How to revise for an exam

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+++++++++++++ Update: We are right in the middle of exam period in the UK, so instead of publishing a new post on a different topic I thought it was just a good idea to refresh this post. Hopefully it will benefit you! I wish you good luck and great success! ++++++++++++++

When taking part in higher education there is this one evil that will haunt you no matter what country you live in: Exams, or finals or whatever you want to call them. Depending on your country and/or university this (terrible) time of the year will either trouble you only once per academic year, as was the case for me during my time as undergraduate student in the UK, or there will be various exams spread throughout the entire academic year without an official exam period at the end. Or it could be both, that is, an exam period at the end of the academic year or semester/term coupled with constant testing throughout. While we could debate about what is the best approach from a pedagogic point of view or suits students best, it is the same duty or problem for all students that they need to prepare for their exams. (I am very grateful that back then I only had to worry about exams once a year during summer term rather than friends of mine who studied in my home country Germany, where there are exams at the end of each semester. And, to make things even worse, exams tend to take place during official holidays, making them less valuable for students…as there are, effectively, no holidays!) Now, having gone through secondary education, you should all have some kind of idea of how to study and surely many of you have developed their own strategies. I still think it is a good idea to share some of the strategies that I have used successfully throughout my student career. Again I’d like to stress that it is not my intention here to proclaim that my way of doing it is the only possible and right way. I merely want to share what has worked well for me and what could work for others.

  1. Familiarize yourself with your exam timetable

First of all, as soon as you get your exam timetable, look at it and prepare an overview of when you will have to sit what exam and where. This could be as simple as taking a sheet of paper and dividing it up into weeks and week days and clearly indicate when you will take what exam. Don’t forget to write down where it will take place. This will avoid confusion and rushing come exam day. Sometimes your university’s online learning environment will even provide you with such a detailed exam timetable, so look out for it! Once this is done you should know what you will need to revise first and how long you have between each exam. This overview is essential for the next step.

  1. Get an overview of all the subjects that you have to revise and what you will need to know for each.

Now that you know when each exam will take place, quickly review the content you need to know for each exam so that you can estimate how long it’ll take you to study it. This requires no more than flicking through your lecture slides or other materials you may have to prepare. Such a quick scan will be sufficient to get the overview you need for the next step.

  1. Develop a study plan detailing when to study what.

Once you have an idea of what you will have to revise, you should develop a detailed study plan, and detailed meaning planning every day until exam period is over. This may sound like a lot of work but it really is worth it when you think about the payoff at the end, that is, a stress-free study period and great results. And it will make you feel more relaxed as you will know you will have sufficient time to do it all, once you have done the planning. I am fully aware that a lot of people think now they will never stick to this plan; but even if you don’t, it is still a good idea to do it, as the mere thinking about when to study what will help you structure your day and make you realize how much or how little you have to prepare for each exam. Now, when I was preparing for exams I would simply use the exam timetable overview sheet I made and I would then assign each day the content of certain term weeks for review. For instance, for Marketingt101 I would write down and tell myself that during the first week of May I would revise lectures 1-5, second week lectures 6-10, etc. doing one lecture each working day. On the weekend you can then take time off or revise the whole set of lectures you worked through in that particular week. I would recommend you do both, take some time off but also get some revision in during the weekends.

Also, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one subject per week; in fact I wish you could do this. In reality however, it is very unlikely that you will have the time to prepare subjects one by one, so make sure you are realistic in your planning and revise more than one subject on each day. Also ask yourself what your most productive time of the day is and plan accordingly. Mine always was and always will be in the morning, but I know lots of people work best in the middle of the night. So go for it, as long as you do it regularly!

  1. Prepare your study space.

Next you should decide where you want to study. Do you work better in the library quiet area, in an open space or in your room? Ask yourself and then prepare your space accordingly. If you are in your room, make sure that things that may distract you are banned from your desk e.g. smartphones etc. Have something to drink and some snacks in easy reach. Bring headphones or earplugs if you are working in an open space as to avoid getting distracted by other people’s conversations.

