Draw up a timetable
Whichever way you chose to do notes taking, start your exam preparation by making out a timetable. This gives you a countdown to the big day. On the timetable record your exam dates and times and the intervening time available. Block out at least two days before the exams start as a rest break. One student decided to go off on holiday for two weeks before exams and he took no books or work with him. On his return he read through all his notes and pointers just once and went cheerfully like a sheep to the slaughter. He passed handsomely – but some of his frantically swotting peers were not so fortunate.
One young woman student fell madly in love just before the end of term and lost all interest in everything except the object of her affections. The couple spent the entire two weeks gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes and mooning around the university grounds or along the river. Nothing could have been further from their minds than swotting – and they probably burned some midnight oil along the way. But they, too, both passed their exams with good results.
Clearly you have to allow for your temperament and inclinations, but the important point is that you should turn up for the exams fresh and fit, not in the last stages of a swot hangover.
Organize your notes
The thrust of examination strategy is to elicit from the student sufficient hard facts to demonstrate that he or she knows and understands the essential elements of the subject at the level required. How you organize your notes and ‘recoverable information’ is the key to preparing for exams. And the key to organizing your notes into a mental pattern that you can draw on in the exam is to identify the information that is essential.
Without being too rigid about this (because subjects vary in scope and structure), take, say, four A4 lined pages and work through all the relevant notes you have (however detailed or contracted), noting everything you think is important in outline. When this is done – during which time you will have read right through the notes looking for specific facts rather than trying to retain a mountain of pointless data – use a marker pen to highlight a few key words of all the most valuable points you need to remember. Don’t go mad. Stick strictly to the essentials.
Do this for each subject – very carefully laying out the material with plenty of white space. You will then have compiled a digest of the vital information represented by a few words for each topic or main point. Go through the sheets again and edit out all the dross – everything that you finally judge doesn’t really matter.
You finish up, for argument’s sake, with 16 pages of information and a lot of words picked out with the highlighter.
Now comes the hard bit.
How do you memorize?
First decide whether you are a parrot or picture person. Some people recall facts as a consequence of repetition and they remember the strings of words that make up the data, rather like a computer. Others have a photographic memory and recall patterns, shapes and pictures in a whole frame, so to speak. For our purposes it doesn’t matter how you remember, just as long as you recognize how best your memory functions, because in the exam you will have to recall those key points to regurgitate the information that answers the questions.
The basis of the system proposed is that, having re-read your notes, you have to some degree refreshed your memory about the original input of information, whether lesson or lecture. Somewhere in the darker recesses of your mind it is all there. The problem is getting at it, like using a file name to locate material stored on a hard or floppy disk. Well, that’s roughly what you should do: set up ‘file names’ for everything you may need to recall.
Many students, faced with a sea of information when revising, fly into a panic when they can’t recall all the information at the drop of a hat or when asked a question. The mind computer whirrs and grinds but nothing comes out, because they are looking for a mishmash of facts rather than one word, the file name. Had they had such a handle to get hold of, the information would flow out unchecked, provided they were prepared to respect and use the computing power of the mind.
When the file is opened or ‘triggered’, whether the data flow spontaneously in strings of words or via a visual image, doesn’t matter, as long as the system works.
Let us go back to that sheaf of abridged notes or key points.
However good your memory, there’s no way you’ll remember that lot in its entirety and be able to parrot it off or picture it under exam conditions. So it has to go through another refining process first. This time reduce it even more ruthlessly, onto one well-spaced page.