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Preparation Is Paramount - How To Make Sure You Are At Your Peak For The Biology Exam
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Several great, and many not so great, historical figures have said words to the effect of "He who fails to plan is planning to fail". Perhaps most notably attributed to Winston Churchill during World War II, this quote has been flogged to death at motivational and self-help seminars the world over. Why have we all heard this quote before?

Because it's true.

It is also true for our students. No one plans to fail, either at life, nor in Biology, but often students enter an exam room under fed, over or under stimulated, tired and with little of their brain functioning effectively enough to help them demonstrate what they actually know and can do.

Preparation for exams is extremely important. In order to be better prepared for the next exam, and let's face it, there are some approaching at a rapid rate, I have prepared a few ideas which may be of assistance in helping students gain the desired result.

Many teachers use the analogy of a marathon. Students often cram for exams as though they are in a sprint. All the energy and effort goes into the final, explosive burst and that is it. As a result many students don’t get enough sleep leading up to an exam and struggle to cover enough of the content for them to succeed.

In the build up to a marathon, diet, sleep, training and preparation are critical components to ensuring that the best performance occurs on the day. The following list may help to prepare you for the major exams.

Consume conscientiously Your diet plays a major role in your preparation. Too few students eat properly or regularly. Many leave so little time in the mornings that they have little or no breakfast. This is the most important meal of the day. It helps us remain alert and gives us the energy boost we need after a night of fasting. Planning your diet is as important as planning your time. A healthy body will contribute to a healthy, alert mind.

Revise regularly Use a range of techniques to ensure that you are regularly revising your work. Set up a blog to share ideas with a study group. Start a wiki to keep your work organised. Prepare a structured overview or mind map to give you a visual picture of the key concepts you will need and laminate it. Blending traditional study techniques with interactive Web 2.0 technologies will expand your reference base and knowledge base at the same time.

If we accept that we are in a marathon, we need to continue to build up our knowledge. No one starts running 42 km at once. They start small and build up. Similarly we don’t try to learn the entire Biology course in one sitting. Instead it needs consistent effort, placing one fact next to another as we build up a story that we can remember and recall when asked.

Practise plenty One way to improve your ability to answer questions is . . . to answer questions! It is that simple. There are many resources, educational websites, including your Educational Board’s website with copies of previous year’s papers. Nothing beats practising the real thing. By writing out answers to questions, you learn how to express your answers and how to improve on the weak areas. Even verbal quizzes assist this process. Challenge yourself regularly to work out what you do know, and what you need to know.

Push your Peers Like the last point, it is very helpful to get together with your peers and talk through the difficult concepts. You always improve your knowledge of a concept when you have to explain it to someone else. This requires not only knowledge but also the skill of selecting the most appropriate way in which to explain it to someone else so they understand it too. At this higher level of peer tutoring, a deeper understanding of concepts can occur. It is also helpful to find someone similar in ability to you so you can indulge in some healthy competition. As you push each other, you will both benefit from the improvement in your results.

Mark the minimum Make a decision right now about what mark will be the absolute minimum you are prepared to accept in this subject. It doesn’t matter whether the exams are next week or next year. If you don’t have a clear idea of what you are aiming for you’ll settle for anything. Set zero and you’ll be sure to achieve it. Set 100 and you’ll be overworked and under-rewarded. Goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely (SMART). You need to work to achieve them so you experience the adrenalin drive of achievement. Reset your minimum upwards if you need to but try to avoid going backwards. The downward slope is always steeper and harder to climb back up.

Temper your time There are many clichés regarding time, including the one we started with: “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Having set a minimum acceptable mark, apportion your time to help you achieve your goal. Many students have casual or part-time work, chores at home and an extremely important social life as well as study. Organising your time and resources will pay dividends as the exam time approaches. Using online calendars, social networking and other web 2.0 tools will ensure that your schedule remains at the forefront of your field of vision. Getting the balance right is very difficult and many adults struggle with this too. Make a study timetable up if that helps you. Make sure you add your sport, music, jobs and social events to your timetable. All work and no play is more dangerous to your health than all play and no work. The latter just affects your performance.

