Updated: Jun 25, 2020
Over the next five articles, we are going to be addressing what the majority of students get wrong when it comes to exam preparation, and what we as teachers can do to help correct them. Over the coming weeks we will look at a range of problems, including why the majority of students:
Have memory blanks in exams;
Don’t do enough practice exams;
Can’t give the examiner a direct, concise answer;
Can’t get motivated to simply sit down and do the work that is required.
And we will look at how you can solve each of these problems at your school.
We will start the first of these articles by looking at what we know is the fundamental exam mistake that students make. In many ways, this mistake is the root cause of the problems mentioned above.
That is: most students lack a recipe for exam preparation.
Ask a student what they think they need to do in order to be prepared for an exam and you generally get a vague response. For some, preparation means reading their notes or simply re-reading the textbook. For others, it means making notes or an exam summary. Generally though, the process is quite vague. It’s akin to approaching baking a chocolate cake by melting chocolate and then seeing what happens!
In contrast, for the top students, exam preparation involves a very specific, tried and tested recipe. Top students, consciously or unconsciously, approach exams like a master baker. They have a recipe that has discrete steps. Each discrete step is sequential and must be performed in the right order. Each step has a discrete outcome. And each step has an ideal amount of time dedicated towards it. Get any of these wrong, whether it’s timing, sequence, or action, and you botch the exam outcome - exactly as you would botch the cake.
As such, the first and most important step in helping students prepare for exams is helping them develop a more meaningful and powerful model for exam preparation. To switch analogies for a second, the example that we like to use is baseball. We all know that the goal in baseball is to score a home run. To do so, you need to round all 4 bases. Again, they all need to be rounded, and they need to be rounded in sequence. You can’t skip a base, and you can’t round them in an ad-hoc order, (although it would be highly amusing to see it attempted!).
Doing well in an exam is exactly the same. Our goal in exam preparation, or our home run if you like, is good marks. We get those good marks by rounding 4 bases. They are:
Base 1: Completing a full set of notes to revise from (that are 100% complete with zero gaps)
Base 2: Memorising the notes
Base 3: Doing as many practice exams as possible
Base 4: Sitting the exam
So, how do we get students adopting this model?
The answer is by using an exam planner, and the good news is that now is the perfect time to be introducing your students to exam planners and getting them familiar with their use, before - to borrow our baseball analogy - they get into the 9th inning.
Here’s how you can implement an exam planner with your students:
Step 1: Identify the content that will be examined
This sounds like a pretty straight-forward exercise, but its impact is significant. It addresses two of the biggest mistakes that students make in their exam preparation.
The first mistake is they leave their preparation too late. 19.9% of students recently surveyed stated that making notes is the primary or key activity they do before exams. Why? In the majority of cases, it is simply because they have left it too late, and therefore end up being run out before ever getting to second base.
The second mistake that students make is that their exam notes tend to be incomplete and full of content gaps. The average Year 12 student misses 12 days of school in their final year, not counting organised time out of the classroom for excursions, sporting carnivals and so on. Once these events are included, it increases to 3 to 4 weeks of missed class, which inevitably leads to a lot of gaps in students’ notes. By the end of Year 12, a student’s notes end up resembling Swiss cheese, with holes all over the place that translate into gaps in knowledge.
As such, the process begins with the act of determining which topics from the study design are going to be covered in an exam. We normally suggest that teachers spend some time in the lead up to exams helping students develop this plan. Teachers should help students identify the relevant topics for exams, and students can then transfer these topics from the study design into their exam planner. This process obviously becomes more lengthy as October approaches, and to save students mindlessly re-writing their study design, we have done the heavy lifting for them here. Feel free to download and circulate copies for your students or direct students to this page to get exam planners developed for 18 VCE subjects.
Step 2: Determine the content gaps
Once students have transferred over the study design topics, they now work out which topics they have in their notes, and which are missing. If students have a complete set of notes for the topic, they tick it off on their exam planner.
