Closing the gap – learning from answers

Close-the-Gap

The single most important piece of advice for anyone sitting an exam is to practice questions, and where possible, past exam questions. It has been a consistent message for over 20 years, and although we have evidence to show its effectiveness it also has a common-sense logic. Would you for example go on a driving test having only read about driving in a book but never practiced in a car beforehand?

Although the process of practising questions provides insight not just about the exam but also how well you perform under timed conditions, there is another important and valuable lesson. What does comparing your answer to the model answer tell you about how well you understand the subject and what you need to do to get it right next time, effectively to close the gap?

Closing the gap
Checking if your answer is right or wrong is important for obvious reasons but there is a rich seam of learning to be found by looking at the detail in the answer and comparing it with yours. For numerical questions consider reworking the calculations, noting each iteration to help gain a better understanding of the answer. Although this will help should a similar question be asked again, that’s not the main objective. Focusing on one subject, one topic and a specific question helps direct your efforts to a problem that needs to be solved, and the brain loves to solve problems. It also adds context and purpose to what you have been learning.

Written answers are far more difficult to review as there is often a degree of interpretation. However, when you find a statement or section of narrative that is different to yours or perhaps didn’t appear in your answer, ask, why didn’t I put that? Was it that you knew what to say but didn’t think it relevant, was your answer similar but not as clearly expressed, has it exposed your level of knowledge or lack of it? It’s this process of reflection together with the guidance as to what you need to do to “close the gap” that makes doing it so worthwhile.

Different types of exam
There are different types of exam so in order to offer more specific advice, let’s look at two extremes.

Objective tests – these types of questions are the easiest to review because they are relatively short, but even if you passed don’t be satisfied, look at the questions you failed and learn from the answers. You may of course find your knowledge lacking, but going back to the textbook with a specific problem in mind is a very efficient way to learn. Also remember to add some comments to your notes as to what you have now learned, this will help you avoid making the same mistake again. And if you didn’t pass you obviously have even more work to do.

Case Study – looking at past questions for case studies is a very different learning experience. If the case study requires you to demonstrate application of knowledge, which is a common objective, reviewing the answer can provide excellent guidance as to how this can be done. Application is something many students find difficult, largely because their head is full of rules and not how those rules could be used in the context of a real-world problem.

In addition, you will get a feel for the required standard and how the right headings, phrases and structure can help give order to the random thoughts that will come to mind when in the exam. Equally don’t be afraid to effectively steal some of the set phrases or tricks of good writing, for example notice when making a series of points, firstly, secondly, thirdly can help the answer feel structured and yet not repetitive.

Reviewing past exam questions is learning from someone who has got the answer right, which sounds terribly logical when you think of it like that.

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The tip of the iceberg – exam tipping is becoming obsolete

tip1

Assessment is changing, there was a time when all examinations were sat in a room, the answers would be hand written on a piece of paper and a retired English teacher would stand at the front reading out instructions as to what you could and couldn’t do in the next three hours.

Not any more…….you request a date that is convenient, turn up at the exam center, no longer is this a sports hall, it might be a driving school test center or the college you studied at. Then you log onto the PC and answer questions on the computer screen in front of you. The results may be immediate; it depends on if it is “human marked” or computer marked.

But in some ways these changes are only the tip of the iceberg!

What no past exam papers.

As examinations move into the digital world we are seeing other changes as well. There is a move towards objective testing, scaled scoring and examining bodies no longer providing past exam papers, what did you say, no past exam papers……!

This is partly down to the nature of the test i.e. you can’t provide an exact replica of a past exam question if it is an objective test. Remember objective test questions are randomly selected from a pool, and are different for each student. But there is also a shift towards some examining bodies only providing an example of the type of questions that could be set rather that a continuous flow of, the last exam papers.

If the test changes – how you study (and teach) has to change

Now for someone who has advocated that students analyse past exam questions in order to identify key areas so as to better direct their studies, this is a bit of a blow. It has also been the method I have used in the past to focus my own delivery in class and on line. Of course using past exam questions has always been much more than just spotting key areas, it is about focus, providing a place to start, showing content in the right context, helping with writing style etc.

There will still be past questions, sample questions will be provided. What we don’t know is how representative they will be of the examination. Or will it be as we have seen in the past with pilot and specimen papers, they change over time, drifting away from the original in terms of style and emphasis. Although I can see the logic in examining bodies not releasing papers, I hope they will continue to keep the sample papers fresh, in keeping with current thinking about the subject and how it will be examined.

