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


    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                        
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.









  • 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.








  • Mind maps

  • Index cards

  • Outliner

  • Mnemonics
  • Open/Closed book

  • Plan/full answer

References and resources


The art of summarising

One of the most useful single pages I’ve read over the last couple of years is Dr. Phil’s system for coding social science journal articles (use Amazon’s “Look inside” feature to see the coding summary on page 3). I was reminded of it at the start of the year when I was trying to extract the argument structure from one of the attention papers, and again when reading and writing literature reviews during TMA04.  Dr Phil’s Summary of Previous Literature (SPL) definition describes the art of summarising perfectly:

This process entails a tremendous amount of condensation, taking complex ideas and reducing them into paragraphs, sentences, and if the author is brilliant, one word.

Every journal article you read (especially experimental reports) will be full of SPLs, but an example from the summary of language processing (OU students only) jumped off the page for me.

Homophones can be miscategorized (Van Orden, 1987)

On the one hand I was a bit dismayed that a 15,000 word paper which I covered in about 300 in my literature review last year could be so well summarised in just 4!  On the other, knowing the paper fairly well I appreciated such a concise but accurate summary (although, following the Feynman technique, I would actually add an example)

Homophones can be miscategorized (Van Orden, 1987).  For example, the word ROWS might be miscategorised as A FLOWER as it is phonetically similar to ROSE.

The art and skill is to select the words that save others the extensive time and effort required to find and read the primary source (see TMA03 for an example).  I would actually go one step further and say that using no words is one pole of this continuum i.e. choosing to write nothing because it isn’t relevant to a TMA or exam question is a type of summarising.

How to read DD303

In my opinion (and to misquote Kierkegaard) though the OU presents DD303 forwards it’s better understood backwards.  Considering what comes last (the exam) at the start of the module can help optimise your reading strategy.  The approach suggested below encourages active reading by associating each chapter with answering one or more questions.  It also provides a framework for allocating reading time throughout the module.  Although they were formed independently, many of these ideas overlap with the SQ3R approach.  A small amount of preparation is required.  At the start of the module gather as many questions as you can (good sources are specimen exam paper, past exam papers, revision packs and generating your own) and divide the questions based on which chapter they relate to.  This is actually quite a good orienting exercise at the start of the module and I recommend putting each category of questions into a separate document.  Before reading a chapter, check to see whether it relates to a TMA essay or a potential exam question (they’re mutually exclusive).  This should influence the way you read the chapter and take notes.

TMA Chapters

Essay TMAs have two options, so if you’re happy to chose one before reading either chapter you can focus your effort on that chapter.  If you’re reading a TMA chapter then use the question to guide your reading and note taking.  Because you know the question you’re expected to answer (and that there won’t be any other questions directly related to this topic on the exam) you don’t need to create revision notes in a format for answering (unseen) exam questions.  This is both active learning (you’re trying to answer a question) and efficient (you’re creating the notes that will become your TMA).  For the option you’re not doing you can still use the question to focus your reading but you don’t have to worry about turning any notes you take into a TMA.

Exam Chapters

Exam chapters require a different approach.  Because you don’t know exactly what the questions will be, use the questions you prepared from past papers to guide your reading.  I tend to print these out and keep referring back to them so I get a feel for how what I’m reading might answer the type of questions that may be asked.  In contrast with TMA chapters, the notes you take will need to cover the whole chapter to account for the uncertainty associated with exam questions.  As with TMAs, it’s worth taking some time to look at the bigger picture of the exam so you can make an informed decision on how to allocate your reading time.  Part 1 of the exam covers parts 1 and 2 of the book and part 2 of the exam covers parts 3 and 4.  TMA topics won’t appear on the exam but at least one question from each book part will.  If you’re still following me, this means that (after removing TMA chapters) some book parts have fewer chapters to cover to guarantee an associated question on the exam.  In 2014 this potentially reduces (from 3 to 2) the number of chapters you need to cover for exam purposes.  However, taking this strategy does constrain you to topics you may not necessarily find most interesting.


