The first rule is the old adage “Practice makes perfect”. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect yourself to run a marathon after jogging for a few weeks, you can’t expect yourself to consistently focus for up to three hours straight if you haven’t trained yourself to do so. When you study, use a timer to slowly increase the amount of time you spend with your undivided attention on your work. If you lose concentration, don’t worry, just take note of it, and try to get back to work.
Practice also helps with information retrieval. Every time the brain retrieves knowledge, it reinforces the pathway that it uses. Think about it like a highway – as the road increases in traffic, the government has to accommodate and increase the quality of the road, and the number of lanes. The best way to maximise this effect is by applying the knowledge you have learnt in a critical way, which means trying to create your own definitions, put two or more ideas together, or apply a method called rubber duck debugging. Rubber Duck Debugging is where you try and verbally explain a concept or problem to someone who doesn’t know anything about the topic. This forces you to think about the subject in a way which you might not be used to, and can reveal the underlying concepts behind the content you have to learn.
Above all, the most efficient way to study is to take practice tests. These are useful because they familiarise you with the format of the HSC exam, what kinds of questions they might ask you, as well as the amount of writing space you may have for a response. The difficulty of practice tests can be changed by using timers and written notes. Start with open-book, no-timer tests, and work your way up to timed, closed-book exams.
HSC exams aren’t just about getting the knowledge down; if you can’t manage your time effectively, you may lose the opportunity to dazzle the marker with all the knowledge you have accumulated all year! One of the biggest obstacles in the exam room is your own focus. Thankfully, we have some easy tips to make sure you can stay on target, and do the best that you can do.
Many HSC exams, especially in content-heavy subjects, contain multiple-choice sections. Multiple-choice questions are often overlooked in exams because they employ lower-order thinking such as recall, rather than the time and energy-intensive process of putting an extended response together. Moreover, unlike some university exams, the HSC is not negatively marked, meaning that there is no punishment for incorrect answers. Therefore it is well within your interest to learn some easy tactics that will help you earn those extra marks.
The golden rule is to always select the most correct answer. If there are two answers, look for the more specifically correct option. Also, make sure you answer all questions. If you are finding that you are spending too long on an answer, circle the relevant question, and make a mark on the top left or right hand side of your booklet (depending on the page) and move on. The answer may come to you later. The multiple choice section is a great way to buy extra essay time, and unnecessary deliberation should be avoided at all costs.
One of the most common pitfalls is misreading the question. The time demands of HSC exams makes it more likely that you will quickly read the question, and interpret it as what you think the question or the answer most likely is based on your experience. There are a few remedies to this issue. Firstly, look for negatives and double negatives. Incorrectly reading whether a question is looking for the correct answer, the incorrect answer or the not incorrect answer is a quick way to lose a mark, even if you know the content well. Keep your eyes peeled. After you’ve read the question, try to answer it before you look at the answers. Finally, trust your knowledge, not your instincts. The idea that you shouldn’t change your first answer was disproven by twenty separate studies that the percentage of ‘right to wrong’ changes was 20.2%, while ‘wrong to right’ changes had a 57% chance of being correct.
If you are completely stumped, here are some tips on making intelligent guesses, which are centred around maximising your odds of a correct answer. In general, most multiple choice answers will have one answer which is completely incorrect, and 1-2 answers which are almost correct. Try to eliminate as many answers as possible. Eliminating one answer of a four-answer question increases your odds by ≈ 8%; with another elimination, your odds increase by another 17%. With a third elimination, you have your answer! If there are two answers that say the exact same thing, they are most likely wrong – there can be several wrong options in a multiple-choice question, but only one correct answer. Furthermore, sometimes the answer is given away in other questions – it is unlikely in Board of Studies exams, but it is always worth checking if you have the time! Finally, don’t try to apply external knowledge. Some subjects offer more simplistic solutions to complex problems, especially in science-oriented subjects. Remember what was included in the course content, rather than what you may have read somewhere else.
During the final countdown to exam time, there are some easy strategies you can apply on top of your study to make sure you are feeling prepared, alert, and stress-free. Firstly, get a good night’s sleep. Studies have shown that even being awake for 17 hours can produce performance effects similar to that of a 0.05 blood alcohol content. Sleep has also been shown to reduce stress and improve memory retention, so the all-nighter may not be worth it if it means that you might forget all the facts learned in the early hours of the morning. One of the first things to go when people are preparing for exams is their exercise regime. Although that may buy you more time, in the long run it’s detrimental to your mental health. Physical activity has been shown to reduce stress, release depression and anxiety-battling hormones, as well as improve the brain’s ability to develop new connections! It also increases your ability to sleep and concentrate, so it works hand-in-hand with the others. Another often neglected area is your diet. Make sure that you have a low-GI breakfast, as well as small snacks throughout the day to keep your blood glucose levels up. GI refers to Glycaemic Index, or the effect that carbohydrates have on energy levels. Lower-GI foods such as whole grains release energy over a longer period of time, which avoids energy crashes. Energy crashes are caused by high spikes in blood sugar, and can lead to decreased energy and concentration.
In the exam room, there are some extra methods you can employ if you find that you’re losing focus. The first is to stay hydrated; even dehydration of 1% can lead to a 5% decrease in cognitive function. Make sure that doesn’t happen by bringing a clear, unmarked bottle of water into the exam room. Another, less well-known trick is to go to the bathroom if you can’t concentrate. Firstly, the rapid increase in physical activity increases your blood and oxygen flow as your posture moves to a more natural state, delivering much-needed oxygen and nutrients to your brain. If you wash your face in the bathroom, you can activate an effect called the mammalian diving reflex, which lowers your blood pressure, calms you down, and redirects blood to your vital organs, such as your brain. The environment of the exam room can also be stressful, so leaving the room for half a minute can allow you to think without stress.
By James L as published in Sydney Observer – see archives