Frequently Asked Questions:
I do all my homework, but how do I get top marks?
Homework is important, but in order to go above and beyond, you will need to prioritise non-required work. There are 3 types of 'non-required work': Practice papers, making exam notes, and extra reading. Our research with top performing students demonstrated that the more practice papers a student completed, the better their grades. This factor was more influential to success than anything else. Making notes during term is important because, you need them, but you want valuable time at the end of term to be spent completing practice papers, not making notes. Finally, doing extra reading will give you an edge that other students won't have. This might be an extra few facts, or an alternative opinion on a particular area of study.
How much non-required work should you do? We suggest you do one non-required task per subject, per week. Each non-required task should only have to take you about 20-30 minutes long, so if you’re doing five subjects, we are looking at two and a half hours per week for all subject combined. The thing is, this two and a half hours is going to have a massive pay-off for your marks.
Some examples of 30 minute-tasks you can do:
Math: Do questions 1 and 2 from the 2014 practice exam paper. That’s one non-required task for the week done. Next week, maybe work through questions 3 and 4. By the end of the year you’ll have worked through about 10 practice exam papers - most students only do one or two.
English: Spend 20 minutes reading another author’s analysis of the book you’re studying and make notes on their commentary, and add these to your notes on the book. By the end of the year you will have a formidable bank of quotes and opinions to draw from when you are asked to analyse the text.
History: Read through another history text book by another author, and make notes on that author’s analysis of the topic. Do this for 30 minutes each week. This will give you a wealth of information which no other students ever bothered to access, despite the fact it would have given them amazing content to draw from for their essays and extended answers.
How can I memorise an essay?
Generally speaking, it is important to understand the content of the essay and the text/topics that will be examined. With a deep understanding, it will not be necessary to regurgitate a pre-written essay. Examiners normally respond to original answers that clearly identify what the question is really asking. In subjects such as English, it can often be more helpful to focus on tailoring the content to different questions by doing a number of practice essays OPEN BOOK, so that you have access to the information you need.
That said, if you needed to memorise an essay I would recommend the following:
1. Break your essay into sections. This is easy becuase you can do this by just choosing each paragraph.
2. Colour code. Colour code each topic/opening sentence in green, then highlight the main argument for each paragraph in orange, then the main peice of evidence in yellow, and the concluding sentences in pink. That way, your brain can start to sort through the essay.
3. Next you could record yourself saying your essay aloud. You can do this on your smartphone or computer. Then put the track in your phone or ipod and listen to it as you go to bed, go to school, go for a run etc. this will help embed it in your memory.
4. Finally, it's helpful to create triggers for each paragraph. So if you have an essay, let's say on Romeo and Juliet, and one of your body paragraphs starts with a sentence about the Capulet's, you could draw a little picture of a basebcall cap next to the topic sentence as a cue.
Ultimately, the most important part of an essay to memorise is quotes. To memorise quotes it can be helpful to visualize the quote like a movie scene, We often remember scenes and lines from movies very well because they trigger many parts of our brain and perception at the same time. So try and visualise the quote and the context like a movie and imagine the character actually saying the quote.
How do I do practice papers? How many is enough?
Practice questions are one of those non-required tasks that we can never conclusively say you’ve done ‘enough’. However, a good method for going through them is as folows:
Stage 1: First two Practice Papers – Open Book, Open Time
This means that you start doing practice papers as soon as possible. Start with two papers, or a whole bunch of text book questions and do them open book and open time. This means that you have all of your own notes available and as much time as you need. Then as you are answering those questions, if you get stumped you can turn to your own notes. If you go through your notes to try and find the answer and it’s not there, that means your notes aren’t finished yet! So it’s a great way for you to check whether or not your notes are complete. Write down which topic point you need to take further notes on, and then after you have finished the paper you know where you have gaps in your knowledge and gaps in your notes.
