Keeping calm through assessment season
Assessment/Exam season is nearly here. It’s easy to get caught up in the anxiety and pressure and the whirlwind that is the last set of lectures and workshops, revision sessions and assessment information. And then before you know it, it’s over and you’ve not done as well as you wanted to or could have done. In this short post I want to offer some thoughts on getting through the assessment period in one piece.
The advice I share is based on having been a student a long, long, long time ago now (but I was weird, I quite liked exams) and on watching 100s of students go through the same thing over the last 15 or so years.
- Remember that the assessment you are about to do – whether examination or coursework is based on what you have learned over the semester. Trust your learning, trust your brain, trust the work you have done so far. You always know more than you think!
- If you haven’t kept up with your work throughout the semester now is the time to be strategic. If you have a coursework question, focus on the material and reading list relevant to that question – it’s too late now to catch up on everything – it’s a shame as you are likely to have missed some interesting stuff and your knowledge is likely to be incomplete and patchy which may come out in the assessment BUT you can still do this. If you have to sit an exam, well this is more difficult – see next point.
- Find out exactly what you are expected to do. Ideally try and do this without irritating all your tutors. The information is likely to be in your handbook or on your VLE. Attend the revision session if there is one for last minute clarification of issues and expectations. Make sure you know exactly what the format, timing, number of questions on the paper and number to be answered are and if there are any topics which will not be assessed. It is possible to be strategic in terms of exam revision but always, always have a backup.
- Most importantly, do not let this period take over your life completely! You are more likely to do well if you keep a balance, eat as healthily as you can manage, stay hydrated, get some exercise and plenty of sleep. And remember that the results do not define you, they are not you. Yes they matter but there is always another way to achieve what you want to achieve if it turns out that this just isn’t for you right now.
- For coursework – don’t underestimate the time it takes to edit, sort references and formatting and to check for spelling and grammar issues (read your work out loud and/or print it in a different font to spot mistakes you might have previously missed).
- First drafts are not meant to see the light of day – ever. They are yours and yours alone and they are allowed to be utter rubbish. Good writing, building a strong argument requires editing, re-writing, re-structuring, thinking and more re-writing and editing. This takes time – give yourself time.
- All nighters don’t work! Unless you already know your stuff really well you cannot expect to write a good essay from scratch in 24 hours. Nobody can. Even if you know your stuff it’s a tall order and if you are also revising for exams not getting sufficient sleep can seriously harm your ability to study and revise.
- Revision is a tricky one for me to give advice on because I was always rubbish at it. I worked on understanding principles throughout the year (and I had a year for my modules rather than just a semester) and then I crammed as much factual information and authorities into my relatively strong short term memory the night before – probably not great advice. What I do know is that over working doesn’t help. Being tired makes you forget. So here’s another plea for getting enough sleep!
- Exams – breathe! Then don’t forget you have the ability to think – use it. Read the question paper carefully, select your questions and then spend a few minutes planning your answer. This can help as it will keep you focused. It can also help to write down stuff you really need to remember – like case names or section numbers – right at the start and then you can stop worrying about trying to remember them. You should know how much time you have per question and it is really important to stick to that timing – even if you haven’t quite finished. A lack of a conclusion for one question is going to be less expensive in marks lost than barely starting a question.
- I liked exams – I am weird, I know but I thrived on that sort of pressure. I generally did ok in exams too even though I went into all of them underprepared because of my inability to actually concentrate on revision or stay awake past 10pm. Looking back passing my exams was much more about focus and technique than about knowledge. So here’s what I did (and still do in similar situations):
- Sit down, breathe consciously.
- Open the paper knowing how many questions to answer. Consciously stop, sit back and breathe. Then read each question carefully and mark it with a tick, a cross or a question mark depending on how I feel about it.
- Select my questions – ideally I will have enough ticks, if I do I don’t waste time choosing as such – I go in order. If I have to do a question mark question then so be it.
- Start on my first question – write a short bullet point plan and note any authorities down.
- Focus on structure - point by point making sure each one has some sort of authority – even if I can’t remember the case/section or author – I will try and describe it in the hope of getting some credit for not making it up completely. My introduction is always a one or two sentence summary answer to the question I am set and the rest is the evidence why that is the right answer. I have always been quite good at resisting the urge to just write everything I know on a topic and you should try focusing on just answering the question too (but if you ask me about my Equity and Trusts Exam I can tell you about the time that nearly went very wrong).
- Once my time for that question is up I move on whether I am finished or not and repeat e. above for the second (and third etc) question.
The key to getting through assessment season successfully is to recognise it as just another part of the learning cycle – really it should be your victory lap – all the hard work is done throughout the semester and if you have thought about the things we’ve asked you to think about, read the things we’ve asked you to read and taken part in the teaching sessions then there shouldn’t be anything in the assessments that you can’t handle by simply turning on your brain, thinking it through and then answering the questions we have set!
Jess is a Reader in Law with a particular interest in legal education and in feminist and queer approaches to law and legal study. She is an experienced legal academic and has developed and taught a variety of courses and modules at undergraduate and postgraduate level. She has a background in law and social science subjects and combines the two in her teaching and research.