How can you learn *everything* for an exam?

an image of a full dinner party table
Photo by Matheus Frade on Unsplash

Exams are a common cause of stress, and I think one of the reasons is that the ‘curriculum’ at university, unlike the school curriculum, is very open-ended – there isn’t a finite, definitive list of all the things you have to learn, just a suggested starting point. You’re expected to ‘read around’ on top of the material covered in lectures, so there’s no ‘end point’ where you can say ‘i have learned everything and I can stop now’. It can feel unmanageable and overwhelming. Anything could and might come up in the exam, so how do you, how can you, prepare for that? 

So there really is a limit to how much you can realistically learn, and just because in theory with an open-ended curriculum, if it’s relevant, you could include *anything* in an exam, doesn’t mean you have to learn *everything* just in case. One of the keys to doing well in exams is understanding what is really being tested, being selective about what you learn and thinking about how and why you select it.  

What’s often behind this stress, this perception that you need to learn ‘everything’, is that we’re often not clear about what exams actually test and how that’s different to other forms of assessment, and we’re not sure what the expectations are that we’re trying to meet. We try to hold ourselves to the same standards we’d expect when we’re working on a piece of coursework, because that’s a standard that’s familiar, that we know, and exams are the unknown (which is kind of the point of them). This is true even of take-home exam papers – although you often have a longer time period, such as 24 hours, you’re not expected to learn everything or research *everything* within that time frame as you would with coursework – you’re working with information that’s already to hand and familiar.

There are differences between subjects – if you’re studying the physical or medical sciences, for example, there is especially in the first years, an emphasis on memorisation and understanding of key information, and a bit less on the kind of open-ended analytical thinking that you’d find in an Arts and Humanities subject where it’s less about learning core facts and more about building arguments- but certainly in higher stages, there is less of a difference.  

Let me give you an analogy to help illustrate the difference between the expectations for coursework and exams. So coursework, whether it’s a report or an essay or a dissertation or other piece of writing, is like giving a dinner party. You know in good time that you are going to throw a dinner party for your friends, and you can fix a lot of things in advance – which friends you’re going to invite and how many people, what they like and or can’t eat etc. You then have time to do some research in your cookbooks and online recipe blogs to decide what the menu will be, find just the right recipe, you can spend time sourcing the right ingredients in all the different places, you can go to the deli, to the posh supermarket, that specialist shop you’ve found, and you can plan how you’re going to approach it, practice any techniques and make sure everything’s prepared on the day. Your guests expect you to go to that effort and put in that extra work to make it a bit special for them. Now, you don’t throw dinner parties that often, and even if you did, you’d probably not cook that exact meal again for those same people, so chances are, the ingredients you’ve bought might not get used again much, they are quite specialist, for a particular recipe and occasion, and that’s ok. You *might* find another use for that particular jar of unusual spices you bought, or you might not and it’ll quietly go out of date at the back of your cupboard, but that’s not the point. It was sought out and chosen for a particular purpose, and that’s been achieved, you’ve shown that you can plan, source and prepare a special meal and you’ve impressed your friends. Coursework tests your ability to do just that – think about how you’re doing to approach it, find and choose just the right knowledge and use it in just the right way for that particular task, and if it’s a bit unusual or special, so much the better, you’re showing off. And you don’t need to memorise or keep all that knowledge handy – the point is that you were able to find it and use it when you needed it.  

Now, an exam is much more like an evening when you’re sitting at home and a couple of your friends turn up at your door unexpectedly, they were in the area and thought they’d drop in and say hi. They’re also hungry. Your job here is to keep a well-stocked store cupboard of things which you could throw together to give them a couple of options depending on what they fancy and whether one of them is vegetarian or doesn’t like spicy food, whatever. And by ‘well stocked store cupboard’, I don’t mean you’ve got every possible ingredient in, I mean you’ve got the basics, the rice, the pasta, the bread, the tins of tomatoes, maybe some cheese, onions, peppers, lentils… enough things that are the foundation of a meal and could potentially be turned into a number of different dishes. You’ve also got the herbs and spices and other things that could be thrown in there to help you create those different options and make it tasty and interesting. No one is going to expect a three course meal with elaborate ingredients, but with the basics and a few creative options, you could offer a pasta dish, a curry or tasty soup according to what’s needed. IF you still have that jar of spice from that dinner party last month, fine, throw it in there if you think it would work. And that’s what exams test – can you answer questions and problem-solve under time pressure with what you have to hand – not *everything*, but do you have the fundamentals, the essentials and a few useful, adaptable things you can use flexibly in multiple ways, throw in there to spice it up a bit creatively so that you’re responding to whatever challenge is set on the day. You’re not expected to know absolutely everything, no matter how niche, or create perfect, polished and in-depth answers- that wouldn’t be realistic under the circumstances, nor would it be a useful thing to test. Students often ask us if they should include references in exams – it might add a bit of interest if you could throw in the names and dates of a couple of relevant or key studies, but there would be little value in asking you to memorise the full bibliographic details of references – why would you need that information in your head? 

So when it comes to selecting and managing your revision, you’ve got two starting points. The first, to ensure that you’ve got the essentials in stock, are the lectures. These will cover the fundamental, essential facts, concepts or techniques you will need. When you’re going back over lecture recordings and notes, don’t get sucked into revising everything, but try and distinguish which is the core knowledge, and what are illustrations, examples, demonstrations or just interesting asides. If you want to cross-check this, you could map your understanding of the fundamentals with a textbook or handbook or two – where the coverage overlaps, that’s reassuring you that you’ve covered the essentials. You can also add in anything else you find in your reading around as that extra spice, those additional ingredients you can throw in to adapt those essentials in different ways or give them different flavours to respond to the question you’re set in the exam, but again, you can’t learn everything – the key is to go for things that could be used flexibly in various ways or for different purposes. 

The second starting point, which might give you reassurance that you’ve covered the essentials AND that the kind of extras you’re selecting will earn their keep, is past papers. Try working with past papers right from the start of your revision process – NOT to question-spot or predict what will come up this year, that’s very unreliable, and NOT to test yourself to see if you HAVE learned something, but as a guide to the kinds of thing that are typically called on in exams, as a way to think through how you might use a piece of knowledge in an exam, how useful or adaptable or central it’s likely to be. What would you need in order to answer that question, bearing in mind the time limit in the exam and the fact that you can only be expected to work with what we can reasonably assume is in your head? If you’re wondering whether or not you need to learn a particular piece of information, could you see how you might potentially use it in more than one question, or is it so niche that it’s unlikely to be an essential or even useful as an optional extra? 

No past papers for your module? Try this – put yourself in the examiner’s shoes and set your own questions. If this was your module, what questions would you set to test your students’ knowledge of the essentials and also their ability to problem solve creatively under pressure, with a time limit and only what it’s worth carrying in their heads rather than researching? How much would you test, how much depth, how much detail, before you felt you’d got a reasonable measure that they know their stuff? Would it be worth them learning that knowledge or is that more the kind of knowledge they just need to know how to find if they needed it for coursework? 

So when you’re revising for exams, and perhaps looking over previous coursework from the module to help you prepare, don’t feel that you need to reproduce a coursework-standard answer in an exam – they’re testing different kinds of learning, and expect different sorts of response. You don’t have to learn *everything*.  

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