What to do?

Students and tutors still need focus, there has to be emphases on key areas in order to chunk the content so that it can be more easily learned, it’s just that we won’t be able to use past questions or at least as much as we have in the past. That emphasis will now have to come from articles written by the examiners, examiner reports and syllabus weightings. If faced with a new subject where there is only one sample paper, it will be necessary to read the guidance from the body closely, noting reference to “this being a key part of the subject” or “one the examiner thought was answered badly in the past.” These together with the syllabus weightings and specific learning outcomes will have to be your guide. It is of course possible that the subject has not changed much from before and so some of the older past question can be used. As far as questions style is concerned then that will have to come from the questions and answers that are published, it may not be ideal but it’s the best we can do.

The overall impact of these changes is that students will have to know more, something that is hard to argue with. Students and tutors alike will have to devote far more time to the subject, which is fine if students have the time and can afford the extra costs involved in longer periods of study.

But it’s not all bad news, new technologies can help students make the most of dead time, studying on the train using their mobile phone for example. Also knowledge is more freely available than ever before as many top institutions provide a huge amount of free easy to access content online.

One final thought, examinations may change and they may not be fair but on the whole they are equal, everyone as before is in the same boat, and someone will always pass, wont they!

The future – Sitting the exam at home?

On line exams

An online student, all be it a mature one shows his ID to the online assessor

And maybe even the exam room will become obsolete. Proctur U is a US based company that also has a presence in the UK offering online invigilation. Watch this video to see how it works and judge for yourself

 

 

For example – how to get higher marks in written questions

MORE-EXAMPLES

It’s great to be knowledgeable, but to pass an exam knowing the answer is often not enough. Questions set by examiners seek to do far more than identify people who “know stuff,” they want the student to prove understanding and that they can use the knowledge, not simply reproduce it.

The knowing doing gap

There is sometimes a disconnect between what you know and what you can explain. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know what I want to say but can’t find the words” or “what more can I say, I feel like I am just repeating the same point”. This may be the result of a lack of understanding and simply requires more study (see Eureka I understand understanding) or it might be that you just need a better way to think about what you’re trying to do.

Analyse, Explain – clarify – Example e.g.e.g.e.g.

Imagine you’re faced with a question, it asks that you, provide a possible  explanation as to why we have seen a fall in stock market prices in recent weeks and what impact this might have on  economic growth in the UK . Often the first problem is knowing where to start, below are a few ideas that might help.

You will need a few headings to help give structure, these can often be found in the question, here for example we could use, Why stock markets might fall and Impact on the UK. Then under each heading think about analysing, explaining, clarifying and giving examples. These are not headings; they are to help expand on what you have been asked to do and give a perspective from which to think.

  1. First you analyse – If you analyse something you break it up into smaller parts so as to gain a better understanding. For example going back to the question, perhaps we should identify exactly by how much the stock market has fallen, over what period, what other events were happening at the same time, do we have any theories that could help or theoretical models we could apply etc. By examining what you have found, something new and obvious may become clear.
  1. Then you explain – an explanation is an attempt to make clear what you mean. One way of doing this is by making a series of statements. So for example, if you noticed that during the period in which we had the fall in the stock market, China’s economy also slowed and oil prices fell to unprecedented levels. This might lead you to make the statement – one of the reasons for the fall in stock market prices would appear to be the slowdown in the Chinese economy and the fall in demand for oil.

A subset of explanation is clarification. Definitions are a great way to clarify exactly what something means and in what context it is being used. Here for example we might want to include a definition of economic growth.

  1. And finally the example itself, possibly one of the very best ways of explaining and a very powerful technique to demonstrate understanding.

Example “Metaphor’s forgotten sibling”. John Lyons

It may be a reference to a real world example. In the question we have to address the impact on the growth in the UK economy. If you gave an example of the last time oil prices were so low and what happened as a result you will not only be demonstrating breadth of knowledge but also moving the debate forward, suggesting perhaps that the same will happen again?

Real world examples demonstrate the complexity and unpredictability of real issues, and as such, can stimulate critical thinking.

