Evidence-Based Exam Preparation

Evidence-Based Exam Preparation

by Susannah White, 29 Apr 2019

As an educator, I am not keen on revision. If a subject has been properly taught, understood and engaged with, revision should be minimal. I do believe, however, in the importance of good quality exam preparation. What does the science of learning tell us about how to approach this?

1.  Find out if you really understand.
2.  Spaced-practice is king. 
3.  Allow yourself to focus.  It will feel horrible.
4. Recall rather than read.
5. Words are important.

Firstly, do you really, really, understand what you are trying to revise?  How can you tell?  Most of us tend to overestimate how much we understand a subject.  A good check of understanding is if you can explain to someone else.  A parent who is willing to be taught about the conditional tense in French is a wonderful thing!  Another method, if you do not have access to a kind sounding-board is to check if you are able to summarise the concepts or content of the topic/subject - maybe using mind-mapping.

Spaced-practice is when, rather than spending three hours on one day preparing a topic, you break it up into shorter periods of time over a number of days.  Each day, attempt to recall what you prepared the previous day and add more to it by referring to your notes, books and online resources.

Undivided focus is not an easy state for most people in the modern world.  How many tabs do you have open - on your devise or in your mind?  Proper focus involves minimising the number of distractions:  put. the. mobile. away!  If you use a device in your exam preparation, ensure you have closed all irrelevant apps and tabs.  No email notifications.  No social media.  If you cannot trust yourself not to be tempted, go back to using pen and paper and sit in a room with no devices.  The only helpful distractions might be a pet who enjoys listening to you explaining physics and a glass of water.

When you’re trying to memorise, do you simply read the information repeatedly and hope that it gets absorbed?  The human brain does not like this method.  Spending time with your eyes closed recalling what you’ve just read or learnt is a far more efficient way of learning.  Read a paragraph and then spend just as long, if not longer, attempting to understand and recall it in your mind.  Picture the page, remember the key words.

This brings us nicely to the final point:  words matter.  Having the right vocabulary to express the concepts and content of a topic makes life so much easier.  A subject specialist, such as a teacher, should be able to provide a list of key terms and vocabulary with ease.  Having access to a list and ensuring that you understand all of the terms will be an essential preparation activity.  If there are terms you don’t know, these are red flags - did you miss part of the syllabus when you were unwell or at a piano lesson?  Pursue understanding these words as if your grade depends on them - it might well do.

What I haven’t mentioned in this article are the basic, obvious things you can do to help learning:

  • eat
  • sleep
  • drink water
  • take breaks
  • ask questions - most teachers are sooooo happy when a student actually asks for clarification or for help - I know that I am.