How to Pass Exams
Jun 19, 2011 Study Skills 1954 Views
A young student was terrified that he would fail his exams. The more he thought about it, the more he was convinced that he was bound to fail and so, eventually, he went to see his lecturer for some advice. The lecturer asked him, "What seems to be the trouble?"
"I don't want to fail my exams."
"OK, but what is it you want?"
"I don't want to fail my exams."
"Yes, I understand that, but what do you want?"
The student was quite confused by this and so he thought for a while and then, rather questioningly, he repeated, "I don't want to fail my exams".
The lecturer took a long, slow deep breath. He looked him straight in the eye and said, "That's what you don't want. What I want to know is what you do want".
Gradually it dawned on the student what the lecturer meant and he said, "I want to pass my exams".
"And what do you need to do to pass your exams?"
"I need to study and work hard."
"And will you do that?"
"Then there is little for you to worry about, but if you are having difficulty with a specific subject, tell me and I will help you."
Notice how this has turned everything completely around. At first the student was only concerned with what he didn't want. No doubt there were very many things that he didn't want (the list is probably endless), but failing his exams was the only one he was worrying about. The lecturer got him instead to focus on what he did want, and once he had done that the course of action was obvious. Yet while the student was focussed only on what he did not want, it was difficult - even impossible - for him to know what to do.
Many people live their lives like that; they constantly attempt to avoid what they don't want. They are motivated only by moving away from problems or fears. They bounce around aimlessly in a lifetime of worry and fear, only concerning themselves with how to protect themselves from this danger or that. In reality the dangers that they see everywhere don't exist and if they would only let their guard down, they would see it. A lot of people seem to always find something to worry about and if they can't find something then they invent things to worry about instead. I think that Mark Twain put it best when he said: "I've known a great many troubles, and most of them never happened." Most worries never do happen; and even if they do, they're usually not as bad as we imagined. It is clear that much of our worrying results from excessively thinking about our fears. Instead of wasting all that energy on worries and fears, why not put it to good effect instead?
Fear of failure will often bring with it paralysis and inaction because of that fear. Worse, the inaction will be in precisely the areas that you are afraid of, which are exactly the same places where you need to take action. In other words, fear of failure will probably bring you the failure that you are afraid of. To overcome the failure you fear, you must take positive action and as you do, the fear will fade.
So let's see how our student can be a bit more positive about his desire to pass his exams. As the lecturer pointed out, if he identifies weak areas in his knowledge, then the lecturer will help him to strengthen those areas. So the first thing is to identify his weak areas and his strong areas. He needs to know what he knows and to compare that to what he needs to know. That way he can work out a plan of action.
Many schools, perhaps most, imply that the only way to pass an exam is to know everything that there is to know about the subject. The idea is that if you know everything, then you can answer any question that you might get and so you are certain to pass. But then there is the saying, 'Jack of all trades, master of none'. If you attempt to learn everything in the time available, you will perhaps end up mediocre at everything. Wouldn't it be better to concentrate on some questions and therefore to know them really well? The only problem with this approach is the possibility that the areas you know well might not turn up in the exam. So what can you do?
When I was at college, I had the luxury of knowing that my lecturers were the people who set the questions. So during the year, I listened carefully to what they said. Most of them gave tips that might have been, "You should make sure you know this". They usually only said that once or twice while they were teaching the subject concerned and they would never say it again. When I heard that, I would make a note that there would be a question on that subject in the exam.
Even if the questions were set independently, you can still get a good idea of the likely questions if you can get hold of past exam papers. Get hold of as many as you can and analyse which questions came up and when. Look for patterns. If a question comes up every year, then you can be fairly certain that it will come up this year as well. If a question comes up every other year, then you can decide whether it will come up this year or not. In short, by analysing past exam papers you can get a very good idea of the likely questions that you will face when you take the exam. Use every piece of information available to you to determine which questions are likely to be in your exam paper and which ones will not. Of course there is no certainty, but you can determine the probability nevertheless.
Once you are as certain as you can be about the likely questions, start looking at your notes. Discard any notes on questions that you think are unlikely to be in the paper as well as any notes on any area where you think you are so weak that you would struggle to answer a question on it. What you are left with are those areas where a question is likely and you think you have a chance to get a good mark. Study those areas of your notes exclusively. Get someone to test you on them if you can.
As the exam draws near, make notes about your notes! Get a separate piece of paper and write down bullet points of the important items. By now, you should know the subject well enough so that you only need a reminder of a basic fact for you to be able to remember the whole subject. For example, in mathematics, I might write down a formula. So long as I knew the formula, I could answer the question. In history, I might write down salient dates, people and related facts. In this way, I got every subject down to a single side of one piece of paper. Instead of being overloaded with an endless amount of information, I only worked with what I needed to know. Keep your notes with you at all times and keep reading them. Take them to the exam with you. Don't use them to cheat because if you are caught you will fail. Just read them up until you go into the exam room. If they give you a piece of paper for notes, as soon as you can write notes about formulae or dates or whatever you need for the exam. Do not copy your notes, which should be hidden away by now. Write down only what you can remember and make it obvious that this is what you are doing.
Finally, in the exam itself you should be aware of how many marks you get for each question. Spend time at the beginning of the exam going through all of the questions. If you think you can't do a question, don't waste time attempting it. Work out where you can gain the most marks and do that first. Do the questions in whatever order will give you the most marks. Work out how long you can spend on each question and when you reach your time limit, stop and move on. If you continue, you are not gaining marks. Always work where you can get as many marks as possible in the shortest time. Do that and you will hugely increase the chances that you will pass the exam.