Exam focused learning

Exam paper 1On the 20th and 22nd of October I will be delivering a one and a half hour webinar on exam focused learning.  So what this is and how it can help with passing exams is on my mind. It therefore seemed appropriate that this blog should be devoted to explaining a little bit more about it. For those that did attend the presentation and may well be logging on after the event, welcome back, I hope you will find this a useful reminder that may prompt you to add your thoughts or ask some questions. You can do this by clicking on the leave a comment link at the bottom of this blog.

Exam focused learning is a way of studying that places a much greater emphases on looking at specific topics rather than the whole syllabus and using examination answers as a key way to both learn and focus attention. I should also say that this approach is best suited for what I would call more traditional exam formats rather than multi choice questions and case studies.

Imagine you are about to begin studying a new subject, one that you have little or no knowledge. Let’s also assume that you are studying from home. What do you look at first, maybe the text book, you turn to the contents page and look at the 22 chapters that you are required to read and understand. Perhaps you then get a blank pad of paper, a pen, a coffee and begin by reading chapter one. You probably make notes as you go through so that you have something to re-read and revise from later. You go through the entire book making notes in this way and so in theory at least have begun to learn the subject.

The problem with this approach is that it takes a lot of time and although you feel that you are covering everything, you of course aren’t. You will almost certainly have to miss some things out or move more quickly through certain areas just to keep up with your timetable.  The other problem with this “Traditional approach” is that you will spend so much time learning you will have little time left for practicing exam questions.

Exam focused learning does not start with the text book; it starts with your objective. Let’s assume that this is to pass the exam, not learn the subject.  If you wish to pass, on the day of the exam you will have to answer the questions set by your examiner. Now imagine if you knew what these exam questions would be. If you did would you stand a better chance of passing, yes or no. I think yes. The only problem is that you don’t have the actual exam questions……but you do or can obtain lots of past exam questions, questions that have been set by your examiner before.

So here is the first important point, better to learn the answers to these than to learn pages of content from a text book that may or may not be relevant. Now of course this will not work in the complete absence of some understanding of the subject which will have to come from a tutor, lecturer or text book. But the clarity of direction that a question gives, the specific way it shows what you are meant to learn and the context in which something needs to be understood is invaluable.

The next problem, there are just too many past questions.  We really need to have fewer questions to study, at least to start with. By analysing past questions you should be able to identify which topics have consistently come up in the past, these we must learn. Then we look at topics that are likely to come up in this exam. We should be able to spot these in our analysis as being important topics that have not been examined for some time.  These should be learned. And finally we look at those topics that might come up, these are nice to learn.

And here is the second important point, on the face of it this sounds like question spotting but really it’s about focus it simply gives you a point from which to start.  By all means learn everything, but if you can’t or don’t have time, better to have studied and practiced questions on the most important areas and the ones most likely to be examined.

If you change your way of studying to this exam focused approach you will enter the exam room knowing what the three or four most important topics within your subject are. More importantly you will have practiced answering past exam questions on these areas and so will be very well prepared for what might come up. You should also have practiced some questions on the next three/four most likely topics for this exam. Now compare that with the student who has gone through the text book making notes but who due to time pressure had little or no time to practice past questions. Who do you think stands a better chance of passing……?

Exam focused learning….Done

Ps – next year my book currently entitled “The E (Exam) word” should be published. In it I explain in far more detail exactly how to follow the exam focused approach, what to do in the exam, how to cope with exam stress and  how to improve your chances of passing by using effective memory techniques.

Watch this space for more details 

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