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How to prepare for your Science exams and survive the stress!

Posted on July 24, 2019 by Brendon Page-Green

Part 1: The Introduction

So…you’ve spent months working through the textbook. Days of your life have passed while you were toiling away at making copious notes and summaries. You’ve finally completed the coursework and

while all your (non-science subject) friends were having a joyous, carefree time frolicking about enjoying “having a life”, you were slogging through the assignments.

Exams are coming and if you’re feeling relaxed and confident about your study plan and prospects in the forthcoming challenge, “Well splendid!” I say, dear reader. No need to read any further! But if there’s a gut-wrenching feeling of dread and anxiety in your belly, for instance, ask yourself:

  • Does your outlook match that of being back in a time and place when there were Viking raiders?
  • Does it feel as if there could be current and reliable reports of longboats?

LONGBOATS!!!

Yes! Longboats filled with blood-thirsty raving maniacs sacking and looting up the coast, not far from your village…

Once again, you may be asking yourself: “WHAT SHOULD I DO?”

A good question…A fine and sensible question – and fortunately one which I, as the scarred and battered survivor of many desperate academic campaigns and scholarly endeavours, can answer.

Whilst I may not be a member of MENSA, I do know about low tactics, vicious hand-to-hand street fighting and the guerrilla strategies that can get you through this.

Read on, dear student, for there is indeed a chance that you might survive the onslaught.

Dark days are ahead, but if your heart and intent is in the right place and if you are ready to “fight for your life”, well you might even get an “A”. Everything depends on how you face the challenge.

The important thing here is to formulate a plan, and then stick to it.

We will run through the basic considerations and cover the key points that a solid plan should include. At this stage it is very important that you have already established a few details:

  1. How long are you able to work at a time while maintaining concentration?

It’s no good, for example, devising a plan that will only see you through all the material if you study for 16 hours a day! We need to be realistic here.

  1. What are your other commitments in terms of subjects to study?

Obviously, I would advise you that the Sciences are your most important objective, but some of the other “lesser” subjects can be important as far as completing your credit requirements are concerned.

  1. How much time do you have?

You can go on making the most elaborate plans, but if you have left things to the last minute you are really going to need to focus on the essentials.

  1. In each case here, we are making some vital assumptions:
  • That you’ve actually completed the course and have read through the entire coursework book and textbook;
  • That you have an overall grasp of the syllabus; and
  • That you have a good idea of how long it takes you to cover a section.

If we are on the same page in this regard, we can now get started on formulating your plan. In broad terms we are looking at a scenario like this:

Below, I have prepared this highly-professional-looking graphic using cutting-edge digital media tools and the awe-inspiring extent of my design abilities…(seriously?). We will want you to draw up something similar on your own terms. As you see, it doesn’t have to be fancy!

Now let’s turn our attention to each of the points in the graphic above, and discuss what to do about them in your context. We are talking about:

Part 2: Formulating your D.E.R.S. (Defensive Exam Revision Strategy)

Why should your strategy be “defensive”?

Mao Zedong opined that "the only real defence is active defence", meaning defence for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive (The Best Defence is a Good Offense, 2018).

We are “in it to win it” so we are aiming for the best possible results. Nerves, stress and anxiety are all distractions and will deplete your reserves which are much better used for active study. So, by setting up the strategy, you can then concentrate 100% on the task at hand. There will be no wasted time or energy or wondering how best to proceed.

Point 1: The Background

As mentioned previously, make sure that you’ve covered the foundations first. There is no point in proceeding if you have not. We are assuming that you have been through the entire course.

Point 2: Materials

To be effective you must have all your resources together – there must be no loose pages, missing documents or random pile of papers to work through.

Your assignments are one of the most important resources at this stage, since each one is a “test” of your understanding of the section covered. They should already be completed, including the review of all corrections.

Point 3: 1st Level Revision

Ideally you would have already covered this point as part of your preliminary studies. If not, there is quite a lot of work ahead of you! You are well advised to make detailed summaries of each chapter covered.