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with their own prior knowledge and real-world experiences. Piaget et al

An example may also be a construct, something that you talk through to illustrate a point. For example, let us imagine the impact of falling oil prices on an engineering company in the West Midlands. A reduction in oil prices would result in lower transportation costs that could be passed onto customers in the form of lower prices, in turn this should increase demand.

“Examples are indispensable to the acquisition of knowledge and they appertain to the domain of intuition”. Kant

Although this blog has covered an approach to structuring written answers, it is the use of examples that for me is the most important. And if it was not obvious enough, look how many times I used examples to explain what I was trying to say …….

Stress or Pressure – Don’t let the bridge collapse

Releasing PressureI have long been interested in the way knowledge from one domain can help inform another and have had two very good examples of this recently, both leading in the same direction.

 

 

The first came from an engineering friend of mine who started a conversation about the meaning of stress and pressure in his world. He described stress and pressure as essentially the same except being applied in different forms. Pressure is applied on the external surface of a body, while stress is the internal resistive force per unit area of that body, which resists its elongation or compression.

Alternatively – Stress is generated within the material whereas pressure is the applied force.

The second example came from a stress management seminar* I recently attended, not so abstract you might say but it wasDont let the bridge collapse the analogy the presenter used that was interesting. He asked that we thought of a bridge, the cars going over the bridge created pressure on the bridge and as a result the bridge would experience stress.

No matter how strong the bridge, there was a point that if too many cars were on at any one time it would collapse.

How does this help?

Analogies can be very helpful where it’s difficult to conceptualise or understand complex ideas. For example the bridge will show signs of stress before it collapses. This is no different for people; signs of stress will be present well before the stress levels are high enough to cause problems e.g. short temper, lack of sleep, headaches etc.  Also if we carry on with the analogy, there are two ways in which you can make sure the bridge doesn’t collapse. One, don’t have so many cars on the bridge and two, support the bridge so that it can take more cars. This translates into reducing the number of external pressures you are under (less cars) and having coping strategies to help when you are under pressure (some support).

Pressures when studying

A lot of pressures when studying are time related, for example taking on too many subjects or having to study as well as holding down a responsible job.  But some pressure might be created by the way you feel about yourself, not being capable or clever enough. Also people often put themselves under pressure – interesting term “putting yourself under pressure” by having very high expectations or maybe those expectations are put upon them by others.

The simple answer – take some of the cars off the bridge, reduce the number of subjects your studying, lower your expectations etc. This is not to say that having high expectations is not good, but if it is affecting your performance in a negative way, then you have to do something. And I know it may not be easy to do this in all circumstances; do you step down from that responsible job, how practical is that?  Yet if you do nothing, the bridge will collapse and that has to be avoided at all costs.

The alternative to taking cars off the bridge is to add in extra support.

Strategies to cope

Lazarus and Folkman in 1984 suggested that stress is the result of an “imbalance between demands and resources” or results when “pressure exceeds one’s perceived ability to cope”. They came up with two types of coping responses.

Emotion-focused – These techniques work very well when the stress is or at least appears to be outside the individual’s control.

  • Keep yourself busy to take your mind off the issue – just keep working through the course
  • Let off steam to other students/partners, anyone who will listen in fact
  • Pray for guidance and strength – and why not
  • Ignore the problem in the hope it will go away – not always ideal but the problem may sort itself
  • Distract yourself – go for a run
  • Build yourself up to expect the worse – “I will probably fail anyway”

Problem-focused – These techniques aim to remove or reduce the cause of the stress.  These are similar to taking cars off the bridge.

  • Take control – being out of control is often the cause of much stress. Revaluate what the problem is, and ask is it worth it!
  • Information seeking, perhaps the most rational action. Find out what is causing the problem and look to solve it e.g. why do you have such high expectations, does it help?
  • Make a list, evaluate the pros and cons and put in order of importance.

Studying can be stressful and this can result in feeling under pressure but this is not altogether a bad thing stress and pressure are key motivational forces, so don’t think of stress as the enemy but watch out for any cracks that might appear in the bridge.

Watch this TED – Kelly McGonigal: How to make stress your friend.

Related posts – Exam stress – or is it your stress and Exam stress Mindfulness and the “7/11”

* The course was delivered by the stress management societyclick here for their website.

