Many students spend all their time leading up to exams creating beautiful sets of notes.
In their minds:
Beautiful notes = effective exam preparation
But is this the most effective approach to take?
In her book An Insider’s Guide to BA [Bachelor of Arts] Rebecca Jury states:
“Would you sit your practical driver’s test without ever having practised driving a car? Preparing for an exam by only taking notes is like preparing for your restricted driver’s licence by only reading the Road Code. Bad idea.
You need to learn the theory and then practise in the medium in which you are going to be assessed.”
In short, if you want to do well in your exams then you’ll need to do practice exams.
The benefits of practice exams
Practice exams …
• help you see how well you understand the subject
• help pinpoint gaps in your knowledge (which is 80% of the battle when it comes to learning)
• give you good time keeping practise
• give you a sense of the format and types of questions you’ll be asked
• help build your confidence for the actual exam
But I get the idea of gathering a pile of exam papers and then sitting down to do them can be completely overwhelming.
So we’re going to break this process down, step-by-step, so it’s not so scary for your brain.
Here’s the approach I recommend you take:
Step 1. Be a hunter gatherer of past/sample exam papers
You can gather past/sample exam papers in the following ways:
• Talk to your teacher: This is probably the easiest way to access exam papers. Simply ask your teacher if they have any practice exams and other resources that they can share with you.
• Trade exam papers with other students: Reach out to someone you know at another school studying the same subject and do a friendly exchange of resources.
• Visit your State library: Most good libraries have past exam papers, good answers and study guides available for students. For instance, The State Library of Western Australia has an extensive selection of past exam papers and study guides (visit Group Study Area on the first floor from June until December).
• Government education websites: If you live in Australia, most state government departments that deal with curriculum provide past exam papers online that you can download:
Western Australian: School Curriculum and Standards Authority
Victoria: Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority
South Australia: South Australian Certificate of Education
Queensland: Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority
New South Wales: Education Standards Authority
Check in with your teacher to see what papers are most relevant. Don’t waste your precious life energy doing a past exam that is based on an outdated syllabus.
• Study guides: These resources are usually created by experienced teachers who are familiar with the curriculum. You’ll want to check a few details before borrowing/purchasing a study guide:
1. What year was study guide was published?
2. What’s the author’s background and level of experience?
3. Where are they based?
The author needs to be an experienced teacher who is familiar with your curriculum.
What if you can’t access any sample/past exam papers?
Make your own exam paper.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. All you need is a series of questions that will force you to bring the relevant information to mind.
Step 2. Tackle one exam paper in small chunks
Once you’ve gathered all your practice exam papers, do a lucky dip and pick one. Put the other exam papers in another room (you’ll deal with them later).
Then you need to commit to doing the practice exam you’ve just selected.
Here’s what you’ll need:
• A clear desk located in a place where you won’t get interrupted or distracted
• A timer
• Several good pens and anything else you’ll need to do the exam (e.g. calculator)
• A friend to share the pain with (optional)
You won’t need:
• Your books and notes
• Your phone
Here’s the thing …
Expect that you’ll feel a little uncomfortable doing the practice exam. Chances are you won’t be able to answer several (or a lot) of questions. You’ll probably feel a little stupid, too. That’s okay. Relax. This is a normal part of the process.
Don’t like the idea of sitting for a full 2-3 hours to do the exam?
Don’t use that as an excuse not to do anything. Try doing the following:
• Set a timer for 20 minutes and make a start on some questions.
• Then take a 10-minute break.
• Do another 20 minutes.
• Have another 10-minute break.
• Rinse and repeat.
Step 3. Finished the practice exam? Give your brain a 30-minute break
Your brain will feel a little fried at this point. Set a timer for 30 minutes and go do something fun and/or pleasurable. Make a smoothie. Go for a walk. Crank up some music. When the timer goes off, force yourself to move onto the next step.
Step 4. Get your red pen out
Now it’s time to see how you went. What do you know? What don’t you know so well?
As you go through your answers, grab a piece of paper and jot down any confusing topics. You want to focus your study on deeply understanding these areas because once you understand the content, it’s so much easier for you to remember and recall it.
Step 5. Cover all bases with your syllabus
Once you’ve done 2-3 practise exams for a subject (spaced out over several days), you’ll begin to see common themes/topics emerge. Now is a good time to take out your syllabus. Your syllabus outlines exactly what you need to know for the exam, so it’s really important you look at it.
Arm yourself with a highlighter and head straight to the unit content section. Strike the pen through the points you know.
If a concept is unfamiliar to you, take note. This is an area you’ll need to delve deeper into in a future study session.
Why bother doing this?
Because you’re checking that you’ve covered all your bases. You’re future proofing yourself so there are no nasty surprises in the final exam.
To sum up
You need to trust me when I say if you take this approach (i.e. doing practice exams) that you’ll do better than the student who spent all their time making beautiful sets of notes.
Yes, it can be a little painful. But it’s highly effective. And at the end of the day, you want to do what’s effective and delivers the best results.