Usually, we prefer to talk about what we did well when we were studying. But like all students, our study process wasn’t perfect. Looking back now with the 20:20 vision that hindsight provides, we can see the mistakes we made with all too much clarity!
Seeing these mistakes so clearly now, we realised it was high time that we shared them with you so that your teen benefits from our learnings and avoids making these same mistakes themselves.
Let’s get to it. Here our the 5 biggest mistakes we made while studying:
1. Spent too much time writing notes
Yes, writing study notes, for most students, will be a big part of their exam study. However, there is a tendency for students — and we were absolutely guilty of this — to rely too heavily on writing study notes, treating it as the most important part of their study process.
This is a mistake, and it was one of ours.
Why? Because while making study notes is a great technique for coming to understand your subjects better and for helping your memory retention, what it can’t do, is help you practice answering exam questions.
And let’s remind ourselves — what is the exam going to require your teen to do? CORRECT — answer exam questions. And therefore, it’s incredibly important to recognise that while making study notes will be a big part of your teen’s study process, it is absolutely crucial that making study notes does not encroach on them making time to practice answering exam questions, because THAT is the ultimate skill that they need to practice.
Too often we missed out on precious exam marks because we weren’t equipped to answer the really tough questions that threw us, even though we had studied the underlying topic. That was mistake number 1, and it was a big one.
2. Didn’t do enough past exams
As we have said multiple times before, past exams are a treasure trove for any student preparing for exams. They’re as close to a crystal ball as your teen is ever going to get their hands on.
Past exams tell you what type of questions you’re going to get asked, the range of difficulty of questions, the format of the exam, and how long the exam will be. I mean, you really couldn’t ask for more.
And yet, there’s a tendency for students to overlook past exams. They often bury themselves in their study notes, trying to cram as much information into their brains as possible.
Again — big mistake. Having a brain stuffed full of information is a waste of time if your teen hasn’t practiced applying that knowledge to exam questions.
We used to make time to complete at least two past exams before an exam, but my gosh we wish we could tell our past selves to do more. If we had our time again, we would complete a past exam every few days during exam study to ensure that we were practising answering all of the different types of questions exams like to throw at students.
If you want your teen to really kill their exam, encourage them to complete past exams under exam conditions — set a timer for the length of time the real exam will be, no headphones allowed, and lock themselves in a quiet room. If your teen treats completing past exams as a dress rehearsal, the real exams will go much more smoothly.
3. Didn’t think about the exam paper enough
The third thing we sometimes overlooked as students, was the exam paper itself.
Once the study period before exams started, off we went — study study study! But again, why were we doing all of this study? To sit an exam! Aha! Perhaps it would have been a good idea to actually dedicate some study time to thinking about the exam we were doing all of this furious study for.
The questions we should have asked ourselves were: Roughly how long is the exam going to be? How many questions? Essay questions? Multi-choice? Short answer? A mixture?! How many marks is each question worth? 1 mark each? It depends on the difficulty? Will I have planning time in the exam before writing time?
It is ESSENTIAL that your teen knows the answers to these questions before the exam — in fact, way before the exam, because the answers will affect HOW your teen needs to prepare for their exam. For instance, a 100% multi-choice exam will be very different to an exam based entirely on essay questions. Knowing what awaits you is KEY to being well prepared and to making sure all of your hard work is not in vein.
4. Didn’t plan exam time enough
It’s impossible to rank these five mistakes in order of importance — they all affect the success of an exam hugely. But, this one holds a special place, because underestimating it, like we sometimes did, can result in exam catastrophes — like not even finishing an exam.
So how can your teen plan their exam time?
It’s very simple. For every exam, your teen will know in advance how many questions the exam will contain (at least roughly), and how long they will have to complete the exam. Therefore, figuring out approximately how long they have to spend on each question is mostly a process of simple math — length of exam divided by the number of questions.
If the questions are weighted differently, with some questions worth more marks than others, then this needs to factor into the amount of time your teen spends on each question. If an essay is worth 50% of the exam grade, then half of the exam time should be spent on the essay, with the rest of the time divvied up among the other questions.
We were sometimes in a frenzied panic to finish our exams because we didn’t plan our exam time enough in advance, and/or didn’t STICK to our time allocations.
Our hearts break when we hear about students not finishing exams because they ran out of time. All of the blood sweat and tears invested in their study wasted. But that can be avoided all with a simple exam planning session beforehand.
5. Didn’t take time to think and process
Oh yes. Like 99% of all students, we fell into the trap of furiously ploughing through our books in a well-intention but flawed effort to understand and remember as much information as possible.
This process was very time consuming, and also, not entirely effective.
We would have been much better off, if for the last hour of our study sessions, we stopped writing, stopped reading, and just sat and had a good ol’ think.
If we had done this, we would have helped file what we had just learnt into our memory by thinking about it again, we would have enhanced our understanding of what we had studied by thinking about it freely and in our own time, and we would have come to understand what we DIDN’T actually understand well enough yet.
Top students get good grades because they understand their subjects really well. They can take the knowledge they have and apply it to answer difficult exam questions. Your teen can only achieve this level of understanding if they take the time to consciously think about what they’re studying. Rote learning won’t cut it.
Help your teen avoid the mistake we fell into and encourage them to THINK about and PROCESS what they’re studying so that they actually understand the content.
Important lessons learned
These are five mistakes that, looking back, we can see had a tangible impact on our grades. True, they didn’t impact enough to stop us getting good grades overall and getting to where we are now, but we wish someone had pointed out these oversights all those years ago, because not only would we have gotten even better grades more often, we would have had a better learning process.
The good news is, because we made these mistakes, your teen doesn’t have to.
Clare & Chris
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