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Active Recall Revision Techniques for Different Types of Exams

Are you struggling to come up with effective revision techniques for your exams? Active recall is one of the best revision techniques, however, applying this across various exam types can be confusing. In this article, we’ll be sharing how you can implement active recall when revising for multiple choice, short-answer, problem-based and essay-based exams.

Multiple Choice (MCQ) and Short Answer (SAQ) Exams

Multiple choice and short answer style examinations test our ability to recall facts rather than discuss ideas. For MCQs, we need to have a thorough understanding of the material to select the correct answer from amongst a range of distractor answers. Typically, MCQs test our ability to identify and remember factual information rather than apply critical thinking. Likewise, in SAQs we are assessed based on our capacity to provide concise and factual responses, instead of our ability to provide discussions or analysis of the concepts at hand. 

In SAQ style exams, our knowledge can be tested in a variety of ways. Broadly, these assess our understanding of key concepts and their significance. By scoping your subject, you'll be able to identify the core concepts and their relations to one another. This will be the framework for your learning and revision. Typical SAQs might ask you to define a key term; explain how something works or why something is true; provide examples related to a concept, and to look at the relationship between two or more ideas. For each question type, it’s important to be concise but thorough. Here, you can demonstrate your ability to integrate lecture materials and wider reading into a concise and factual response. 

For both MCQ and SAQ exams, revision should focus on learning the fundamental concepts, terms and understanding the relationships between them. You might also need to learn sequences of information. For example, if you were studying learning disabilities, you may need to know what causes one disability over another and how this occurs in a sequence of events. This means that both types of exams can test you on complex knowledge, even if it is purely factual. You’ll need a thorough understanding of concepts and definitions to apply them in the exams and articulate yourself well. 

Revision Techniques for MCQ and SAQ Exams

Here’s some ideas for revision techniques that utilise active recall. For memorising facts and figures, flashcards are the perfect way to test your ability to recall information. It’s a simple but effective technique and can allow you to test yourself frequently. Programs such as Anki can help you to create flashcards quickly, study on the go and memorise the information you struggle with by showing it more often. Depending on your subject, you might be able to find pre-built flashcard decks from other students. However, make sure you’re utilising the content from your own course and those flashcards align with your needs.

Another method is practising condensing information into concise sentences or paragraphs, ideally from memory. This can be done by paraphrasing or summarising the information. Paraphrasing involves rewording an idea into your words while maintaining their original meaning, this is useful for key terms and concepts. Alternatively, when discussing key features from a range of ideas, summarising the content might be more effective. By doing so, you’ll be practising your ability to articulate the information rather than simply recall it. This is good exam practice, especially for SAQs, and gives you another method of active recall to implement. 

Exam practice is another key active recall style revision method. Nothing can prepare you for the exam more than repeatedly testing yourself. Ideally, make use of past papers or text-book summary questions, these will provide examples of the kinds of questions to expect and test your ability to recall information while answering those questions. However, if these aren’t readily available, create your own by turning lecture notes and readings into questions. To ensure you understand the concept thoroughly, it can help to study with friends and share revision materials. This will test your understanding of the concepts outside of your own curated revision notes and questions. 

Problem-Based Exams

Problem solving style exams can come in a variety of formats such as MCQs, SAQs or long calculations to solve. As mentioned above, these styles of exams are more fact based. However, problem solving exams go a step further, and will require you to apply problem solving skills, formulae or logic to the questions at hand. Instead of understanding the relationship between information, which is still important, there might be more emphasis on knowledge building. For example, you might need to understand one concept before another makes sense. Your course structure will highlight this. This means it's essential to structure your learning in a way that allows you to connect these building blocks. 

Revision Techniques for Problem-Based Exams

Similar to regular MCQ and SAQ style exams, practising exam style questions is key to effective revision. For problem solving, this is even more essential. The style of question can vary so testing your ability to apply a formula, concept, or process to a wide variety of problems can ensure you’re well prepared. Memorising the information is necessary but your ability to problem solve under exam conditions can only be improved by frequent practice. 

You can test yourself using past papers, homework questions, or problems set in lessons. Search online for more practice options and make use of the questions in your textbooks. The more questions, the better, and having a wide variety of questions can test your understanding thoroughly. Be sure to reflect on your progress and re-visit the areas where you struggle. If you’re struggling to understand something, ask for help from a friend or lecturer, or try a new mode of learning, see if you can find a resource that explains the information in a different way. 

A good method to pair with regular self-testing is concept mapping. Through this method, you summarise key ideas, and concepts and make connections between them. Similar to scoping your subject, this can provide a broad overview of your course content. By completing a map from memory, you can see if you understand the hierarchy of the information you have learnt, and pinpoint new connections. Being able to do this from memory can be beneficial when problem solving, especially if you’re unsure where to start with the solution. 

Essay-Based Exams

Essay-based exams might consist of a few short-form essays or 1-2 longer essays. Sometimes, exams might combine a mixture of MCQs, SAQs and then a longer essay question at the end. In contrast to MCQs and SAQs, essay based questions test your understanding of course content in a creative way. You’ll need to engage in critical thinking, be able to share relationships between facts, theories and research, and build logical credible arguments using wider reading alongside course content. 

Revision Techniques for Essay-Based Exams

Active recall can still be applied when revising for essay-based exams. The essay memorisation framework encourages us to prepare a variety of essay plans and essays, and then use active recall to commit this information to memory. This process involves memorising the core facts, theories and research but within the context of an essay format. First, you need to come up with some essay titles, which can be determined using your course content and past papers. Ideally, past papers will be the best resources to help you structure your questions. But focusing on the broad themes of your course, and the relationships between them will also be a valuable starting point. 

Second, begin essay planning, incorporating lecture content, readings and wider research. For those top marks, finding your own material can show the breadth of your knowledge, especially when weaving it amongst your existing lecture content. This will highlight the depth of your understanding. Next, take some time to write the essay, in a way that is logical and easy to follow. This will help later on to break down the essay for memorisation. If you’re not confident in your essay writing skills, take some time to research good essay structures. Particularly, learning how to write a solid introduction can help in your exams. Your introduction can act as your essay plan and guide the reader through the topics you’ll cover. 

Finally, break down this information onto flashcards and begin memorising. This is useful for the broader concepts, and research. It’ll ensure you know the finer details and can recall them with ease. However, we want to ensure we can effectively plan essays from memory. For this, you can use spider diagrams to map out your existing essay plans, using keywords and ideas to recall the point you aimed to make. It’s quicker to recall the essay plans but it can also help to practise writing these essays under exam conditions. You won’t be able to predict all the possible essay questions that come up, however, you will have learnt and worked with enough of the material to be able to create a new essay plan within the exam.

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