  1. Disable digital media.

On top of preparing your study space, there is one thing that will make your study time a lot more productive. Turn your digital devices off, don’t go on facebook, don’t leave Skype open, or any other digital communication channel. I know this is hard and a big ask and may not be possible all day but it really works! Assign yourself periods when you are allowed to check facebook messages etc. This requires a lot of mental discipline but it gets easier with time. Believe me, I know what I am talking about through own experiences and at the end of the day, this is part of my PhD topic J!

  1. Prepare summaries of content in your own words.

Once the planning is done and the study space prepared, the next step is the actual revision process. I always found it very useful to go through my lecture slides and notes and compile summaries for each topic. Such summaries can take various forms, of course. For me they mainly consisted of handwritten sheets that covered everything I considered relevant for the particular exam. Interestingly, when comparing to class mates I realized that there is a psychological process going on here. I used to fit as much as possible on one sheet as to make it look like it isn’t that much to study. Others would use lots of paper, writing very little on each so that they would quickly progress through a huge pile, giving them the feeling they had already achieved a lot. Whatever works best for you, such summaries are, in my opinion, crucial to success, as they are part of the learning process and by writing all the content down you are already revising and memorizing. And especially handwriting is said to be very useful for remembering things!

  1. Stick to your study plan!

Sounds simple but isn’t. Still try it, it’ll pay off and you will feel good about yourself at the end of the day if you have managed to do what you set out to do.

  1. Constantly review already learnt until the day of the exam.

This I mentioned briefly in step 3. Yes, it sounds horrible as more and more lectures pile up as the reviewing process progresses, but this is the most effective way of avoiding blackouts. If you revise the same thing every day for 2 weeks, you will laugh in the face of blackouts!. And the added benefit is that it will stay with you much longer if you constantly revise it. Last minute revision is not going to be transferred to your long-term memory; and really, you are at university to take something away with you!

  1. Get hold of previous exam papers and WORK THROUGH THEM!

Once you are through all the content you need to know for a particular exam, make sure you practice by doing past exam papers or mock exams as to check for gaps in your knowledge and to familiarize yourself with the question format. Include these practice tests in your study timetable.

  1. Compare results with friends.

Again, very simple step. Usually you can get a hold of past exam papers but not of the solutions. Here study groups with friends come in especially handy as you can solve the questions individually and then compare your answers. This is of course not perfect as you still don’t know for sure if your final answer is correct, but it is by far better to do this then not to.

  1. Ask for help from lecturers or tutors if needed…but not the day before the exam.

For any questions you may have, ask your teachers. They are there to help you and that’s why they have office hours. Just make sure that you don’t ask questions that would be clear if you had attended the lecture and avoid last-minute panic appointments. At the end of the day it is your responsibility to start early enough to get everything done on time.

  1. Tick off things completed.

At the end of each day cross out the day on your study plan and tick off what you have already done. This will help you feel good about your revision and your progress!

  1. Take exam and relax!

If you stick to your plan, you will be finished on time and can be totally relaxed about the exams coming up. There will be no surprises as you won’t have gaps in your knowledge. You will sit the exam and leave with a smile as you know you have done well. Try it! It has worked for me every single time.

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Of readings and annotated bibliographies: One of the most important yet best kept secrets of academic success

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One thing nobody tells you when you start university is how to go about organizing all the many things that you have to (or sometimes want to) read. Yes, university requires you to read a lot and yes it is not always easy to keep up with all the things you are supposed to read. Sometimes you are left wondering whether your lecturers think that you have 40 hours per week just to prepare for their class and you ask yourself how others can do it or if they actually do it all. Many people then quickly decide that reading isn’t for them and try to get through university with the minimum amount of reading possible often surfing the web for summaries of key readings or asking friends to tell them about the book or the paper that they were supposed to have prepared for the next class.

