Smart learning to conquer exam blues

Posted on: August 20, 2014, by :

I studied over eight years at university which is much longer  than most people. As a result I am often being introduced by former schoolmates and college mates as “he who likes to study” to their friends, offsprings and spouses.  Naturally, I do get lots of requests from every corner for advice on “how to study”.   Aside from having the credential of having been a “veteran university student”, I asked myself what do I have to offer about learning and conquering examination blues. It then dawn on to me that I had passed every major academic examinations so far at first sittings. I even passed my motorcycle riding test and my driving test at first attempts. There  must be some sort of a “formula” that I can share. And there is.

For working adults who have already hung up their schoolbags yonks ago, taking on any academic learning is a daunting task that can cause a great deal of anxiety and stress. Work demand and family commitments are just two of the more obvious hurdles. Balancing these and finding the time and a quiet place to study can be quite a chore.

Let us start with Steven Covey’s famous quote, “Begin with the end in mind”. In an academic setting, examinations of one form or another are inevitable. “The end” in your mind will depend on your aspiration, to pass or to ace the final examination. However the “formula” for both are the same, the difference is in the amount of effort that you would need to commit.

Sun Tzu said, “If you know yourself and know your enemy, in a hundred battles, you will never fear the result.”, so your first task is to know yourself, then your “enemy” –  the examination.

“Knowing yourself” means you must be truthful to yourself and devise a good time management habit to juggle work, family and learning. Talk to your family and agree on some form of “me time” during your rest days (Saturday and Sunday) or during the evening after work. You must have a good idea how you spend your non-working hours and “steal” some of the leisure or idle time for studying. You also need to find a place to have the peace and quiet for you to concentrate on your learning. Personally, I find early in the morning at the office a good time to learn. Although the duration is rather  short  (45 minutes or less), it is the distraction free and unwinding after a stressful rush hour traffic to the office that make this a quality learning slot for me. You will need to find your own slots and set aside sufficient time to take on your learning effectively. You need to plan your learning schedule so that you have sufficient time to complete the requirements of the learning programme that you have signed up. Do not be over ambitious and sign up more subjects that you can handle. As a rule of thumb, full-time, 18 -23 year-old undergraduates can cope with 4 or 5 subjects during a full semester. Working adults probably can cope with 2 or at most 3 subjects concurrently. In fact most part-time postgraduate programmes rarely push learners to take more than 2 subjects per semester.

The other aspect of “knowing yourself” is the learning technique that you can adopt. For many working adults resuming learning after years of working, adopting a good learning technique is important for them to regain the learning prowess of their school days. One of the first re-learning that needs to be tackled is in note taking. The Cornell Note Taking System ( is a good system to adopt . Briefly, a page for notes is divided into three sections; two columns and one row (about 5 cm) below the columns. The right column which is 75% of the page is used to record notes. The left column is for key points for the topic covered by the notes to be extracted. The bottom row is to be used to summarise the topic. Thus when revising, the learner will concentrate on the key points and the summary.

Another learning technique is to construct mind maps and concept maps to assist learners to “picturise” a topic and how key points are linked. The act of constructing these maps will itself cause the learners to ponder and think about the facts and figures of a topic and how these can be linked. The key difference between concept maps and mind maps is in the fact that mind maps have one central theme or topic while concept maps caters to the linkages of several concepts, showing the relationships between them. It was too bad for me to discover the magic of concept map a bit late in life. The technique would have helped me a great deal since I am a “pictorial” type of learner. No matter what type of learners you are, the very act of constructing a concept or mind map will involve your thinking through the topic and making sense of the facts and figures while summarising them in a map. All these count towards strengthening your knowledge and factual recall ability on that topic.

The “enemy” in the context of “knowing your enemy”refers not only to the final examination but the entire inputs that you must make and the learning outcomes that you should attain in your academic quest. Many people make the big mistake of not associating the biggest “enemy” as the syllabus of the subject that you are studying and paid dearly for it. I studied for my GCE “A” levels in the early 1980s in a technical college in England. The college was catering to vocational and technical students and academic programmes were offered as “resit” options for those who did not do well in their first attempts. The teaching staff was accustomed to preparing their “A” level students to pass their examinations but the few foreign students like my peers from Malaysia and Hong Kong wanted (and needed) to score our grades in  A or B to read engineering, medicine etc. at universities. I learnt two things very fast. Firstly the lecturers were only doing enough to ensure that we could pass the examinations, and they were not going to cover the full syllabus. Secondly, to score grade B or better, I needed to get hold of the syllabus of each subject to know the content inside-out.  I managed to beg and persuade most of my lecturers to help me to cover topics that were not included in their lectures. Due to the clash of time-table those of us who took three sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) were only allowed to take pure and applied mathematics if we were to attend the applied mathematics classes held in the evening which was a revision class and was therefore shorter in duration for each session and the number of sessions. Our lecturer was brilliant. He studied the syllabus well. He only had time to cover about 60% of the syllabus but he focussed on essential topics that would be sufficient to secure a pass for his students. With this focussed approach, we were able to not only pass but score very well in the final examination.

One of my colleagues during my GCE “A” level days was considerably more  hardworking than me. He read broadly and deeply into biology, physics and chemistry, devouring lots of magazines and books covering these subjects. He knew these subjects a lot better than me. But when the results of the final examination were announced, he was stunned that he only passed 2 of the three subjects while I did a lot better than expected. He did not know his “enemy” like I did because he ignored studying the requirements of the syllabus for each subject.

Nowadays providing detailed syllabus is the obligation of all colleges. The document spells out clearly what the students need to study and how the knowledge gained is to be applied. Teaching plans and learning outcomes  should be provided. You should, like I did, know your syllabus inside-out. Knowing what is required and what is not is key to your success in examinations. This is what I call, “smart learning”.

In the next article, I shall cover “smart examination taking”.

This article first appeared in August 31, 2013 edition of Focus Malaysia, under Dr. YN Chow’s moniker as Plantcloner.

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