An approach to taking the DD303 exam

Despite the progress I made on DD307 I’m still not confident about my exam technique.   However, by pooling the best advice I’ve been given I do have a very specific approach that I intend to apply for the DD303 exam.  It’s born from confusion and cogitation and its efficacy hasn’t be validated, but I was reassured to find that the essay plans it produces are very similar to those in the Erika Cox/Rob Jarman DD303 revision pack (from which I’ve incorporated some additional tips).

What should an exam answer contain

A lingering problem I’ve had is knowing exactly what level of writing is appropriate for exam answers.  Compared to writing essays, this has been a harder question to answer as there are fewer assessed exams and the only feedback you do receive is your exam mark!  I found it virtually impossible to track down specimen student exam answers to get see examples of good (and bad) answers.  Descriptions of what examiners are looking for are rarely prescriptive, often promising more than they deliver.  In the end, the most useful summary came from my tutor.  What I heard was that you should aim to

Demonstrate understanding and knowledge (1) that is relevant (2) to the question being asked, has a structure (3) and contains supporting examples/evidence (4).

Make the question do the work

This approach is a prescriptive application of the “sift, select and arrange” strategy which aims to meet the 4 objectives above.  It’s founded on an ability to rapidly and surgically analyse exam questions.

Choosing the right question

Content words are all about relevance.  When you turn over the exam paper, look for the content words in each question.  Assuming you’ve been selective in your revision this will immediately allow you to eliminate any questions which aren’t relevant to you over the next 3 hours (i.e. you don’t know much about them).  For the remaining questions do another, very careful reading of the content words.  This is a crucial moment and time for very clear thinking.  The questions you choose should be based on your confidence that you clearly understand which aspect of the topic the question addresses.  There are a few possible scenarios.  If you know your topics and understand the questions so well, that you can quickly assess which you can recall the most relevant information for, that’s the question I would choose.

For example, the question

Critically consider the role of episodic and semantic memory in autobiographical memory.

would be on my list of potentials, as I’ll have studied autobiographical memory.  It’s also a candidate for an answer as I know something about issues relating to episodic and semantic memory in relation to autobiographical memory.  The process words can help in making your decision.  ‘Critically’ says to me that this is an evaluation question.  If I can recall the definition of ‘criticise’ and ‘consider’, I can check my confidence in terms of my ability to

Criticise: Make judgements (backed by discussion of the evidence or reasoning involved) about the merit of theories or opinions or about the facts of a matter.

and

Consider: Look at two (or more) sides of an argument, and present the logic, evidence, etc. of both sides.

A less ideal scenario is that you know exactly what one or more questions are asking, and that you don’t know much about the topic, but you’re unclear about what the remaining question(s) are asking.  In that case I’d say it’s a higher risk strategy to go for a question you don’t understand.  You’re more likely to do well dredging up as much knowledge as you can and checking its relevance, than gambling that the knowledge you have matches the question.  Clearly there are other combinations and degrees to these scenarios, but the principle is to use the content words to help you make your best judgement.

Writing your best answer

Having chosen your question(s), a lot of the important decisions have been made.  You can now let go of all of the other topics and sub-topics from that part of the exam (phew!) and, with laser precision, focus your spotlight of attention on the relevant sections of your chosen topic.  You’re in recall mode, using whatever tricks you have to get as much of that information onto paper as quickly and concisely as possible.  Repeatedly looking at the content words might help with cued recall.  I’m presuming that the questions are worded such that the offprints associated with the chapter topics will always be relevant (to a greater or lesser extent).  I’m still experimenting with using linear or radial writing approaches at this stage (as you can see from an early plan I did below). Hopefully with practice I will refine this approach so I can create much neater plans!

answer_plan

Having exhausted your memory for content, you can turn your attention to the process word(s).  These are mostly about structure.  If you can manage it, it can be useful to combine the generic process word definition(s) with the specific content words to produce a prescriptive plan (I’ve also found this a useful 5 minute revision task).  For example, you might re-write the question above

Identify two (or more) sides relating to the role of episodic and semantic memory in autobiographical memory.  Present the logic and evidence for each, then use this as the basis of a judgements about their relative merits.

Whilst I had access to exact definitions of consider and criticise, it took me about 3 minutes to write that.  Having done so it’s a pretty good guide as to how to organise the information at my disposal, and actually suggests some improvements I could have made on the the answer plan I came up with on my first attempt.

The way I impose my structure on the information is to write numbers against the notes to indicate the (paragraph) order in which I’ll write the answer.  This will give n points (given my writing speed, n should be about 6).  I was advised by my tutor to get straight into answering the question, so point 0 is an introduction to the topic as a whole, and is likely to include some key definitions.  (The revision pack I have explicitly advises against using the introduction to simply list the points and conclusion which are about to follow.)  This ticks a box of using relevant key terms, and using those terms (and abbreviations) then makes writing the rest of the essay quicker.  The remaining points are the heart of the answer.  Point n+1 is a conclusion which ties points 1-n together around a statement showing how they answer the question e.g.

