Predictions for 2011 – but first 2010

Although the New Year has started without me I thought I might take the opportunity to look back at 2010 and make some predictions as to what might be happening in the world of education and learning in 2011.


First a retrospective

Degrees not free – 2010 will be remembered by most as the year in which a price tag was firmly hung around the neck of Higher Education in England, degrees were no longer free. True they weren’t free before but somehow £3,290 was acceptable or should I say accepted. With the government under pressure to reduce public expenditure and more and more people wanting to study full time, the costs could no longer be hidden and absorbed by all, they should be paid for by those who benefit most, the student.

Books published – On a personal level 2010 saw the publication of my two books. “The E word”, a book about how to pass exams and “A students guide to writing Business Report s” co-written with Zoe Robinson.  A giving birth experience for me I have to say….. 

The E word - published 2010


The E word – This book is a must read for anyone taking exams, especially financial exams. States the obvious but it’s the obvious that you haven’t thought of. Explains how we should revise and why we should revise in a certain way. Just reading this book puts you in the frame of mind to study and gives you a framework to start a study plan.

 The E word – This is an excellent book for anyone taking any exams, from school to university. This is written by a teacher and parent which is most definitely reflected within the book.

Trends and Predictions for 2011

It’s always dangerous making predictions about the future, particularly in print, but here goes.

Innovative ways to study for degrees – Following the rise in tuition fees I believe we will see an increase in universities and the private sector (e.g. Kaplan et al) offering far more intensive and imaginative ways in which you can study. Two year degrees will become more common and eventually the norm, if not in 2011, within the next five years. Equally expect more from employers who may intervene in the market to finance the education of potential employees.

The deal between KPMG and Durham University is a great example of this. Under the scheme KPMG will pay £20,000, all fees and accommodation to budding 18 year olds so that they can study full time.

Live On-line learning – Students will be demanding more flexible and convenient ways to study, and live on-line lectures delivered via the internet will increasingly be used to satisfy this demand. Live on-line (synchronous) training, which should not be confused with pre- recorded (asynchronous). Live on-line is where you log onto your computer and see, hear and interact with your tutor as if you were in the classroom. I believe more content will be delivered using this approach in 2011 than ever before.

Hand held devices – With the explosion of the new generation of mobile phones and slates like the ipad you are never far from a screen or the internet and so able to learn wherever you are. I believe there will be a growth in applications that will help make the most of travel time and offer up material in a way that is suited to the individual as learner.

More Open content – This is a term used to describe material that is freely available on the internet. It is already possible to study many subjects using “free material,” I believe this trend will continue. It will mean that traditional gate keepers of knowledge (Publishers) may have to think carefully as to their role in the next few years. Should they in fact give away their content free, and look for other ways of using their intellectual capital to generate income?

How long before an exam do you start revising – the answer 6 weeks or more

A quick note on the results from the poll I set last October. I asked how long before an exam do you start revising, and with the highest percentage of the vote the answer was 6 weeks or more.  Of course the question was a little unfair because it depends on so many things, how many subjects you are taking, the complexity of the exam, if you are a full time or part time student etc. But to some people starting 6 weeks before an exam may seem mad, but believe me it is not. If you are sitting more than three exams and working during the day just work out how little time you have to revise everything you have learned!

 The next poll is all about how you study when on the move

To pass an exam – do an exam

To ride a bike - Ride a bike

Although the debate around the value of examinations (testing) is set to continue, new research from Kent State University in the US suggests that examinations aid learning by making the brain develop more efficient ways of storing information. Dr. Katherine Rawson, associate professor in Kent State’s Department of Psychology, and former Kent State graduate student Mary Pyc published their research findings in the Oct. 15, 2010, issue of the journal Science. 

“Taking practice tests – particularly ones that involve attempting to recall something from memory – can drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to remember that information again later,” Rawson said. 