While this may be a strategy to get you through university somehow more often than not it doesn’t get you through. For this reason I highly recommend that if you are interested in getting good results and taking something away from university that will stay with you for longer than the semester or term, develop a reading strategy early on. One key aspect of successful reading at university is to read effectively and efficiently. And by this I mean reading the right things, reading them fairly quickly and remembering, or being able to recall, the key arguments easily. There is a huge amount of information available on how to read quickly, the so called art of speed reading. There is much to be said about this and I will dedicate another blog post to this topic, but for now I want to focus on another fundamental aspect of reading effectively that I wish somebody had told me about when I started university. It is one tool that most academics heavily rely on, yet most never communicate this to their undergraduate students who are left to find out for themselves, usually in the later stages of their degree when much reading has already been done and subsequently wiped off from their memories again. What a waste of time and effort, in my opinion. This secret weapon is the so called annotated bibliography.

Annotated bibliographies are very simple yet extremely important tools for successful academic work. They do nothing more but helping you to structure and remember your work and they can take many forms. I started building such a bibliography in my final year as an undergraduate student and still profit from the continuous work I have put into it since. The simplest form it can take is a word document. Before you start building your bibliography think about what information you will need and how you want to organize it. Important details from any academic paper or book are authors, publication year and title so you can easily find the reading again if required. Additional useful information can be the journal title and issue number (of course only if it comes from a journal), for books the publisher’s name and publication location and of course page numbers. This information, however, can usually be retrieved later on as well as long as you have title, year and author. Citation software like Mendeley can also help you store these details (will be discussed in another blog post). Where the annotated bibliography comes in really handy, is when it comes to storing information about content and your comments/thoughts on the reading, and retrieving this important information again later on.

As you read a paper or a book you should always take notes on content, most importantly on key arguments, methodological approach or whatever you need/want to remember. Nobody is capable of remembering everything and you should avoid these horrible moments when a deadline is approaching and you know you have read something really important somewhere but have no clue where. Or you remember this brilliant quote you want to use but can’t locate the original source. This is what annotated bibliographies are there for!

As you read or after you have finished a reading, depending on your own preferences, you fill the bibliography with content, that is, key publication details, possibly a summary of the key arguments, including nice quotes and their respective page numbers, and you can add thoughts about the reading you have at this very moment while reading it. As you read more papers your bibliography grows and when it comes to writing an essay you can go through it all and easily identify the papers or book chapters that are relevant for your topic. Later on, when time has passed and you go through the many readings you have done, you can then also easily recall what you thought when reading the article for the first time. It will save you time, worries and effort of having to read it again.

Now, from many conversations I have had with fellow PhD students and other academics and from the many books I have read about, amongst others, annotated bibliographies, I have learned that word documents work for many people. But my personal tip for an effective and easily manageable annotated bibliography is an excel spreadsheet. The great advantage here is that you can easily organize the many (or the few) different details you want to store in cells, making a simple and effective table and this table is highly malleable and can be easily expanded. Additionally, you can filter by e.g. author, year or any other information category you may have, if need be. My excel file has the following categories (and please only see this is an indicator and not the only possible way to do it):

  1. Year
  2. Author
  3. Title
  4. Type (book/ chapter/ journal or conference paper)
  5. Publisher (e.g. journal)
  6. Volume/Edition/Chapter
  7. Pages
  8. Content Summary
  9. Methods
  10. Research Gaps
  11. Comments

Once you are to do a literature review for e.g. an essay, you can easily go through this database and do additional coding with each entry. For example if you are working on the topic work-life balance you can create a new cell labeled work-life balance, then read through your summaries again and place an “x” or any other letter in the cells with the heading work-life balance and then filter for all “x” in that particular cell. What you end up with is a list of all readings that you have assigned to the category work-life balance. For me this works brilliantly and as I keep reading new things I keep adding to this bibliography, now counting about 400 readings and about 30 different topic codes. The key to success lies in starting this database and then maintaining it!For those who have built up a large database of readings that cover many different topics (or those who want to do so), the following tip may also be helpful:

Believe me, I wish I had done this from day one as an undergrad student. It would have saved me a lot of time of searching for articles and having to reread them and my database would count at least 100 – 200 articles more. So do the work now, it’ll save you time and effort in the end.