First Years First Exams: A Whole New Ballgame

The first exams are rapidly approaching for students who entered higher education this year, and preparing for these require a complete new mindset compared to school exams, an education expert says.

“The difference lies in how your learning is being assessed,” says Nola Payne, Head of Faculty: Information Technology at The Independent Institute of Education.

“In school assessments, your competence is measured in terms of knowledge, associated skills and application of that knowledge. For each assessment, it was important to understand which aspect would be the focus of the specific test. But in higher education, the various aspects are often assessed together, so you must make sure your answers – in tests, exams, portfolios or projects – showcase your competence on all levels at all times.”

Payne says that all students would by now have handed in work to be assessed, and have received detailed feedback to help them develop their abilities as a higher education student so that they would be ready for their first exams.
“By now you will know how successful you are in making the transition from learner to student. You can make that feedback work for you in your preparation for your first semester exams.

“Furthermore, your results so far will give you an indication of how well you need to perform in your first exams, in order to be able to proceed with your course.”

Payne says first years’ current subjects are purposely designed to help them achieve the qualification for which they enrolled.

“This should make it easier for you, because you have an interest in this field and are therefore more motivated to perform well in these assessments. It is also true that at higher education level the links between subjects become more obvious, and effort put in to one often helps you succeed in others.”

She says that besides the usual advice offered when preparing for exams in general – a structured study plan, eating well and getting enough sleep – there are other academic strategies first years can use to maximise their potential and performance.

“Most higher education exams expect you to apply information to case studies or examples. The best method of preparation is always practise – find past papers and write them and get friends to assess them. This helps you train yourself to deal with pressure, you measure your learning and you develop your understanding of how a course is assessed.”

Other strategies that make a difference include:

Going back to the course outline, which will let you refocus on what the aim of the course is and what you are expected to learn. “The course outline should also give clues about the level of learning,” says Payne. “Do the outcomes speak about understanding, describing and knowing? If that is so, the level of knowledge required is of content. If the outcomes speak about discussing, debating and explaining, then you will be expected to apply knowledge of content to some form of problem or case study. If the outcomes speak of comparing, contrasting or contextualising, you will be expected to show that you can see both the differences and the similarities between sets of ideas or information.”

Ensure you understand the difference between these different verbs. “Not only because this will help you understand the level of engagement, but because they will be used in the assessments and you need to be sure that you explain when asked to do so and list when asked to do so. Explain, list, discuss and describe do not mean the same thing – be sure you have mastered this in your preparation.”

Divide the time for the assessment by the number of marks for the whole assessment and manage your time allocation accordingly. “It is a good measure of how much time you should spend on each question. There is no value in spending half the time of the assessment on a question only worth 20% of the marks.”

The structure, layout, and level of difficulty of your formative assessments will give you a clue as to the format in which questions are asked during the exams. “Examiners are not trying to trick you, but they will want to ensure that you have a good grasp and understanding of the subject and are capable of moving onto the next semester and being successful.”

Speak to more senior students doing the same qualification. “They have the experience of having written the same exams and may be able to provide you with a few tips.”

If you’re still unsure about a section of work, make an appointment to see your lecturer or tutor for a clearer explanation. “But go to this meeting prepared. You should take specific questions with you and not just say “I don’t understand anything”.

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