Exams / Revision

Essential Study Skills – Reviewed

[The people at Sage have sent me a copy of the latest edition of “Essential Study Skills: The Complete Guide to Success at University” by Tom Burns and Sandra Sinfield. This is my personal review of the book.]

Sometimes you need a place to start in order to start organising your thoughts. Sometimes you need a place that’ll give you some thoughts to start off with. “Essential Study Skills” attempts to do that.

The authors are keen to make their book as easy to digest as possible. The first chapter guides you through the layout of the book and how to use it effectively.

With more than 450 pages, Essential Study Skills —which they call ESS3 for short— is not designed as a fast read to be digested in one go. Rather, the book covers many aspects of your learning and also advises on various other aspects of uni life that you’re likely to encounter.

Each chapter starts with aims and learning outcomes, then ends with review points. Within each chapter are many additional tips to help you on your way. Even at a glance, you can see this is a feature-packed book.

ESS3 is written with a focus on students who are the first in their family to go to university, so it doesn’t assume you have any prior knowledge or guidance. And there is still plenty to chew on, no matter how many generations of your family have attended uni.

With so much information at your fingertips, you may even feel overwhelmed. Must you *really* know all this in order to study effectively? Well, no. The point of the book is to help you ease into your work and pick up important tips and techniques as you go along. It’s the type of book you would be glad to have around throughout your degree, not the day before your essay is due in.

There are times when the advice goes so far that I can’t see many students following the whole way. For instance, the chapter on working in groups has so much detail on making the team work that it ends with a group building exercise to bring everyone closer. There’s nothing wrong with the idea, but it’s an idea of how the authors clearly did not want to leave any stone unturned. If this is going to benefit one group of students, then the authors have succeeded. This type of overkill is great, unless you’re overwhelmed by so much detail, as I mentioned earlier.

But I urge that you take a deep breath and let the book work over time, as it’s designed. Here are two reasons:

  1. We are all different – One person’s potion is another person’s poison. The book gives you various alternatives and lets you explore what works best for you. ESS3 isn’t a ‘this is how to…’ book, it’s a ‘this is how you…’ book.
  2. You will find things you wouldn’t have expected – As I looked through the book, I found a list of 10 sites for creating outlines. There were sites I hadn’t heard of. Sites that I was glad to discover, such as Quicklyst.

And going back to the first point, you’re bound to find at least one outlining tool from the list of ten that works for you. That’s the beauty of having alternatives to try. If the first doesn’t suit, you’ve got nine more to try!

You will probably find yourself devouring some sections of Essential Study Skills, while merely glancing through others. You may or may not return to those chapters later. I would have spent little time on the chapter about making notes, while you may think that the most useful chapter in the book.

The book covers more than the “Essential Study Skills” that the title suggests. The book’s subtitle is “The Complete Guide to Success at University”. That’s why you’re treated to information about being a fresher, using university services, dealing with emotions, and working on your Personal Development Planning (PDP).

The final chapter on what to do once you’ve finished university is strangely brief. The authors are aware of this and explain that many of the necessary skills required to be a successful graduate are similar to those skills required to be a successful student. Precisely what the whole book is about!

While this is true enough, any student about to graduate should look for more information elsewhere for a fuller picture. In particular, only one paragraph discusses the possibility of postgraduate study and the main advice is to prepare like you would for “an especially tricky assignment”.

However, if you have bought this book in your first year (or even before you start), it will easily take you through several years of study. The brevity of the final chapter is not exactly a major issue. Think of it more as a surprise when you’re used to chapter after chapter of detailed advice on mastering your academic technique.

Essential Study Skills is a great book to keep close to you while you develop during your degree. You’re not expected to be perfect after years of practice, let alone after a single term in your fresher year. This book helps you to understand that, yet at the same time helps you strive to bring out your best at all times.

The book is available now in paperback (RRP £14.99) and hardback (RRP £56.00) editions.

Right Revision & Perfect Preparation: 23 Pre-Exam Tips

Exams have never been that high on my list of things I love to do. But I know they need to happen from time to time.

A while back, I chose to do what I could to enjoy the exam experience as much as possible. Rather than panic, I figured, why not make the best of a bad thing? After all, the better the results, the happier the outcome.

photo by starlights_
photo by starlights_

You can do plenty to ease the way and make sure you don’t stress yourself out on the day:

