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Blitzing your science, technology, maths and engineering exams

How should you prepare for your number and science exams? Shutterstock

With HSC exams coming up, students will be preparing to sit a range of different exams, from English to music to biology to languages. For study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) there are two sets of tactics for preparation: the usual, well-established ones; and the lesser-known but evidence-based approaches that have a powerful impact on learning.

General, well-known study tips

Organise your work by:

  • reviewing each course syllabus. Copy and print excerpts of the syllabus and use them to bookmark the resources you will draw on in studying those aspects. This way you can keep your focus on the required elements (and expand beyond those only when time and energy permit).

  • preparing a timetable for study based on your different courses and the syllabus material you want to cover within them. Ensure the weighting of time allocated to each area is based upon syllabus weighting - not your personal interest.

  • carefully selecting texts and resources you will draw on in your study, ensuring that they are efficiently aligned with the curriculum covered.

Organise your study space:

  • so that you have important resources readily available

  • with visual materials - like the periodic table or key formulae – so that you immerse yourself in them. Create your own summary tables and mind maps and hang them where you’ll see them often (the back of the toilet door?)

  • to create an environment that is relaxed and calming. But take note … those prone to procrastination can go overboard here and spend too much time preparing to study and not enough time actually studying!

Clarify and summarise:

  • Use the online resources available from your state education department including online exam support materials (NSW here and here, Vic here and here, and QLD here and here). Students need to know what they are expected to learn to do so effectively.

Identify, define and provide examples for key concepts for each unit:

  • for example, transgenics - what is it, how is it carried out and what is an example that demonstrates your understanding? This can be done in tables or in mind maps for content across STEM. For higher marks on challenging questions take this one step further and link the words/concepts/formulae together across the units of study.

  • Practise past papers under open-book conditions and review your summary sheets for weaknesses. Refine your summary sheets and tables and then practise more!

Lesser-known but proven approaches

Educational research has identified research-evidenced approaches to effective learning. John Hattie’s concept of Visible Learning proposes that students can become highly active learners and effectively teach themselves when the tasks of learning are made clear to them. So one challenge is for STEM students to become more aware of what it is they are meant to be learning and how they are progressing toward those goals.

  1. Use an assessment for learning approach. Assessment for learning is where students review the feedback on their previous tests and exams. Do practice exams and critically review them in terms of the marking standards, for example the NSW HSC Band performance descriptors and marking guidelines. By familiarising themselves with what teachers are looking for, students can i) study what is most relevant, ii) redress their previous weaknesses, and iii) sharpen their strengths. Good teachers work with students to help them take this assessment as learning approach - but it is possible for students to strengthen it further or do it alone!

  2. Peer learning. Study in pairs or groups where lab work and class work can be discussed and reviewed. Use these groups to peer-review your responses to questions on past papers. Peer tutoring and peer learning have been shown to have a strong positive effect upon learning in STEM; importantly these approaches also provide a pleasant and social way of learning, which can be a welcome break from other forms of study.

  3. Application to the real world. Sometimes it’s easier to understand a problem if you re-frame it to fit in a real-life scenario. This is because applying abstract STEM problems to a real-world context requires higher order, and often meta-cognitive, thinking which helps strengthen learning. In countries that show improving educational attainment teachers report “more relating of lessons to real life”.

  4. Adopt a growth mindset. Recent research has shown that students’ own views of what learning is and how it can, or can’t, be achieved has a powerful impact upon learning achievement. Neuroscience and genetics research suggest that we are all able to learn maths and science as well as creative and literary arts. Carol Dweck’s concepts of Fixed and Growth Mindsets are helpful:

In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.

Just by learning what a growth mindset is can lead to improved educational outcomes. Given many students think you have to be “naturally gifted” to succeed in maths and science, this is a much-needed insight.

This is part of The Conversation’s Exam Guide

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