In the article titled “Why Testing Improves Memory: Mediator Effectiveness Hypothesis,” Rawson and Pyc reported an experiment indicating that at least one reason why testing is good for memory is that testing supports the use of more effective encoding strategies. In particular the brain comes up with mental keywords – called mediators – which trigger memories which they would not do when studying only.

 I have to say that this comes as no surprise to me nor would it to any student or anyone who has ever read a book on memory techniques.   It does however add some significant evidence to support the use of testing or mock examinations as a means of preparation for the real thing.

 To pass examinations you require much more than just memory techniques, and in many ways all this research* has done is show that you can recall certain words far more easily if you link them via another word, the mediator, and then test to find out if you can in fact remember them. But because you can’t pass an exam without remembering what you have learned it does mean that by spending a little more time in encoding the information and by testing yourself afterwards you must improve your chances of passing.

 To my mind the research still has some way to go in recognising the other benefits of doing practice exams or tests, and I should add looking at the answers. For example do they not give a very clear indication of the standard required, provide focus as to what is important and what is not, give a concise summary of key parts of the syllabus, show how the knowledge should be applied in the context of the question and improve your level of concentration knowing that you will be tested latter, I could go on.

 How does this help – some tips

 When trying to get something into your head, don’t just read it, although reading is a method of learning, it is not very effective when it comes to remembering. Reading is largely an auditory process; you say the words in your head. Ever heard the saying “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand”. At the same time as reading, underline the key words and make notes with those key words. The very process of extracting them from the text will help. Next you need to remember those key words, well why not link them with a story (A mediator) or with single words as illustrated in the study. There are several memory techniques that use the principle of association to link words, check out the “stack and link and number rhyme” systems. See video below for an example of how to use the number rhyme system.

 And then of course you need to test yourself and your ability to recall those key words afterwards.

 So be in confident and inspired that what you new has now been proven and that  tests are not just about finding out if you will pass or fail the exam, they are an integral and vital part of the learning process, and that’s a fact.

 *In the research they asked students to remember Swahili-English word pairs, such as ‘wingu – cloud and use a mediator (wingu’ sounds like ‘wing’ – the mediator, birds have wings and fly in the ‘clouds) to link the two.

For more thoughts on what this means – click 

Be proud of trying hard

There has been much in the media about schools and education recently and Michael Gove the Education secretary has been making the headlines with comments like “Rich thick kids do better than poor clever children when they arrive at school (and) the situation as they go through gets worse.”   

The Institute of Education tested children aged 22 months and again at the age of six years. It found that on average toddlers with low ability from the richest homes overtook high achieving children from the poorest backgrounds within a few years. The gap widens throughout school, research has found. By the age of 16, children eligible for free school meals are half as likely to get five decent GCSEs as pupils from wealthier backgrounds. 

For the government there are clearly problems here, if you wish to have a society that provides equality and opportunity for all regardless of your background then something is going wrong. However what struck me was the implication that after being tested at 22 months you should be successful at school, because at 22 months you had ability. How exactly do you measure ability at 22 months anyway? 

This is not a story about rich verses poor, and how the rich are using their sharp elbows to force their way to the top. This is a story about how anyone, almost regardless of ability can go onto achieve if they try, work hard, have the right environment, are motivated and inspired. The implication is that this message and these qualities are being provided by the parents of the “Thick rich kids” or they are paying for it outside of the traditional classroom. 

Trying hard

I sometimes think that trying hard or putting in a lot of work is thought of as not as impressive as being naturally talented. Yes it is great to see someone who has a natural talent, performing to the best of their ability, but show me a top sportsperson who, regardless of talent does not have to work hard and put in hours and hours of practice. If you pass an exam you should be proud of how much effort you put in and how hard you worked. The student who has more ability and fails but is happy, knowing they could have put in more work has much to learn.

So please celebrate hard work and be proud of what you have achieved knowing that you got their by working as hard as you could.

Tuition is dead, long live revision – Tip three

RIP TuitionFollowing on from tip two to practice past exam questions.

