Monday, 12 September 2011

Work smart, not hard.

This post is specifically for those just embarking upon, or in the middle of their A Levels. A Levels are hard work, there's no doubting that, but there are a few things that I learnt from during mine that I think might help some of you to realise that changing simple things like your working habits might save you time, make you less stressed and more productive.

Many of these tips have come from teachers and friends, so they're not all mine! And I do not in any way profess to being a genius or insanely intelligent, but being organised during my A Levels helped me to stay afloat in my first year, which helped enormously in the second.

1. Remember that all of the UMS marks you gain in your easier first year, are equal to those you gain in the second.

A lot of people seem to treat their AS Level year as a practice year, and they'll work 'harder' the next year to compensate for not trying as hard. My experience of this was that by not maintaining an equal pace, it becomes horrible for you in your second year. Your AS Level is the most important year because it is the grades that you apply to university with, and the exams are much easier than your second year - so it makes more sense to expect to do better in the first year than the second. It's unrealistic to believe that if you did badly in your first year, you'll make it up in the second. If you are re-sitting modules in your A Level year, with the added stress of UCAS, people generally tend to do worse unless they work their arses off. A Levels are a two year process, and it really takes the stress away from your A Level year if you secure good grades in the first.

2. Don't waste time copying out notes unless you are gaining something from them.

I had a friend who used to copy out all their notes, spending hours color coding every different aspect of them, and would always be shocked when they didn't get straight A's. JUST copying out the notes you get from class is not going to help you absorb the information analytically. In order to process the information, you need to do something which makes you think about what it is you're taking in. Mindlessly copying from a textbook normally isn't going to make much of an impact, and is a terribly time consuming way to spend two years of your life. Here are a few things that I found really helpful...
  • Flashcards - Personally, I found flashcards to be the singularly most useful way of learning the large quantities of information necessary for my essay subjects. I would condense every aspect of the course from my syllabus into about 30 flashcards. The act of synthisising that amount of information down is SO useful in itself, because you are having to think analytically about what out of that text is the most relevant. On my politics flashcards for example, I would come up with tables with 'for' and 'against' certain arguments e.g The Constitution is an effective document. By starting to think analytically in your learning process, by the time that you come to your exam it will become second nature.
  • Mind Maps - If you are a visual learner, mind maps may become your best friend! I know some people who instead of taking 'proper' notes in lesson use mind maps. They are useful for a number of reasons. Firstly, they help you 'link' up all the different concepts - this helps you to be a 'synoptic' learner and gets you into those pesky A* brackets. They're also useful for having something visual and pretty to revise from aside from a whole folder of notes that three months later make no sense.
  • Good text books - Even if your teacher does not recommend a certain book, try to find out one regardless. Extra reading is essential if you want to do well at A Level, and a good text book with a clear structure to your course will save you bags of time trying to figure out how it all fits together. The AQA history text books for example, are very good at breaking down the course into smaller chunks. Even though my teacher didn't recommend it, I got one anyway and found it really invaluable when I was planning my revision.
  • Finding the 'zone' - This is really something which is dependable on you and what type of learner you are. One of the first things you should try to figure out is the best way you learn. Are you visual - in that seeing how things work helps you learn? Maybe you're musical, and benefit from having Muse on in the background as you revise. Whatever your style, adopt it and be conscious of it as you learn. Personally i'm an audio learner, so I react well to just listening to someone speak about their subject. For years I used to write loads of notes, which would be rushed, AND half listen, so I didn't get the benefit of either. When I stopped making rushed notes during classed, I noticed that I was actually absorbing a lot more than I did normally.
3. Getting organised before exams will reduce your stress levels - This is so true. When you know where you are going in the next week/month with your revision timetable/note taking you will be so much more confident by the time you get to your exam. Personally I split the build up to an exam into three different phases. By spreading the work over the course of three months it means that you don't have to let it take over your life in the last one. Slow and steady wins the race! A little bit of work each day, and actually slowing down slightly before your exam will mean you reap the benefits. Lots of people I know burn themselves out a month before an exam and then do badly, using a slower method of planned attack will mean you can approach the exam confident and relaxed in the knowledge you have been preparing a honing your skills for a long time.

Phase One: Condensing your knowledge
This is quite a time consuming phase that would take up to about a month, so about three months before my exams I would begin to condense knowledge into manageable chunks on flashcards, and perhaps spend an hour a night doing this. I would also create a revision timetable around this time, so that I knew exactly what area of a subject I would be doing right up until the very last day. So for example, I broke my politics exam into four chunks - Constitution/President/Congress/Law and I would put 30 minute chunks of each area into a timetable that lasted three months. So for the first month I would alternate which area of my Politics subject I was condensing. It is important not to have chunks longer than about an hour and have regular breaks. Doing different things every day will help you stay engaged. And ticking off once you have done that time is really satisfying. By the time you get to the exam, you won't be panicking about stuff you don't know, as you will have gone over everything several times this way.

Phase Two: Honing my skills
All of my subjects where essay subjects, so once I had condensed my knowledge (note, NOT memorised) I would then use my flashcards to help me write my essays and practice my analytic skills. These would then go into my teachers to be marked. By the end of my A Levels, I could produce around four essays (exam length) a week. I also would practice occasionally writing by hand just so I know I could write at a quick enough speed. I would probably do this for about a month. It's important to know the assessment objectives of your course, and keep these in mind as you tackle practice questions.

Phase Three: Absorbing/Memorising and chillaxing!
You will be amazed by how much information you will already have picked up by this stage. This is the last couple of weeks before the exam, and it is only now that I would ever suggest memorising information. And this only really applies to scientific/mathematical subjects where memorised formulas are required. Memorising is not learning, but sometimes it must be done. There is no point doing this months in advance as you might get to hung up about it, so just get ready to go for the final stretch and use this time to relax, carry on looking at your flashcards and memorise anything you need. By this stage you will be confident that you have done everything you needed to achieve very highly in your exam - so relax!

That's it folks! Hope this helps some of you. I think I might write another post about the UCAS/ interviews system soon if any of you feel that it would help.


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