Guest blog from Dr Emma Holdsworth, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences
The journey into University education can be exciting but also quite daunting. Assessments, and exams in particular, are a main concern for many students embarking upon a degree. Assessment preparation and revision are essential not only for strong achievements, but also for students’ confidence which in itself, positively impacts levels of achievements. We offer here our five top tips for effective assessment preparation and exam revision, based on our experience and research evidence.
1. Adopt a growth mind-set
Students who believe that intelligence and academic ability are fixed tend to stumble at the first hurdle. By contrast, those who adopt a ‘growth mindset’, who see intelligence as malleable, react to adversity by working harder and trying out new strategies. These findings come from research by Carol Dweck, a psychologist based at Stanford University.
2. Start your preparation early
If you want to achieve the best score you can, lay the groundwork well in advance. ‘Attend lectures and seminars throughout the semester, and keep up with weekly readings’ advises Dr Cecile Brich, study development tutor at York St John University. This is because for most types of assessments at university level, you’ll need to have thought quite deeply about your subject, and be confident enough in your understanding of the subject to apply the concepts you have learned about to new problems. If you are confident about your understanding of the subject, this will reduce stress.
What is the purpose of sleep? Better concentration! One of the most comprehensive reviews on the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance found that “first and foremost, total sleep deprivation impairs attention and working memory, but it also affects other functions, such as long-term memory and decision-making. Partial sleep deprivation is found to influence attention, especially vigilance”. This confirms what most people know from anecdotal experience – it is far easier to be distracted or absent minded when we are tired. But that’s not all – another purpose is better memory. One of the primary benefits of getting a good regular night’s sleep is that it aids and improves memory and recall. Recent research suggests that when we sleep new connections are formed between our brain cells. Indeed, it appears that sleep actually ‘prioritises memories that we care about’ (something that is particularly handy during revision). An undeniable part of success in exams is the ability to recall knowledge – something that sleep can clearly help with.
4. Practice Retrieving Information
You don’t want to get to your exam and find out that you can’t actually pull any of that studied material out of your memory. If you practise retrieving the information by asking yourself questions, quizzing with a friend or using flashcards, you will be able to review those areas that you have trouble recalling. The ‘testing effect’ is the finding that long-term memory is often increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the information that you need to remember. The effect is also sometimes referred to as ‘retrieval practice’, ‘practice testing’ or ‘test-enhanced learning’.
5. Distributed practice and Interleaving
Distributed practice is also known as spaced repetition – it is a learning strategy, where practice is broken up into a number of short sessions over a longer period of time. Humans learn more effectively when they study in several sessions spread out over a long period of time, rather than studied repeatedly in a short period of time. The opposite (cramming) is generally a less effective method of learning. Interleaving is about what you do with your time. Rather than dedicate a whole day to revising one subject (known as blocking), it is better to mix subjects up and do a bit of everything every day. This ‘interleaving’ helps you make links between different subjects and identify ideal thought processes (deeper but more economical thought processes).
So in conclusion:
- adopt a ‘growth mind-set’ and reflect on your learning developments and achievements
- prepare early to facilitate deeper thought and reduce stress
- sleep well to consolidate your learning and help increase your attention and memory
- practice your learning by testing yourself regularly
- and finally, plan your study time so that practice and revision is distributed over time and across your subjects.