Archive for the ‘How to pass exams – tips’ Category

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Big fish – little pond

August 31, 2014

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

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Sleep is for wimps – oh and successful students

July 31, 2014

Get some sleepAlthough I am sure someone is preparing for an exam this very minute, July/August are the traditional months to take a holiday and get some well earned rest. A holiday can be exactly what you need especially if you have just come to the end of a long period of study followed by in some instances, weeks of exams.

I have to express a personal bias in so much that I believe holidays are essential if you are to be at your best. For me this years holiday has to provide some degree of relaxation after what has been a particularly busy 6 months. I am looking forward to a change of scene, meeting different people and the freedom to wake naturally, feeling rested after a good nights sleep. Holidays are of course very personal and for some an adventure holiday, travelling to new places every day, might be far more desirable.

But one thing that all holidays should provide is the ability to relax and catch up on sleep, even if that means you climb two mountains, swim for three hours before crashing out in a state of satisfied exhaustion on the evening.

Sleep is essential for learning 

Of course sleep is something you should do “properly” every day, it’s just that we don’t. Modern life steals that vital rest time, this is acutely the case when trying to balance both work and study. Studying is often undertaken on an evening and sometimes late into the night as you effectively try to do, too much in too little time.   We now sleep less than we did 50 years ago, it used to be around 8.5 hours, it’s now only 6.5. The sleep should also be of high quality, yet our sleep is interrupted by the lights of mobile phones, and sounds made when texts arrive late into the night. In order to sleep better it is a good idea to avoid light approximately 30 minutes before going to sleep, yet how many read in bed from iPads or equivalent with the bright light emitted from the screen telling your brain to stay awake.

Why sleep is important

We have known that sleep has been important for many years but we didn’t know why, cognitive scientists now have some of the answers. There are three views as to why sleep is beneficial:

One restoration – some of our genes only turn on when we sleep, their role being to make essential repairs.

Two conservation – we sleep to conserve energy, and

Three consolidation – our brain revisit events and experiences, and begins to make sense of them, moving data into long term memory and solving complex problems.

Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen in Germany says “sleep helps stabilise the memories and integrate them into a network of long-term memory, it also helps us to generalise what we’ve learnt, giving us the flexibility to apply the skills to new situations. So although you can’t soak up new material, you might instead be able to cement the facts or skills learned throughout the day.”  Bodies need rest – the brain needs sleep Sometimes you may find yourself having to push sleep to one side and in specific situations thats fine.

It’s when lack of sleep becomes the norm that problems arise, the result is greater stress, poor judgement and ineffective learning.   So now the exams are over, take a break, get some quality sleep and try and make a few simple adjustments in you life so that sleep takes more of a priority.

It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.

John Steinbeck  

Music to help you sleep and two video to watch but not just before you go to sleep

TED neuroscientist Russell foster  explains more about why we sleep  

Arianna Huffington talks about the importance of sleep

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

May 31, 2014
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 reduced 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

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Eureka – I Understand Understanding!

April 29, 2014

I Understand!If you understand the subject you are studying your chances of passing the exam must be good.

A simple and perhaps obvious statement but what does understand mean and what do you have to do to truly understand something? Of course understanding is a key part of passing but it is not enough on its own, you can understand something yet fail because you run out of time, misinterpret the question, thought you understood but didn’t! etc.

To understand

The dictionary defines to understand as, to know what someone or something means, to grasp the meaning, to be familiar with, make sense of etc. Understanding is clearly different to knowing, for example, you may know that gravity is a force that pulls objects to earth but that does not mean you understand what gravity is or how it works. Of course you need both knowledge and understanding, the one is no good without the other. Examiners try to test for understanding by asking questions that require you to compare, contrast, explain, interpret etc.

Understanding is not a Eureka moment, it has different levels. It might seem that there is a point where you didn’t understand and then suddenly you did, a Eureka moment. In reality what you have done is move closer to gaining a better and fuller understanding. Ask any lecturer or teacher, often they will tell you they never fully understood something until they had to teach it, they just thought they did.

Proving you understand – The 6 facets of understanding

Understanding by design, Wiggins and McTighe (1998) is one part of an instructional design process that provides a very helpful framework we can use to explore the depth of understanding and perhaps more importantly what you can do to develop a deeper understanding. Think of it as a hierarchy with the easiest one first, the greater you’re understanding the higher the number.

1. Explain, the classic exam question – Explain to someone what the concept/idea means and say why. Explaining out loud to yourself or making a recording can be just as effective.

2. Interpretation – Relate the concept/idea to your own experiences, tell a meaningful story. Try to add something personal into your explanation. To do this you will need to reflect on past events, whilst attempting to find parallels with the concept/idea.

3. Application – Use the concept/idea in a different context. The ability to apply knowledge in different contexts (transfer) is a key milestone in learning as well as understanding. It should result in you never being caught out by a difficult exam question. Understand to this level and it doesn’t matter what the examiner asks.