Tip three – remember, remember the 9th of November

Whether you remember the gun powder plot in 1605, “remember , remember the 5th of November” or the fall of the Berlin wall on the 9th of November from this rhyme, it still provides a simple example of how effective a memory technique can be. Tip three is what you should do now that you have a set of revision notes and have spent a considerable amount of time practicing past exam questions. It would of course be really great if when you went into the exam you could attempt every single question and be confident that you knew the answer. This may have been possible at some point in your exam career but is probably not so now. There will be topics that despite revising and practicing questions you still don’t understand and some that you will simply forget.

Less is still more

Mind MapYou need to take your revision notes and reduce them even more. Go through the notes again but this time only record what you can’t remember or don’t understand. The notes should also be written in a more short hand style, we only want key words not whole paragraphs. You might also wish to think about making notes in a mind map style rather than a linear one. These notes should be no more than 10 pages. They should be structured in the same way as your original revision notes wherever possible. These final set of notes can be prepared perhaps as late as 1 week before the exam. What you do next is memorise these notes, we are no longer looking for an understanding, but don’t be surprised if during this process something suddenly makes sense. There are lots of memory techniques you can use, ranging from the simple rhyme method above to acronyms, acrostics, peg methods and the famous roman room or loci method. The point is this, time for learning in the traditional way is over, you now need to commit as much to short term memory as possible. The night before and on the morning of the exam you just keep going over these 10 pages of notes. Use colours and images as much as possible and be creative, memory uses both left and right sides of the brain.

There are of course many more tips that will help with your revision but for me these are probably the most important. So to all those sitting exams, I wish you the very best of luck and to those that aren’t, if you are driving into work in the next few weeks, have a thought for the person in front, they might have a very important exam today!

Tuition is dead, long live revision – Tip two

RIP TuitionFollowing on from tip one, to produce a set of shorter and more exam focused revision notes.

Tip two – practice past exam questions

Having identified the key examinable topics and produced a set of notes that are based on them, the next step is to select one or two past questions from each area and practice them. In fact although I describe the process as, complete the notes first and then look at the questions, you may of course look to answer questions on each of the areas as you are preparing each section of the notes.

 If when you are trying to answer one of these questions you find you can’t, look at the answer, then attempt the question. If despite having the answer in front of you, you still can’t answer the question, then work through it until can. Amend your revision notes to include anything that you have learned that will be of use when you come to attempt a similar question. Carry this process on until you have covered all the must learn examinable areas. Then go through the same process with the should learn and the would be nice to learn.

In a perfect world you would study and make notes on every topic, in reality, you probably won’t, you will end up having to miss something out. If you follow the process described above, you will at the very least end up with a set of notes, all be them incomplete, on the most examinable topics. More importantly using the time that you have saved, you will have had the opportunity to practice answering past exam questions which will have taught you so much more than any notes can ever do.

If you find you lack a little self discipline and think that on your own you will not be able to do this, then once again a revision course may be worth considering. Having other people around who are in the same boat and share the “dislike” of the subject or of the “examiner” can for some reason make the whole process a little easier and slightly less stressful. You will also have to work at a pace that will increase the number of questions you get through in a day and so your chances of passing.

Tip three I will post on Sunday.

Tuition is dead, long live revision – Tip one

RIP TuitionFor some people reading this blog, the idea of sitting an exam in the run up to Christmas probably seems a little strange. Yet such is the variety and flexibility in examinations there is probably always someone sitting an exam. I can still remember whilst driving to one of my exams looking at other people and thinking, for you this is probably just an ordinary day, but for me it’s the accumulation of weeks and months of hard work that could all be wasted if I fail.

How I so wanted to be having an ordinary day….

So although examinations are never far from my mind, as some of my students  are preparing for exams this November and December I thought it might be a good idea to look at what you should do as the tuition period comes to an end and the revision period begins. Below are my top three exam  tips as to what you should do during revision.

