Exam Bootcamp

Flickr [marco verch]
Flickr [marco verch] CC BY
The prospect of sitting exams is stressful.  Students worry about remembering what they need to use to be able to respond to a question in an exam.  What they need is Exam Bootcamp.

Preparing for the revision season finds me sifting through a pile of sticky notes from a previous workshop.  It is a collection of pleas for help.  The student who fears trying to remember enough detail from ‘30ish papers for required readings on varying topics’.  The challenge of trying to compose ‘an intelligent argument which covers all necessary points within the time’.  As I reread each message the time limit comes up again and again.   You can only feel for the student who says ‘it takes time to come up with the right words’.  Then there’s the student who notes ‘the pressure of knowing that you only get one go’.

Those of us offering study advice know that students don’t always prepare for their exams in the most effective ways.  Exam Bootcamp on the Learn VLE is a set of resources available 24/7 to help students become better prepared. You can find it on Learn via the Self-Enrol tab.  Moreover as we’ve added a Creative Commons license, you can download our e-handouts and host them in your own Learn courses or distribute them; they’re free to a good online home.

You’ll find planners, ways to take-stock and advice on prioritising in our Get Set section on preparing.  We encourage students to break up revision and spread it out over the time available, interleaving topics and revisiting them.  As you might expect, there’s a section of Exam Bootcamp offering advice on timing and strategies for answering common types of papers.

Our main workout concentrates on revision.  A big chunk of the content in Exam Bootcamp is about self-testing or knowing what you know.  The trouble is, students often reread material and downloaded lecture slides fairly passively and get fooled into thinking they know it.  Our materials encourage students to incorporate retrieval practice and to create and use their notes more actively.  We also encourage students to ‘chunk’ revision, working against in the clock to simulate the exam pressure and to have breaks in between.

Why do we suggest what we do?  A few years ago a review by five psychologists in Scientific American Mind told us in a few pages which study strategies ‘accelerate learning’ and which are ‘just a waste of time’ under the banner heading ‘What works, what doesn’t’ (Dunlosky J. , Rawson, Marsh, & Willingham, 2013).  The authors looked at more than 700 journal articles on ten commonly used study techniques.  The eye-catching article is based on a rather fuller academic paper in Psychological Science in the Public Interest of 50 plus pages of detailed consideration by the same authors (Dunlosky J. , Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013).  Dunlosky et al.’s findings about the strategies that accelerate learning identified two techniques as gold star winners in the ‘What Works’ article.  First, we’re told, self-testing improves both learning and retention; and secondly, distributive practice, or spreading study over time, allows you to quickly relearn what you’ve forgotten and retain more (Dunlosky J. , Rawson, Marsh, & Willingham, 2013).

The body of literature has grown since then.  We’ve sought to shift students away from things that do not work and which many students do, such as passive underlining and highlighting, simply rereading notes and last-minute cramming.  Not many students realise that compared to reading, making mistakes, or ‘errorful generation’ in the jargon, followed by ‘corrective feedback’ enhances retention (Yang, Potts, & Shanks, 2017).  Exam Bootcamp is about helping students use these effective methods to achieve their best results.

Works Cited

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). What works, what doesn’t. Scientific American Mind, 24(September/October). doi:doi:10.1038/scientificamericanmind0913-46

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Directions form cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

Yang, C., Potts, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2017, July). Metacognitive Unawareness of the Errorful Generation Benefit and Its Effects on Self-Regulated Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(7), 1073-1092. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000363

Kay Williams

Dr Kay Williams is a Study development advisor at the Institute for Academic Development.

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