Stage 2: Next two Practice Papers – Closed Book, Open Time
You still have all the time you need to do the questions, but you now have to do them closed book. This means you can’t look at any notes and have to rely on your memory. If you now get stumped, then make a note of the topic point that you can’t answer and this will help you develop a list of key areas you need to go back and memorise. After the papers, go back and fill the gaps in your knowledge!
Stage 3: Any more after that – Exam Conditions
Notice that this doesn’t say ‘next two’ or ‘last two’! This is because the more you do the better. This process is really straightforward, you now can’t look at your notes and you have a limited time to answer the questions. However, there is one last key point – set yourself up like you are in the exam room. Have a water bottle, your pens, a clock and work through the paper under exam conditions. The more you do in this format, the less intimidated you'll be when it comes to the real thing. If you follow that, you will have a much clearer idea of what is ‘enough’. However, I can hear the burning question through the computer of “where do I get all these questions?!”. Your text book is a great place to start. You can also get individual practice questions from our site here. Also, depending whether you are writing either IEB or NSC exam you can download past papers from the relevant exam websites too. Otherwise, speak to your teachers and ask for more questions that you can have. Last and definitely not least, team up with a friend and write questions for each other! It may sound tricky, but it doesn’t have to be and then you can take in turns to answer each other’s questions. If you make up a few, take them to your teacher to get the all clear and then get answering! Finally, always remember to get feedback on practice questions. Take them to your teacher ask if they’ll mark them for you, then get detailed feedback on what is good and what needs improvement. This will help you know exactly what the teacher is looking for!
Hi there, I find it really hard to concentrate on study when I'm at home because my younger brother and sister make a lot of noise. How can I block them out and focus better?
1 - Get out of the house
It sounds like you may need to find better environments to study. Libraries are a great place to start. Studying in the school library if it is open after school is always a popular suggestion. Public libraries are also always quiet and effective study venues. Even somewhere like a café or a park can be a good option to find a distraction-free study environment.
2 - Unknown music without lyrics
A lot of people find that music is so distracting because they get caught up in the lyrics or the beat of their favourite song. Try listening to music that you haven't heard before and that is purely instrumental. Classical music is the obvious example but if, like a lot of people, you find that boring, you can use some great Spotify playlists for studying, or even film soundtrack (the batman trilogy is my personal favourite).
3 - White noise
White noise can also be used to block out other distractions. Sometimes when I really need to switch on, I’ll put this on in the background. My personal favourite is noisli.com which allows you to customize the type of noise you want in the background. They have sounds of a crackling fire, the rain, crickets, waves and many more. Also, noise cancelling headphones can help too!
What is the best way to make notes, and should they be typed up or hand-written?
Personally, I found it better to handwrite my notes in my final few years of high school, because it helped build up a tolerance to hand-writing, which is ultimately the way you have to sit your exams. My attitude was that training myself to hand-write is just like training any other particular muscle in the body, it can only be improved through strengthening and training over time. I also found it much easier to hand-draw mind-maps rather than construct them on a computer.
Having said that, many friends of mine chose to write their notes on their computers and found this method equally advantageous. Their rationale was that they did not have any mess which would impact their ability to memorise their notes.
The most important thing is that you take ownership for the notes that you are making. The very last thing that you want to do, regardless of whether they are hand-written or not, is have a 'copy and paste' approach to note-taking. Most students will copy word-for-word what is in their textbook into their notes, without absorbing the information whatsoever! You have to make sure that you convert the information into your own words, or words that you can remember, to guarantee that you are going to be able to remember the content for any longer than 5 minutes.
The easiest way to achieve this is through using trigger words. Trigger words are the one, two or three words which spark a great deal more information on a particular point that we didn’t have to write down. Most students will typically have quite lengthy notes, with long sentences and long dot-points, incorporating words that will have little to no impact on their ability to recall information.
The easiest way therefore to introduce trigger words into your note-taking is to force yourself to be selective about the words that you are using. I found the easiest way to do that was by drawing a dotted line down the middle of my A4 sheet of paper, and saying that I was not going to allow myself to write any bullet points in my notes beyond this half-way mark. This made me think long and hard about what words, for me, would have the greatest likelihood of being able to remember and recall that information, as well as forced me to tackle the content which lead to an increased understanding.
