Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Can You Plan For Exams?

So I'm sure you know (because I don't shut up about it) that I wrote Planning Before Writing. It was a fun little book to write, which kind of surprised me, and helped me to de-stress during my teaching placement in January. People still wonder how I wrote a book during that time. All I'll say is, if I didn't I might not have finished with a smile on my face.

Anyway, writing a book about planning and seeing people buying it (again, surprises me) has gotten me thinking: can the techniques I discuss in the book be used to prepare for exams?

I have three days of lectures left. Three. Then it's study time. It would be really helpful if I could figure this out in a stress-free environment, but I'm not sure that sort of thing really exists when you're a final year student with ten exams in less than a month. (Yay!)

However, it's pretty easy for me to consider how I might study. I've been preparing essays and seminar work all semester using the same techniques in the book, and I knew them all before I actually started writing, thanks to the eight years' practice and learning I've had in the craft of writing. (That makes me feel old... let's pretend I didn't just say that.)

The sort of things that make writing a book and preparing for an exam different, though, are quite complicated. For a start, I don't get to decide what's on the exam, or what shape the questions will take. That pretty much means there's one less creative way to tackle exams that would exist for a book, which makes it so much more difficult to prepare for. Even Non-Fiction books are creative works, and require that the writer have some understanding of how to write something creatively and differently to distinguish it from every other book in the market.

In the case of someone who writes their own books, there's one less creative exercise for exams: someone else decides what you should write about.

Ultimately, that's what exams are in my college: exercises in writing in a short period of time. It's also necessary to remember an obscene amount of information, and to think about topics ourselves in an engaging way.

Our game of Spot the Difference can clearly illustrate that for books you don't have to memorise everything to write them. When I'm writing essays, and even when I'm writing stories based on or inspired by Irish myths, I keep a tab open with info online about the topic, and some notes beside me. That option doesn't exist for exams.

So what needs to be done for exams that's different, then? Since we can't control the topics or the questions, and we can't bring in notes to help formulate our thoughts, what are we supposed to do?

One way we might be helped is if the lecturer gives us some tips. These have, historically speaking, been guidelines for study, directing us to explore particular topics in the course individually for questions, so we're not attempting to memorise everything about ten modules. That's an unrealistic expectation of anybody, and it's the biggest problem I have with the Leaving Cert. But let's not moan about that dragon right now; it has been slain.

So, if we receive some tips (and we have, from some lecturers, though they wouldn't call them tips - that implies they're giving us the questions), we're left with two things to worry about: the question, and the memorising.

Now, the question is actually easier dealt with last. The way I see it, if I can find a way to actually remember things (historically speaking, I struggle with this in exams due to pressure, exhaustion, and a general inability to sit in an exam hall and remember the things I need to know before it's time for pens to go down) to write down, dealing with the question is easy.

I don't believe in using someone else's study notes, so that's that out the window. But what about the planning techniques? Can they be used to study more effectively? I know Mind Maps have often been used for study. I don't know yet if they'll work for me in that way, but I'll see.

Normally, I get some flash cards. I write down everything I need to know about a topic onto an A4 piece of paper, and then transfer it neatly onto a flash card - preferably on one side only - underlining key words. With five different planning methods in my book, can any of them improve upon this method? My grades have been good, on average, the past three years, mind you. Not all top marks, but good. (I'm not going to get in to that at the moment, partially because it's private, partially because I can't remember my grades.)

So, five methods. I'll see how they fare, in the early stages. If I can't remember what I study on a given morning by the time that evening comes around, I haven't done a good job. I'm desperate to make these exams easier on myself, anyway. That's the point of Planning Before Writing, to make planning easier so writing can be more enjoyable. Now, exams are never meant to be easy or enjoyable, but they can be less stressful. That's all I'm asking for. And better grades. That would be nice, too, since I plan on being a bum for a while (while actually doing things that people won't know I'm doing).

There you have it. Final year. Final exams. And I'm choosing now to experiment. I'll know after a couple of days if the planning techniques can be used to help me remember material for exams. Remembering it is the important part, because then I just need to apply it to the question. That's the creative part of the exam, thinking on your feet (or in your seat...) about how to imaginatively and intelligently engage with the question, supply the information that's being asked for, and provide enough original thought to drag your grade up.

This is not going to be fun, is it?

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