Life of a mature student – 8 things not to do if you have an exam

I thought exams were a thing of the past, but I’m doing a part-time IT degree at the Open University. Much of the assessment process is around submitting assignments – I wrote about this in my post about getting assignments done and submitted, , but some of it does actually involve timed exams.

At school I didn’t mind exams too much – but as adults it’s easy to get out of practice, and when the time for the exam drew closer, I worried about it far more than I used to at school. Seems I don’t like exams very much! I don’t like that feeling of the time slipping away – time that I will never get back! I’d much rather take my time to do something well, than feel under pressure to get the questions answered. But sometimes you just have to get on with it and do the exam.

So, whatever it is that you’re studying, if you’re preparing for an exam, here are 8 things that you shouldn’t do. Most of these are from my own experience.

1. Don’t keep looking at the clock

Yes, you need to know what the time is so that you can plan out your time and divide it between the questions. There’s no point doing brilliantly in one area if you lose a whole bunch of marks because you didn’t get round to an important section of the question paper. But it’s also not good if you waste time because you keep checking the time, or letting the clock make you anxious or nervous.

It’s good to be aware of the clock, but try not to focus on it so much that it stops you thinking about the questions and how you are going to answer them.

2. Don’t focus on the things that you don’t know

There’s plenty that you do know. There may be something that you’ve forgotten or can’t quite remember. If you let yourself go down the rabbit hole of worrying about that, it’s a sure way to start feeling negative about yourself, getting annoyed that you didn’t revise that particular thing, panicking, and then it’s really hard to think clearly. Sometimes it’s good to focus on the things that you do know. Answer those questions that will be easy for you. Come back to the things that you’re not sure about. Don’t even think about them to start with. You can use the time that you have left to address them, but make sure you first get down all of the things that will help you to get the points.

3. Don’t leave multiple choice answers empty if you won’t be penalised for a wrong answer

I struggle with this one because whether I’m doing an exam or someone is just asking me a question, I don’t like to commit if I don’t think I have a good chance of being right. So, if I’m doing a quiz, I’ll either say I don’t know the answer or I’ll give you the 100% right answer. There’s no middle ground.

This strategy might be ok for pub quizzes or life in general, but it doesn’t help with multiple choice questions. Unless you know you will be penalised for wrong answers, it’s worth putting something in the box. Usually there’s a 25% chance of being right, so really you have nothing to lose.

4. Don’t forget that with multiple choice, sometimes you can eliminate answers

Following on from point three, if you can discard one or two of the other answers, you increase the percentage chance you have of getting the question right. If you get rid of two out of the four, you have a guess with a 50% chance of being right. Even if you don’t know the right answer, can you find any answers that are definitely, or likely to be wrong?

5. Don’t panic and give up too soon

It’s tempting to see a question that you hadn’t expected or that looks complicated and then think “I can’t do this” or “I don’t know anything about this”. This can then set you on a downward spiral where you begin to doubt yourself and your abilities. Sometimes it helps to read the question again, breaking the task down into the individual parts that you need to complete. Sometimes it helps to move on and come back to the difficult question. Sometimes it helps to take a few deep breaths and resist the urge to make a run for the door or close the exam window and cry!

6. Don’t keep revising until right before the exam

In my school days, sometimes I didn’t even look at my notes the day of the exam. If you’ve revised thoroughly, trying to learn just before the exam can actually make things worse because you start to panic. What you really need is a clear head. Everyone works differently, but trying to do too much immediately before the exam may make you feel more stressed out, so in the long run it might not be what you need.

7. Don’t get so carried away that you go way over the word count

Essay type answers with word counts can feel quite restrictive if you’re used to writing a lot. Some markers are very strict and they’ll just disregard all of the extra words. This doesn’t help you if you’ve got so involved in the topic that your answer is much longer than it should be. Try and make a plan for the structure of your answer before you start writing it. This way you’re less likely to get carried away and write too much.

8. Make sure you know exactly what the question is asking

There are all kinds of ways in which you can lose marks if you don’t do this. It can be as simple as putting your answer in the wrong unit of measurement, or as complicated as misreading the entire task. It’s not enough to know something about the subject – you’re being assessed on how well you apply the knowledge that you have to the question or task that you’re being asked to do. Sometimes it is worth rereading the question to make sure you know exactly what’s expected of you. Have a look back over your answer and see whether you have addressed all the points in the question. Sometimes the number of marks available can give you a clue as to how this will be calculated. Don’t waste time answering a question that hasn’t been asked – even if what you write is correct, if it’s not relevant, it won’t help you to pick up points.

I hope these tips have been helpful. Are there any more that you would add?

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Life of a mature student – how to find time for studying when you don’t have a fixed timetable

When I was at school, it always filled me with dread – that first week back when you got your timetable. I was fine once I knew what was happening, but the thought of whether my Monday morning would be full of my least favourite things such as maths and PE always made me a bit anxious – until I knew what my week would look like for the rest of the year, and then it was ok.

Generally I enjoyed school. But I felt better when I knew how it would all fit together. Which rooms I’d have to go to and when. Which homework tasks would be set on which days. Then there was order to the chaos!

Sometimes people seem to think that I was just born organised, but there’s more to it than that. As human beings, we generally take the path of least resistance, and being disorganised stresses me out way more than planning a bunch of systems and processes does. I know we’re not all the same.

So, with no lectures to attend, how do you get organised and plan your study time for a long-distance degree course?

How does it work at the Open University?

The Open university is different in that you don’t attend weekly lectures. Most learning happens when you’re working through the materials on your own. Some may find this lonely – I find it liberating because you can set your own schedule and are not restricted by what others are doing.