  1. Get the boring admin out of the way as soon as you can – Work out the where, when, what, requirements, and so on. Don’t leave it to chance and don’t leave it for the last minute. You don’t want to stress yourself out five minutes before the exam’s meant to start because you don’t know where you’re meant to be.
  2. Get your gear in place the day before (or even sooner) – Organise your equipment, papers, reading, ID, etc. Again, you’ll hate last minute scrambles for stuff you can’t find.
  3. Remember spare pens/pencils – You don’t need an insane number of spares, but take more than your single ‘lucky’ pen. It won’t be that lucky if it runs out…
  4. Make your write right – In other words, choose good pens. In ‘The Smarter Student‘, I found a great tip that I’d never really considered before:
    “Might you be wasting time by trying to write too neatly or using a type of pen that slows you down? Ballpoint and liquid gel pens are probably the fastest.”
    They are right. Some pens are easier to use than others. Use one that flows smoothly and works well for you.
  5. Revise with good time – Pulling an all-nighter is bad enough for essay writing. Don’t do the same thing when it comes to exams!
  6. Get your technique sorted – Read more from me on effective technique on passing exams before, during and after the event.
  7. Speak the positive speak and give yourself personal lifts – Life is too short. Take a positive approach to your revision. Don’t beat yourself up as you go along. If you put yourself down, you’re not going in with an attitude to understand. Always remember, you’re not stupid… You’re learning!
  8. Have variation as you revise – Don’t rely on any single revision method. Read notes, attempt practice questions, use different locations to learn different concepts, and so on. Find what works for you. What works in one instance will be different in another. Don’t stop exploring.
  9. Sleep, eat, relax, enjoy yourself…LIVE YOUR LIFE! – It’s easy to forget to do the simple, everyday things while you’re in revision mode. This is a mistake. Do what you usually do otherwise you’ll be less motivated to revise.
  10. Don’t talk with others just before exams – Hanging around with a bunch of nervous people isn’t helpful. Neither is speaking to students who are pretending they haven’t done any revision and are going to wing the exam. It’s all nonsense. You’re taking that exam for YOU. Not anybody else. Just you. Ignore the voices around you. They will only serve to put you off the task at hand.
  11. Find out what’s going to be covered in an exam – You don’t need to learn everything verbatim. Higher education is an opportunity to explore in ways that should interest you. Use this to your benefit. You won’t be told the questions in advance, but you will be given pointers toward the type of content.
    Also, past exam papers are bound to be available unless you’re on a brand new course. These past papers are a great resource.
  12. Explain concepts to yourself until you understand them – As you revise, outline what you’re learning as if you’re explaining things to a young child or someone with no knowledge of the topic whatsoever.
    I suggest you check out Scott Young’s video on learning faster with the Feynman Technique.
  13. Use the library – It’s not just for essays. There’s plenty you can read up on while you revise. If one book doesn’t speak to you, find other books to explain the same concepts for you.
  14. Use the Internet – If the texts are confusing, don’t forget to search for simple explanations and Wikipedia articles. Better still, search other places such as YouTube for video tutorials and fun explanations.
  15. Create links between concepts and ideas – The bigger picture is just as important as the finer detail. Treat concepts as a map or a jigsaw puzzle and have all the pieces lock together so you have a visual representation in your mind that can move from one place to another. That way, you’ll be able to fit everything in context, rather than just another thing to remember.
  16. Use mnemonics to remember stuff you have to memoriseMnemonics provide a quick and easy way to pick up on hard to remember detail.
  17. Work alone – Interruptions are a time sink, they take your mind off your revision, and they stop you from doing exactly what you want.
  18. Work with others – Working alone is fine, but the occasional get together helps when you want to bat ideas back and forth. What you’re stuck with, a classmate may have a massive understanding of, which you can make use of. When the classmate is stuck on something you understand, you can help them too, and solidify your own knowledge as you’re going.
  19. Practice questions in your own time – Get a good idea of how best to answer questions by ignoring time constraints. Just get confident in the first instance.
  20. Practice questions to a time limit – Once you’re confident, then time yourself. Are you answering too quickly, or have you only finished half the answer when the time runs out?
  21. Read through the questions and instructions before you start answering anything – Your exam preparation continues even as you turn the paper over. Don’t get carried away when the clock starts ticking. You’ve waited this long. A few extra minutes of preparation is factored in, so stay calm and focus on understanding the questions.
  22. Breathe – Who’d think it’s easy to forget steady breathing, eh? It’s a whole lot easier to forget about your breathing when you’re under exam pressure. It only takes a couple of moments to focus on your breathing again, so it’s time well spent. Close your eyes and focus on taking a deep breath of air through your nose so it fills your lungs. Hold it for a moment and let the air go through your nose or mouth, whatever feels most relaxing for you.
    Do this a couple of times. If you’re still feeling the stress, try this quick fix from ‘Coping with Stress at University‘:
    “Place your elbows on your desk and put your face into your hands, cupping the palms over the eyes so the face is gently supported. Relax your shoulders and let go of any tension that you may be holding in your body. Even ten seconds like this is likely to make a difference.”
  23. Read. The. Questions. – Remember point 21 above? Seriously, this is important. I can’t emphasise this enough. Make sure you understand what’s required of you.
photo by fanz
photo by fanz

Are you asking enough questions?

Last week, I talked about understanding questions as a whole and then breaking them down into parts. Both stages are in order for you to get as much meaning from a question as possible.

Questions are important. You need to understand questions, answer questions, and ask questions.

photo by e-magic
photo by e-magic

Assignments go beyond asking how much information you can remember on a topic. Assignment questions also require you to:

  • create an argument;
  • weigh up different views;
  • provide examples and workings, as opposed to regurgitations;
  • demonstrate understanding of the topics under discussion.

