Rachel Davis, learning development manager at the Royal Veterinary College, describes how small changes in time management, methods of study and motivation can help to improve exam performance
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VETERINARY medicine is one of the most academically challenging degree programmes on offer, so it is hardly surprising that its students report high levels of stress (Strand and others 2005, Hafen and others 2008). Much work has been done to simplify and condense the veterinary medicine curri-culum, but there remains an unavoidable volume of complex scientific and clinical material to be taught, processed (studied) and demonstrated (assessed) in a relatively short period of time.
Most students enter veterinary medicine with good academic qualifications. They have a tried and tested mode of study and are comfortable in their position at the top of the academic tree. A proportion of these students have the skills and strategies in place to smoothly transition into their new programme with its specific academic, social and financial demands; others don't, but will adapt within a term or two. There are, however, a number of students who struggle to get to grips with the new material and, perhaps more importantly, new ways of thinking and learning about it. These students are putting in the hours, but failing to convert their effort into results.
Here in the Learning Development Unit at the Royal Veterinary College, we see students from all courses (veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing, bioveterinary science, MSc, PhD, clinical training scholars) and in all years of study (from induction through to finals) for one-to-one academic advice sessions. The topics of these sessions do, however, fall into relatively few categories: time management, effective study, exam technique, and academic writing – and the associated stresses that ensue.
How to study smart
When students are struggling to manage their workload, we ask them to describe their working week: a typical student will attend most timetabled sessions, spend some time on the internet or in the library and then go home to put in several hours of additional late night study in their room.
Study activities usually consist of writing up notes from lectures (which are pretty extensive already), listening to Echo360 (our lecture recording system) and reading a few textbook chapters or web pages if time allows. In this scenario, they are putting in long hours, but the focus is on the creation and perfection of written notes – very little time is spent thinking about, learning and using the new information that they have encountered. At exam time notes are pulled out and the realisation dawns that it is too late to process the material in any depth, and thus they resort to cramming as much information as possible in the short time available. With luck, this may result in a pass, but the learning is surface at best, and unlikely to be remembered next week, never mind next year. Here are a few e-mail extracts from students looking for academic advice:
‘I am currently trying to put together a schedule for studying between now and my exam in two weeks. Do you have any suggestions on how this should be approached? How do you figure out total time for study and time on each topic, etc?’
‘I've been having trouble with my exams lately. I haven't been failing but just haven't been doing as well as I thought I would considering the amount of revision I'm doing – can you help?’
‘I have been ill recently and as a result have fallen behind with my work. Can you help me establish a more effective way of revising so that I can catch up on the work that I have missed?’
The good news is that effective study habits are easily prescribed (see the ‘study tips’ listed in the box for advice on tackling these and other sorts of academic challenges). However, successful adoption of such habits over a sustained period requires a degree of planning, organisation, self-discipline and reflection that can feel daunting. Indeed, for many students, the (time-consuming) verbatim note-taking habit formed in their pre-higher education years is often so strongly embedded it can feel too risky to attempt anything new – even if the overwhelming evidence suggests that the strategy is not working. In this situation, our advice is to make small changes. Pick one new study activity or time management technique and just see how it goes.
If you are really struggling to turn things round, find someone to talk to: peers, tutors or support staff. You might also consider getting screened for a learning difference (such as dyslexia, dyspraxia or dyscalculia). Do book an appointment with your college counsellors if you continue to feel overwhelmed.
Here are some of the study tips that our students have found useful:
▪ Get started immediately (make exam preparation part of your everyday life – not just for revision periods);
▪ Do a proper ‘working day’ (clock in and out of study so that evenings and weekends are free for other things);
▪ Know your topics (how much do you need to cover and in how much depth – are you aiming for 50 per cent coverage, 70 per cent or a totally unrealistic 100 per cent?);
▪ Know your available time (get a feel for your non-academic commitments so that you can make a realistic allocation to study);
▪ Work with your peers (relish the opportunity to share ideas with as many different people as possible – you will be amazed by the improvement in your knowledge and understanding);
▪ Make it relevant (hang the information on stories that are of interest and make sense to you so that they are easily recalled under exam conditions);
▪ Walk and talk (move your muscles, breathe, get some sunlight and listen to your voice);
▪ Use mind maps:
– To get a feeling for how the different components of a topic fit together;
– To help you condense the information given in lectures;
– To test your knowledge by covering sections, redrawing from scratch or expanding;
▪ Do things that emulate the skills you will be asked to demonstrate in your exams (time management, speed reading, recall, decision making, speed writing, planning, elaboration);
▪ Evaluate your progress (test yourself, use practice papers, share questions and marking with friends, use Wikivet, use your tutors, explain a concept to your mum, use question banks);
▪ Not getting the desired results? Be flexible and responsive (don't keep on at the same subject in the same way in the same environment).
Dealing with exam stress
Exams are stressful things at the best of times – at vet school the feelings of overload, competition and fear of failure are no doubt magnified. There are lots of simple ways of tackling exam stress. Here are just a few:
▪ Keep your goals in mind – (why are you doing this – your journey into a profession?);
▪ Take time out to do other things (your brain will function better as a result);
▪ Look after your body (eat, exercise and sleep well);
▪ Learn to breathe deeply and slowly (this will take some practice but when you get good at it you can use it as an instant calmer during exams);
▪ Choose your social situations carefully – they say stress is catching;
▪ Focus on what you can do rather than on negative thoughts about your failings;
▪ Talk to people about how you are feeling and get specialist help if you need it.
Below is a short list of the study guides and websites that I regularly recommend to our students. It is by no means exhaustive or indeed the best out there; book choice and writing style is a very personal thing, students should try them before they buy.
Great Ways to Learn Anatomy and Physiology. Charmaine McKissock. 192 pages, paperback, £17.99. Palgrave Macmillan. 2009. ISBN 9780230209916
How to Study. Practical Tips for Students, 2nd edn.
Phil Race. 160 pages, paperback, £15.99. Blackwell Publishers. 2003.
Study Skills for Dyslexic Students.
Sandra Hargreaves. 166 pages, paperback (plus CD-ROM), £19.99. Sage Publishing. 2007. ISBN 9781412936095
The Study Skills Handbook, 3rd edn. Stella Cottrell. 360 pages, paperback, £13.99. Palgrave Macmillan. 2008.