Tip one – less is more

Let’s assume that you have a set of notes that have been taken during class or that you have made from a text book. In theory these notes contain everything you have learned and studied so far, in reality they are often not as comprehensive as you think and even though you have studied something it does not mean you have understood it. Chances are these notes are also a little on the thick side. Now depending on how you have studied (You might find it useful to read the blog on exam focussed learning ) it is more than likely that these notes will need to be refocused and cut down.

 If you have not already done so you need to identify the most examinable topics for the subject you are studying. This can done by looking at say the last 4 exam papers and identifying topics that  have been examined on several occasions. You then need to make these your focus of attention, each topic in your tuition notes needs to be ranked as must learn (most examinable topic) should learn (2nd most examinable topic) and nice to learn (3rd most examinable topic). Once you have done this you begin the process of going through your tuition notes using,  must learn, should learn, and nice to learn as your guide as to how much time you spend making new notes on each area. These shorter, more exam focused notes will become your revision notes.

 If you attend a revision course, these notes are often provided. In fact the reason revision courses are so popular and have higher than average pass rates is partly to do with these notes and the expert guidance you will get on the course itself.

If you are studying for your GCSE or A levels exams, in the blogroll is a link to a site that provides free revision notes. 

Tip two will be posted soon.

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 

How to be positive about exam failure

One of the problems with exams is that every now and again you fail one or maybe two. So what to do?

Well you could tell yourself that the exam was completely unfair, “He/she/the examiner examined something that was not even in the syllabus” a kind of get angry strategy or a blame someone else approach. This can be very effective as it makes you feel a whole lot better. Particularly if you can find someone else who feels exactly the same way. The best thing here is that you are not blaming yourself and so you won’t feel personally that bad.

Another idea is that you think it was a fair exam but have not put the work in, so you deserved to fail. A kind of well what did you expect strategy or yes a blame yourself approach. This also has much merit as although you are blaming yourself you know what to do to put it right.

In fact the best strategies for dealing with exam failure need one or two things, both if possible, one a reason why you failed and second a plan of action to put it right.

The get angry strategy  has a reason why but not a plan of action to put it right, other than to kill the examiner perhaps….The second idea has both, it was my fault (the reason for failure) and a need to work harder next time, a plan of action.

Now there is one last element in all this, do you want or have to pass?

 If the answer is no, then you can follow the I give up strategy. “The reason I failed is because I am not very clever or not good enough or this exam is just too hard for me and my plan of action is that I should give up”. This on the whole will make you feel inadequate lower your self esteem and gives you only one course of action, to give up. To stop falling into a deep depression you can always tell yourself “who wants to be a stupid accountant/doctor traffic warden anyway”?

However If the answer is yes I have to pass, then you need a reason for failure and a positive intention that will mean that you will do better next time.  Positive here simply means something that you can do as appose to not do. Unfortunately this something very often includes the statement “must work harder” or at least smarter.

More on how you can work smarter in latter blogs.

The apprentice and the marking guide

As we move closer towards the end of the apprentice it perhaps becomes a little clearer as to what Sir Alan is actually looking for. Did he set out with a predetermined idea as to what he wanted or did he simply let events unfold and wait for the talent to impress him. Well maybe there is some degree of spontaneity in the selection process, but this has now become a formulaic programme with set objectives and a consistent team of people making the decisions as to who should get the job. As a result there will be criteria by which all the candidates are evaluated.

In the exam world it is very important that anyone marking scripts is clear as to what the examiner is looking for. This is to ensure that when you have several markers in a team they are equally fair to everyone or at least as fair as possible. For some examinations these marking guides are published and they provide an invaluable and often essential way of finding out exactly what the examiner wanted. Depending on the exam, to make sense of the marking guide you will also need the model answer. But armed with a marking guide and the examiners answer you will be able to pin down the specific likes and dislikes of your examiner. How many marks did they give for the written part of the answer, how detailed did the calculations have to be, where there any unusual terms used that perhaps you had not come across before, all this and more can be revealed.

