- Manage your time effectively. You don’t want to leave your exam revision to the night before because that’s asking for trouble.
- Get hold of some past exam papers and practice, practice, practice!
- Have a break and take a rest, there’s no use in burning out before the exam day.
- Lecture notes can be useful, but it all depends on your notetaking skills.
- Studying in a group can be helpful if you have a good team of students to revise with.
- Look after yourself during exam season. Eat well and socialise whenever the opportunity arises.
- Get there early.
Whether you’re a school student, a working professional or anything in between you will no doubt have done some revision for an exam at some point. And lots of them. Personally, I preferred writing coursework over taking exams. If you want to learn some important tips for writing an excellent piece of coursework then check out my blog on ‘How to write coursework to boost your grade’.
If you’re reading this blog, then you’ll likely agree that exams are unavoidable. In this blog, I will cover how to best prepare for taking and passing an exam. I based this off of years of experience taking exams at Secondary School all the way up to postgraduate level as well as designing and grading exams.
One of the worst things you could do is leave your exam revision until the night before. It’s not just unhelpful but it’s unnecessary stress. Stress is just going to diminish your performance on the day and you’ll never be able to cram all that information within mere hours.
At university, I personally found that two weeks was enough time to prepare for one exam. During exam season you may have a week or more full of exams with more than one exam in a day. By this point, you’ll have a good idea as to which exam will likely be the hardest. Rank the exams in order of expected difficulty. Then dedicate the most revision time to the hardest exams. It’s obvious, but it’s an effective strategy that will help you to overcome the onslaught of exam season.
Past exam papers
Just like training for a marathon, you don’t play rounds of golf in preparation. Rather, you practice running very long distances. Likewise, it makes perfect sense to practice completing past exam papers under similar exam conditions in preparation for the real thing. I did a lot of this and it’s what I owe a lot of my success to throughout my time in higher education.
Get your hands on them
Perhaps the most vital resource you can get your hands on. Throughout my time as an undergraduate student, I was able to get copies of past exam papers and their associated model answers. It was common practice for module coordinators to recycle and mix and match questions from past exam papers for use in that year’s exam. Sometimes the same question that appeared in a previous exam reappears in an upcoming exam. It can happen. Whether this is a good way to facilitate learning and assess student performance is a question for another time, but it is a reality. So, take advantage.
Practice, practice, practice
If the upcoming module exam was two hours in length, I would practice completing past exam papers for that module over and over again. For example, in a given day I’d aim to sit that past exam paper a minimum of three times under exam conditions. I personally felt like repeating most things three times over to help me memorise information. I’d also try to finish the past exam papers in less time than in previous attempts. Finishing the exam with 15 to 20 minutes to spare is always a good thing as you can use this time to check over your answers.
Honestly, this approach is immensely effective but it promotes rote learning. I often deleted a lot of what I learnt after sitting an exam to make space for learning more information for the next one. Ideally, this is not learning and really doesn’t develop much understanding. This was my main gripe with exams. What was the point of memorising all that stuff to simply forget everything mere days later? I always felt that a mixture of assessment methods should be used. Perhaps a combination of exam and coursework, oral and written tests or practical assessments may work better.
Don’t be shy about asking for copies
If you don’t know where to find past exam papers, don’t be shy and ask the lecturer. They should be able to point you in the right direction. I was able to access past exam papers online and print them off. If for some reason you cannot get hold of some past exam papers you may have to get your online search on. Try Googling relevant keywords to find exam papers or questions that are associated with your course or module. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing.
Have a break
If time permits have a break from exam revision here and there. It can drive you crazy otherwise and that will just lead to stress. We don’t want that. I recall one of my lecturers encouraging me to take regular breaks from exam revision to play video games. At the time, I really appreciated that advice as I enjoyed video games a lot. But you can always substitute video games for any other activity that will help you unwind.
A note about notes
At university, you’re writing copious amounts of notes during lectures. In most cases, lecturers provide lecture notes either in advance or at the lecture for students to make notes on. Notetaking is a skill and we all vary in this department. However, lecture notes are a good resource but aren’t as vital as they once were.
In recent years, universities have started to introduce a policy that required all lectures to be recorded using a lecture capture software. When I used to lecture at the University of Birmingham, I had to record all of my lectures using the lecture capture software, Panopto. I had to make sure that these recordings were uploaded onto the learning management platform accessible to the enrolled students. The video and audio quality of these recorded lectures had to be good too. So, now students don’t have to rely solely on their notes or memory. Students can make use of these recorded lectures alongside past exam papers during their revision. I highly recommend this approach.
Revise in a group
I have only tried this once. A group of school friends and I were revising together for an upcoming English GCSE exam. It went well, to begin with. But then we ended up arm wrestling. I did fine in that exam, but I never revised in a group again. I found that I was more productive when studying solo. Although, you might find that you revise better in a group. So, partner up with some eager students and organise study dates. Remain consistent and dedicated and you may find that it can be your key to success. There’s nothing like the feeling when you and your study mates achieve the grade that you want. And if one of you doesn’t, you can help them right any wrongs in the retakes.
Don’t neglect yourself
This ties into taking a break, but I always aimed to maintain both my physical and mental wellbeing when going into an exam. I believe they both go hand in hand. So, I made sure I took part in physical and social activities. Where possible, I played some team sports and met up with some friends to unwind. Doing this helped me to decompress and come back to my exam revision with renewed vigour.
I tried to eat well too. Watching my diet helped. I tried to stay away from fast food, energy drinks and simple sugars. I’d get my energy from homecooked meals, teas and coffees. I was never a big fan of soft drinks. I also never believed in drinking can after can of energy drinks and pulling all-night study sessions. My body never really responded well to them. I would also try to exercise to manage my stress levels. The idea is to find practices and activities that will reduce your stress levels and boost your performance.
Get there on time
I was late for an exam once and it was the last time. It was my English GCSE exam. I did not wake up when the alarm went off that fateful morning. When I did wake up, I got dressed and ran to school. I was ten minutes late, sweaty, out of breath and had my jumper on backwards. Bad start.
Go to bed early the night before the exam. I recommend finding out the location of your exam room(s) well in advance. Arrive at least 15 minutes early just in case there are any last-minute changes to the venue which is unlikely but can happen. The last thing you want is to show up late, sweaty, out of breath and your jumper on backwards in the wrong place.