7-steps to revising for essay-based exams
This article was written by Kevin R.
University exams can be daunting. They are very different from school exams. There is often more material, but fewer questions. An entire semesters worth of material can sometimes be assessed on the basis of two essay questions. To do well, you need to construct a solid and convincing argument, and often need to cite specific literature, including the author and date of the research. This can seem impossible if you have never done it before!
In my first year of exams at University of Edinburgh, I barely understood the expectations of my exams let alone how to do well on them. Over the next three years I improved my approach to exam revision and by my final year, I achieved firsts on all my exams.
Here I share my exam revision method. It is important to remember that everyone is different, so it is important to find an approach that works for you. But this is what worked for me, and if you are intimidated or have found yourself struggling, it could work for you too!
Review material and make a module guide
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This one is pretty simple. Go through the lectures, tutorials, your own notes, and your coursework. Make a new set of notes that outlines the whole module, including key ideas, concepts, research and readings (highlighting readings which you havent done would be helpful at this stage!).
Even if you will only need to know a couple of topics for the exam, courses are often designed so that all parts are connected in some way. Having a good understanding of the overall course will be helpful in understanding topics in greater detail. This is also a good way of spotting which aspects you are stronger or weaker on. If there is a part of the course you are struggling with, you can meet with your tutor to review these.
Use past papers
By this stage, it should be safe to look at the past papers without risk of causing a panic attack you will have just reviewed the whole module will likely have at least an understanding of what the question is asking and what you might say, if not an idea for an argument.
When looking at past papers, I like to copy and paste relevant questions into a word document (sometimes the syllabus changes and it will be clear that a question or two was not covered this year). This allows you to more easily look at the past few years all together, and cluster questions by topic. Sometimes you will see exact questions repeated over the years! This gives you a good direction for the rest of revision. You can choose topics/questions that have come up frequently and study those in more detail. If the exam involves picking two questions from a choice of six, I would recommend choosing for questions to revise.
Once you have your topics picked out, its a great idea to go beyond the compulsory reading list to the optional or further readings section of the syllabus. Discussing further reading in an exam essay is a sure fire way to impress the marker! You can add notes from these readings to the module guide from step 1.
Another tip at this stage you will only need to know the key findings from the research. You probably will not have enough time in the exam to discuss readings in detail. So you have permission to skip the complicated methods section just know the context, key findings, authors and year!
Make condensed notes
With additional reading now included in the module guide, you can make a condensed set of notes of just the topics you have chosen to focus on. This might include definitions, and key readings with a sentence or two about the findings. I like to handwrite these writing by hand has been proven to help you remember things! You can make it more fun by adding coloured pens.
Flash cards of key concepts, definitions, and papers
It is really helpful to make flashcards, particularly for the readings. Having the authors and date on one side with the key findings on the other is a great way to commit the literature to memory. I like to use online flash cards there are websites you can use to make them and that have different games you can play with them. Its a great break from all the reading and writing!
Make essay plans including thesis, key arguments, and papers that support those arguments
Choose some of the questions from the past papers and make plans for how you would respond.
I like to break the essay down into five or six parts:
Introduction (including thesis)
Counterargument (if available)
Each argument and the counterargument should be complemented with the readings. It is helpful to think about the readings in how they support specific arguments.
Play with the flashcards and rewrite the plans until they are committed to memory!
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This is the tried and tested revision method I’ve been using since college to pass essay based exams. The 3 R’s of revision…
Missed a lecture or two? Maybe fell asleep halfway through? Recap is going to become your best friend over the Easter holidays in helping you fill up any gaps you have in your notes. Another thing I always find useful is to only write down what your lecturer is saying that ISN’T already on the slide.
Once recapped you’ve got the basic skeleton of your essay down, now it’s time to put some meat on the bones. Chances are you’ve got a massive reading list for each lecture. If you have no idea where to start I’d recommend following up any references already mentioned in the lecture, especially when it comes to case studies. Having relevant examples/case studies are MUST in essay based exams
Every essay introduction should start with a basic definition, so look at the first few essential readings on your list, and pick out a definition you think sounds best. Work your way from there. I’d recommend including no more than three references already mentioned in the lecture or on the essential reading in your essay plan. In order to get those 2:1’s you need to show evidence that you’ve gone beyond the reading list and found your own material. So it’s best to get into the habit straight away. Looking at references within references is always a good idea, so picking a key author and seeing who they mention.
The same thing goes for your case studies and examples, refrain from just regurgitating the example your lecturer gave and try to find your own. Especially with a subject like human geography think about current events in the news, even if it is a basic example it will show the examiner that you’ve understood the concept/topic.
This is my golden rule. What works best for me is firstly yes understanding the topic you’re writing about, but also actually MEMORISING your essay plans.
*Warning- Do not underestimate the amount of time this step takes*
There is a general consensus amongst psychologists that the most effective way to remember information is through REHEARSAL. Yes, you could probably cram a few days before but again, studies show that your short term memory can only retain 7+/- 2 pieces of information at any given time. So the TRICK is to get information into your LONG TERM MEMORY. And the only way I’m afraid is by going over your essay plans again and again. So highlight, make cue cards, say them out loud, listen to them, use pictures. Do whatever works for you but remember to keep going over them as much as possible.
When something is in your long term memory you have the ability to retrieve it at any time, so this way if you already have say 4 potential essay plans memorised it will save loads of thinking time in the exam.