No point (or time!) to re-invent the wheel here… focus on the main details, making sure you have the essentials on:

  • All the definitions and key terminology
  • Equations and formulae that are used
  • Units, as well as the interchange between the units, e.g. how force can be measured in N, but also expressed as Kg.m.s-2

Lastly, check against the current syllabus to ensure that nothing has been left out.

Point 4: Consolidation

Here is where you bring everything together. You need to check that you understand everything that you’ve covered. In the next stages of preparation, we are focusing on application and recall of knowledge.

By then there can be no time spent trying to figure out concepts. Everything must be cleared up now.

When you’ve read through all the summaries, you should go over all the assignments, and feel confident that you could get 90-100% for each of them.

Point 5: Next Level Revision

Here is where many students fall into the “Comfort Trap”. It’s quite a reasonable mistake to make and is basic human nature at work. You don’t feel quite confident in your grasp of the theory. You don’t quite remember all the equations or definitions. Your conscience is nagging at you to be productive, so what do you do?

Return to the textbook, re-reading your summaries and going over all the material again! In some cases, I’ve heard of students making shorter “edited” versions of their summaries.

But all this is doing is to take up precious time with minimal effective productivity. Keeping yourself busy is the “Comfort Trap” because you’ve convinced yourself that you’re working hard and are therefore being diligent.

In fact, all that is really happening is that you are going around in circles. The Sciences are practical subjects, so the sooner you are able to get practising, the better!

At this point, a change in tactics is required. It may feel a little risky, since you may prefer to keep cycling the hamster wheel till you are “comfortable”. But actually, you will be able to make much better progress if you follow the advice below:

You need to download a supply of past papers.

Apart from the official Cambridge student support site, two sites I find very helpful are:

There are abundant other sources online. All you need to do is search for “past papers” and the subject name. I advise a minimum of 3 of each type, including the memos. To be on the thorough side, aim towards 10 of each.

Each paper is, of course, a complete revision of the entire syllabus.

So, I advise working through at least 3 of each.

  • Take as long as you need to complete each paper as thoroughly as possible.
  • Use any resources you need (summaries, notes, textbook etc) to make the best answers you can –

the point here is to get a solid review of the theory and revision of the calculations.

  • Assess your paper from the memo and use this process to guide you as far as areas where your knowledge is a bit weak are concerned.

Rigorously revise any areas where you are losing marks and make sure you understand how the marks were lost.

This is a “copy-and-paste” process. Work through the papers until you are achieving your minimum “Target Score”. Under the circumstances, this should be around 80%. Then proceed to the next step.

Point 6: Exam Training

This is also known as the “moment of truth” time. There is no amount of practice that will substitute for the real thing. You have made a lot of preparation to reach this point, but now it’s time to test yourself.

Writing each paper under “Exam Conditions” and grading them will give you good insight into your actual probable outcome.

Thorough revision of errors and lost marks will give the final level of preparation. Finally, when you feel you are reaching close to your target grade, you need some objective assessment.

This is when you should contact CambriLearn to request your mock exams. This will give a better insight into your potential grades, since self-assessment can be somewhat biased.

Point 7: Final Stage Revision

Having seen your mock papers and reviewed the corrections, you have now completed the full cycle of preparation. All that remains is to keep reviewing your definitions and the formulae. This should not require a lot of additional effort on your part. Think of it more as “maintenance”. In the days before your exam, all that should remain is the light revision of your summaries.

Part 3: The Conclusion

Keep focused on your objectives, remind yourself what you are attempting to achieve, and why.

This will make it easier to commit to the process ahead…

…and good luck with those pesky Vikings!

Sources:

Wikipedia contributors, 'The best defence is a good offense', Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 27 June 2018, 06:19 UTC, <https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_best_defense_is_a_good_offense&oldid=847704883> [accessed 15 July 2019]