Study Skills offers tips on how to revise and cope with course work
Learning the work
Answering the questions
1. Your Notes
When you have to revise for an exam, the most important thing to do is to check that your notes are complete and make sense. Most exams have a compulsory question so you can't afford to have gaps in your notes just in case that topic comes up. Even if you have a choice of questions, if your notes aren't complete you may find you HAVE to do a question you don't like because you can't do any other question.
In the same way, if your notes consist of answers such as "Because he was there" or even "I believe source A because he was there", you will find it difficult to learn a topic.
- So the most important study skill is to write clear and complete answers when you do the work in the first place.
- Make sure you understand the work.
2. Learning the work
To revise work effectively, you need to know about your exam. Which topics are tested in which paper, what is compulsory, what types of questions are asked? History exams frequently have a mixture of short and extended answers testing your knowledge and often test sources in a separate paper.
Once you know what topics to cover, you have to work out the best way to learn them (ideally you will have already done this, perhaps for your mock exams). Simply reading the work is usually the least effective way of learning. Try to do something with the material, for example:
- A topic web, showing the key ways the Nazis used propaganda;
- A date list showing the key events of the Cold War;
- A chart showing good and bad effects of the role of science in medicine;
- A flowchart showing the key causes of World War I;
- An annotated map showing how the white settlers spread out over the continent of America;
- Small cards that can be rearranged to show key events or good and bad aspects;
- Use colours to classify items, eg long/short term, political/economic, good/bad etc.
Ask your teacher for past papers and test yourself. Sometimes you need to practise writing out the answers in test conditions.
Work in concentrated bursts and then change the activity or have a short break rather than trying to work for 3 hours continuously. Be ruthless when people interrupt you - don't answer the phone/read the text/have that drink - save it for your planned break.
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3. Answering the questions
If your teacher hasn't explained to you how the exams are marked, ask about it. Most history questions are marked using a Levels of Response Mark Scheme. In the exam questions I mark:
- Level 1 answers are usually general statements without explanation or example;
- Level 2 answers tend to have lots of detail and description, often explaining your answer OR giving several examples without any real explanation;
- Level 3 answers make it clear how the examples you have given are relevant to this question and how they back up your comments.
A short answer for somewhere around 4 marks will usually just be one paragraph but a longer answer, for 7 or even 10 marks, will have several points to make. Perhaps the question asks you to compare 2 things or to explain how several factors interacted to cause an event. It is really worth planning this sort of answer so that you can check you have covered all the areas you need to and you have a clear idea of what points you are going to make, which points are the most important etc.
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4. Source work
Source work is an important part of History and you will usually be asked a range of questions about sources. Remember to look carefully at the source you are given - don't assume it is true because it is a diary, or it is exaggerated because it is from a newspaper. Ask yourself:
- Did the writer really know what was happening? (Was he there, did he speak to someone involved, does he know the full situation?)
- Would the writer tell the full truth? (Could he be confused, would he want to miss out some bits, would he exaggerate, would he be too scared to tell the truth etc?)
- Study the words used (does he say "I saw..", does he sound emotional, do the words have good or bad associations, is he making excuses ?);
- Think about the nature of the source (is it a public statement where he might not want to admit something, was he paid to write it, is it a private letter?);
- Think about for whom it was written and why it was written (to inform the government about a foreign situation, to justify something to the public, to tell a friend some gossip?)
- Use the caption to see if there are any extra clues (eg was it written long afterwards - does this mean he can finally tell the truth or will his knowledge of later events affect what he says?)
All this sounds very complicated but much of it is really just common sense - you know that some people can be more trusted to tell the truth than others and you know that in certain circumstances people are likely to lie or to exaggerate. What you have to do, is to apply that understanding to people and events in historical situations. The more you know about those people and events, the more confidently you can evaluate sources.
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4. Source work
Examiners are looking for a clear understanding of the topics you have studied and for you to use that knowledge to answer the questions on the paper. It is also important to keep an eye on the time. It is no good writing a page if the maximum mark is three - you can't get a bonus mark - but it could mean that you don't have enough time to answer the 10-mark question properly. Mocks and tests are an important way of developing this skill. If you did badly in a test, try to identify the reason - should you try a different method of revision, do you need to read the question more carefully, did you run out of time?
My final tips are:
- Plan your revision carefully so that you have time to fit in everything you need to cover.
- Be prepared to use a variety of methods (source work needs to be practised, it can't be learned like a date list).
- Ask for help and make sure you understand the work you are doing.
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