Improve Your Exam Marks
Dr Michael Gruneberg, Author of Linkword courses
Evidence That Using Memory Aids Improves Exam Performance
The very last study* I was involved in publishing showed that students who used memory aids had significantly better marks on some of their answers than those who did not.
We found was that when it came to the students worst answer, using memory aids significantly raised the students mark compared to those not showing evidence of using memory aids.
For their best answers there was no difference.
This strongly suggests that where a student really knows a topic, using memory aids does not make a difference, but where a student is weaker in their knowledge , then using a memory aid allows the student to at least write more about what they do know.
As all marks are equally important in exams, picking up an extra 4-5 marks say in the weakest answer could make a great difference to your overall mark.
The students we examined had written finals papers in Psychology. What we did is look at the front page to see whether there was any evidence of using memory strategies on their front page.
We found the most frequent strategies included listing points they wished to make in their answers and using the first letter strategy to remember these points.
An example of that strategy is:
Richard Of York Gave battle In Vain
to remember the colours of the rainbow.
Interestingly few if any students showed evidence of mind mapping.
How To Use The First Letter Strategy To Prepare For Exams
Knowing that something works is one thing, knowing how best to use it is another.
Here is the strategy that I recommended to my students.
Long before an exam, get together what you know about a topic and pick out 8 -10 key points.
Write them down in the order you want to present the points picking a KEYWORD that will remind you of the point you wish to discuss.
Make a word or a sentence from the first letters of the points you wish to make. For example, if you were preparing an answer to whether capital punishment was a good or bad thing, you might have the pros as:
- Stops a repeat crime
Against capital punishment:
These give the letters DRS MB so the sentence could be Deterrence Rarely Stops Mad Baboons
The next part of the strategy is critical
- Prepare your answers at least a month before the exams if possible
- Go over the mnemonic and what the letters stand for again 2 weeks before the exam
- Do this again a week before the exam
- Do this again the day before the exam
- Get to the exam about half an hour before it starts. Don’t talk to your friends just go over the mnemonics for the exam and what the letters stand for
- As soon as you get into the exam, identify what questions you are going to answer and write all the mnemonics and key points down for ALL the questions you will be answering.
That way you minimise the chances of forgetting the mnemonic and what points it stands for.
A true story of where this strategy got a student a first which she would not have got otherwise**
A student of mine (MO) came to see me after her third exam in tears because she had worked so hard but could not remember what she had prepared under the pressure of exams.
I advised her to use the strategy above and she ended up gaining a first class degree.
Of course she could not have got a first class degree if she did not have a high level of knowledge and understanding of the subject. But what it did was to enable her to write what she knew. Some people complain that this approach is childish. But what is worse than coming out of an exam knowing that you have not done yourself justice but exam pressure made you forget what you knew.
MO said in an interview after the exams ‘I used to think Oh you’ve gone past that stage now’ but it’s amazing, you haven’t. It does give you a lot of confidence, because you can go in, write them down and you feel you are ready to write an answer’.
Further uses of the first letter strategy in exams***
Studies have shown that using a first letter search strategy when you have forgotten something you know well give you a good chance of retrieving an item on the tip of the tongue
What you do is think to yourself does the word begin with an A, a B, a C etc . Using this in real life seems to give about a 1 in 4 chance of getting it back. If that fails, try thinking round the topic. In quite a number of occasions it works to stop thinking about the missing item for quite a time then try again to remember it.
* Siné McDougall and Michael Gruneberg (2002) What memory strategy is best for examinations in psychology? Applied Cognitive Psychology, Volume 16, Issue 4, pages 451–458
** M Gruneberg and P Morris (eds) 1978. Aspects of Memory. Methuen and co
*** M Gruneberg and P Morris (1992) Aspects of Memory – The practical Aspects. Routledge