And so to the point, if you want to increase your chances of passing an exam you should get a copy of your examiners marking guide and model answer. Then work through one or maybe two exam papers making a note of how many marks were given for calculation verses written. Looking for those unusual terms and generally honing your knowledge towards what your examiner wants.

To pass an exam takes many qualities not least hard work, but if you understand what your examiner wants, that must be give you a much better chance of achieving it.

And so it is possible that the current candidates on the apprentice have a much better chance of knowing what their examiner wants having benefited from watching previous programmes. That’s of course if they thought about it before they went on, or perhaps like lots of students they simply left it to their natural talent and ability……

Exam season is here to stay

Exam season is here to stay
Here goes my first blog ……It is that time of year again, the exam season when students (we are all students of something) sit in a room with a wobbly desk and hope that what they write in the next 2/3 hours bears some resemblance to what the examiner wants.
Believe it or not some people actually like exams; they enjoy the challenge and how they feel when doing them. That sensation of control and an “ask me another one” mentality that is only really enjoyable when you know the answer. They are in a way showing off, if not to others at least to themselves. Then there are other people who don’t like exams, but enjoy the study ,the learning but not the actual exam. They get a buzz from the discipline of knowing what they have to do and learning something new. For them it is a measurable form of achievement, they are not learning for a reason other than a “today I learned something that I did not know yesterday” feeling, they have a mindset that finds almost anything “interesting”. They are curious about everything.

And then there are the rest of us who don’t like examinations, don’t know everything and don’t wake up every morning wanting to learn something new, yet need to learn new things in order to stay a float in the modern world. Maybe exam success will bring a promotion or get you through the door for that all important interview. Or is it the status the qualification brings which will not only earn the respect of others but build self confidence. Whatever the reason exams are here to stay.

And so to the point, no one is born knowing everything and neither are they born with a sense of wonder and a desire to learn. They have just found that if they are curious then they are more likely to learn and if they feel good after getting a question right it, is more likely that they will want to get another one right so will work harder as a consequence. Don’t forget the person who knows the answer had to be sufficiently motivated to learn the answers in the first place, yes perhaps they find it easier to learn, perhaps they are able to pick things up quickly but they still had to learn it.
So if you have to take exams or have a need to continually learn perhaps it would be a good idea to be a little more curious and to take pleasure from knowing the answer because if you do it makes the whole process of learning and passing exams so much easier, which in turn might help with that next promotion, now that cant be a bad thing….

Things that made me think
I like Lucy Kellaway who writes a column in the FT. She often pokes fun at the business world which as I am sure she would freely admit is a very easy thing to do. However she recently wrote an article “underdog tale sheds light on pushy parenting” click

In it Lucy argues that although inspiring stories exist of the underdog winning, they are few and far between, or as Lucy put it “its claptrap”. She states that there is even more dominance by Oxbridge and private schools of the professions than ever. This she argues is the reason that pushy parents are perfectly rational to obsess over the qualifications of their children.

Now you will not find me arguing that exams don’t matter but the implications of what Lucy is saying is that unless your child is reading by the age of two, then there is little chance for them in this world. This is not only depressing and uninspiring but also suggests that the world in which we live is logical and that a path once started upon cannot be varied and it becomes inevitable what will happen.

Yes of course Lucy has a point, if you are born into a family who are supportive, push you hard and have both the money and time to do this, then on the whole you are more likely to do better than say someone with less advantages. But this apparent inevitability denies the role the individual plays in all this. It is what you do, given where you are and the skills/attitude you have that makes the difference not where you come from or what your parents did to help. And although Derek’s (Read the article) success may in fact be unusual, it is inspiring and does prove that you can achieve the unusual and so by definition making it, if not the norm, a possibility and one that might inspire others to follow.

So in a world of the first Black American president, where your money is no longer as safe as houses and Susan Boyle did not win Britain’s got talent, maybe there is a chance for us all.