Exam Advice – the Devil is in the Details

This post is aimed at those students who are aiming high in the IB and want to do well in the exams.  Note:  that should be all of you!

You may feel that the exams are a long way off, but for some students, they are just about to begin – the November session is about to hit us, and anyone taking exams at this time, should have no social life at the moment – they should be working every moment they can.

This blog is driven by the fact that the reports have just come out from the exams from last May and we should all try to learn whatever we can from them.  So I have read them, will use them to help my students and here, will use them to help you.

Exam Tip #1.  Timing is crucial.  When you are in the exam, you should always be aware of the time you have left.  I tell students to have two things in front of them – their watch facing them so they know the time and a count-down timer.  If you don’t have one, a kitchen timer should be fine – but you must make sure IT DOES NOT MAKE ANY SOUND, either when it is counting down, or when it reaches the end.  One student I had, could find anything other than a timer that set its alarm off at the end of the countdown, so we opened it up and cut the wire to the speaker – no more sound!

There is plenty of evidence that students are running out of time on P2 and P3.  This is shown with a greater number of blank responses as the paper moves towards the end.  The questions here are not tougher, but the students have spent too much time on the early parts and have not got enough time to finish.

You must revise by practicing questions from past exams and then look at the marking schemes – more on this below.  But you must also try full papers under timed conditions.  Try a paper for the right amount of time and then stop.  You then mark it with the marking scheme and see how you have done.  Your teachers can not help you with this and neither will your class work – it is all down to you to practice, practice, practice!

Exam Tip #2.  Your must use past exam questions and the marking schemes.  Get yourself a set of booklets which have questions in them based on a single topic from the course.  You then need a second booklet which has the marking schemes for those particular questions.  The idea is to try 4-5 questions without help, and then stop.  Mark them and find all the parts you got wrong.  Then work on those parts so that you understand them.  Then try the next 4-5.  Keep doing this, pulsing through the booklet.  It is very effective at allowing you to see the questions that come up a lot – you may have got the answer wrong the first or second time, but normally, the third time you meet it, you should be fine.  That is called progress.

If you don’t have such booklets (and why should you?), then ask your teacher.  If they do not, then email me and I will send you some.

Exam Tip #3.  Listen to your teacher and take their advice.  My experience of students is that females will believe me when I explain good exam technique.  Guys will not.  For a guy, there is always a better way, and of course, that way is their way.  This is almost always not true – so come on guys, wake up and smell the coffee – these exams are tough and we would all need help to get through them – so DO NOT ignore your teacher.

Teachers will have read the subject reports (I hope) and they will usually know the topic areas that are the tough ones.  These are the ones that they will focus on in the lessons – so take note and work hard on them.  For example, the classic tough areas are:

  1. Electromagnetism.  This is tough because the questions are either descriptive or mathematically very hard.  Descriptive questions are always a place where even the best students drop marks.  The maths part of this topic is usually based around Faraday’s and Lenz’s laws – and they are hard to cope with – the rates of change are a real pain.
  2. Simple Harmonic Motion (SHM).  This is a tough area because the maths is tough.  SHM questions should be practiced and you need to decide if you can do them or not.  If your maths is up to it, then they are usually a gift – they all look very similar, ask very similar things and students gain most of the marks.  However, if you cannot do them, then steer away from them straight away – they will be a nightmare for you and you will get few if any marks.
  3. Fields.  Gravitational and electric fields are always tough because they are basically mathematical questions.  There are few questions based on words for this area – so they often distinguish between those students who are very good and those that are not.  Again, practice them, mark them and see how you perform.  Take them or avoid them accordingly.

A word of warning about dropping silly marks.  If the question asks you to draw a line through the data points (often this is Qu 1 on P2), remember that the term line means straight line OR CURVE.  If the data points are clearly curved, then draw a curve.  And make your curve a single clear curve, not some weird shaded or sketched curve.  And if you need to draw a straight line, USE A RULER, do not do it free hand.  Which brings me onto …

Exam Tip #4.  Make sure you have all the kit you need.  This should include:

–          Black pen (blue does not scan well, and the papers will be scanned so they can be marked online). x2

–          Pencil. x2.

–          Ruler (preferably 30cm)

–          Pencil sharpener.

–          Eraser.

–          Compass.

–          Protractor.

–          Scientific of graphical Calculator.

–          Spare set of batteries for the calculator.

Exam Tip #5. This is my final one for now (there will be more later in the academic year – have no fear!).  Find yourself a good place student study.  This means:

–          Away from distractions like other people.

–          Do NOT play music while you work.  This is a ‘big thing’ for teenagers.  You all think that you work best while you are listening to music.  This is not true.  I understand the idea that if it is silent, this is just as bad – anything that makes a noise will disturb you.  But having music on that you like, will mean you are listening to it – your brain is so good, it can allow you to (kind of) work, and listen at the same time.  So you are not by definition, as focused as you could be.  Find yourself some music that lets you fill up the silence but also, something that you would not normally listen to.  For me personally, this would be certain types of classical music.  I don’t love it or hate it – it just fills up my silence.

And finally, remember that nothing will make up for wasted time – you need to work hard, no matter how good you are.

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