Gearing up for exams

15 October 2018 | Story Kim Cloete. Photo UCT Archives. Read time 6 min.
A combination of organisation and preparation will help students get the best possible results in the upcoming exams.
A combination of organisation and preparation will help students get the best possible results in the upcoming exams.

Settling down to study and then concentrating intensely in an exam takes skill and focus. But putting in the hard work now will pay off in the longer term.

We spoke to Dr Danny Fontaine-Rainen, of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) to get some ideas on how to knuckle down to work, and be more prepared when writing an exam.

Organise your study space

Separate your work space from your living space, so that you don’t have any distractions.

Don’t lie in bed and try to study. Put your cellphone away. Keep your work space clutter-free, so that you can concentrate more easily.

UCT has many study spaces and libraries to choose from where you can revise your work, some of them open 24 hours a day during this time.

Get going soon

The earlier you start your revision, the more peace of mind you will have come exam time. Doing revision in short chunks of time is far better than an all-night cramming session.

It’s also counter-productive to study for hours on end without a break as your brain needs time to absorb and make sense of things. Stick to a schedule and make time for breaks. Drink plenty of water and get some exercise.

Often, the best thing you can do is something completely removed from your situation, whether it’s a shower or a run or listening to your favourite music. Sometimes changing up what we get our brains to do makes all the difference.

If you start studying earlier, you’ll also have time to go back to your lecturer or tutor if you have questions. Check out past exam and test papers to find out what kind of questions could come up in an exam and how long you’ll have to work on each question.

Ask your lecturer what’s likely to come up in the exam. Try to pre-empt what the questions will be and then practice your answers.

Make it your own

Everyone has a different way of studying, whether it’s post-it notes, summaries, mind maps or explaining things aloud. You are your best barometer, so focus on what works for you.

Avoid rote learning and rather make sense of your own content. Don’t fake it if it isn’t working. Highlighting everything with a highlighter pen is not much good if you’re not really thinking of what you’re doing.

Form a study group

Working in a group can be very effective. You can feed off each other and run things past your classmates. If you don’t know the answer, someone else is bound to know it.

Take turns to teach something to each other. If you can teach it, you probably know it.

Check style and context

Apart from marking the content of your field of study, examiners will also be looking to see whether you can write effectively in a certain discipline, have a deeper understanding of the content, and are able to effectively apply what you have learnt.

Ask your lecturer how to approach a paper and the kind of response they would like to see. If you have done the work through the course of a semester, you will pick up on these cues too.

Just before an exam

Take care of the simple things. Make sure you know where your exam venue is. Ensure you’ve had some water and something to eat and that you have extra pens and pencils.

It may sound trivial, but if those logistics are sorted out, there’s less to worry about. Get to the exam venue well in time.

Writing the exam

Read the entire paper first to get a sense of the questions. This is good for two reasons. If there’s anything you are unsure of, your brain files that away and starts to work on it. It also gives you a chance to see how you will organise your time. You are writing it blind if you don’t read through it.

Do the questions in the order in which you can score the most points. Concentrate on the content you know the best. If you don’t know the answer to a question, just move on. Don’t lose valuable time stressing about it. If you have time at the end, come back to it.

Your writing style will depend on the discipline, the question and who the lecturer is. Unless you’re asked to write in bullet points or a different style, write well-written, well thought through responses to longer questions or essays, with an introductory statement, some substantive statements in the middle and a concluding paragraph. Always take into account the number of points set aside for an essay. That will give you an idea of how many facts and statements you need to include.

  • Dr Fontaine-Rainen is director of the First Year Experience Project at CHED.

Did you know?

Eating more fish, walnuts, green tea and dark chocolate are great for boosting brain function.

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