In the context of autobiographical memory, semantic and episodic memory play the role of “binding the self to reality”, so as to create a coherent sense of self in the past. …

The outline answers in the Erika Cox/Rob Jarman DD303 revision pack are structured in a similar way to this i.e. numbered points with pointers to relevant material.  An interesting feature of these outlines is that they’re written using process words.  For example

2. Outline the five axioms assumed by SEU […]

This gives ideas of how to use process words from the Description and Summary categories to create internal structure within your points/paragraphs i.e. most changes of point benefit from some initial definitions and outlines.  It’s worth analysing one of these outlines as they show you can apply process words like account for when you need to address, for example, limitations of one theory from the perspective of another.

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Preparing an exam schedule (for DD303)

As ever, the Good Study Guide gives practical and encouraging advice on how to prepare for exams.  Having read that and seen a few tutors’ talks on exam preparation I’m aware that a planned revision timetable is a good idea.  My hunch is that a plan contributes to reducing exam stress as it helps to keep your (limited) attention on productive tasks and goals.  This has a positive side-effect of keeping attention away from unproductive activities like worrying about the exam.

What follows is an ordered description of how I prepared my schedule.

List exam tasks

I deliberately say ‘exam’ rather than ‘revision’ tasks because completing TMA05 and TMA06 as early as possible has meant that my tasks include studying some module material for the first time.  This was a calculated risk.  I won’t go into the various debates on what the best strategy is to optimise your preparation time other than to say don’t try to cover all chapters.  Having decided which chapters to cover a while ago, making an initial list of important and useful took about 2 hours.

  1. Gather materials

  2. Choose and prioritise exam topics

  3. Read GSG 12.4 (30m)

  4. Choose and prioritise topics

    1. Part I

      1. Working Memory (Chapter 5)

      2. Autobiographical Memory (Chapter 7)

      3. Long Term Memory (Chapter 6)

    2. Part II

      1. Concepts (Chapter 9)

      2. Thinking: Judgement and Decision Making (Chapter 12)

      3. Reasoning (Chapter 13)

    3. Part III

      1. Consciousness (Chapter 15)

      2. Cognition and Emotion (Chapter 14)

  5. Estimate task durations

  6. Schedule tasks

    1. Prioritise

    2. Space learning

  7. Study (recursive/Feynman??)

  8. Summarise topics to 3 levels (GSG p.351)

    1. Add summaries to Memrise

    2. Look for themes as question clues in chapter overviews

    3. Chose key studies and additional journal article

    4. Identify alternative viewpoints (‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’, ‘criticise’ questions)

    5. Organise along different dimensions

      1. Population: healthy, patient, group, single case, adults, children

      2. Method: experiment, imaging, CNP

      3. Individual differences

      4. … ?

  9. Test (start early and space)

    1. Write exam answer strategy

      1. Open book testing

      2. Feynman technique for gaps

      3. SIFT → SELECT → ARRANGE

    2. Timed full essay answers

    3. Timed plans

      1. open book

      2. closed book

      3. Develop fast, flexible thinking

    4. Hunger Games

    5. Mock exam (late September)

  10. Questions (make them do the work!)

    1. Practise understanding exam questions

    2. Generate some for each topic (examiner “stance”!!)

    3. Search intros and summaries for “questions at heart of topic”

  11. Do nothing! (There’s evidence that this is required for optimal learning1)

Estimate task durations

With a bit of rearranging I turned the task list into a spreadsheet and made some initial estimates of how much I expected to allocate to each task (see below).  I also looked at a calendar to estimate how much time I could allocate to revision.  This process only took about an hour and was a really useful as it give me an early indication of whether I had time to carry out all of my tasks.  Luckily there was quite a lot of slack in my plan so there’s wriggle room for wishful thinking, unforseen events and underestimates (very likely).   If there’s a mismatch between your time available and task durations at least you’ve spotted it early and can adjust one or both sides of the equation.

Add to Memrise Memrise Essay plan (open book) Essay plan (closed book) Full essay answer Hunger Games Summarise topics to 3 levels (GSG p.351)

  • Search intros and summaries for “questions at heart of topic”
  • Chose key studies and additional journal article
  • Identify alternative viewpoints (‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’, ‘criticise’ questions)
  • Organise along different dimensions:Population: healthy, patient, group, single case, adults, children; Method: experiment, imaging, CNP; Individual differences
Generate questions (examiner “stance”!!)
Reasoning (Chapter 13) 180 60 10 20 60 60 360 60
Working Memory (Chapter 5) 180 60 10 20 60 60 180 60
Judgement and Decision Making (Chapter 12) 180 60 10 20 60 60 360 60
Consciousness (Chapter 15) 180 60 10 20 60 60 360 60
Autobiographical Memory (Chapter 7) 180 60 10 20 60 60 180 60
Long Term Memory (Chapter 6) 180 60 10 20 60 60 180 60
Concepts (Chapter 9) 180 60 10 20 60 60 180 60
Cognition and Emotion (Chapter 14) 180 60 10 20 60 60 360 60
Sub-totals 1440 480 80 160 480 480 2160 480          
Total (hours) 96                        
Minutes
Open book essay plan 30
Mock exam (late September) 180
Practise understanding exam questions 120
Total (hours) 5.5                        
ESTIMATED GRAND TOTAL (hours) 101.5                        
AVAILABLE (hours) 216

