This is a case study.
This is not a post listing 1000 tips on how to study better.
It’s not a pep-talk about finding your personal learning profile either.
If you want to skip the background, if you just want to read about how I got the highest grade possible after retaking the examination, CLICK HERE.
In my first year at University I took a basic biology course; Physiological mechanisms. It was quite interesting and so I attended every lecture. I also went through most of the material and rehearsed it 2 weeks before the final examination.
I went through the examination and it felt ok.
It turned out, however, that I had failed miserably.
My student number was not on the list when the examination results came in. This meant that I hadn’t even got 50% of the test right, which in turn meant that I didn’t pass.
Our scale is: Fail (less than 50-60% of available points) -> 1 , 2 , 3, 4, 5. (The Academic grading system in Finland on Wikipedia is pretty accurate, in case you are interested.)
No time to sod
Yes, Physiological mechanisms was a tough basic course, but not super hard. I had never failed any course in any subject in any school, in my whole life; not before this one. I had never even received the lowest grade!
Now it´s not like I felt completely devatstated or anything. I figured it had to happen sooner or later. But of course I asked myself why I did fail now.
The course material was perhaps the most extensive and demanding so far. The test itself, with mandatory essay answers only, could have been another factor leading up to my fall from academic grace. But the main reason, the only acceptable reason, was that I had not studied enough before the test.
So I did now.
I got a bit serious. I applied some techniques to my learning.
Then I took the test again.
When the results came out, my grade had been changed to 5. I went from ungraded to 5, from fail to outstanding.
I failed my class after taking it, but on my first resit, I passed the course with flying colors!
And so can you.
Avoid generic advice
Before writing this article I checked out the stuff that is already out there in the ether. As a high-achieving student who have done his homework, I can therefore say with confidence: A lot of articles about failing exams and articles on how to get better grades, do contain advice that is either generic platitude, too vague, unnecessary, or simply trash.
Let us get one thing clear, alright? Advice like; attend every lecture, get organised, take notes like a robot, etc. is not very useful if you studied for your examination and still failed your class.
As I explained in my blog post How to be clever, it is all about finding out (how to find out) what actually works for the task you have at hand. Why not start by learning from your peers?
What I didn’t do that well after the fail
I started studying the material and went through it all over again immediately after I found out that I had failed the examination test — even though I didn´t have much time or energy. This was a mistake.
I quickly realised it was better to wait until I had proper time to prepare myself, so I stopped studying the old course material, signed up for a later resit (I decided to redo the examination at a significantly later occasion) and put my energy on my current classes instead.
This was a good idea. Many people tell you to redo a task while the material is still fresh in your memory. This is sometimes wise, for example if you want to resit to get a higher grade, but what exactly is still fresh in your memory, if you didn´t even know enough to pass the course?
Even when I did start repeating facts and preparing for the resit in a serious manner however, I still had some flaws. For example:
- My discipline and my focus while reading were quite far from optimal
- I did not care to go through every chapter in a logical order
- I didn’t create as much notes as I could have.
I still aced the test in the end though.
More background on the course and test
This is extra reading in case you are interested in the course specifics.
The course covered the basics of the human physiology and the general structure of the brain. There was a particular focus on the immune system and it’s cellular and genetic details; how antibodies and different T-cells operate etc. No anatomy was required.
The course set up was pretty normal. You attended lectures a few times every week and you read some chapters from a big book and you made some notes.
Quite detailed lecture material was available online.
(This is common practice. The quality depends on the lecturer, but it usually so good that most students primarily rely on that to get the overview needed to pass the course. They read the book in order to get a more solid understanding and to learn details which helps one to score higher grades in the test.)
In order to complete this course and get a grade, all I had to do was taking the exam. Maybe some obligatory attendance to the lectures was included as well, I can´t remember.
Anyway, as is usual for basic university courses, at least for bioscience at my faculty, the level of the test was not super easy to get a grip of beforehand. The book sets the level for the material, but the lecturer sets the level for the test.
The book was Life: The science of biology, 10th edition.
In order to complete a course, you generally have to pass a final test. It is common that ca 70-95% of the grade is based on the test. In my programme syllabus (study program), we do not always have courses with tests though. Sometimes (rarely) the focus is primarily on assignments, supported by some mandatory take home tests, student lectures, etc.
You can attempt to pass a course like that a maximum of three times. Fail three times and you have to completely redo the whole course, if that’s still a valid option.
We (the students) knew it was to be an examination based on essay answers. We didn’t know anything more about the test before taking it. It turned out we had to answer 4 mandatory questions (4 questions given, answer all of them,) by writing essay answers to each one.
The questions were of the kind “Describe the pancreatic gland and compare it to the adrenal medulla” and “Explain the mechanisms enabling vision and give an account of the cells operating inside the eye.”
The teachers do not give any private feedback to the students after examinations, except for the passing grade if you do pass. However, you may physically go and ask the examinator how well you did, in which case the examinator is allowed to show you your examined test.
Why I failed the course — in detail
I attended each lecture. The lecturer was an experienced expert on physiology and had quite high standards. He was not a master of making things easy to follow or enchanting his audience, though. Many people, including me, who was quite interested in the subject, tried not to fall asleep during his two-hour long afternoon sessions.
I studied for the test two weeks beforehand, while attending other courses, since there is rarely any days available for self-studies only in my syllabus.
