Not many students would admit to enjoying taking exams or writing essays, but if you want to get a degree, they're an ordeal you have to survive.
So we've worked out how to make the whole thing a little less stressful. We've persuaded four academics from a range of subject areas to tell us the top 10 things students get wrong in exams and coursework. This is what they've told us:
Panic and procrastination
Sometimes a task can feel so overwhelming that it's difficult to begin, says Amber Regis, lecturer in 19th century literature at the University of Sheffield. Procrastination takes over and you just can't seem to get anything done. The bare white page is a formidable foe when it stares back at you, untouched, from the library desk. Try not to panic, protect and manage your preparation time, and don't put off getting started.
Lack of analysis
It can be tempting to parrot everything you know when writing essays and exam answers. But to demonstrate your understanding you should engage critically with your source material. Always assume an informed reader — they do not need a plot summary or biographies of key figures. Read through the marking scheme used by your department. You will notice some very telling words and phrases attached to the highest marks, for example: "originality of interpretation", "astute engagement" and "critical thought". To fulfil these criteria, you must favour analysis.
In exams it's vital that you don't jump the gun. Take the first five to 10 minutes to read through the paper and plan the questions you're going to answer in order of how confident you feel in that subject area, says Bhavik Patel, lecturer in physical and analytical chemistry at University of Brighton. Make sure you secure the marks on the questions that you find easiest to answer first, before attempting questions that are more difficult. The latter often make you lose confidence and time during exam conditions.
Not reading the question properly
When revising, students often rehearse answers in their head. says Roy Jackson, course leader in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. "Although we don't deliberately intend to catch them out in exams, we do set questions that requires them to think and reflect under timed conditions. But instead students will often pick up key words in the question and write out a rehearsed response."
This can be avoided by taking some time to reflect upon the question, rather than seeing that as wasted time and rushing to fill the pages.
Focusing on word count
In both exam responses and coursework, students are often more concerned with quantity rather than quality. The best essays are those that demonstrate evidence of personal reflection and are not just trying to achieve a word limit.
Insufficient reading around a subject
During revision time, students are too selective in what they choose to read, selecting one or two books and remembering as much from those as possible. What comes across in a good essay is confidence, and this can only be achieved by demonstrating plenty of reading on a subject, so that you can be prepared for any question that you come across. This also requires giving yourself plenty of time to read, and not leaving it until a few days before an exam or assignment.
Regurgitating in-class or lecture material
In English we are looking for excitement and originality of thought backed up by evidence and we don't want you to take our formulations as gospel truth, says Martin Eve, lecturer in English literature at the University of Lincoln. Challenge – and think for yourself.
Always make sure your statements are specific and show self-awareness. Do say: "There is no one single representation of working-class life in post-50s British fiction". Don't ever go for something like: "Novels that feature the working class show us that these people..."
Getting characters' names or other basic factual details wrong just smacks of not caring. If you don't care enough to do this correctly when you're paying to be at university, what will an employer think when he or she is paying you?
Spelling, grammar and register
Universities have a standard academic English in which you should write. The best way to become proficient at this is to read a great number of academic journal articles and books and mirror the register, language and tone (but not the content: never plagiarise!). It can also help to write a small amount every day as a form of practice.
How to achieve the best results in your university exams
The end of the semester comes around much more quickly than we expect and catches most students off-guard and not fully prepared for their exams. This time of year can be the most stressful period for students, especially for freshmen and international students in the US. If you’re both a freshman and an international student, you’re under additional strain and the pressure can hit the roof! Don’t worry guys! We’ve put together some top exam tips for you, so just pull yourself together and read on. Your success will be 100% guaranteed if you put these suggestions into practice.
1) Highlight and learn the most important material – Chances are, you’ve got a whole lot of material that you’re supposed to learn in a short space of time and you don’t know where to start. Many students make the mistake of trying to learn everything, focusing on every little detail, and they fail to comprehend the really important, basic stuff.
On the other hand, exam questions tend to be more general, testing your understanding of high-level concepts, with little focus on the details – professors know that most students forget the details and that the basics are what really matter.
So try to skip over the unimportant parts and focus on ‘getting’ the general ideas. Once you’ve fully understood and learned these high-level concepts, then you can move on and drill down to the details. Highlight everything you consider important in your textbook and take summary notes that will jog your memory when you revise the night before the exam.
2) Make sure you have all the materials needed – Often students are not well prepared for an exam because they are not equipped with all the required materials – books, textbooks, notes, articles etc. Don’t leave it till the last minute – make sure you’ve gathered all the materials and try to find additional sources. The more points of view you review, the better prepared you will be. Do your own research – on and offline. Call your friends and fellow students. Call your professors – they will never refuse to help.
3) Don’t wait till the last minute – The exam preparation process starts at the very beginning of the semester. Pay attention in lectures and take time to review your lessons in your free time. Be consistent and do not fall into the trap of thinking you can learn everything in just a day or two!
4) Study together with your friends – Humans are a naturally social animal, so you can be sure that studying in a group will be more fruitful, and certainly more fun, than studying on your own. Moreover, you can consult with your friends on different topics. This will save you a lot of time, which you can invest in further studying. Even if you’re a long distance away from your friends, you can still meet up using social media, internet and mobile communications…welcome to study groups in the 21st century!
5) Take a break the day prior to the exam – Give yourself a little bit of rest and relaxation time the day before the exam. It doesn’t have to be the whole day, but just an hour or two where you get to switch off from intense study. This will give your brain a chance to put some order to your thoughts. Do something you enjoy that normally leaves you feeling relaxed, like a sport or a trip to the cinema. Don’t try to tackle any new material the day before the exam – this should be the time to review your note-cards and to re-read essays that you have already prepared. Most importantly, get to bed early and get a good night’s sleep before the big day.
6) Do not panic – This might sound like a cliché, however it is crucial in terms of success. There’s no room for panic when it comes to exam-time at university. Remain calm no matter what! Your first exam as an international student can be scary, but you’ll gain valuable experience and this will help you to stay calm in stressful situations in the future.
Feeling better now? We bet you do! Remember – these are just some guidelines! It’s entirely up to you whether you achieve good results or not.
And what is your secret for getting great results in the exams? Share your top tips with us in the comments below.
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