Turn off the mobile – multi tasking doesn’t work

Information every whereThe background to Dr Daniel J Levitin latest book, “Thinking Straight” is that the information age is drowning us with an unprecedented deluge of data and we need to develop strategies to cope. Information overload and distraction are two problems we face when it comes to learning. How easy do you find it to concentrate when studying? Do you sit in a quiet room with no distractions and focus your attention on one task or is your mobile phone, PC or tablet sat close at hand waiting to deliver the worlds information in a second.

In the past books were precious due to their scarcity and knowledge hard to acquire the result of people’s inability to read. Following the invention of the printing press in 1450 books became more readily available but even then the amount of information any one individual was exposed to was very small. In addition the pace of life was slower, expectations as to what could be achieved balanced against the practicalities of what was humanly possible.

information_overloadBut look at the situation today, we live in an information rich society, all of it accessible at the press of a button. The problem now is not availability of knowledge (western world centric I know) but curation, synthesis and prioritisation. Yet how well is our brain programmed to cope with this new world?

Good job we can multi task

Levitin argues that multi tasking is inefficient, it’s a myth. The idea that one solution to this deluge of data is to do several things at the same time is simply wrong.  When you are doing two things at once, reading a book whilst monitoring your Twitter feed or face book account for example you are not in fact doing two things at once, you’re switching between neurones very quickly and this is giving the illusion of multi tasking. The downside of this process is it drains energy, neurones need glucose and the constant switching depletes it, resulting in poor concentration and an inability to learn as effectively. Multi tasking

I have written before (Attention Breach of duty as a student) on the importance of focusing your attention on one thing at a time and Levitin is supporting doing just that. However he does add something that I think is of interest. When you flit between two competing information sources the brain will reward you with a shot of dopamine, the pleasure drug. The result being you will enjoy the experience. This was valuable for Stone Age man because discovering a new food source at the same time as avoiding being eaten was helpful but in a modern world it is just problematic.

Externalise the information – organise, reduce and prioritise

What Levitin suggests is that you need to externalise, get the information out. In simple terms write it down, making lists is an example of externalising. He also states that you should write rather than type as this requires deeper processing.

So if you want to follow a more brain friendly approach to learning you should:

  • Break information down (A common message) into chunks and write out the key points. This will help you focus and process the information at a deeper level.
  • Find a place that is free from distraction, turn off all mobile devises. This is probably the most important message; your brain does not deal well with doing two things at once.
  • Make a list of what you have to do. Interestingly this is where technology can help. Google calendar can set up simple reminders so that you don’t have to keep distracting yourself by thinking about something you need to do later.

And if you’re interested click this link to read – Why the modern world is bad for your brain.

Ps Beth this ones for you!

Big fish – little pond

Best be a Big fish in a Small pond

It’s taken me a little time to get round to reading the latest Malcolm Gladwell (MG) book, David and Goliath, underdogs, misfits and the art of battling giants. Although consisting of three separate sections they all examine the idea of what it means to have an advantage and how we account for the success of the underdog.

Of all the ideas MG lays before the reader, the one I felt was of most interest is something called the big fish little pond effect (BFLPE) and the theory of relative deprivation.

Relative deprivation theory (RDT)

Relative deprivation refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to others and realise they have less. e.g. I judge BMW ownermyself to be successful on the basis I have a brand new car that cost £15,000.  That is until my neighbour pulls on the drive with a brand new BMW costing £30,000, now how successful do I feel?

MG applies this theory to the world of academia. If you take Harvard’s Economics PhD programme and consider the number of times each PhD graduate was published in the last 6 years, Harvard’s top students will do this 4.31 times. Those that are about 5th or 6th in the class publish .71 times and those that are about average .07 times. If however you compare these results to a “mediocre” school, say the University of Toronto, where MG went,  the top students will publish 3.13 times, those that are 5th or 6th .29 times and those that are average .05 times. The point being that students who attend a much lesser university but where they are top of their group perform considerably better than the 5/6th best at Harvard. The question is why?

The smarter your peer group the dumber you feel…..

This is where RDT comes in, we tend to judge our ability by comparing with others, and if you are in a class with very smart people who always do better than you, your perception of your own ability will be effected. The second problem is that this self perception will have a significant impact on your behaviour and ultimately what you achieve, hence the results above. The implication, you will achieve more if you are in a class with others of equal or less ability than yourself.

Bottom line, your performance will improve if you are a big fish in a small pond. It’s even called, the big fish little pond effect (BFLPE)

But what to do?