I took the test. I failed.
Why did I fail? Main reasons:
- I did not force my sleepy self to take notes during the lectures
- I did not repeat the material hours after the lecture
- I did not study enough before the test. It was probably too short amount of time and I just read the material and made some poor notes. I was unfocused and without any particular study technique.
How to prepare yourself and ace the exam
Now let’s take a look at what I did in order to succeed.
- I did not resit the test as soon as possible.
- I skimmed and read through about 80% of the course material in the book before the test.
- I made sure to cover what I guessed the professor would think reasonable for us to know at this level.
- I used spaced repetition
- I used an app to take notes in the form of flashcards
- I explained important concepts and how things were connected, to myself, in my head.
Do try this at home
I went through the stuff several times. First to get a quick overview, then to get a grip on important topics and then on some less important topics, and finally I studied details on important topics. I did try to memorise some important details on every topic I chose to study, but I never covered everything on any topic. (See my philosophy for reading less below.)
I took notes in the form of flashcards: First a shorter or longer question about something I ought to memorise, then an answer I thought was sufficient. The answers tended to be quite extensive from time to time.
I did not spend time on writing detailed explanations or structuring mind maps on paper, instead I only explained (some) concepts and how they were connected to myself in my head. This was enough for me. It takes some focus and it takes some time, but it takes less time than actually making notes, at least for me personally. Furthermore, it really forced me to consider what I knew and how well I knew it.
Never try to memorise lists and details first, no matter how little time you have left!
I have no idea why some people freak out and do this. You should always get an overview of the most relevant topics and contexts first. Even if you think you are going to fail, but you want to attend anyway just to get some insight into the examination process, do study to get an overview first. You will get more insight out of the examination this way, so why score a few points on details?
When I took the test
I use an extra paper to sort things out before I give my answers, even if it is (some more complex) multiple choices answers. It’s not super important though.
I always take my time during examinations. This is not only because I am a slow thinker, but because I want to give my everything. That is also why I have time to sketch out answers and make doodles during the test.
It can be exhausting and nerve wracking, but you have to go all out when you finally are taking the exam. So many people quit too early and lose points just because they can’t take the pressure. Don’t panic. Just do your best and don’t lose heart. The Earth will still spin after you are done.
When I take exams, I aim to always reread everything before handing it in.
This has saved me so many times from handing in errors. The errors I find in my answers are usually not there because I didn’t answer the question properly. The errors are there because the pressure made me mix things up in my head while writing, or because I made a serious typo.
Reducing typing errors gives a more professional impression and I think examinators like it when students try to make their lives easier; I think it makes them more inclined to find something to credit.
A philosophy for reading less
OBS! Obviously this applies mainly for courses where you learn facts.
If you know that the examination will consist of essay answers, you should definitely not plan to read through all of the material unless you actually have time to spare. Why? Because since you can chose how to answer a question, you can focus on the things you do remember.
In general, don’t you have better things to do than to read through everything?
This is my philosophy; read less, study more. Let me explain how it works.
The total material in the course is 100%. You take a quick glance at everything. You skip 20% right away, stuff you don’t think they are very likely to actually ask. Great! Now you have 80% left.
You should now cover 80% of this material, the stuff you think is relevant, spread out over the entirety of the material. Read every subtopic if you want, but skip some redundant/trivial/at least seemingly non-essential paragraphs here and there. Try to zoom in on the most relevant facts.
Finally, you invest some brainpower and try to connect the dots between the stuff you have learnt. This basic act, expected of you at University level, is called thinking. Thinking can counteract the gaps in your knowledge.
If you have time left, read more. If not, well done; you did a thorough job! Now when they ask for answers, chances are it will seem like you actually know 99% of the material after all, although you in reality only have tried to memorise 64% of it.
At least this is better than to furiously study every detail on 1-3 subtopics, when the examination usually is about covering as much as possible to an acceptable level.
If you struggle in school it is probably because you have a harder time understanding things or because it is harder for you to connect new knowledge to something you already understand. If this is the case, you might need to read less and focus more on understanding the stuff you do read. You should probably also write more. This helps you structure your thinking.
In general, our societies should pay more attention to thinking.
The big secret
I used a spaced repetition flash cards app. I took almost all my notes by making flash cards. I repeated them regularly when my app told me to, based on my preferred settings. This is super effective and saves time.
However, the final repetition sessions (ca 1 hour/day) will be intense when you have gone through everything, so be prepared to make an effort.
Apply spaced repetition. In general, we do well if we remember 20% of the material covered in a lecture. Our memory is quite bad. Spaced repetition let us us do much better. By rehearsing material in given intervals, with increasing time between sessions, we stimulate long term memory.
There is scientific studies supporting the effectiveness of spaced repetition. Personally I think it might be the most effective memorisation method for humans when it comes to remembering cold facts indefinitively, since our brains memorise things we frequently encounter.
To fully utilize this idea however, you must make notes about things you understand. Your task is to memorize what you have learnt.
I used Anki
- I used the android app which is cheap, primitive and free: AnkiDroid
- Apple Anki (ca $25 when writing this)
You can also check out Mnemosyne
Or you can browse internet.
Thank you for reading
I hope you liked this blog post. Reread it to make sure you remember the parts that you personally can benefit most from. Good luck with your studies!