How do you best prepare for your exams in humanities subjects? As Dean of an Arts and Social Sciences faculty, I have been asked this question frequently when speaking to high school students over the past few months.
I usually start off by saying - well, it depends on what you want from your studies. This probably isn’t the answer students (or their parents) initially want to hear. But motivation and clarity of purpose are hugely important when tackling any significant challenge.
However, I do have some suggestions that might help students (and their families) prepare – whether for exams in English, history, languages, or any of the diverse but rigorous areas of study that make up the humanities. Here are my top five tips.
1. Keep up with your reading and assessments over the course of the whole year. For some of you, it might already be too late, but for those of you who have been keeping up, I hope this is reassuring, because it really is the most important advice of all.
Humanities subjects are best studied through a prolonged and deep engagement with the texts you have been assigned (whether novels, poems, histories, films or photographs); it’s not something susceptible to cramming at the last minute.
You need to read methodically, ask lots of questions and discuss them with your classmates, teachers, friends and family. Often the books we set for exams are difficult and elusive, but also, with some effort, richly rewarding – that’s why we’re still reading them, sometimes hundreds of years after they have been written.
If you’ve skived off for most of the year and only skimmed the material and relied entirely on Sparknotes and Wikepedia to get through the assessments, then it’s time to play catch-up and get reading now.
2. Don’t prepare by pre-writing all of your essays and memorising them in full, hoping to guess correctly about the questions on the exam. This has unfortunately become something of a common strategy among many high school students today. But the examiners are onto it. You run the risk of guessing incorrectly, with potentially disastrous consequences.
You’re also cheating yourself out of genuinely learning from the material you’re reading and writing about. There is a freshness and incisiveness about an examination answer that a student has tackled when thinking on their feet in the exam room. And you will feel much better – certainly less anxious - walking into that examination room having taken this approach, rather then hoping you’ve memorised the right practice essay.
3. Have some useful quotes in mind for each of your subject areas, but be selective and strategic. Many students worry about having enough quotes to weave into their essays. Here, some memorisation does come in handy – but choose carefully and don’t overdo it. You want to demonstrate your grasp of the text and maximise the impact of your quotations for the sake of your argument.
I’ve heard some pretty amazing stories about how to ensure you can remember them – sniffing rosemary oil as you study and then taking a twig into the exam room; or pasting extracts all over the house, including in the shower, on your bedroom wall and next to the kitchen sink. But here’s my secret tip: go for a walk.
Philosophers have known for millennia that walking and thinking go extremely well together. Why do you think Socrates spent most of his time wandering around the Greek agora? Stuff tends to stick in your mind when you think and walk at the same time – but pay attention to where you’re going!
4. Exercise your writing skills: By all means practise writing essays, but not for the sake of memorising them. Rather, writing practice essays helps to organise your thoughts and limber up your writing “muscles”.
Here is another tip that you might have already figured out for yourself: writing is like physical exercise. You need to train up your writing skills as you would your body for a big race. So get training. And get inspired by reading some great writing before you start each day.
5. Embrace the open-endedness, ambiguity and richness of literature, history and language studies. This is probably the biggest challenge of all – and not everyone can or wants to do this - but perhaps the most rewarding too. Not everything has been said about Othello, though it might feel that way.
The reasons for the decline of Rome seem almost too well known, but the resonance of Roman ideals still matters today in countless ways. The intricacies of ancient Greek, the complexity of French verbs and elusiveness of German syntax require the mastery of seemingly endless rules, but their application still requires flair and creativity. The humanities are, after all, ultimately about what it means to live, feel and think as a human being.
Plan to do your best in your exams and train accordingly. But don’t miss out on the extraordinary journey of ideas, concepts and stories you’ve been on. It will keep you fresh for examination day.
More importantly, it’s what will stay with you long after you’ve finished the exam and much longer than whatever marks you ultimately receive on the day.
This is the first article in the Exam Guide series.