It’s easy to get stuck on key topic words that you have a lot of knowledge on. But dig deeper and you’ll notice more to the question. The closer you come to answering the question clearly, deeply, and effectively, the more likely your grade (and enjoyment!) will benefit.

Look for:

  • What’s being asked of you – Does the question ask you to discuss, compare, analyse, argue, evaluate…? The question is probably worded so that you should talk about what you know, but relate to why that’s the case and explain how it could be different or why people have different theories on the matter.
  • Specific focus points – Some questions can be vague, but many ask you to concentrate on a particular feature to base your answer on. You may also notice the question is guiding you to frame your answer in a certain context, such as a single culture, time period, object, opinion, text, and so on.
  • Leading words and phrases – For example, you may be asked to analyse the benefits of something. This is not an invitation to lavish praise upon the subject. To analyse the benefits means to weigh up, to argue whether they really are benefits, and to discuss alternatives. You aren’t being asked a trick question, but you do need to show awareness that there is more than one side to any story. You are welcome to have an opinion on the matter, so long as you explain why you have reached that conclusion and show why you don’t share the same enthusiasm for the alternatives. You’re not stating right/wrong, yes/no, good/bad answers. Instead, you’re reaching a conclusion after exploring the topic.

You also need to ask a lot of questions. Unanswered questions, questions that arise from your study, and questioning assumptions.

Even after you’ve written up a good draft of an essay and you’re happy with it, read through the draft again. Ask yourself — and try to answer — these 15 questions throughout your draft:

  1. How did I come to say that?
  2. Have I backed this up?
  3. Can I say this any clearer?
  4. Does this point follow on?
  5. Should I give more detail here?
  6. Does this assume something I haven’t mentioned?
  7. Does this need referencing?
  8. Will a relevant quotation and/or summary help before I move on?
  9. Is this relevant to the question/title?
  10. Could my main point be made more prominently?
  11. Am I making sense here?
  12. Am I being critical or opinionated?
  13. Does this require an example or demonstration?
  14. Has there been a more recent development?
  15. Is something missing?

These questions are simple enough to make you think, and challenging enough to make you respond. If you’re not asking these questions about your writing, answer this question: Why not?

Always check what you’re being asked to do

I learned an important lesson at school that stayed with me throughout my time at university.

My Home Economics teacher announced to class that, as a change of plan, everyone would be completing a short test during the lesson. We had planned on doing some baking that day, so the alternative was a rough deal. I could make a mean flapjack…

“Don’t worry,” said the teacher. “Maybe we’ll still make stuff after the test. There should be time…”

When the paper was handed out, the teacher said we could start and she told us to read through all the questions first so we understood what we were being asked to do. Naturally, we were more concerned with finishing the test as quickly as possible. So when the time started, we raced off.

photo by Cathdew
photo by Cathdew

The test didn’t seem too hard. Slightly bizarre, but not difficult:

  1. Read through this test.
  2. Write today’s date at the top of the page.
  3. Write your name in any corner of the page.
  4. What is 100 minus 99?
  5. Touch your nose for 5 seconds.
  6. Get out of your chair, jump up twice, and sit down again.
  7. Draw a circle in the middle of the page.
  8. Wave your arms in the air.

And the list went on like this over a couple of pages. The tasks got increasingly lengthy and ridiculous. And before long, the entire class was all over the place and laughing at each other.

But some people grew suspicious and confused. Instead of carrying on, more and more of us started to read through the test. The final task said, “To complete this test, you only need to complete the first task. Everything else is irrelevant. Thanks for reading through the test first.”

The teacher wasn’t trying to make fun of the class. She said that it may have been a laugh, but there was a serious point: It pays to check what you are being asked to do. If you don’t truly know what’s being asked, how can you be sure you’re on the right track?

From that point, I understood the importance of treating essay and exam questions as seriously as the answers. Your assignments aren’t likely to have tricks like the one I’ve described, but it shows how easily you can end up answering the wrong question and lose big marks as a result.

So what do you do?

  • Don’t rush in – Always allow a few moments to take in and read through questions and requirements.
  • Don’t look for key words in isolation – You’re unlikely to be asked to write everything you know about a particular word or subject, so take the question as a whole before you do anything else.
  • Now break the question down into pieces – When you understand the full question (and only once you do), dissect it for clues and pointers. Have you been given a specific target to frame your answer? Does the question ask you to discuss, evaluate, compare, examine, demonstrate…?
  • Look for vague comments and anything that’s open to question – Practically nothing can be boiled down to a right or wrong answer. If you can spot a flaw or anything that’s open to interpretation, it may hold the key to how you should answer. Academic writing usually involves explanations and conclusions, but it also involves asking many more questions in return.
  • If in doubt, ask your tutor – This may not be possible in exam conditions, but for other coursework and class assignments, it’s better to ask for clarification before you rush ahead.

I don’t think I ever thanked my Home Economics teacher for giving us that test. It may not have improved my flapjack recipe, but it was still a great recipe for success…