How can I memorise my notes?
When it comes to doing well in exams, one of the most critical things to remember is that your notes, no matter how amazing they are, aren’t any use to you if you can’t recall the information in them to answer questions. So here are two tips that I found really useful in school.
Use a system of review when learning your notes. This is pretty simple – once you’ve written a page of notes, review it immediately. This means reading through everything you’ve written just once. It doesn’t take very long (maybe 1-2 minutes for a fairly detailed page of notes). The research shows us that if you review notes immediately after writing them, there is a far higher chance (up to 80%) of being able to remember them a few weeks later.
The next step is to review your notes 24 hours later. This means if you wrote them on Monday, read through that same page of notes on a Tuesday. This is a pretty simple task that only takes a few minutes, but makes it even more likely you’ll be able to recall the information on your notes in an exam.
Lastly, you want to review your notes monthly – which means getting them out and reading everything you’ve written up until that point. It’s pretty common for students to think (and I was the same) ‘yeah right – that’s going to take ages. No thanks’ – but in truth it doesn’t take as long as you might think. Maybe half an hour to an hour at the end of each month. But what you’ll notice is that as the year marches on and you read through your notes each month, every time you do this you’ll start to get a stronger sense of what’s coming on the next page. By the time you reach exams, you’ll pretty much know what’s going to be on the next page. At this point you’ll realise you won’t really need your notes in front of you – you already know where the information is without needing to look at them!
Colour code information. The research shows us that our brains are amazing when it comes to linking information to different colours. This means if a sub-topic in a subject you’re studying has a colour linked to it, thinking of that colour will serve as a memory aid when you’re trying to recall that information in an exam. My notes in Political and Legal studies had all the names of people I needed to remember in blue, all the dates in green, all the places in red and all the High Court cases in orange. This meant I was able to remember information far more easily when I got stuck – I just thought of the colour. It’s simple, but it works really well for a lot of students. Give it a go!
How could I memorise a diagram of an ear for my Health class?
Diagrams are interesting when it comes to memory, because they are visual. This is advantageous because our minds memorise pictures with greater ease than words or numbers. The difficulty is of course, that you will need to remember words too. In that case, I’d do the following:
- Create the diagram of the ear with the words/labels absent.
- Choose a word. For example ‘Ear drum’
- Create an association between the word, a picture, and the actual picture. For example, draw a drum stick on the ear drum part of the diagram.
- Be creative and link the association. For example, imagine the drumstick drumming on the picture of the ear drum.
- Repeat the process.
By doing this, you are making creative associations between the required words and the pictures. In this way, when you see the picture in your exam, it should trigger the association. Ie. When you look at the diagram, you’ll see in the centre of the ear, an oval shaped object, and you will then visualize the drum stick tapping that part. Then you will know, it is the ear drum. You can repeat this process for all the parts. Remember: the more unique/interesting your mental association – the easier it will be for you to remember. If you use peculiar associations, they work better as they stand out in the mind as being strange.
How can I balance my study and life? I tried to make a study timetable oncce but it didn't work.
The reason why study timetables normally don’t work is because we normally put the wrong thing in the table first, the wrong thing being ‘study’. That probably sounds strange, especially since it is called a “study” timetable? The problem is though, you could almost bet with 100% certainty that if you put the study in first, you probably won’t still be using the timetable 30 days later. So the best way to make a study timetable is by following these steps:
STEP ONE: Identify the activities that you don’t want to take out of your life. Most people aren’t going to be prepared to give up TV, sport, hobbies, or socialising with your friends. Neither are the top students! Most people think that the students who get the best marks are the ones who are chained to their desk by their parents and fed crusts of bread under a flap in their door once a day! Nothing could be further from the truth, and often what you find is that the top students are the ones with the most activities that don’t involve study in their life.