4. Perspective - Read around the concept/idea, get other people’s views, and see the big picture. If your struggling with understanding, read another text book or my favourite is to go onto you tube and watch a video. The internet is great for discovering alternative views.

5. Empathy – Try to get inside another person’s feelings about the concept/idea. This is difficult as it requires you to put aside your feelings about the concept/idea and accept that it is not the only way of thinking about it.

6. Self Knowledge – Ask questions about your understanding, ask what are the limits of your understanding, what are your prejudices, become aware of what you don’t understand. Often called metacognition, the ability to think about thinking.

The Eureka moment

Understanding, like Eureka moments are not of course the result of sitting in a bath and suddenly finding you understand something you had previously found confusing. It is the gift of hard work and long hours of study, hopefully by trying some of the techniques above your depth of understanding will only improve.

Ps apparently the jeweller was trying to cheat the king….

Understanding by Design

Want to know more about understanding by design, watch this. 

 

 

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Carrots and sticks – Motivation and the thinking Donkey

January 31, 2014

Donkey carrot and stickMotivation is one of those topics that is so important to learning and passing exams that we will constantly keep coming back to it.

If you are motivated when studying then you will study for longer, more frequently and be more focused.

As a result I have written about motivation in the past Motivation – How to want to study, Rocky boxing No – it’s about motivation to name but two.

I have always liked the simple idea that if you want to motivate someone to do something then you give them a reward (carrot) or a punishment (stick). You will probably have used carrot and stick techniques on yourself. If I answer these exam questions by the weekend I will have Sunday off or if I don’t answer these exam questions by the weekend then I won’t have Sunday off.

But are we more complicated?

In his book Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us, Daniel H Pink (a former Al Gore speech writer) argues that there are in fact three motivational systems. One survival , motivated to eat, drink and reproduce. Two, seek reward and avoid punishment, the so called carrot and stick and three, intrinsic  motivation, the idea that motivation comes from within not from external stimuli.

These are not mutually exclusive, you are still motivated to eat, drink and reproduce, equally carrots and sticks do work, but what are these intrinsic motivators.

Type X and Type I

Type X behaviour is fuelled more by extrinsic desire, how much money will I get, I don’t want to have to work Sunday, this fits with carrot and stick. Type I behaviour requires intrinsic motivation and is concerned with the satisfaction gained from an activity. Pink argues that extrinsic motivation works better for algorithmic/routine tasks that require little cognitive processing. But if you have to think, understand, create then intrinsic motivation is more effective. Got it……

And the point is……

Studying and learning require a huge amount of cognitive processing (It is a type I behaviour) and so rather than using carrot and stick motivators you would be better using intrinsic ones. Pink explains that intrinsic motivators can be broken into Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

  • Autonomy – This can be achieved by making your own decisions as to how you study when you study, rather than listening to others or being rewarded for doing it. It’s about taking ownership.
  • Mastery -This is a mind set and involves you believing that what you are learning is not something in isolation but contributing to a greater and longer term skill set.
  • Purpose – This links nicely back to goals, which has been the topic of previous blogs. You must feel that what you are learning has some value and purpose possibly beyond simply passing the exam. Will it help you do your job better etc

Motivation can be difficult to understand, personally I feel that it does come from within (intrinsic), it’s my desire to do something not someone else’s and so the argument that you should not use carrot and stick (extrinsic ) type rewards makes a whole lot of sense.

Let me know what you think….?

Listen to Daniel H Pink at TED And an RSA animated lecture 

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Just answer the question!!! – but how?

October 31, 2013

Last month I looked at the best way to tackle a case study, but case study is only one type of exam, what about the more traditional style of exam question?

The world is full of great advice, lose weight, exercise more, stop smoking, just answer the question ….all these statements are very clear with regard to WHAT you should do but terribly unhelpful as HOW to do it.

The reason that students fail exams is simple, every examiner since the beginning of time will have made some of these comments.

Students fail exams because?

  • They don’t know the subject – inexcusable and the only reason you should fail
  • They don’t read the questions properly – and as a result  misunderstand what was being asked
  • They don’t  manage their time – so only complete 50% of the paper
  • They don’t write good answers – true this might be due to lack of knowledge but could also be the result of not knowing how much to write

The last three of these can be overcome with the use of good exam techniques. In this blog I want to share with you two simple techniques that I think will help.

How to read questions properly – Tip one, the rule of AND

Below is an exam question worth 12 marks. You don’t need to know anything about the subject so don’t worry.

Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment and the adjusted discount rate, and explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments. (12 marks)

The rule of AND is simple, where there is an AND in the question simply put a line through the AND then make the next statement the start of a new question.

