How to Revise

Students often worry about what to revise. The more lectures and seminars you have attended and the more course material you have read the easier this will be but even if you’re approaching your exams in last minute panic mode, there are simple approaches which can make your working time more effective. What should you revise? I’d love to say, ‘everything, in depth’ but let’s be realistic.

Look at course notes, handouts etc to identify key themes in different texts. What issues have your lecturers raised? There are usually clues in lectures & seminars! Certain issues will keep cropping up ie they’re worth looking at.
Above all: keep calm & keep revising.

How to Choose Exam Questions

This is probably the thing that has always worried my students most: seeing an exam paper and feeling that all the questions are impossible.

First the bad news: there will probably be questions that you feel you can’t do (and indeed perhaps that you can’t).

The good news: you don’t have to answer every question!

If the paper is a nice surprise and you feel you can tackle several questions:

DO NOT simply pick the question you like most. Pick the question you can answer best. Essays are arguments so picking the right question for you means choosing the one you can construct the best argument for. This may mean that you can answer a question on your favourite text, it may not.

The obvious tip: read the paper carefully but fairly quickly, marking questions you think may be good for you, then decide which you can answer best.

If the paper is a nightmare tailored to drive you to despair:

It’s not as bad as you think (unless you didn’t attend any seminars or lectures and didn’t read any of the set texts, in which case it might be). 🙂

Choose the question that you hate least / find least impossible. Cross off all the ‘impossible’ ones and you’ll be left with one that is possible (even though you probably hate it).

Sometimes in life there are no ‘good’ options so all you can do is choose the least ‘bad’!

The same is true of exams.

Which question should I do first?

This is crucial: if you’re doing an exam with more than 1 essay, do the essay you expect to do best first. Do not leave the best to last! There are exceptions to this rule eg if you need to write an essay to get into the right mind-set but the principle is the same: give the best of your time and energy to the essays which will enable you to show your abilities to best advantage.

If you have a 3 hour exam with 3 questions and you feel confident on 1, fairly confident on another and are really not happy about the 3rd then take 5 or 10 mins from each of your weaker questions and add them to the time you allow yourself for your strongest question. This still means that you have 50 mins for your weakest question. By the time you get to it you may find it easier than you expected. If you know that the last question will be a disaster then it might be sensible to take more time from that question to add to the earlier ones but make sure that you still write that 3rd essay.

It’s a question of simple maths. If you are expected to do 3 essays and you only write 2, you get 0 for your 3rd essay. However brilliant your 1st 2 essays, your final mark will suffer dreadfully.

Always make sure that you answer all of the questions.

In degree-level exams it’s relatively easy to get the first 40 marks or so to pass. It’s much more difficult to get the next 20 marks and more difficult again to get marks in the top range. It’s pretty darned easy to get 30 marks for an essay. Yes it’s a fail but if the mark will still contribute to your overall mark it’s well worth doing.

Please ask your tutor about overall marks and how they’re calculated. In the universities I worked in individual essays were given individual marks and we then calculated an overall mark based on those 3 marks. It’s a very common system but there may be variations so please confirm how the exam works with your tutor.

Read the Paper!

Everyone knows this is vital but people often forget when under pressure.
Read the rubric:

how many questions do you have to answer?

does the paper have 1 section or several?

do you have to answer at least 1 question per section?

are there restrictions on which writers / texts you can write on?

Read the question:

Underline key words in the question. This will help you to stay relevant and to answer every bit of the question.

Keep glancing at the question every so often to check that you’re actually answering it!

Be Relevant

Don’t waste time writing about anything which doesn’t answer the question: don’t tell the examiner when a writer was born, the history of the period etc unless it’s relevant. If you’re asked to discuss politics then of course a few points on political history would be great but only if they are relevant to the question.

If in doubt, imagine you’re a lawyer having to defend your case in court. ‘I feel’ won’t cut it 🙂 .