Admittedly you can’t always pick and choose your peer group, but you can be aware that comparing yourself with the very best may be having a detrimental impact on your own performance, so stop doing it! Instead be inspired by the best but compare your performance with those that are the same as you. Better still compare your current performance with what YOU have achieved in the past and if you are doing better you must be improving…..

David-and-Goliath-Malcolm-Gladwell

 

Listen to MG talking about relative deprivation theory or if you prefer the Big Fish little pond theory….

 

Listen to MG being interviewed about the book

Twas the night before ………..the exam – but what to do?

keep-calm-and-study-all-night-5

Well not exactly all night

For students May and June are the main exam months. Studying and learning can be enjoyable…. honestly, but the fun has to come to an end and it does, with the exam. It cannot be avoided and so is best embraced, treat the exam as a game and you the player. What you need to do is give yourself the very best chance of winning.

Become a professional exam taker, someone who follows a process of preparation, very much like a top sportsperson. This means you personally need to be in the best physical and mental shape and have a series of exercises that will get you match fit.

Below is your training regime from the night before the exam – good luck

The night before

You should by now have:

  • Read through and reduce your class/tuition notes down to approximately 10 pages (20 max) of revision notes, see March Blog on how to prepare notes. You may have some professionally produced revision notes, but it is still best to make your own.
  • Practiced past questions on the key examinable areas both under exam and non exam conditions.
  • Started the process of memorising the revision notes.

Be realistic – The key to the night before the exam is to be realistic. You don’t have much time, so don’t think you can cover everything. Let’s assume you have 3/4 hours, 6.00pm – 10.00pm maybe.

Put to one side the large folder that contains all your notes taken throughout the term/year, and concentrate only on the 10-20 page revision notes.

Focus and memorise – In the 3/4 hours that you have you want to get an overview of the subject and focus on the areas that need memorising. These should be the key examinable areas and are most likely to be standard formats, definitions, lists, formulas s not given in the exam etc.  Memorising should include some rewriting of notes, but very little, talking out loud, drawing pictures, writing out mnemonics etc. See my blogs on memory, in particular: Thanks for the memories  and To pass an exam do and exam.

Admin – make sure you have set to one side everything you will need the next day. This includes your exam entry documents, calculator, gum, mints etc. You don’t want to be thinking of these in the morning. And of course make sure you know exactly what time you need to leave to get to the exam with about 1 hour to spare.

Physical and mental preparation – Drink lots of water, avoid tea, coffee etc as you will need to get a good night’s sleep. Exercise is an incredibly effective method of reducing tension and stress. So you may want to build into your 4 hours, 30 minutes for a run or brisk walk. This could be at the half way point of your evening, combining a well earned break with the exercise maximises your time.

Getting sleep is important, so avoid reading your notes and then going straight to sleep. Pack you notes away, put them ready for the morning, then physically go into another room if possible or even outside, watch TV for 10 minutes, something trivial or read a book. You need to break the state of mind from that of studying, relaxation leads to sleep not stress.

And finally keep a positive attitude, think about what you know and are good at and not what you don’t know and are bad at. Keep telling yourself that you have done everything possible, and if you follow these steps you will have. Thinking you know nothing and should have done more will not help at this stage, it’s a pointless thought strategy and not what the professional exam taker does.

The morning before

Set your alarm sufficiently early to give you at least another hour of revision. You don’t need to get out of bed, just continue memorising your notes. This is now about little and often, short 10 minute intervals. Don’t worry about falling to sleep in the exam; the adrenalin won’t let you.

1 hour before

What you do after arriving at the exam centre/School etc  is personal. Some will prefer to sit on their own going over the revision notes; don’t bother taking your folder of course notes. This is still very much about short term memory. Others will prefer to talk, chatting about nothing, just to stop them worrying. Both are fine.

After the examExam post it!

Afterwards is also a little personal, most will go home, but some will want to talk through what was in the exam, looking perhaps for some conformation they have not made a complete mess of it. Most importantly, if you have another exam, go home, put your old revision notes to one side, forget everything and start on your next subject.

The American basket ball player Art Williams had a good saying that I will leave you with. I’m not telling you it is going to be easy — I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it”

And although personally I found exams difficult I have never regretted the hard work, it was for me worth it.

And something to watch

How to: Cram the night before a test and PASS

Or you could try this

This blog is for Beth – good luck xx