STEP TWO: Put these activities into your timetable first. Don’t freak out if some events don’t occur on a specific day or time – for example, there is no set time for just laying on the couch watching TV or for going on Facebook. Instead, put down when you would normally do these activities.
STEP THREE: Fit the study in around these activities. Remember, when you sit down to study – the goal isn’t to rack up as many hours as you can. The goal is to get specific tasks done. As such, when you sit down at the start of the night – write up a to-do list of everything you want to get done! If it only takes 30 minutes to get the work done – guess what – you can take an early mark. Getting work done is more important than being busy!
STEP FOUR: Don’t designate study time for subjects in advance. One of the things that you normally see when you look at a student’s timetable is that they have blocked out their study time according to subjects. This can cause a few problems: firstly, you end up doing work for work’s sake, as opposed to working on either the most important or urgent work. Instead, when you sit down to study, create a TO-DO list, focusing on what tasks you need to complete for subjects. Write down what work is most urgent (ie. what is due in the next few days) and what is most important (ie. what work is important but not necessarily due in the next few days). Once you have your to-do list, spend the designated “study period” working through these priorities. If you get all of the work done earlier than expected, give yourself an early mark!
STEP FIVE: Don’t freak out! Don’t freak out if you don’t stick to the timetable all the time. Some people think that the goal is to stick to the timetable perfectly. Guess what? It isn’t going to happen. If you try and stick to it all the time you will just get frustrated and throw it out. Instead, think of the timetable as a guideline. Don’t use it as a rule book.
If you want to download a sample study timetable, click here.
How can I stay motivated to study? I often sit down, try to study and then look at the clock and it's only been 20 minutes.
Having a sustained level of motivation through the year is going to be one of the biggest challenges for a student to overcome. Most students will start the year promising to themselves that 'this year is going to be different', only to get two weeks into the year, the work begins to pile up, and the way they approach their studies is exactly the same as any other year they have had at school!
My first piece of advice for you would be: stop looking at the clock!
So many students treat school as though it is a job that they can clock in and clock out of. The problem with this is that they then make the assumption that if they study for two and a half hours a night that is instantly going to mean they are going to get the marks that they want. While the average performing student is looking at the clock, the top performing student is concentrating on what it is that they are actually doing in their study. They are concentrating not only on completing all of the required tasks set by their teacher (homework/assignments/etc), but they also their work beyond this into the non-required tasks (practice papers/making notes through term/extra readings/etc). It does not matter to this type of student how long each particular task takes, but rather they judge the success of their study on how many of these tasks they were able to successfully complete. This does not mean you have to study for 8 hours a night to be a top student however! For example, a top student might say to themselves that they want to complete 5 particular tasks of an evening, and once they have completed them, they will pack up for the night, sometimes it might take them 45 minutes and sometimes it might take them 3 hours.
So when you sit down to study, plan out what things you need to get done that evening, and then go ahead and tick them off. It is a very satisfying feeling when you can see the progress you are making through your study, and you can take it from me that these small wins that you achieve over time have a huge impact on your motivation!
My second piece of advice would be: get yourself a goal!
One of the things that became quite obvious through our research is that the top performing students have the greatest emotional connection to their goal. They knew exactly what the study that they were doing in high school contributed towards beyond their final exams. If you haven't thought about what you might like to do beyond high school, I would highly recommend sitting down with your Careers Advisor and chatting about your interests. They will be able to give you all the different ways that you might be able to pursue that interest beyond high school, as well as letting you know what particular marks you might need as well. Careers Advisors are also fantastic resources for Faculty Handbooks (for particular university courses) as well as information on particular university open days. Once you expose yourself to these resources, you can guarantee this will help you develop a stronger emotional connection to your goal, which might be the difference between you deciding to do the work (because you know if you don't you might be comprising your ability to reach the goal your have set for yourself), or procrastinating and watching another Youtube video video!
I'm having a horrible time trying to overcome procrastination. What can I try? My parents won't let me go and work in the library after school.