TMA01 Redux

Grade 73% (Pass 2)
Best previous DD303 essay grade 64% (Pass 3)


I’m writing this the day after submitting TMA03.  Although the mark was an improvement on my best (from last year) I tried hard to address the problems I thought I’d identified and was disappointed with the result.  I read my tutor’s comments a few times prior to TMA03 to identify things I needed to work on and concluded that the main problem (still) was not focussing on answering the question.  However, reviewing the comments again having struggled (again) with TMA03 I now see that there are actually some quite specific themes that, had I noticed sooner I could have addressed more directly.  Actually, I just discovered a new and useful active task — classifying your tutor’s comments.  This is really good value.  It took about 15 minutes and I can now start to really see the patterns, something that didn’t happen each time I just read through the comments.  I wish I’d done this before TMA03!

  • Relevance (to question)
    • Introduction not stating how it will answer question
    • Throwaway sentence
    • Well understood but irrelevant points
    • Not focussing on process words
  • Failing to reference where I should have.  This is one I was mindful of and I think I’ve now found a heuristic to address this.
  • Lack of explanation or justification (for a point)
    • And why it’s relevant
    • “I’d like more context” comments
  • Imprecision (in points).
    • Would like more signposting back to question
  • Don’t use rhetorical questions!
  • Not defining terms (before use)
  • Poor flow
  • Too much (descriptive) detail
  • Conclusion too short and a bit weak


A chapter summarising framework

[19/8/2014: EDIT: My thoughts on summarising have changed a lot since writing this, especially after trying to create summary notes for exam preparation.  Whilst there are still some useful ideas for processing the module content I’m not convinced that it’s comprehensive or the optimal approach to summarising in a way that supports answering exam questions.]

It was suffering the consequences of poor summarising that initiated my search for active tasks.  Other people’s summary notes provide useful ideas for summarising techniques and ideas you may have missed, however it’s no substitute for the deep processing that comes from producing your own summary notes.  Focussing on the process rather than the product reduces temptations to passively reading the book or other’s notes.  Furthermore, your summarising skills need to be continuously engaged to stem the tides of information in DD303.  ABC.  Always.  Be.  Condensing!  The good news is, the summarising process itself is an active learning task in its own right.  This approach is a work in progress but it seem to be taking me in the right direction.

First I’ll describe the process I take when reading a book chapter then I’ll get into the specific techniques I use to summarise the content.  As my PDF reader allows me to, I start off by adding bookmarks for each section.  This gives me the broad overview of what to expect from the chapter and allows me to quickly jump from section to section.  Next I create a word processor document for the chapter and scan the PDF chapter for keywords, adding them to the first column of my key terms table.  I get a notebook and selection of coloured pens and then I’m ready to start reading the chapter.  I read each section (or subsection) closely trying not to move on until I’m sure I’ve understood what I’ve read.  This is a slow process, but my aim is to only ever do this once!  Here are the things I do during reading:

  1. Whenever a citation appears I add it to Zotero.  Wherever possible I add citations to journal articles using results from OU Library searches (I revert to Google for journal articles unavailable at the OU).  I keep the printed book open at the section I’m reading and the PDF on the references page so I can copy and paste search terms.  Book citations are added using Google Books.  I usually read article abstracts and sometimes download the full article if it looks very relevant/interesting.  This sounds like a lot of work but using the Zotero browser plugin you this only about 5 minutes per item.  It also has a number of other benefits.  First, I find that slowing down the reading process also helps to ensure I’ve understood what I’ve read and the abstract often clarifies points summarised in the chapter.  Second, it’s provides regular literature searching practice which should help with TMA04.  Third, it progressively builds your Zotero reference database which makes referencing TMAs reasonably painless.  Finally, it’s useful for avoiding plagiarism as you can quickly add citations to your word processor notes to distinguish other people’s ideas from your own.
  2. I pay special attention to key terms in preparation for writing them in my own words.
  3. I summarise the section in hand-written and drawn notes.