There are tutorials, which in a way can be like lectures, but there is a list of them for you to choose from, so you’re never tied to having to be in a specific place at a specific time, unless you want to attend a particular face-to-face event, or to go to all of your own tutor’s tutorials. The tutorials are not mandatory, but they can be useful when you’re planning your assignments or if you don’t understand something.

I opt for the online ones, and so far there have been tutorials available on weekday evenings, so I can just hop on to the call from my desk after work. That works well for me because I don’t actually need to take time out of work to do it.

There are some deadlines, such as assignment deadlines. In my last module, there were six to do.

Some people leave them to the very last moment, but again, that would stress me out too much – what if I got ill or something? So I did most of mine around a week before the cut-off date.

Otherwise though, you don’t have someone sitting there telling you what you should be doing, and you don’t have a group of people sitting in a physical space together, working through the materials together. There are forums where you can ask for help, and most modules have a Facebook group, but you really need to be responsible for your own learning strategy and time management.

The weekly planner

I don’t know whether everyone uses it, but I find the weekly planner on the student home page really useful. Ok, there is a certain satisfaction to ticking off tasks and sections of the book once they’re complete. This makes the percentage bar go up and you feel as though you’re getting somewhere!

More than that though, the content is broken down into weeks. I found it really helped to follow this plan and pretty much stuck to it all the way through the first module. I find it bizarre that the week starts on a Saturday, but I just choose to ignore this and pretend that it starts on the Monday!

There are no penalties for not following the planner though – nobody checks – and you’d only have problems if you missed one of the assignment deadlines.

Some people will try to cram everything in at the end. Others will steam off ahead and ask about things that nobody has even seen yet! What people do is really up to them, but if you’re doing a collaborative activity, complaining about the fact that nobody else is participating when it is in fact you that is 4 weeks ahead of everyone else is not going to make you any friends!

General tips for staying on track with your studies

Whether you’re at the Open University or doing other distance learning courses, these tips might help you to work through your study materials.

  • Don’t leave everything till the last minute. Your brain can only absorb so much information at once, and cramming is a risky strategy, especially if unexpected personal circumstances come up, there are technical difficulties, or you discover there’s something that you need more help with.
  • If your course provides a timetable, try to use it. It can make three big books of information and tasks feel a lot more manageable. If you don’t have the material broken down for you, invest the time in making your own weekly planner, taking into consideration any holidays or weeks when you know you’ll have less time.
  • Understand that you’ll be able to sail through some sections because it’s something you know already or something that comes naturally to you. Other things will take a bit more time. With me, it’s always the maths, but I know that and can plan in extra time for it.
  • Once you have your weekly plan, try and break it down further. I generally try to do a bit each weekday and then finish off anything I didn’t manage at the weekend. I’m lucky because I’m self-employed and can set aside some time for this during working hours if I need to. But whether you do it in your work day or a bit each evening – you need to work out what works best for you. You may find it better to have two longer sessions at the weekend – but then bear in mind that there is less time for slippage. Blocking out time in your diary can help – I put mine in like meetings that I have to attend. There will always be other things that need our attention, which is why it’s useful to schedule study time in advance.
  • Find somewhere that feels like a place for working, and try to work there. Set it up in a way that’s comfortable, with less distractions, and try to make it somewhere where you won’t be disturbed. Keep all of your books and materials there, so you won’t waste study time hunting around for them. Try to limit distractions there. I just use the desk in my office, but if you don’t have that, try to identify a place where it will be easy for you to work.
  • Focus on what you’re doing, not what everyone else is doing. I understand that some people feel more relaxed if they can get themselves a few weeks ahead and hand in their assignments as soon as possible. That’s cool. But some people like to brag about it, which is not so cool. The people on your course can be good allies – you can help one another, have interesting discussions, and be there on days when either of you has had enough. But ultimately you are never going to see these people again unless you come across them on another module. So sure, be inspired by them, but don’t let them make you feel inadequate if someone is boasting about how quickly they did a task or how easy something was for them. What’s really important for your success is how you’re doing.
  • Don’t leave it too late to ask for help. I can’t move on to the next section if I don’t understand something because it will keep bothering me. I won’t be able to stop thinking about the thing until the thing has been resolved! In some ways this serves me well, but I have seen other people really struggling alone with things and only admitting it very late in the module. There are so many places to get help – tutors, other students, friends, the internet. Some of these people will be under more pressure as exam or assignment deadlines get closer, so it is often better to get your questions in as they come up. Sometimes rereading the same thing multiple times won’t make it any clearer – you need to find another strategy to understand the concept.
  • Know when to take breaks. I’m better at this if my partner is around. When he isn’t, I’ve been known to still be sitting at my desk at stupid o’clock trying to get something finished! But generally that’s a one-off. We aren’t machines. We need basic things like sleep, food, water, exercise. It’s tough because distance learning students often have a whole bunch of other stuff going on such as jobs, family commitments etc, but it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It won’t help if you burn yourself out because you overestimated how much you could do in one sitting.
  • Expect to have good and bad days. I wasn’t fond of one section in my last module. My motivation levels were down. I couldn’t wait to see the back of it! But that’s normal. Each module covers a range of information and some things will be easier for you than others. Some things will be more interesting than others. Don’t let how you feel about yourself and your ability to do the whole course be determined by how you feel about one particular task.
  • Celebrate the small wins – it makes you feel good before moving on to the next assignment or chunk of learning. Who doesn’t like a celebration? But seriously, breaking the material down into more manageable pieces can certainly help if at first you feel a bit overwhelmed.

Do you have any more tips? Let me know in the comments!

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