That headline was a “teaser”, something to attract your attention, because nothing can really make exams feel easy except hard work. But how to utilise your hard work to best advantage?
The Romans had a saying “Mens sana in corpore sano”, meaning “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. They knew a thing or two, these Romans, for the best way to alleviate stress is to get and stay healthy. Caffeine and alcohol may seem like good short-term stress relievers, but their effects are just that – short-term. The best way to deal with the stress of exam revision is to ensure that you eat sensibly, keep alcohol and caffeine intake down to a minimum and factor exercise into your revision plans.
At the beginning of the lead up to your exams:
How many hours a day can you reasonably study? You can actually cover a great deal in 8 hours if you apply yourself with concentration. You will also need time for sleeping, eating, relaxing, shopping, cooking, travelling and any other essential activities. Scheduling these will mean that you have acknowledged them and allocated space for them so that you don’t need to waste time when you should be studying thinking about when you are going to have lunch or whizz round the supermarket. At the beginning of each week revisit your plan in the light of what you have achieved so far.
When you are drawing up your schedule leave a 5-10 minute gap between each one hour study period. Use this to get some refreshment, take a quick walk round the block, stretch out on the floor and close your eyes – anything to refresh your mind before you start work again. Your brain needs these short rest periods to recover and to process what you have just been studying. Filling every waking hour with work, or almost as bad, deceiving yourself that sitting at a desk for hours on end thinking about working is working, is very counterproductive. To make sure that you give your brain the best chance, factor in some positive pleasure every day that you can look forward to, even if it is only collapsing in front of your favourite television programme for an hour. A change of scenery would be better – a trip to the cinema or the gym, meeting friends – than sitting cramped over books feeling sorry for yourself with a brain that is so exhausted that it can no longer absorb anything.
Don’t simply read through your notes, close your file and assume that you have “done your revision”. To be effective try operating on a 4 stage process:
(4) Take a short 5-10 minute break during which your brain will process what you have just been studying.
Looking through old exam papers should help you to identify themes and even likely questions. But how would you answer them? Again jot down quick answers. This has 2 main benefits. First it enables you to identify gaps in your knowledge which you must fill and second you will gain practice in analysing questions quickly, but don’t waste your time writing down long answers.
Small postcard-sized cards can be very useful for repeatedly testing your recollection of key words (such as a case name) or of key phrases. Write the question on one side and the answer on the other.
You can play a quick fun game with yourself to see how many you get right. Whittle down the pile until you know them all – or play this game with a ‘study buddy’.
Don't panic alone! Thanks to Brymo for image CC licence flickr.com You may find having a “study buddy” is helpful. This is not necessarily your best friend in your class. Unless you study with someone who has a good work ethic and who can study for the same amount of time as you, this could do more harm than good. The time you allocate to working together can easily degenerate into a gossip or worse still, a “Let’s have another class of wine!” session. Having a study buddy session can however be very useful when you come to looking at exam questions as you may each see different things in the questions and may be able to share some exam answering techniques.
What you should avoid is the everybody-round-the-table-with-their-books session. This will almost inevitably turn into a social event or lead to a bravado commitment to an “all-nighter”. All-nighters are a bad thing; when you start work again the next day you will not have had the opportunity to relax and process information and you will be too tired and probably demoralised to engage in productive study.
...Good luck and remember that it will all be worth it in the end.
Many thanks to Elizabeth Cruickshank and Professor Penny Cooper of The City Law School for this Learnmore contribution. They are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) which has been subsequently been published in 2010 editions in China and Nigeria.