Words …

Clearly, one of the major summarising approaches is to replace lots of other people’s words with fewer of your own!  Defining key terms in your own words is an active summarising task that reduces large sections of the chapter to very concise summaries, particularly if you use key terms in the definition of other key terms.  A related technique I use is to copy the summary bullet points from the PDF into my word processor document and summarise them further!  My key term definitions are sometimes good enough that I can remove a bullet point altogether.  If I’ve understood the material well then the remaining bullet points often seem quite verbose so I’ll re-word them using (and/or linking to) key terms and abbreviations (see below).  I occasionally add additional bullet points for things I thought were important or interesting.  This task also acts as a section review.

A second skill that really helps with summarising is deciding what’s relevant and at what level of detail.  There seems to be something of a knack to effectively capturing what’s relevant and eliminating what isn’t but the payoff in terms of avoiding re-reading irrelevant material is enormous.  Eliminating big chunks tends to be easier with primary sources (I got to page 4 of Henson (2005) before I though anything was relevant enough to note for TMA03) whereas reducing the level of detail seems more appropriate for the module textbook.  By combining written and visual summarising my chapter summaries seem to run to about 4 sides of A4 paper.  The written summarising relies on a (growing) list of abbreviations which I use to write concisely.  Some of these are standard (psychological) abbreviations I’ve noted when reading books and articles and some are my own.  I started to use abbreviations methodically when I realised how helpful they are when testing your recall during revision and for writing exam answer plans.  Here’s a selection that’ll I’ll try to update as and when.

Abbreviation Meaning Example
Ps Participants
P Probability
Is Individuals
Tn Task 1-n
Cn Condition 1-n
R Response
RT Response Time
R-K Remember-Know (LTM)
Sn Stimuli 1-n
x bar (mean) average
proportional to frequency ∝ field strength
f() Function of Remember/know judgements f(recall test)

… and Pictures

In addition to summarising in words, my other big gun is to represent knowledge visually.

Summary of DD303 Cognitive Psychology, Chapter 6 (Long Term Memory) Section 4 (Retrieval)

This first example covers most of the visual summarising techniques I use but requires some commentary.  Whilst I can’t quite get a picture to paint a thousand words, the 2 pictures in this example do paint 700 words (I counted).  I’ve tried to standardise on colours and icons that allow me to see particular themes at a glance.  I haven’t come across much prescriptive advice on how to use these visual approaches effectively and I’ve seen some horrible uses that literally made module content more confusing.  I think you need to plan the way you use visual approach quite carefully to maximise their impact.  I looked at exam questions when I was coming up with ideas for visual note-taking and thought it would be useful at revision time to be able to quickly scan notes to look at them from different perspectives (methods, populations etc.)  Currently I’ve gone for orange to highlight researchers and years and a green circle around an icon indicating the type of research (experiment, model, theory, neuroimaging, neuropsychological, etc.).  I also try to represent the population to highlight whether the study relates to individual differences, developmental, clinical issues etc.  I write key terms that I use in blue.  Second, in general and particularly with experimental studies I try to come up with a way of representing the whole study graphically.  This is a really active task that forces me stop and really think about how to represent the study and findings.  Initially this made reading a really slow process, but the more of these I do, the quicker I get for a couple of reasons.  First, I’m building a library of ways to visually summarise (little correlation, interaction graphs etc.) a whole study in a small space.  Second, after a while the experimental design starts to jump off of the page and it because easy to represent results visually (see 2 x 2 design from Morris et al. (1997) in the example).  With these little graphics in place, arrows are useful to then relate one study to another.  In this example you can see that I’ve linked encoding specificity and Transfer Appropriate Encoding as complementary findings supporting respectively information and processing links between encoding and retrieval.  I attach green icons to arrows to indicate complementary findings and red to indicate conflicts.

This next example is a re-working of a table (towards the bottom of the image) I used last year to represent the explanation (p164-165) for the puzzling findings of the Word Length Effect and the Phonetic Similarity Effect. I had to work hard to understand that short section and didn’t want to repeat that each time I needed to get my head around the explanation. It might give you some general ideas for how to visually compare the findings from two studies.

Graphical comparison of Word Length Effect and Word Similarity Effect

The Word Length Effect vs. the Word Similarity Effect

Incidentally, I tried to help a student on Facebook this year who was also confused by this section.  I think it would have taken me even longer to formulate this response if I hadn’t worked out the tabular approach last year!

