When writing fiction an author has two ways to create a sense of tension and urgency in a reader and set the pace of the story. One is a time lock. The other is an option lock. A time lock means the character has X amount of time to accomplish Y and avert the consequences. It’s a race against the clock. An option lock means the character has to make a choice between two or more options to achieve their goals and avert disaster. If you are feeling behind in your studies, chances are the narrative around your dilemma contains an element of both time and option locks.
Writing science says that groups of people respond in different ways to each kind of lock, but more about that another time. For those of us engaged in post-graduate study I think the two get conflated. To solve the option/time lock we have to answer two simple questions. How much time do I have to prepare, and if I do option A, B, or C what results will I get? The consequences and looming potential for disaster are self-evident. So, how do I assemble my resources and move past the time/option lock that inevitably comes before exams?
I like to start with the first step in any assessment or decision-making process; ‘Do I really have a problem?’ Maybe it’s just exam anxiety. Maybe I am letting other things interfere with my concentration. If, after some calm analysis, it looks like I really am behind and do have a preparation problem, the next step is to identify what the problem actually is. Why am I behind schedule? Am I having difficulty comprehending the material? What study skills and other specific factors contributed to the problem? Is it a self-discipline problem?How can I control those issues? This questioning process gets to the root of the problem and helps me identify the most effective options for moving forward.
The next step is to evaluate my work load and my time. Here is some perspective. My neighbor graduated from Dartmouth and then from the University of Pennsylvania law school. He says he only ever studied by cramming for exams. He felt it was the most effective study method for the amount of material he had to cover. I fully understand that position. If cramming is your choice of study method, then keeping stress and anxiety under control might be your best focus. I like cramming too and embrace the stress and anxiety but it’s not my first choice as a study method. For me, studying law is complex and cumulative, so cramming isn’t really enough. I also truly enjoy reading law and like to be constantly engaged, even when I am behind.
Study methods might be on your mind if you are preparing four modules like I am. One method that helps me move quickly through material is to unpack sample questions and rearrange them in outline form. I write the question as a major topic then organize faculty responses as points to research. This way I am sure to cover points of relevance and am able to research quickly using this topic outline. With five study chapters per module and an average of five questions per chapter, I can construct a comprehensive research or revision topic outline for each module in about one day. Then I can research one specific point until my time runs out. As a bonus, this process also helps me remember content more efficiently.
Next, I look at my options, like research or read, and what kind of notes I want. Almost always I opt for research. I have to just plow through some articles, but reading word for word and writing full sentence notes is rarely the most helpful use of time. I do spend significant time on citations and vocabulary.
One challenge in my area of specialization is that there are no Examiner’s Reports. When I develop outlines to past exam questions the content is all on me. It takes time to refer back to my topic outlines, but they are considerably helpful at this stage and well worth the investment dedicated to producing them. Again, if I did not have comprehensive outlines of material at the Study Guide level, it would be impossible for me to efficiently revise using past exam papers. This is the revision method I prefer and the one my Course Governor recommends. Revising past exam questions in research form is the single most useful and efficient exam preparation option I have.
In case you missed it – in order to be prepared for exams, I must revise past examination papers. This is only possible if I have prepared excellent outlines of the course material. Course material outlines and revising past exam papers are the most effective and time efficient options, especially if I am behind.
For me, the time/option lock dilemma is also resolved by skipping ahead in my study materials – if you’re reading a high suspense book sometimes you just need to skip to the end. I like to read the last modules of a course before starting research on earlier ones. This helps me develop a good understanding of context and definitions and helps me work faster.
When feeling behind, everyone’s strategy is unique. Determining what my issues are, resolving them, then identifying ways to work efficiently through the material always works for me.