Revising: More Questions Than Answers

We just traveled to Washington DC to see the cherry blossoms. The cherry trees are in full bloom a bit early, thanks to unseasonably mild spring temperatures here in the Mid-Atlantic states. These lovely blossoms are treats we usually enjoy in May – it is a truly lovely spring this year, 80F, sunshine, and gusty spring breezes.

The darling buds of May have been rustled by the brisk wind of exams blowing in through my window for the last few years, ever since joining  the English Department at Goldsmith’s College and the University of London International Academy.  Revising and spring now go together like April and Showers. In four or five weeks time we will be sitting down in the exam room, ready to open our books and pour a golden shower of ideas onto blank pages. That imagery might seem to romanticize the exam experience, but that is the point. It is the culmination of a year – or years of study. Right now I have  a few precious weeks to prepare. What should I concentrate on, and what will help me most in exams? How I use my revising time will frame my exam experience.

Each year my revising experience has raised more questions than answers. Why do the sample exam questions seem as if I have never seen them before? Texts I read early in the term feel as if I am reading them for the first time. It is easy to feel like I forgot everything I ever knew. What I have not mastered, or have not paid enough attention to, is suddenly highlighted when I sit down to revise. Still, that is an improvement over my first year, when I first realized what I did not know during the Renaissance Comedy exam.

The questions raised in my first exams were very fundamental. Although I had enough time to write the three required essays I struggled to answer any question on Single Author Study in Section B.  My issue was depth of knowledge. That is the kind of knowledge you gain purposefully, not just by merely reading a text, or studying without an agenda. I never forgot how it felt to attempt an answer with so little confidence.

Confidence is an important part of revising for exams. A friend of mine once confided he learned more from failure than he ever did from victory. He is a professional athlete, so pardon the dramatic flair. But, to me, the scenario he describes is the root of confidence. I know my strengths and weakness, and take Le grand exam plunge anyway, aiming for the top results. When I sit down to revise I expect to encounter things I have not yet fully contemplated, and expect to identify gaps in my skills and knowledge.

Measuring skills and knowledge is such an interesting process at revision time. Somehow, the sample exam questions always seem to present unconsidered dimensions when I start revising. To me that is absolutely wonderful!  What I cannot clearly state should be painfully obvious.  Things should look different as my knowledge and skills expand and grow.   I should interpret and answer questions differently as the term progresses.  I am always surprised by the variety of  perspectives opened by serious revision of texts, notes and questions.

This year I have concentrated on how my knowledge builds one text and question at a time. I have engaged in quite a few mini revisions over the course of this year and realize there will be undiscovered aspects of questions each time I sit down to contemplate them. That inspires confidence; it is somehow comforting and empowering to realize there will always be more questions than answers.

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