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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Passing case studies by thinking in words

thinkingA case study is a relatively high level form of assessment used to test a student’s ability to apply knowledge from a whole range of different subjects set against the backdrop of a real-world situation, a case study is a simulation.

Thinking process

On the face of it the challenges set by a case study seem daunting, how can you remember everything you have learned in the past and be able to solve a problem in an environment you have potentially never seen before. The good news is that our brains are better suited to solving these types of problems than you might think. In fact, in some ways learning individual subjects can be more difficult due to their apparent theoretical nature and little use outside the classroom.

However, the process you have to go through in order to produce a good case study style answer is worth exploring in more detail, especially if you’re not getting the mark you want or in fact need. Here are six stages that set out what you have to do from the point when you open the exam paper to finally putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard.

  1. Read and absorb the narrative given in the context of the case
  2. Make the case real, visualise yourself in that context, play your role
  3. Search for knowledge that might help, thinking across a whole range of subjects
  4. Begin to formulate an answer in your head or at least a direction of travel by manipulating information
  5. Organise your thoughts in such a way that when communicating to others it will appear both logical and persuasive
  6. Write out your thoughts using clear heading’s and plain English

Individually nothing is difficult but if you don’t perform particularly well at any one of these stages, the chain will be broken and as a result the quality of the answer suffer.

Using words to think – start with general and go to specific

From my experience students begin to struggle at around stage 5 and certainly 6. The cognitive energy required to not simply know what to do but be able to turn those thoughts into something that can be understood by others is possibly the most difficult part. One technique that can help with this is to use key words and linguistic structuring.

Imagine the question asks you to offer advice to company A as to how it might improve its profitability. One solution that might come to mind is, increase sales. What you need to do next is drill deeper, ask how do we increase sales? Maybe, you think, selling more of product X is a good idea. Next ask, how do we sell more of product X, answer, by approaching company Z and asking them to advertise it along with their best selling product.

Okay, get the idea, firstly there is a degree of analysis and questioning, this is stage 4. You now need to organise your thoughts and put them on the page so that others will understand the point you are making, stage 5 and 6.

This is where the words come in, start with general and go to specific. General words or statement sit high up, by definition they apply to many situations and are vague but act as an umbrella under which the answer can be honed and defined, for example, you might make the following statement.

One way of improving profitability is to increase sales.

This is a very general statement and could apply to many companies. Next be more specific.

One possible solution to increasing sales for company A is to sell more of its product by approaching company Z to see if we could come to an arrangement where they would be willing to promote their bestselling product and ours at the same time.

This in some ways is the reverse of the thinking process, but by creating a general statement first it gives a real structure to the answer. Like any technique it will require practice, so don’t be surprised if it takes time to become really good at it. When answering case study style questions, you will be thinking and reorganising thoughts a lot, and this initially at least is just another aspect of the case you need to take into account. But with repetition comes the shifting of knowledge into behaviour, and the ability to do it without thinking at all.

In summary, e.g.

  • What I hope you have found from reading this blog is that you can improve your chances of passing any exam with some simple techniques. (very general)
  • On the face of it a case study may seem different, and exam techniques less applicable. (Case study specific but still general)
  • However, if the process of thinking can be set out into a series of stages, this can help identify an area that needs to be improved. (Getting more specific)
  • The most common point where students fall down is towards the end of the six stages, specifically stage 5 and 6. (Nearly there, but talking about any student)
  • But by drilling into the problem and continually asking questions you can drive out a solution, then if you write out that solution using the general to specific technique, the words and so your answer should appear on the page in a logical and easy to understand format. (Finally we get to the point, talking specifically to you the student)