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Exam prep: how much further reading should you do?

Question on first year revision from a student:

I’m wondering if you could advise me on how much revision I should be doing. I am now using books to read over and make notes from in addition to the lecture notes. So how much more would you say is necessary for me to do in addition to revising lecture notes? I ask because I am finding some modules harder than others and perhaps would like to balance the revision evenly to give more priority to the modules I am struggling with.

That’s a good question (i.e. there isn’t a simple answer).
I’ve organised my ideas below in terms of what kind of mark each level of further reading might lead to at first year level.

Basic safe pass (50s, low/mid 60s)
I think the most important thing to go for is understanding  the basic lecture content. Two reasons for that:

  • Understanding (not just being able to repeat) the material is what we’re aiming at, so exam questions will be testing that.
  • We know from research in memory that people remember meanings better than specific details, that meaningful (i.e. understood) material is easier to remember than meaningless material, and that having a structure of understanding (a schema) makes it easier to remember new material which is related to that schema.

Now, we may be great at explaining things in lectures, so it’s always perfectly clear, and you may be great at making notes, so that you can always understand everything you’ve noted down afterwards – but i wouldn’t bet on either of those. So the first use of further reading is to read different  accounts of the lecture material – in textbooks, websites, whatever. Different people will explain stuff in different ways, and the chances are if you don’t understand one version clearly, another, different, version will work for you.
Once you’ve got a solid understanding of the main lecture material, you’re likely to be able to get a good mark in the exam (provided you can remember it in the exam and you use that understanding to actually answer the question).

Good pass (mid/high 60s)
But it’s worthwhile going further. (In the following two sections, I’ve guessed at what the basic lecture material was. If my ‘further’ examples actually were part of your basic content, then I hope you can think of equivalent examples.)
To start with, test your understanding and develop your schematic overview of the material.
For instance, if you know about the three-colour-receptor explanation of colour vision, what could you predict about different ways of being ‘colour-blind’? And why is it unlikely that people with anomalous colour vision don’t simply see in shades of grey? Then go and read up on anomalous colour vision, and see if your guesses are confirmed. Again, from what we know about memory, it’s likely that information gained as a result of active exploration like this is retained better than stuff that’s more or less passively read.

Excellent performance (70+)
Then, pick up on any extensions or complications of the main lecture material. For example, our main account of brain activity is in terms of nerve cells communicating with each other, and all the other brain structures, like glial cells, are just there to support the neurons. But you’ve probably seen some hints that people are beginning to think these other cells are also important in brain activity. OK, see if you can find any stuff about that.
The disadvantage to this ‘going further’ approach is that you’ll find that the picture gets more complicated the further you go (all this stuff is very complicated: that’s why we start out with the simple, ‘mythical’ versions to get you started) – but if you have a good basic understanding, you should be able to build the complications into your model, rather than finding them too confusing.

To go back to the original question: “I ask because I am finding some modules harder than others and perhaps would like to balance the revision evenly to give more priority to the modules I am struggling with”. I think that should be your primary guideline. If ‘struggling with‘ means ‘don’t really understand all of it‘, then the most important thing to do is to read around, at a fairly basic level, until you’re happy that you do understand the basic stuff in all the modules. Once you’ve got that basis of confidence, then it’s time to go for some more detail (and more complication).

Comments (from students: ‘I don’t get this’; or other teachers: ‘no. you’re wrong, because..’) are welcome.

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