Schedule tasks

Given your task estimates you can start to schedule them on a calendar in a logical order.  Having put about an hour’s thought into this I decided not to schedule all of the tasks initially as I haven’t quite worked out how I want to arrange things.  The first thing I did schedule were immovable dates as these influence the scheduling of other tasks.  For example, the exam (duh!) and a mock exam I plan to do in late September.  I also wanted to get some accurate data on how long (short!) it takes me to work through a topic I haven’t yet studied so I made that my first task.

A spiral model of exam preparation

In a moment of insight I saw that arranging my exam preparation as a spiral could address most things I wanted the schedule to achieve, in summary, the ability to think fast and flexibly in the exam.  To start with a general point, even though I’ve kept away from them in the past, I found the DD303 revision pack (Erika Cox/Rob Jarman version) very useful.  Even if you don’t use it in the way I have (see below), I think it gives really good advice and can rapidly get your revision started.  For example, you could combine the flashcards supplied with the Leitner system.

Spiral exam schedule

Spiral exam schedule

The general idea is that your speed and accuracy at answering questions improves as you go up the spiral.  These are the benefits I see of organising things in this way.

  • It might look complicated initially but once you get the principle it’s a prescriptive approach which saves you thinking up your own!  Simply having a schedule avoids wasting time deciding what the most appropriate task is when sitting down to study.  You just do what the schedule tells you to.  I’m scheduling to the level that in test sessions I choose the specific practice question I’m going to answer and the time I’m allowing myself to do a plan or full answer (progressively shorter as the spiral narrows).
  • The approach scales regardless of how much time you have and how many topics you intend to cover.
  • Studying, testing and topics are spread through the schedule to give even coverage.  This naturally takes advantages of spaced repetition.
  • There’s a lot of testing!  Improvement at answering answer exam questions is my main goal and essay plans are my main testing task.  This is an area where I’ve found the revision pack useful.  With this approach you rapidly run out of fresh questions from past exam papers so the 10 or so that are provided per topic save you having to think up your own (although that’s also a useful task and not as hard as it sounds.)
  • The measurement sessions after testing give you continuous feedback on your progress.  They also highlight weaknesses (and strengths!) which help you focus on the right things in the study sessions.  The revision pack provides outline answers to 3 questions for each topic which you can use to compare against your own answers or plans.  Each time you go round the spiral you get an overall picture of where your revision is at and what you need to adjust on the next loop.

Fill in schedule details

Parts of the approach (like the AM/PM scheduling) are still, err, ‘fluid’.  However, the breakthrough to actually getting things onto my calendar was to take my initial task list and classify it in terms of the study, test and measure tasks I’ve found most useful (see table below).  I schedule tasks by selecting the ones from each category which seem appropriate to the current state of my exam preparation.  With this approach I’ve found that scheduling a week at a time seems about right.  At the end of the week I review how things went the previous week and on the basis of that I pick appropriate tasks and schedule another full week.

Study

Test

Measure

T

A

S

K

S

  • Recursive

  • Feynman

  • Summarise topics to 3 levels (GSG p.351)

    • Add summaries to Memrise

  • Look for themes as question clues in chapter overviews

    • Search intros and summaries for “questions at heart of topic”

    • Generate questions taking examiner “stance”

  • Chose key studies

  • Summarise offprint

  • Identify alternative viewpoints (‘discuss’, ‘evaluate’, ‘criticise’ questions)

  • Organise along different dimensions

    • Population: healthy, patient, group, single case, adults, children

    • Method: experiment, imaging, CNP

    • Individual differences

  • Answer questions (timed)

  • Hunger Games

  • Mock exam

  • Compare answers against “model” essay plans

  • Compare actual study time needed and available against estimates

  • Use Feynman technique to identify gaps

  • Accuracy of process and content words.

O

P

T

I

O

N

S

  • Mind maps

  • Index cards

  • Outliner

  • Mnemonics
  • Open/Closed book

  • Plan/full answer

References and resources

TMA05

Using the residential school momentum to write up TMA05 was a good idea. After a week of (full time) work straight after RS my report is finished. This is the first TMA I’ve ever finished over 2 weeks before the deadline!  One of the evening talks showing how you can use the poster presentation at the end of the week as a springboard to writing your experimental report was particularly useful.

Diagram of how to write an experimental report

10 steps to an experimental report