Exam preparation

12 April 2021

Louise Grimmett and Jo Smith, Specific Learning Differences Tutors at UCL Student Support and Wellbeing have bought together some of their tips for looking ahead and preparing for the upcoming exam period.

A student sits at a desk with two laptops

If you’re reading this article, then you’re probably preparing for your exams. We are aware exams are in various formats this academic year, which may be posing some unique challenges. We will touch upon these challenges; although, the key principles of exam preparation are largely the same. We also understand that you’re probably reading a lot right now and time is precious, so we’ll keep it brief but helpful. 

Tip 1: prepare yourself for the fight or flight response

Experiencing physical reactions to a high-pressured, intense situation, regardless of time pressures, will elicit a fight or flight response… or both. Fight may be jumping straight into answering the question, typing 800 words and then realising you haven’t answered the question. The flight response may be avoidance, tidying your space before starting, needing a nap, heading to the fridge.

This is all normal and you’ll likely experience these responses at various times throughout the exam period. Student Support and Wellbeing have some great wellbeing and mental health resources, while we highly recommend the Headspace app.

Name it to claim it. Recognise what’s going on and don’t be unkind to yourself. Get that satsuma, take some breaths, and release the anxiety by bursts of exercise; running on the spot, star jumps or skipping. Uninterested in exercise? Scream into a pillow, sing loudly, however badly, or splash cold water on your face and wrists. Our favourite? A mixture of all the above.

Tip 2: ask yourself, “am I doing the same thing but expecting a different result?”

If so, remember a different result with the same ingredients is not impossible but very difficult to achieve.

We’ve seen this time and time again. Why? We are creatures of habit and doing the same thing, even when unhealthy, is often our comfort zone. We need to check our behaviours and regularly ask ourselves whether it’s working or not. There’s nothing wrong with an unhealthy response (it’s natural!) but be mindful of its frequency and potential detriment. Have a think about whether your sleeping pattern is healthy. Are you sure you’re more productive late at night or is this your comfort zone? You know what’s best for you, so believe in yourself whilst remembering to reflect. For more information on sleep and recharging, click here.

A helpful analogy: Revision is like taking the brain to the gym. You wouldn’t just stay on the treadmill for 8 hours or more and expect results… please don’t try this. Just like we’d mix-up our days or sessions in the gym, try some various exam preparation and revision methods. Variety keeps the brain occupied and active.

Tip 3: what’s in our line of vision, helps with revision!

It’s not always easy creating the right space for you but do give this some thought. Is this the best workspace you currently have, and does it truly work for you? Some people prefer all their resources around them, whilst others prefer a more organised space.

Think about lighting, being near power mains, comfort, a space in which you can block out what’s around you, and one which is stable. Also think about what’s in your line of sight. This should be something that makes you happy when you look at it, that motivates and reminds you of life beyond this exam period. Personally, mine would be a reminder of a previous exam I passed. As for a colleague, definitely a photo of their cat.

Regarding resources, we highly recommend a filing system for each module you’re being tested on. This filing system can be a physical folder, with tabs, or a digital bookmark on your laptop. It can be a mind-map of thoughts and references. It can be a list, for example, linear (bullet points with thematic headings) or hierarchical (prioritising information and including further information beside the key theme/topics). Whatever works for you and doesn’t make you feel too queasy when you look at it.

Tip 4: knowledge is power… if we know how to apply it!  

Throughout our years as study skills tutors, we’ve seen the common mistake of students committed to learning knowledge, dedicating the required hours and testing their knowledge. Hey, we said common mistake, right? The exam, paper, or assessment is not designed to be a quiz, it’s designed to demonstrate your knowledge through application. It will be based on the module, what you have been taught and hopefully been able to explore during your independent studies. Answer the question directly, tell the reader how you’re going to answer the question. Then include your own view, opinion, and criticisms. Finally, conclude by linking it back to the question and reminding the reader, in this case, the marker, what you wanted to inform them of to answer the question.

Tip 5: the way in which the question is worded provides clues as to what the focus should be

NeuroKnowHow have some great resources, and our favourite is the task words page. When you are ready, and not too soon, practise by using past papers, or create your own questions. Other options? How about creating your own flashcards on Quizlet, a revision PowerPoint presentation or Prezi, or discussing your knowledge in a virtual study group? All of these can be helpful.

We hope this post has been helpful. We’d love to hear your feedback as well as your own personal suggestions and tips. For further support, check out this exam preparation video from the Taylor & Francis Group, check out Student Support and Wellbeing’s exam success guide, and if you’d like more support, get in touch with the team.

Louise Grimmett and Jo Smith, Specific Learning Differences Tutors, Student Support and Wellbeing