The best way to try and cut out procrastination is to look at the reasons why we procrastinate. There are 3 main reasons that people procrastinate:
- They have a lack of motivation
If you find that you are lacking motivation to study, the key solution is to try and
work out what you are working towards. Start researching your options after
school and create a goal to work towards.
- They are overwhelmed by a task
For overwhelming tasks, the key is to break them down into smaller chunks that
are more manageable. Creating to-do lists of small, simple to achieve tasks is a
great way to motivate yourself. Check out an article on short-term planners here.
Often we procrastinate because we perceive the task at hand as taking too long or being too hard for us so we delay starting. Overcoming this fear of starting can involved looking at the task and separating it out into as many bite sized pieces as possible. For example, if you have to write an English essay, rather than making the task “write essay”, you should break it down into the following parts.
- Plan essay
- Break each section of essay into main points
- Point 1
- Point 2
iii. Point 3
- Then simply write the essay in sections. Begin by writing the introduction and give yourself a short break after that.
In this way we are able to see exactly what it takes to get the daunting task done. When we see the roadmap in front of us, it is important to just take small steps. One sub-task at a time will make it easier for you to complete the larger task in question.
- They simply dislike the task
Another method involves making study fun. You can study with friends if this means that you will be able to study for longer periods.
If you are not allowed to work in the library after school, it is worth simply finding a good space at home that is free from distractions and studying from there. If you have trouble with things like the internet and social media, it is worth exploring procrastination/productivity apps such as “focus me” and “cold turkey” which allow you to block websites while you study.
For some more detailed information, have a read of ‘Step 3: Pack the Essentials’ in our book, The Science of Student Success.
How do I make exam-notes?
Generally speaking we don’t recommend making notes specifically for exams, but rather relying upon a good set of notes that you’ve made over the course of the year. This saves on doubling up on the same work and it allows you to focus on the important stuff like memorising those notes, getting a deeper understanding, and demonstrating your understanding through practice papers.
2 things to consider when making your notes during the year:
Trigger words: The concept of using trigger words and reducing the amount of words in your notes is not so much about making the notes less overwhelming to look at, but rather ensuring that you can actually find the trigger words. Remember, the more words on the page, the harder it is to find the trigger words which will impact how much you remember. The reason we tend to write descriptive notes is that we think (a) we will forget everything if we don’t include long explanations or (b) that the more information we have on the page, the more information we will remember in an exam, but unfortunately both of these beliefs are misleading.
Reducing the amount of time you spend making notes: the majority of students who write long descriptive notes need to spend time before an exam turning them into summaries. But remember, this time is better spent on practice papers. If you can write shorter, more concise notes, you won’t need to rewrite them before an exam, which will free up time for practice exams.
There are a few really good ways to use mind-mapping when making your notes.
Preparing for exams: using mind-mapping can simplify the process for memorising your notes. One good way to do this is to read over your notes, then draw them up as a mind-map on a whiteboard. Take a mental snapshot of the mind-map then erase the mind-map, and try to draw it out again. When you have successfully completed the mind-map, rub it out and draw it up again. By the third time you will be amazed by how easily and quickly you remember the information.
In exams: When you get into exams, draw out the mind-map in the first few minutes of exams. This means that if you get stuck you basically have your notes in front of you. Similarly, you can also look over the mind-map and see what you should include in your essay so that you don’t leave anything out.
I'm stressed! help!
Well, there are a few tips that you can start to implement, which (if you do them consistently) will help you manage stress.
Time Management – Don’t let work pile up and use your free periods wisely. Nothing breeds stress quite like being completely overwhelmed. If all of a sudden you have an exam or test to study for and you also have homework you have to get done for other subjects then stress levels well start rising. Having foresight when due dates and deadlines are will ensure that you are never caught underprepared. This means you will have plenty of time to study for your tests and exams which will help you feel far more relaxed before you walk in.
