Exams, exams, exams! To some the bane of one’s academic progress, to others just another
hurdle you need to jump in order to progress. However you see them, they are unavoidable (usually) and inevitable during higher education so it’s best to know how you’re going to tackle them and EXCEL!
Naturally, “exam season” can be a daunting experience despite how many times you’ve sat exams in the past. Sometimes it’s the feeling of being overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that you are expected to learn and retain, the pressure to perform well or the realisation that you’ve got 2 weeks left until your exam and haven’t even touched the syllabus! Whatever it is you’re feeling, know that others before you have been in the same boat, yet they excelled. Exams are important and just like anything else you give importance to in your life you, should aim to attribute the same mind-set to exams. With the right planning and mentality, you should be well-prepared come exam day.
Dr William Adeboye MBChB, MRes (Dist.), Academic Foundation Doctor, shares his tried and tested tips for exam success.
I would like to share the advice that I wish I had as a younger student about to embark of the numerous of exams that would make up my 6th form, Medical school and Master’s degree journey - you can tell I like studying! Do stick with me and hopefully this helps you in your endeavours.
Disclaimer : This is, by no means, an exhaustive list but from doing my own research and seeking advice from peers, I’ve found these key points to be extremely useful.
Planning – by far the most important!
As Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Thorough preparation should ideally put you in good stead come exam day. Undoubtedly plans are subject to change but a general overarching plan will surely help. But how does one plan? Well, in my experience you need to know three important things. Firstly, what is the syllabus? Second, when is the exam date and third, how are you going to be examined?
What is the syllabus? Whether in 6th form or University, each exam is based on a syllabus which should be available to you. These may vary from being succinct to the vaguest statements you could imagine, but they exist. These pieces of documents are paramount - being familiar with the syllabus content means that you, your tutors and examiners will be all be singing from the same hymn sheet.
When is the exam? Once you know the exam date; coupled with the syllabus, you can roughly allocate the time needed to prepare. There may be cofounding variables such as the academic weighting of the exam and your academic prowess on topics but make an educated guess on what you think would be a suitable amount of time, then add on a bit extra for leeway.
How will you be examined? Is your exam primarily multiple choice questions? Short-based answers or long prose questions? Oral vivas or practical scenarios? Whatever the format, get familiar with the layout and practise!
Be strategic with revision techniques
Ultimately, I think the best advice here would be find the one that works well for you AND produces excellent results. As academics, we need our scientific evidence, so I’d be remiss not to share with you the research. Many studies have shown that certain techniques yield better assessment marks when compared with others e.g. active recall, spaced repetition, practice test papers vs highlighting, imagery use for text learning and rereading. (1,2). I’d strongly advocate for incorporating the former techniques into your revision plans. Nonetheless, everyone is different and will have their own way so like I mentioned previously - find out what works for you.
Picture your role model. How did they get where they are? Why are they your role model? It’s highly likely that they possess discipline. Success and excellence require discipline (with a healthy dose of other qualities). Similarly in exams, to excel you need discipline. Discipline whilst studying, discipline whilst doing practice test, discipline in how you spend your free time. Admittedly, this is hard to attain, but don’t fret. No one said you have to do it alone - ask a friend or family member to help hold you accountable. Not only will it help you in your exams, but it’s a life skill too!
Make use of resources
6th formers reading this - past papers are your best friend! Do them once. Twice. Do them thrice. Once you know the mark scheme and how marks are awarded, you should be well-prepared. You may even find that the real exam just feels like another past paper. The past papers are usually available online but if you’re having trouble ask your teachers to assist you in sourcing them.
For University students reading this, due to the lower frequency of official past papers you’ll have to be more selective in choosing your resources. There will be so many out there, but you need ones that will ultimately give you the most gain. These can include apps like Anki which incorporates the spaced repetition and active recall techniques as well as question banks like Passmed, Quesmed, that in theory have the content not too dissimilar from your syllabus. Also utilise your older peers; remember they have sat these exams before you so they will know the best resources to use for particular exams.
Ordinarily, this is a technique used in strategic planning and management to help the user identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. I think it is easily transferable to many other things in one’s life e.g. academic examinations.
Strengths – if you know you are extremely good at a topic then don’t spend majority of your time on it. Revisit it the topic but use your time wisely.
Weakness – for the topics that you seem to get the questions wrong. Spend more time understanding and practising questions. Over time these weaknesses will hopefully become strengths.
Opportunities – seek out help and opportunities that will support your revision. This could be revision classes, tutors or, friends.
Threats – be cognisant of what poses a threat to your progress. If it is your phone, put it in another room until you finish a revision session. If it is a topic, spend more time or seek help on it.
Having these insights will again only aid in your revision process.
It may take a village...
Speak to your friends and collaborate. You’d be surprised with what you can learn from other people. If this isn’t an option for you, then have a look online. There are numerous accounts of peer advice on how to tackle exams and you may find that a generous soul has already made a blueprint for your exam online.
If you’re someone who likes to work alone, then that’s fine. Some exams play to this type of studying but for the ones that require practice to be team-based, I implore you to give it a try.
Be conscious of setbacks
You may be surprised to see this here amongst exam advice but let me explain. Whilst revising you may feel like you’re not retaining what you’re learning or that each time you do a practice paper you fail the paper. Do not be too disheartened - these things happen. Do whatever you need to do to feel better and get back in the mindset that you've got this. Be your biggest supporter! Go back and practice some more. They say practice makes perfect - but it also means progress!
Having the mindset before an exam that you’re capable and have the knowledge to excel will aid you in your performance. Now you may not have this feeling at the beginning but by the time the exam comes round – plus if you’ve have utilised and found some of my aforementioned points useful - you should feel confident that you are thoroughly prepared for the exam, and with thorough preparation, comes confidence.
Look after yourself
There's a reason all that work and no play made Jack a dull boy! Long hours of revising are rarely beneficial. Take breaks. Refresh. Use techniques such as Pomodoro to help you get through your content. During this exam season look after yourself and be sure to find time to do things that you enjoy. But of course, do everything in moderation.
Sleep, better yet, quality sleep is incredibly useful. It is thought that during specific sleep stages, our critical cognitive abilities e.g. memory consolidation are active (3). Having good quality sleep will give your body time assimilate what you have learnt and anything that you haven’t can be reinforced with spaced repetition at later dates.
Finally, remember that exams are unavoidable and inevitable. You want to be well-prepared in order to help you excel. Also, whilst reading this you may have noticed I refer to doing well in exams with the word excel. It was intentional. If you’re reading this I don’t want you just to pass, I want you all to EXCEL!
Good luck with all your future exams.
1. Dunlosky, John et al. “Improving Students' Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” Psychological science in the public interest : a journal of the American Psychological Society vol. 14,1 (2013): 4-58. doi:10.1177/1529100612453266
2. Karpicke, Jeffrey D, and Janell R Blunt. “Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 331,6018 (2011): 772-5. doi:10.1126/science.1199327
3. Rasch, Björn, and Jan Born. “About sleep's role in memory.” Physiological reviews vol. 93,2 (2013): 681-766. doi:10.1152/physrev.00032.2012
Written by Dr William Adeboye MBChB, MRes (Dist.) Academic Foundation Doctor