Read rigorously Reading for pleasure is no longer as popular as it once was. You probably feel that you don't read the things you’d like to read. However, reading is important on two levels. Firstly reading expands your vocabulary. Reading a range of different writing lets you see different ways of putting a sentence together. It allows you to see words you may not have encountered before and ways of explaining a concept in a different way. Textbooks are not easy things to read, so try newspaper or magazine articles, websites, wikis and blogs. Web 2.0 technologies in education allow you to read and interact with the material which increases your memory capacity. If you continue to expose yourself to Biology, even in quirky stories, you will be building on your knowledge and this will help add depth to your understanding and ability to answer questions.

Sleep soundly Without knowing anything about you, if you are a student I’m sure you aren’t getting enough sleep. It is true that different people can survive on different amounts of sleep, however most of us don't get the sleep we need. Learning is consolidated during sleep. If you don't switch off long enough to allow your brain to process the day's information, you will be less capable of taking on the next day's learning. 8 hours of sleep helps the brain cycle between REM and non-REM sleep. This is also affected by what time you go to bed and how late you sleep. If you are staying up until 3 am to complete an assessment or assignment and then up at 6 to catch a bus, you could be taught the secrets of untold wealth at school the next day and you’ll be lucky to identify Step 1. Your brain will not be as alert. Sleep refreshes the body, sharpens the mind and organises the knowledge. If you are having trouble staying awake in class, ask yourself how many hours of sleep you had the previous night before blaming your teacher for ‘boring lessons’. Oh and a tip for the crammers: one full day's concentrated learning bookended by two nights of good sleep can enable your brain to prepare and process all that information!

Arrive anonymously If possible, try to avoid the big last minute cram sessions before an exam. It often confuses you as you try to hang on to those last minute tid bits of advice, especially when you haven't had the required amount of sleep to process the information and file it correctly in your brain's trust. Rely on the time you’ve spent up to that point. Wish your peers all the best for the exam but don’t go into too much detail at this late stage. Enjoy the experience of completing the exam at the end. Try to remain quiet and settled as you enter the exam. This is best achieved by remaining low key.

  Answer accurately Sometimes students mistakenly think that the more they write, the better they score. Often the reverse is the case. A succinct answer will feature the important points, will be well organised and complete. A long answer can reflect a waffling, disorganised mind and may risk revealing a contradiction that diminishes the quality of the answer. The more you write the more likely you are to make a mistake, unless you are very strong in a particular topic, so keep your answers short and to the point. Constantly refer to the question so you make sure you are answering it and not wandering off on a tangent. There have been some excellent responses in previous years, full of Biological facts that didn’t score well as they didn’t answer the question.

Exit enthusiastically Once the exam is over, enjoy the short-lived euphoria. Another one behind you. Congratulate everyone for getting through it, but don’t spend too long on the post mortems. Make your comments general, eg. “a good, fair paper” or “I found it a bit tricky”, but not, “what did you get for Question 18?” This makes some people over confident and others down when they should be feeling good. Once it is over, celebrate it and then let it go. You can’t change it so why make yourself feel bad unnecessarily?

Reward yourself richly One of the hardest things to do, especially in a crammed exam week is to reward yourself after each exam. Something that recognises your achievement by giving you something that is purely indulgent. Have a chocolate bar, go to the beach, watch some TV or listen to some music, kick a football or go to the gym, shop or sleep, whatever it is that makes you feel like you’ve earned something for yourself. The pleasure you gain from the experience will help you focus on whatever is next as you can look forward to another pleasure once it is over.

  Planning is paramount: the secret of success is good planning and consistent action. Use the right tools for education, monitor health and diet, get enough sleep and recreation and you will give yourself the best chance of performing at your peak. Start planning your success now and the climb to the top will be much smoother.


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