Now read the question

1. Using the information given for DT Co, calculate the adjusted present value of the investment. and

2. (calculate) The adjusted discount rate, and

3. Explain the circumstances in which this adjusted discount rate may be used to evaluate future investments.                                                                                  

There are now three questions and because we have broken it up, it is so much clearer what you have to do.  If we were really clever we might be able to guess how many marks out of 12 relate to those three questions, a tip for another day perhaps.

How to write a good answer – Tip two, Define. Explain and Illustrate

Define Explain and Illustrate is a technique to help you write more using a simple structure.

Read this question

Discuss the proposal to repurchase some of the company’s shares in the coming year using the forecast surplus cash. Other implications of share repurchase for the company’s financial strategy should also be considered. (10 marks)

Firstly Define the technical words. In this example the technical word is repurchase, so firstly we need to say what a share repurchase is.

E.g.  a share repurchase is where a company buys back its own shares and as a result reduces the number of shares available on the market.

Secondly Explain in more detail.

E.g. the share buy back has to be financed in some way so one implication is that it will result in a reduction in the company’s cash balance. It also means that because there are fewer shares, earnings per share (eps) will increase.

And lastly and in many questions most importantly, Illustrate. This could be by way of a diagram an example or by referencing to the question in more detail. The reason this is so important is that this is how you will demonstrate to the examiner that you can apply the knowledge. If you don’t understand something you will not be able to apply it. The application section of the answer will often carry the most marks.

E.g. in the example above it is clear that the company is forecasting surplus cash, i.e. they have more money in the future than they need. Leaving this money in the bank is not considered sensible partly because the level of return that can be earned from the bank will be less than the shareholders require, it can also be interpreted as a lack of ambition on the part of the Directors. Blah blah blah

Depending on the detail provided in the question this final illustration section can go on and on. How much you write will depend on the marks available.

I hope you have found these two tips helpful, if you want more in the coming months just add a comment to this blog and I will oblige.

Epic exam failure – what not to put on your exam paper

And finally a short video showing students real exam answers – funny

Click here

 

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Thinking in box’s – Cracking case study

September 30, 2013

Put it in a boxExaminations come in many shapes and sizes, short form, multiple choice, essay, case study etc. I know there are other methods of assessment but I am thinking here of the most common. Of these one stands out as being very different, the case study. Developed by Harvard in the 1920s the  case study involves giving the student a  real life, normally business situation and asking relatively broad Socratic type questions e.g. what do you think, why etc.

It not only puts the student in a realistic situation but also requires them to think far more deeply.  The cognitive process involved in answering a question such as what is the capital of France or can you add 2+2, on the whole is very simple and may need little more than memory. However giving student a real life business to analyse and asking them to give an opinion as to what the company should do next requires higher level thinking as well as effective communication skills.

Too much to read

One other aspect of a case study is that it often involves large amounts of narrative, all will need reading digesting and putting into context. On the face of it this can seem daunting, but it can be done and as with so many aspects of learning there is a process that can help. I have written about, having too much to read and the benefits of chunking before but I want to bring these together with another powerful technique “thinking in box’s”.

Thinking in box’s 

Volume and lack of direction is the main problem here, so we need to find our own direction and reduce the volume. Thinking in box’s refers to the natural process we have in compartmentalising thoughts. In order to make sense of the world we often put “stuff” into box’s, work, study, relationships etc. We can then open the box’s when we are best able to deal with them. The  point being that  we can’t deal with everything all at once. If this whole idea sounds a bit odd, then just consider the saying “Thinking outside the box”. This refers to the imaginary frame we put around something that restricts our ability to solve a problem and think more creatively. Strange isn’t it…..

Case study

Imagine that you have 10 pages of narrative to read based on a particular industry, a case study. There are a few sub headings and some paragraphing. You are required to provide guidance to the board of Directors as to what the companies strategy should be in the next five years.

The process 

In order to give the advice required by this question, you need to fully grasp the current situation, which means you have to  read, understand and comprehend what is written on the 10 pages. To add structure to the case firstly take chunks of content and put a frame around it, this will help focus just on this chunk of information, it also reduces the volume. A chunk will often be information under a heading or specific paragraphs. Once you have the content in a box, sift through it looking for the “key words” and underline them.  Focusing only on the key words but taking into account the context, ask yourself, what do I think about this? What does it mean, what is it telling me etc. Then write down your thoughts. Do this for every chunk of information, then number each chunk.

At the end of this process you should have read and thought about each chunk, captured those thoughts and have a numerical reference by which to structure them. The final part of the process is to read each of those chunks again and produce a SWOT. This brings all 10 pages down to just one. And by using the SWOT supported by your detailed analysis you should be able to give the advice required by the question.

watch_this_videoIn this short video I demonstrate the thinking in box’s approach.

      Thinking in box’s

And finally – A few words from Terry Pratchet

I will be more enthusiastic about thinking outside the box when there is some evidence of thinking inside it!

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