Exam wisdom

As students take their oft-daunting HSC exams, there are several ways for them to make the experience less stressful and more educational

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HSC exams are here and the oft-daunting journey of taking examinations is underway. But are they just that: exams? Examinations are a test of knowledge and understanding. They are ‘tests’ of what is known and what is not. However, the process of undertaking exams, and learning to do so successfully, is itself a learning experience.

Test-taking should be understood as both a summative process and also as a learning challenge. As a summative process, exams ask the following questions of students: ‘What do I know? Can I express what I know well enough to earn marks?’ As a learning challenge, exams can assist students to learn to manage stress. They can also bring attention to a need for order. The process of preparing for exams can teach a person more about themselves than the actual daily lessons taught at school.

Some students, for example, learn that they are visual learners and find that structuring notes around the need for images and visual prompts, mind maps (or concept maps) and the use of colour helps them to remember concepts, ideas and content. Similarly, some find that they are kinaesthetic and learn best whilst writing and through repeating content while moving. Others find they are auditory learners and find they learn best when they talk through their notes out loud.

Students should not feel compelled to study in a particular way. This is very important. For many people, study is equated with stillness and silence. However, this is not suitable for everyone. Some students do work best with music and movement. Restlessness is not always a sign of distraction.

For students who are preparing for upcoming examinations, the following advice may be useful for them.

Have a study timetable

It takes time to create this, but setting one up will mean effort is spent wisely. Ensure there are appropriate breaks and that the time for each subject is realistic. A study timetable can be structured around the order in which exams will be taken. In this way the first exam can be studied for last (or first).

Set goals

The best effort is directed effort – with a purpose and a sense of context. The more specific the goals, the more likely they will be achieved. It is wise to write and even vocalise these goals with significant people. Accountability assists in achievement. Do not be afraid to say what you realistically want to achieve as a challenge.

Use lists

Lists should be visual or written – but not silent and invisible. It is self-satisfying to tick things off as being complete. In this way little successes lead to larger success.

Do not look ahead too often

Often the big exams such as final year exams, and the HSC, can feel overwhelming. When thinking ahead it can cripple present action. It is far better to be focused on the steps that need to be undertaken now rather than looking too far ahead. In this way much ground can be covered instead of fretting time away.

Build in rewards and downtime

After effort, reward always feels better. Take time with friends, go out, take time using technology, or take time with a special person or family. If the discipline is completed early, the down time later feels earned and more enjoyable. It is always better to work first and play later.

Know your weaknesses

While studying, make sure you clearly mark where there are any areas of confusion, weakness or misunderstanding. You can use post-it notes and other things to ‘catch’ anything where there is uncertainty or confusion. Own these. Finding out what you do not know, or seeking clarification, is a sign of strength not weakness.

Have high expectations of yourself

No one ever grew, or did their best, from having low expectations. High expectations imply a person is taking responsibility. This is a sign of maturity and strength.

Be realistic

Sometimes we all feel worn out, over it, or disappointed with ourselves. So what? Own these and then resolve to do better next time through words of self-encouragement. Seek solace and the comfort of those who support you by giving you words of encouragement.

Find balance

Academic life should be balanced with physical activity, entertainment, music and other commitments. But these things should also be balanced with the discipline of academic effort. Time is a valuable commodity. It is all we have. Utilise it with purpose.

Have a full range of resources for each subject as you study

Use class notes, texts, study guides, relevant Facebook pages or blogs. Integrate summaries from multiple sources, but keep class notes and the syllabus close as a guide.

Try collaborative learning

Competition and ambition are best served when they are against the self not others. Do not compare yourself with ‘averages’ – only your own best self. If you work with others, your study can be more meaningful. The personal struggle is more important than any struggle against others. We are all in this together.

Have perspective

Exams do not define who you are. They are both significant and also not. Do your best – honestly give it your best, uncompromised effort – then let go. The results will take care of themselves.

All the best!

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Mohan is an author, high school teacher, university lecturer and runs the Australian Tutoring Association (ATA) and Global Professional Tutors Association (GPTA)