie. Try to take breaks, do some exercise that clears the mind and gets the blood pumping to the brain. If you do become a revision Zombie please resist the urge to attack your classmates and eat their brains. If you see a Revision Zombie RUN!

3.  Your brain is not a sponge - be an active learner
Your brain is not a sponge, it needs to be exercised. If you went to the gym to get some exercise just standing there looking at the weights or the running machine is not going to do it. You need to be active, you need to be involved. The same is true of your brain. Just reading your lecture notes won’t do it. You need to be ‘active’. Read the notes, put them down (so you can’t see them), recall the material (re-write or redraw it), and then check it against your original notes. Doing this will strengthen the memory of the material.

4.  Keep your brain alert
Your brain needs food, your brain needs oxygen. If you just sit there revising for hours and hours you are going to get slow, tired and sluggish, and your brain is not going to get the food and oxygen it needs to help you revise. Take a break, get up from the desk and go for a walk. Clear your brain and then come back and start revising again. You will be more productive and get more done.

5.  Don't waste time
Don’t waste time making your revision notes look pretty.  No one else is going to see them. Your notes should be functional and clear. They should be concise. They don’t have to be pretty and all coloured in with tons of sticky notes on the margin. Use the time you have to revise smartly. Revision is about revisiting material, you have hopefully already learnt, so as to refresh your memory. It is not about colouring in! 

6.  Find your best place to work

 Find the best possible place you can for your revision. Ideally it should be somewhere comfortable (but not so comfortable that you fall asleep), somewhere that is quiet or noisy (depending on your taste) and where you have control over noise levels, and it should be somewhere free from distractions (smart phones, Twitter, Facebook, TV etc.). Once you have found your ideal place, use it!

7.  The Revision Timetable
Make a revision timetable and try to stick to it. Work out how long you have to the exams and how long you have to revise each topic. Don’t fall in to two of the classic revision timetable traps: 1. You spend so much time making your revision timetable that there is no time left to revise (see Rimmer in Red Dwarf for an example of that); 2. You spend all your time revising for the first exam and forget that there are two other exams a week later. 

8.  Don't just sit there - get some exercise
Studies have shown that going to the gym after a period of study can help with the recall of the material. Don’t spend all your time revising, get some exercise and get your blood flowing around your body.

9.  Don't just read, learn...
Just reading your lecture or class notes is not learning the material. You need to be active to strengthen your memories and understanding of your notes. The easiest way to do this is to move the information in and out of your brain. Read the notes, re-write them in a different style (or draw them as a mind-map or diagram) without looking at your original notes, and then check your new notes against the old. By doing this you have moved the information in to your brain (reading), out of your brain (making the new notes), and then back in and out of your brain as you correct your new notes against the originals. This approach to learning is backed up by a number of studies, and has been shown to work.

10.  Mix it up a bit...
Just sitting there reading the same thing over and over, or ploughing through your notes class after class is not learning, you need to alternate your activities to keep your mind fresh and to keep learning. Try breaking your study up in to small chunks of learning followed by a small test to see if you have learnt and understand the material. Doing this will keep you fresh and alert, and speed up the learning process. You never know, it may even make it fun! 

11.  Test yourself
When you are revising just reading the material is not going to make it stick in your brain so that you can magically recall it during the exam. You need to understand the material and make connections. You need to summarise and process the material. Reading is passive, learning is active. Try reading the material and then after a shorty break try recalling the material, and checking your recall against your original notes. Doing this will test you so you will know how much you really understand, and it will help you strengthen the memory of that material.

12.  Don't Panic!

During the run-up to an exam it is very easy to dwell on little things that would normally be insignificant in your daily life and to start panicking. Don’t!  Don’t listen to rumours, don’t dwell on the trivial, and if there is a problem speak to someone, a classmate, a teacher, a lecturer, or a parent. Key thing is not to panic, and to keep hitting the revision.

13.  Tick! Done!
Hopefully you have prepared a revision timetable and you are following it. If you are then one handy tip is to mark off your revision as you do it as this will give you a sense of achievement and progress. It is always nice to tick something off on a todo list.

14.  Treat yourself...
Constantly revising is not going to work. You will get tired and inefficient. You need to break it up. The easiest way to do this is by giving yourself planned treats. For each revised lecture or class you could give yourself some time on Twitter or Facebook, or watch some TV. May be chocolate is your thing? If so, then for each 30 minute period of study you get two squares of chocolate or a biscuit (be careful though as this revision technique can lead to obesity). A slightly healthier option may be for every 30 minutes of revision you go for a short walk. The choice is yours - treat yourself for all your hard-work!

16.  Keep your brain active... Mix it up

Try to keep your brain active by varying the material you revise. Try something really tough, and then switch to something easy. Mixing it up can help you retain information and improve your understanding. 

17. Stop looking at social media!

Avoid temptation. Try to get quality non-fragmented revision time. Stay off the social media. If you are a social media junky then use it as a treat to help you revise - for every 60 minutes of revision you earn 5 minutes on Facebook or Twitter. Put the phone down, lock it in a drawer, and resist the urge.