No time for short cuts

Kevin Fong gives the revision lecture that his students need but don’t want

May 26, 2011

With four weeks to go before the written examination, I decide it is time to give the annual revision lecture. Tricky one this. As a teacher, your motives for hosting such sessions are pure: you are simply trying to get the very best out of your students, and preventing poor exam technique from tripping them up. But try convincing the class of that.

They think they are about to hear you give away the secret contents of their exam in a way that would make Julian Assange look like the soul of discretion.

I remember going to these revision lectures when I was an undergraduate. I remember not believing that my examiners didn’t know, or couldn’t remember, what would be in the paper. I hung instead on every word, noting every inflexion, measuring the emphasis in every sentence, all in a vain attempt to break the code that would reveal the contents of the final exam. Now that I’m the guy at the front of the class with the whiteboard marker, seeing the desperation in the students’ eyes, I realise that my tutors were telling the truth all along. I now know that the only proper exam hint any of them ever gave was that I should go home and do some revision.

So I decide that the greatest service I can do my class is to be candid. A little honesty here might go a long way.

“Look guys,” I tell them. “Hand on heart, I really don’t know what’s in the paper this year.”

It’s a weak start. There are knowing nods and glances exchanged around the room. At best they think that this is an outright lie. At worst they think that I’m establishing a sort of grammar for my exam hints; that the secret code here is that I say exactly the opposite of what I mean.

Exam fever has been burning through the campus for weeks. It’s worse this year. The recession has seen to that.

The Class of 2011 has come to view graduation as an event horizon, a leap into an unknown future that they had better face well equipped - and that means doing well in the end-of-term quiz. You and I might agree that the Universe has been around for 14 billion-odd years, but if you ask our finalists, they’ll tell you it began in freshers’ week 2008 and comes to an abrupt end this summer.

It’s painful to watch. Undergraduates wander the halls, pepped up by cups of coffee so strong that they would take an ordinary person’s head clean off. The steady train of emails from conscientious students has given way to text messages and phone calls. Immediacy here is everything. They are within sight of the finish line. Every second counts.

The exam-question rumour machine has kicked into high gear. There’s a buzz among the students about what might and might not be in the exam. Someone in the class has conducted their own cryptographic analysis of the past-paper bank, trying to crack the magic code that will tell them just how frequently material appears and reappears.

Unable to accept the possibility that it is randomness that determines the content of their exam, some of them even produce bar charts and plot frequency distributions.

My revision lecture continues but is in danger of being derailed. After a while the students enter interrogation mode. A hand goes up and a student pipes up.

“I know you can’t tell us what’s in the exam or anything, but if I were to revise, say, only the stuff about bone and the heart, would I be OK?”

They are clearly not expecting you to say “yes” here: that’s not the point of the question. It’s about studying, very carefully, how you say “no”.

I respond by saying that there may well be questions about bone or cardiac physiology. But, I explain, there may just as easily be questions about other subjects: muscle, for example, or the neurovestibular system. It’s a futile attempt to introduce them to the apparently old-fashioned idea that anything in the syllabus might be examined. It doesn’t work. Half the class have now written the words “BONE! HEART! MUSCLE! NEUROVESTIBULAR!” in huge letters with exclamation marks next to them. Bloody hell, some of them have even stopped taking notes.

This is a disaster. I spend the next half an hour trying to make sure that I mention every subject in the syllabus. I also give them some handy advice about how to structure their essays, the importance of legibility and taking the time to plan the written answer, but that’s not what they came for.

At the end of the hour I have mentioned so many potential topics that my class is truly baffled. And then the penny drops. Another hand goes up.

“So you’re saying that pretty much anything could come up?” says the student.

It’s like being at Santa’s Grotto on 24 December and laying out some home truths about Father Christmas and elves to five-year-olds.

“Afraid so,” I say.

The students file out of the lecture theatre. The sense of abject disappointment is palpable. There are a few accusatory stares. But I’ve done my job: delivering the revision lecture they needed rather than the one they were hoping for.

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