Again, at first glance this looks like a fairly innocuous step. But in reality, it has a massive impact, as this tick communicates to students that they will not need to spend any time making further notes on this topic. As can be seen in the graph at the top of the article, 10.3% of students spend the majority of their time before an exam re-writing their notes, under the mistaken belief that memorising the notes through repetition is the most productive thing they can be doing. Instead, we want to move students away from rote-learning and onto higher value tasks, and this serves as a clear reminder for students to keep moving towards second base and not to get stuck on first.
However, as students work through this comparison they will also find topics missing from their notes. As such, they put a cross in the column to remind them that this is the first activity they will need to complete.
Step 3: Put in the exam date, followed by deadlines working up the planner
Once students have put the study design topics into their planner and identified their content gaps, they jump to the bottom of the exam planner and enter the exam date. The reason we do this is because we want them to set their deadlines working backwards from the exam date, rather than working from top to bottom as most students would normally do. Although this is counter-intuitive, what this will do is allow us to develop a much more realistic understanding of how long it will actually take students to prepare for an exam. In contrast, the problem of setting deadlines from the top to bottom is that it generally leads students to underestimate the amount of time it will take to prepare. They artificially squeeze the work into a unrealistic amount of time, and as a consequence, end up running out of time to prepare.
As we can see in the example below, the student starts by entering their exam date of the 31st of August. They then work their way up, inserting deadlines as they go. When setting deadlines, we suggest that you encourage students to allow for:
Practice exams: Provide a day per practice exam. This means that the practice exam isn’t rushed, that students can take breaks across the day, and they also have time to dedicate towards preparation for other subjects.
Memorising notes: It takes most students about an hour to memorise 5 pages of notes, and the most amount of time that students want to spend memorising is 2 hours per day on any given subject. As such, allow 1 day for every 10 pages of notes that need to memorised.
Making notes: Allow a day for each topic that needs to be added to the notes.
When students work their way up from the exam date in this way, they reach two realisations: firstly, they need to get started much earlier than they would otherwise expect. Secondly, when they set deadlines like this their preparation is much more relaxed, and free of the last-minute panic that plagues most students.
Step 4: Start working through the plan
Finally, now the planner is complete, we have a structured way of thinking about exams that takes students through all the bases of preparation. If students can work through the tasks and stick by the deadlines they set, they will find themselves moving smoothly through all 3 bases and rounding home plate. As students tick off their tasks, they will have covered:
First base: completing notes. Their notes are complete with no gaps and finished with plenty of time for high value tasks.
Second base: memorising notes. Students ensure that they have plenty of time to memorise their notes, and get the confidence boost that comes from being a few days out from exams knowing that (a) they know everything that can be examined and (b) they have all that information locked in their memory.
Third base: practice exams. Most importantly, unlike the majority of students, these students now have plenty of time to do practice exams. As we will state and re-state in this series, the number one predictor of a student’s exam performance is the number of practice exams they do. Since students using this system have worked in a structured and systematic fashion through their preparation, they now have plenty of time to dedicate to practice exams, with the goal of getting as many done as possible.
That’s it for installment one! Hopefully, you now have a few ideas as to how you can help your students get on first base. In the next installment, we will look at how you can help your students move past making their notes, and get them onto memorising their notes, and more importantly, look at ways you can help students maximise their memory retention.
Now it’s time for our asks!
1. If you found this useful, please share it! We want to get these tips out to as many teachers as possible, so if you found it useful please tweet it, give it a Facebook like or forward it to a colleague. We appreciate your help in spreading the word.
2. If you use the exam planner or the copies that are found here, let us know how they go. Even better, we would love to capture your experience and share it in one of these articles.
3. If you want to look at ways you can improve your students’ exam preparation game, then don’t hesitate to contact us. With our subject-specific VCE preparation programs for 18 VCE subjects, we have a way to not only get your students ready for exams, but more importantly, get them hitting their exam home run! If you want to discuss these ideas, you can contact
Lina at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Connect Education Team
Connect Education is an Elevate Education brand.