It’s nearly June and so for many language students that means it’s the start of the exam season. In this post, ELT author Louis Rogers (currently developing a new ETpedia title for exam classes) suggests ways for teachers to encourage and develop good study habits among students as part of their exam preparation.
1 Limit distractions
One of the main things that affects students and their studying is the environment they choose to work in. Too often students work somewhere with too many distractions, whether it is the internet, their phone or around friends and family. Encourage students to keep a log of the things they do while studying. For students who are too distracted by their phone you could encourage them to install an app such as Offtime. This limits the use of apps such as Facebook that can prove distracting. Using such an app can make students more focused.
2 Use flashcards
Flashcards are a great way for students to test themselves on the meaning of words. However, students need to try to move beyond just using them to learn the definitions of words. Tell students that each time they test themselves on meaning they should add another piece of information to the card. For example, the pronunciation, an example sentences, other forms of the word, collocations, the translation etc. This will make the cards more interactive and help to improve active knowledge as well as passive knowledge. For students who prefer to use technology, there are now apps for producing study cards. Quizlet, Cram and StudyBlue are three useful flashcard apps. Using digital ones also has the benefit of adding an element of gamification and challenge to the process.
3 Practise old exams
Practising old exams is an effective way to familiarise students with the exam format. Most major exam boards have free past papers on their websites. There are also many past paper books available. While it is important for students to practise these, they should also limit their time on this style of practise unless they are practising specific skills. Each time you teach a new skill, such as a reading or listening skill, ask students to apply these to their test practise. Also give students a specific time aim and / or a specific number to try to get correct. Students often struggle on the day with their time management, so encouraging good practice while studying can help their performance on the day.
4 Explain your answers to others
Once students have answered a paper, encourage them to work with a partner and to explain their answers to each other. This process helps the students to analyse why they have chosen the answer they did. For example, in a reading paper, they could explain why they chose option B, or why they completed a gap with a particular word. This can be set as a regular activity after completing such a task in class. It could also be done outside of class, by asking students to form study groups
5 Take regular breaks
Many students often set overly ambitious self-study timetables. For example, they will allocate 4 hours one evening to practising the writing paper of an exam. This can actually be counterproductive. Their performance is likely to get worse as time progresses. Taking regular breaks can help to refocus and enhance performance. This can be especially true if the student is trying to commit something to memory, such as a set of vocabulary. Long-term retention of knowledge tends to improve with regular breaks. Ask students to show you their study timetables and then discuss or suggest points where they may want to take more breaks.
6 Practise different techniques
There are lots of different techniques students will learn in class, from each other or online. However, often there is not particular best method for all students. For example, when it comes to reading papers some students prefer to read the text and then the questions, whereas others prefer to read the questions and then the text. Neither one can claim to be more effective than the other for all students, so it is important that students regularly try both to find out what works for them.
7 Study timetables
Students can be unrealistic about how they currently use their time and how they want to use their time. Ask students to keep a log for one or two days detailing what they do. This should include all activities e.g. sleeping, chatting online, surfing the web, in class etc. Then ask students to think about their aims and how many hours study they think they need to do and can do. They should then use their log to plan when and where they are going to fit in revision. Also encourage students to regularly switch topics. Most tests don’t have a single section that lasts more than an hour so this should probably be the longest time the allocate to practising anyone part of the test in a single study section.
8 Increase writing speed
The writing paper of an exam is often one where students struggle with time management. Students find timed writing challenging because they do not spend much time actually writing with a pen. Any sustained writing is usually done on a word processor now, but some exam formats still expect students to write by hand. Even simply practising writing speedily by hand can help students in an exam. Ask students to spend ten minutes every day writing quickly by hand. The topics can be simple, and anything the student chooses. Each time the student writes they should try to increase the number of words they produce in a given amount of time.
Students often learn words individually when it is generally more efficient to learn words in chunks. These can be collocations, or fixed phrases that students can use in writing. There are many transferable academic collocations that you can teach to students, for example, the Academic Collocation List teaches some of the most frequent written academic collocations. Other fixed phrases for writing and speaking, such as the ones in section XX and XX are useful to learn.
10 Encourage reflection
Students often practise a test and simply focus on the score they were achieved rather than on why they got the mark they did. Most students get feedback from teachers but this is often limited due to the time available so students need to practise reflecting on their own work. For example, ask students to record their own answers to the speaking section of the text. When they listen back students should ask themselves questions such as; Did I make grammatical errors? Did I use the time effectively? Did I organise my ideas clearly? Did I speak too quickly or slowly? Did I pause too often? A few days later students should record their answers again trying to improve on any weaknesses they noticed. They can then compare their answers to the previous one.