You need to establish a clear argument and provide a series of relevant points to make your argument convincing.

See my notes on writing essays for more info on how to construct relevant convincing arguments.

If you find yourself trying to force what you know to fit the question, you’re probably straying into irrelevance.  Don’t start with what you know and try to write it down come what may, start with the question and then answer it. You may feel that it’s tragic not to let the examiner see that you know a lot about another subject but we cannot give marks for irrelevant material, however interesting it may be.

If you find yourself trying to force what you’re writing to make it appear relevant, re-focus your energies into actually being relevant instead. Examiners can spot irrelevance a mile off.

Read the question and answer it. Be brutal with yourself so that your examiner won’t have to be!

Quick tests for relevance: if I had to defend this material in court, would I be confident in front of the judge? If I had to take part in a debate on television, would I choose to use these points?

Break down questions into blocks

This helps to structure the essay and makes sure you deal with each part of the question. I would suggest that you underline key phrases / words and then keep glancing at them to check that you’re on track.

eg. Are Chaucer’s characters all caricatures?
The question has three ‘blocks’: ‘characters’, ‘all’ and ‘caricatures’.

If you find it helpful to write a quick plan, take 5 mins and jot down relevant points, textual references or quotations in shortened form. An exam essay plan should help you to remember things and to stay relevant. If you write everything out in full for your plan you are wasting valuable time.

How long should an exam essay be?

This is something that has always worried my students. Please believe me that the quality of the exam essay is much more important than its length! I’ve seen exam essays from 1 sentence (I kid you not) to over 8 pages. On average a degree-level exam essay is 2 to 4 pages but this depends on the size of handwriting to some extent.

It is better to write 2 pages of relevant material than 6 pages of repetition and irrelevance. 

How do I get better marks?

The simple truth is that ‘points mean prizes’: the more relevant points you make (points of argument supported by textual reference, relevant points of socio-political history, reference to other writers) the more marks you will get.

Don’t describe the text, don’t simply recount the plot – analyse it.

Don’t waste time with a lengthy introduction – just get on with answering the question.

Don’t waste time writing a lengthy essay plan. If it will help, give yourself 5 mins to jot down notes and then get on with it!

Using quotations to support your argument is helpful but simply throwing quotations into your answer because you want to show that you know then (even though you know they’re not relevant) is not.

Irrelevance (however interesting) detracts from your argument and weakens it.

When you’re trying to learn quotations try to focus on short quotations which are clearly relevant to key issues.

If you can’t remember quotations under pressure, detailed textual reference also shows that you know the text and is a good way of supporting your argument.

Quotations and Textual Reference

Quotations and textual reference are both forms of textual evidence, which is vital in supporting your argument. ‘I feel’ or ‘I think’ isn’t an argument, it’s an unsupported assertion.

‘Defoe argues’, ‘The text demonstrates’ + quotation / detailed textual reference is an argument. You should aim to support each of your points with textual evidence.

A quotation is when you can remember the exact words (in the right order!) from a text.

Textual reference is when you refer in detail to a relevant bit of the text. Be careful not to simply paraphase and please don’t just tell the story! The key is to refer in detail to the relevant bits of the text and to demonstrate why they’re significant.

Common Errors

Write an essay on any one of the following themes in two or more of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Measure For Measure and The Tempest: nature, power, law, dreams, sexuality, hypocrisy, magic, justice, innocence.
It’s obvious but make sure you read the question carefully: it requires a discussion of
one theme in two plays.

Write on vision or on memory in Edward Thomas, with reference to at least three of his poems.
one subject in at least three (but hopefully more!) poems.

What’s the point of an exam?

It’s a way of demonstrating that students know the texts / material and can relate what they know to the question and answer it relevantly and coherently.

There are sound reasons why exams work as a form of assessment but of course they are also a highly effective means of torturing both students and examiners 🙂 Good luck everyone.

See the blog for posts on how to do well in exams.