Healthy Lifestyle – it may seem obvious and even cliché, but your health and wellbeing are critical to your stress levels. Even though you may only feel really stressed during assessment time, typically this is just when your stress surfaces. Hence, it is key that you are keeping fit and healthy. Physical activity releases endorphins creating a chemical change in your brain which helps to keep you more balanced and relaxed. The same goes for a healthy diet and plenty of sleep. They may seem like the simplest changes, but if you make them, you can be assured you’ll feel a lot more relaxed come exam day!
A good way to stop procrastinating due to stress about study is by doing the following:
1) Identify the stressor: this means that you should ask yourself, “what is it exactly about this study that is making me stressed”
2) Once you’ve identified the stressor, you should write down 3 immediate actions you can take that day to help alleviate the stress. For example, if you run into an area in maths that you don’t understand, you should write down “I am stressed because this area is hard and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong”. Then, you can write down 3 immediate actions such as “1. Email my teacher to make an appointment with them. 2. Read the text book on this section. 3. Call a friend to ask for advice on the topic”.
3) Take action! Once you’ve identified the 3 things, do them immediately. Don’t wait. This will force you to confront what is bothering you which will then allow you to get back to focus and get the grades you’re looking for.
When you get stressed before exams, you should try the following:
- Avoid other people – Weird one I know! However, nothing causes you to stress out just before an exam like frantically trying to cram or guess what is going to come up. The problem is that your friends are usually the ones who are going to test you or check how much study you’ve done. This causes a lot of nervous energy and if you are already stressed, this will only tip you into the dangerous zone. Hence, the best thing to do is to take yourself off and try to think about something completely unrelated. Think about your weekend, the news, whatever it may be – but don’t focus on the exam until you get in there.
- Breathing exercises – usually when we stress we take shorter breaths, which stems the flow of oxygen to our body and therefore our brain and less oxygen means we think less clearly. What we want to do is actually breathe to the bottom of our lungs, so that your stomach visibly moves out. Go through this exercise; breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 6 seconds, breathe out for 4 seconds. Do this two to three times before the start of your exam and you will feel yourself significantly relax.
- Have a strategy – the best way to minimise stress is to have a clear plan. This goes for exams as much as anything! Top students will have a pre-prepared mind-map that they draw in the first few minutes of an exam. Whether it contains all the characters/themes or all the key phrases they might need to know, it gives them support and structure. Stress forces us to make simple mistakes, so having the backing of a mind-map in the exam ensures we have something to check. This will ensure you don’t make any of those simple mistakes which cost you valuable marks
Hopefully that all helps! Great question and all the best with the rest of your assessments!
How does colour coding work for making my Biology notes?
The colour coding system, as you know, is all about separating out information so that it’s easier to remember due to the association between a type of information, and a corresponding colour. As such, the key is to find different types of information and use them accordingly.
For example, in Biology you might colour code as follows:
1. Formulas = red
2. DNA references = blue
3. Cell structure = green
4. Definitions = Purple
That way, when you’re in an exam and you get stuck trying to think about a particular formula, you can think “okay, formulas were in red.” That way, you will automatically reduce the pool of potential pieces of information that you need to recall to only having to recall the “Red” words. Also, if you want some extra tips on Biology, make sure you check out our free video series here.
Friends ask me to join study groups, but I find that I'm wasting my time because I put in more effort so I don't get much in return from them.
It’s important to remember that the point of a study group is to help each other along in the process. Of course, not everyone in the group will be of equal ability, but this can actually be a positive thing. Whilst it may feel that you are not gaining as much by explaining concepts to your friends, you do actually benefit just as much.
By explaining the concepts to other people, you force yourself to put the content and information into words you understand. Rather than simply rote-learning the material (learning it in order), you ensure that you truly understand it. Each time someone asks you a question or prompts you to explain something to them, in essence you are getting extra practice material and questions – which is the best way to learn!
In terms of sharing notes, the best way to avoid feeling cheated is to create a trade system whereby you only can trade notes of equal quality. For example, if you bring in 3 pages of really well set out notes on a topic that contain clear examples etc and someone else shows up with a bit of scribble on a piece of toilet paper, you know you can turn them away and tell them to get their act together. In doing so, you ensure that everybody shows up with the understanding that you only trade notes of equal quality and so people will put in more effort so they can reap the rewards.
