That is what I tell myself as soon as I leave the exam hall. Whether I think the exam went well, went okay, or went badly, I leave the building reminding myself to move on and do the next thing. I go home, take a shower, a nap, and have a hearty meal to replenish myself for all the hours of intense study. If I have more exams, I let my impressions of the exam motivate me to work harder at understanding and not merely memorising material for the next exam. If it’s the last of my exams, I think about my next steps or whatever else I look forward to, which brings me to my next post-exam wind-down technique.
Preparing for exams takes many different forms; depending on what subject you are sitting an exam on and on how you work as an individual. As a Politics student, my exams take a very similar form to most humanities subjects. I usually have two hours to answer two extended essay questions, chosen from a range of questions that are linked to specific topics in the course. It is crucial to have a clear idea of the format your exams are going to take as this not only helps you to best prepare for them, but also means that you won’t have any surprises when you walk into the real exam.
Learn the Ways in Which You Learn
Firstly, identifying your learning style is imperative to effective studying. How well do you know yourself? Have you ever thought about studying yourself, not to mention studying how you study? Think about the times in which you have truly understood things and have performed well. What did you do? What worked for you? Why did it work? Asking yourself reflective questions like those is the first step to furthering your understanding of anything. I learned quite a bit about myself after attending a My Learning Essentials workshop on ‘discover[ing] your approach to learning’, in which learning styles were defined as “an individual’s unique approach to learning based on their strengths, weaknesses, and preferences.”
Do you know the kind of learner you are? Are you an active learner who learns by doing and likes to get hands-on, and talk things through in groups? Or are you a reflective learner who likes to think through things alone and understand before acting? I am a reflective learner. I am also a sequential learner, which means that I learn in linear and logical steps, and work in an orderly and systematic fashion. You may be the opposite – a global learner who does not really need precision or clarity every step of the way, and yet somehow it all comes together for you. You might be prone to sensing and prefer hard evidence, facts and figures. Or you may take a more intuitive approach to things, preferring instead abstract ideas, their relationships to other things, and seeing the forest for the trees. Lastly, you might be a visual learner (like me) with an obsession with mind maps, charts and diagrams. You might, however, be a verbal learner (also me) who strongly believes in the capacity of the written or spoken word to do wonders for the mind. Notwithstanding all these categories, you might not be completely one thing or the other, or you could fall within various categories in different situations, like I do. The point is that you should know yourself well enough to know what works for you and when.
Learn Exactly the Way You Learn
Once you know how best you learn, stick to it. In Sixth Form, I enjoyed making colourful mind maps and posters and because I was studying English Literature, I had been used to annotating texts. When I arrived at university to study something new, I mistakenly discarded some of my most effective learning styles. I’m not saying watching one too many episodes of Suits had anything to do with it, but somewhere down the line I thought I could thrive on a photographic memory – a skill that only works for me when doing last minute revision on the morning of an exam. I realised this wasn’t good for me. I realised you should abandon a method when it is not appropriate for the task, or it does not work for you. In saying that, be careful not to make excuses for yourself. Many a time I have heard a student say that they work best under pressure, which is often simply an excuse for procrastination and poor time management.
Another part of knowing yourself is not just identifying how you learn, but also identifying obstacles to your learning. What are your barriers to effective studying? Social media? Food? Netflix? Socialising? Whatever the distraction, it is important to either set apart time for them, keep them to a minimum, or eliminate them altogether. Doing well in your studies will always require some measure of sacrifice because you only get out what you put in. So get rid of distractions and prepare the folders, binders, notes, and all the materials you need to put your best foot forward. Knowing yourself is about creating the conditions under which you flourish.
Learn Patience in Learning
Just as important as being able to identify the ways in which you learn, and sticking to it, is the time it takes to learn. As a student with a specific learning difficulty, namely dyspraxia, this has been a recurring lesson for me. Learning takes time for everyone, but I especially have had to learn to be patient with myself, and take things one at a time.
My top tip for keeping on top of your university work is staying organised. It may seem like a trivial point, but it certainly pays off. Keeping a diary or writing lists soon become your best friend. In my diary, I make sure I put all my course deadlines and exam dates in, and then on a weekly basis I make a list of all the university work that needs completing and by which date. This helps me to break down the workload in to manageable chunks, but most importantly it makes sure I don’t miss a deadline because of lack of organisation.
Once you know what work needs completing and when, it’s time to work out what learning style works best for you. Depending on your course you may have 100% assessed work, 100% exams or a mix of both for your assessment. Studying Politics and Philosophy, my assessment is a mix of both essays and exams. Of course, preparing for both takes slightly different techniques. Studying for an essay tends to involve a lot of reading, allowing time to formulate your ideas and argument, and then getting on with writing it. They traditionally take a bit longer to do, however they are often due half way through the module, before you are swamped with exam dates at the end. I know it’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason – start working towards deadlines early! At the beginning of a module, there tends to be a bit more free time before the deadlines start rolling it. My advice is to use that time to get a head start on some of the readings because before you know it, you have deadlines in other modules taking up your time.
Exam revision takes a different technique than preparing for assessed work. A good first step is to make sure you know exactly what content is going to be covered in the exam. In order to do this, make use of lecture slides and notes, and don’t be afraid about asking any questions about the exam format to your lecturer or tutor. Once you know what to focus on, it’s time to develop confidence with your knowledge. Some people revise best by condensing notes into snappy revision cards, or by highlighting their notes, it’s simply about finding out what works best for you. I find it particularly useful to create mind maps for past exam questions with everything relevant that I can remember from my revision, this helps me to formulate and remember plans to replicate in the exam. Whether your exams are essay based, multiple choice or short questions, practising exam papers is great for revision as it gets you comfortable with the structure the exam will take.
I hope these top tips have been useful during your study periods, but always remember, if the workload gets too much – ask for help! There’s tons of support there for you from your Academic Advisor, Course Tutors, to Peer Support. Or if you prefer, chat to other people on your course – it can be a great way to calm nerves to know other people are having the same worries!
Starting university may be the first time you have been financially independent. The thought of having to juggle rent, bills and food costs can be a daunting prospect. But have no fear, there are a number of things you can do to keep yourself a float whilst studying, ensuring there is still enough to spend on enjoying yourself too! Choosing to live at home whilst at university is an attractive option to many, often meaning you get to avoid paying the market rent and buying your own food shopping. The compromise may come however from having to endure a lengthy commute to campus, so it’s worth working out what suits you best. For those that choose to move further afield and go it alone, it’s worth researching rent prices in the area where your preferred universities are. Rents can vary vastly across the UK, with the more expensive rates being located in the South East of England and often cheaper rates in the North. University halls tend to be more expensive than the local market rents, however keep in mind that the price often includes utility and internet bills.
When I received the confirmation that I would be going to study my desired course at my first-choice university, I was thrilled! Now two years into my studies, I strongly believe that should be the attitude of every prospective university student – an enthusiasm rooted in satisfaction. The decision to go to university is not one to be taken lightly. So, it is important that you thoroughly consider your reasons for pursuing higher education, as well as what you want to study. Giving it all serious thought ahead of time is the best way to ensure you are making the right decision for yourself. When you know that you have made the right decision, then it’s easier to enjoy your course and embrace your university experience. So, here are some tips and insights to help you choose the right course for you: the three Cs – career, curiosity, and competence.