Exams – revision too little, too late?

With two weeks to go before four exams in one day, I’ve started revision, or rather, as I’ve discovered, I’ve started to actually engage with the horticulture course I enrolled on last September.

At that point, in September, the teacher told us that the course required at least 8 hours of self-study per week, additional to the one face-to-face day in the classroom.  If only I’d paid attention and done more than the one day of classroom attendance. 

Why haven’t I properly engaged with it till now?  I ask myself.  Thinking on this question suggests three answers.  None of them are the right or only answer.  They’ve each had a part to play in my being where I am now. 

First – the teacher’s delivery style has a lot to do with student engagement or lack of engagement.  My first career was as a teacher and I ended up teaching people to be teachers.  I learned that teacher enthusiasm for the topic is not enough, the teacher has use strategies and techniques to help the students participate in that enthusiasm. 

Four weeks into the course, I was asked by the teacher if I would stay behind as he wanted to ‘have a word’ with me. He’d noticed (rightly) that I fell asleep in the class.  So not only was I not doing the self-study, my ‘attendance’ was patchy at best.

I know why I fell asleep – his teaching was entirely one-way, there was no group work, no invited interaction from classmates, no activities or approaches that invited maintaining alert participation.   I suggested he could make it more interactive, but he bristled a bit at that.  However, after the ‘words’ I sent him a note:

‘Apologies once again for nodding off in the class.  I’ve been doing a fair bit of research on this and find it is a very common experience of students – across the world and all ages. 

There is less on why this is, but this piece is interesting, it says:  

‘The data shows that student attention level takes a dive, approximately 10 minutes into a lesson.  This is a natural occurrence (and I believe the reason YouTube videos were initially limited to <9 minutes), but can be dealt with by a good instructor.  The problem is most instructors (particularly at the university level) know next to nothing about the learning process and instructional theory. ‘

And so is this which has the following specific recommendations for teachers:  ‘… introduce variation every ten minutes, such as engaging the students by asking a question, or changing the delivery style. With enough stimulation, variety and motivation, we can usually overcome a certain level of sleepiness.’

And there are many strategies for the student to try – which I will have a go at next week.’

The teacher’s response to my email was ‘that’s very interesting’. 

I told various people about my falling asleep in class.  It turns out that they could all tell a similar story and each had strategies for keeping themselves awake.  I tried a good range –  chewing gum, mints, pinching the inside of my wrist, coffee (a flask of), drinking water, asking lots of questions, water spritzing my face, standing up/going to toilet, arm exercising with my resistance band (surreptitiously).  

My strategies worked to keep me awake even though he didn’t change his teaching style.  However, at half term he announced that we were getting a new teacher. This new guy turns out to be much more engaging in his delivery and I’m alert and involved the whole day without needing ‘stay awake’ activities.   But I still didn’t start the 8 hours per week of self-study.

My second reason is for not engaging earlier is that I hadn’t made the self-study a priority, in the way I did with previous study courses.  My A levels, degree programmes, and some professional training that have involved terminal exams, I’ve made central to my routine, I had a clear purpose in wanting to pass the exams.  In this case, I’m taking a course out of interest. 

I did have a clear purpose when I began – of running a balcony gardening business – but that has been derailed.  Thus, I have not woven the study into my day-to-day routine.  Although I’d start each day with the intention of working through a past exam paper or course unit, I didn’t because I chose to use the time on other things.  The tips and techniques in the various books I’ve read, in recent years, on prioritising e.g.  Getting things done,  Super Structured, 4000 weeks. … I’ve ignored.

The third reason for non-engagement is a feeling almost of paralysis. I feel I’ve lost the ability and skills I had years ago to be a student.  

The last real exam I did was in 1996 when I decided I would support my daughter who was having difficulties with her GCSE Maths.  I enrolled in a maths evening class and we used to compare homework and commiserate with our difficulties with the topic.   I remember walking into the exam hall, a bag of nerves, to find I had arrived with a half-litre of water spilled in the bottom of my bag (I hadn’t screwed the water bottle top on tightly enough), and without my calculator.  The invigilator’s look was indecipherable!  But my daughter and I both scraped a pass.   

The previous exam to that had been in 1970 – my undergraduate exams.  For those, months in advance, I had a comprehensive revision schedule that I followed to the letter.  I carried flashcards in my bag so any spare moment I could be revising, I had bullet point notes pinned up around the house and immersed myself in the topics. 

Now the horticulture exams are in two weeks and I am in panic revision mode.  I know I haven’t picked up enough through just reading the texts, skimming horticulture magazines, and sitting in class, to get through the exams. 

I’m now writing flashcards, papering the walls with bullet point model answers, writing answers to past paper questions, reciting definitions, learning the mnemonics that I’m told will help and following the spaced repetition learning technique.  Only getting the results will reveal whether this very late action will be enough to pass.  

What are your exam memories and tips?  Let me know.

Image: The Exam Room

One thought on “Exams – revision too little, too late?”

  1. I think you are an outlier. Most (i.e. me) students will not even begin to think about cracking a book until three days before the exam.


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