How long should I study for? I get distracted really easily...
There’s no right or wrong in terms of how much study you should be doing. The key is to focus on tasks rather than time. When we measure our productivity in terms of how much time we’ve spent studying, we can develop a ‘clock-on, clock-off’ mentality. This means we conflate the idea of sitting at our desk with actually being efficient and getting work done.
One technique you can use to avoid this is to write to-do lists. This is great because there is simply nothing more satisfying that ticking something off a list. The beauty of this technique is that suddenly you will notice yourself being much more efficient and effective, measuring what you’ve achieved in terms of tangible tasks that have been completed rather than an amount of time. Some people get so addicted to this method that they’ll actually complete tasks which aren’t on their list, then write them on the list just so they can get the feeling of ticking things off the list!
Getting distracted and procrastinating is very common indeed! If social media is what distracts you, there are a number of brilliant apps which block social media for you. Instead of other people controlling when you use social media, these apps put the power in your hands! The apps are called ‘FocusMe’, ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Self Control’ (all have awesome names!)
You can use these apps to block social media sites for yourself for as long as you like. For instance, if you want to do a 30 minute power study session, simply plug in Facebook into the app and you wont be able to access Facebook in those 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can give yourself a quota for the week (i.e. 4 hours), and every time you log onto Facebook, your allotment of 4 hours will tick down. Some people get really optimistic and block Instagram for the rest of the term and regret it instantly. Don’t do that. Instead, write yourself a to-do list for a study session, block the site that distracts you for however long you intend to work, then log in after as a reward for working hard.
How can I write better history essays?
The key to writing strong history essays is analysis. Many students fall for the trap of recounting the story of what happened. However, remembering and understanding the story is only half the battle. Teachers assume that we remember the story – the real challenge is being able to analyze why it happened, how it links to other events or ideas, and what we can learn from it.
Always ask yourself the question – why was I taught about this event in history? (The answer is not ‘because my teacher felt like it’!) Think about what significance the event had in the context of the decade or the century. Ask yourself how the event changed the political landscape, or made people think or act differently. If the question asks you why nationalism was one of the key causes of World War I, while it is important to understand what nationalism is, it is more important to be able to argue why it was a key contributor to the rise of tension.
By using strong analysis, backed up by firm evidence such as quotes, dates or facts, you can prove your point effectively. Remember, a quote or piece of evidence is always used to prove your point, not the other way around. If you understand why the event was significant, and can argue your point succinctly and articulately, you can go along way to improving your essays and taking them to the next level.
How do I make sure I only write the essentials in exams but still fit in all my knowledge?
This is a very common problem that students encounter. One of the first things that can go wrong in the exam room is we spend too much time writing on the wrong question. With all this information in your head, particularly on a specific topic, you open the paper and the question is describe x (2 marks), and you’re like “are you serious, I spent 2 weeks revising this! You made me learn it, you’re going to read about it!” Although it’s only a 2 mark question, we spend way too long on it, hoping the marker will give us 4 out of 2.
When an exam paper is being constructed, the markers have in mind how much time, to the minute, you are meant to spend on each question. If you can work out that formula it gives you a guide to know how long to spend on it. The general formula is minutes ÷ marks: that is, if you have 2 hours to do the exam (120 minutes) and there are 20 marks on the paper, you would spend 6 minutes on each mark, meaning that for say, a 2 mark question, you’d spend 12 minutes on it for example.
A good way to keep on track of this is to work out how long you will spend on each question before you get into the exam (as we are always given the amount of marks and amount of writing time before going into the exam). Then, as soon as you start writing, quickly jot down next to each question what time you intend to finish that question. If you can buy 1min here and there across an exam, you get to the end of the paper and you might’ve saved 5mins that allow you to go back and fix up certain questions. If you stick to it, you’re going to get to the end of the paper. Just remember, in every question there’s easy marks and hard marks: you want to be getting the easy marks first and move on.