I don’t think it’s “visual recall” that’s the issue here. Recall was (had to be!) written (rather than spoken as in previous studies) as there was articulatory suppression (AS) taking place during recall. The WLE goes because AS prevents rehearsal, on which it depends. The PSE remains as it’s not affected by rehearsal. I hope that’s accurate as it took me about an hour to think about!

Finally, here’s an example of a full page of my visual notes and  a summary of working memory research in Alan Baddeley’s own words.

Full page of visual notes for DD303 Cognitive Psychology Chapter 5 (Working Memory), Section 2 (The structure of working memory).




Henson, R. (2005). What can functional neuroimaging tell the experimental psychologist? Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology: Section A, 58(2), 193–233.

Morris, C. D., Bransford, J. D., & Franks, J. J. (1977). Levels of processing versus transfer appropriate processing. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 16(5), 519–533.

Treisman, A. (1998). Feature Binding, Attention and Object Perception. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 353(1373), 1295–1306.

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique might be the Swiss army knife of active learning approaches.  It’s deceptively simple and versatile and the more I think about it, the more I see how it complements some of the other activities I’ve found useful.  It can be directly applied to writing essays that are clear and contain sound arguments and as an efficient approach when preparing for exams.  As I understand it, the “technique” is derived from one of Richard Feynman‘s anecdotes (although not the one about his green hairy ball thing).  This explanation of how human speech is produced is a great example of a concept clearly communicated

A sound wave moving down the length of a tube bounces back when it reaches the opening at the other end.  If the length of the tube is a certain fraction of the wavelength of the sound, each reflected wave will reinforce the next incoming one; if it is of a different length, they will interfere with each other.  (This is similar to how you get the best effect pushing a child on a swing if you synchronize each push with the top of the arc.)1

1The Language Instinct (also highly recommend for making sense of and pulling together the ideas in Part 3 of DD303).

DD303 in your own words

The Good Study Guide likens writing in your own words to having the confidence to take that last foot from the safety of the bottom of the pool when learning to swim.  If you don’t do it, you will never improve.  To extend the metaphor, the sheer quantity of material in DD303 means that if you don’t take ownership of the content as you go you’ll probably end up treading water or drowning.  The task described below forces you to practice writing in your own words and has the phenomenological flavour of active learning.  Because it’s something you can apply to every chapter you read, it contributes to the distillation of the course content so you don’t have to learn to swim a month before the exam.  Think of it as doing laps.  I’ve described the process using a word processor to make it accessible but it would probably be better (and easier!) using more sophisticated hypertext software.

  1. Create a two column table in your word processor.
  2. Whenever you encounter a key term whilst reading a chapter section, add it to the first column in your table.  Most key terms are written in bold so they’re easy to find, especially in the PDF version of the course text.  Section headings are sometimes useful to add as key terms.
  3. After you’ve understood the term, put the book aside and write your definition of the term in the second column to the best of your ability.  Postponing this step until you’ve read to the end of the section (or chapter if you want a tougher challenge) introduces task variety and interleaved practice testing which has been shown to be an effective learning technique.  It also helps avoid lazy reading without understanding.
    1. Aim to use words from the first column whenever you’re writing a definition in the second column.
    2. (Optional: requires that your word processor has a cross-referencing facility that can work out how to use.)  Whenever you do this, link the word to its definition.
  4. Using the book to check for accuracy and clarity, repeat the previous step until you’re happy with your definition(s).

If you keep your table in a single document, this will progressively build up a library key term definitions written in your own words, optionally cross-referenced to other key terms.  If you take the cross-referencing approach (either explicitly or implicitly by simply using other key terms in your definitions) it also gives you practice at introducing a key term, defining it in your own words then subsequently using the term itself  which can save time and space when writing essays.  The interleaved practice testing was something I stumbled across when trying out this activity.  It’s worth trying out to see the shift from reading to testing over a short time period.  I liken it to letting go of your float and trying to swim to the side, knowing you’re in the shallow end if you run out of energy before you get there!

This activity overlaps with the Feynman technique.