By Rollo Jones

A Sorry Tale…..

A few weeks ago I went for a job interview. I diligently prepared beforehand; researching the organization; coming up with great answers for the questions I thought they’d ask; dry cleaning everything that can be dry cleaned; the whole schamoozle. I didn’t get the job and I didn’t need a letter to tell me so – I walked out knowing that the interview hadn’t gone well.

So what went wrong? My Weltanschauung was different to that of the interviewer; that is we had a very different “world-view” or perspective about the role which meant that all my preparation was for nowt.

All very interesting, I’m sure you will agree but what does this have to do with exams? An exam can be viewed as a distance interview whereby you are being probed to test your understanding. However, unlike my interview you have a much better chance of understanding the examiners’ Weltanschauung and maybe you can use this to your advantage. Let us consider this further via some thought experiments to answer some questions.

1 - Mad Scientist

Figure 1: Rollo Jones is experimenting on you!

Experiment 1:

What is the purpose of the exam?

Fortunately for us the OU tells us the answer to this…

“Exams let you demonstrate some of what you have learnt on the module – the arguments, concepts, skills, processes, debates or theories – as well as your knowledge of the subject. You aren’t expected to know or remember everything in the module, but you should be able to show your understanding of what you have studied.”

So, one strategy is to learn everything and this will work so long as you are able to demonstrate that learning by applying it to the exam questions. However, for those of us without such a great memory let’s try a second experiment….

Experiment 2:

What are examiners interested in?

The above link also states “Examiners are interested in what you know, not what you don’t know. They don’t write exam questions that trick you in any way.” So we now know that examiners are actually interested in being fair.

This theme of fairness is interesting and worthy of further investigation. Roll on experiment 3…

Experiment 3:

How can the examiners ensure fairness between different presentations (years) of a module whilst still meeting the key purpose of the exam?

Did you know that the OU, like other universities, uses external examiners to ensure that academic standards are maintained. (you can find out more about that here). Part of this role relates to exams both in terms of the exam paper itself and the marking of completed papers.

Creating a new module takes many person-hours. A significant part of that is writing the first exam – it needs to give you the opportunity to demonstrate your understanding in a fair manner whilst also meeting the exacting standards of the external examiner.

Now the course team isn’t daft and they don’t want to create unnecessary work for themselves. The idea of creating a fresh exam from scratch each year and working with the external examiner to ensure that it is fair and maintains standards would be a logistical nightmare. Furthermore, if the format of exam changed each year then new specimen papers would also be needed – even more work.

It turns out that there is a simple solution to this conundrum. If possible, reuse the exam!

Now I don’t mean just churn out exactly the same exam paper every year. That would just be silly and make the OU Student Shop an internet sensation overnight as hordes of prospective examinees hurry to download the paper!

OU Student Shop

Figure 2: What an exciting place the OU student shop is!

Reuse is more subtle than that, exams are designed to cover module learning outcomes whilst complementing your other summative assessments and they do this by ensuring the same key themes are addressed each year. So, for example, if you’re studying social and economic history and previous exams questions relate to cotton mills then they are likely to be in vogue this year as well.

Now providing supporting evidence is a major issue in Higher Education and so far there none has been given to support the outcomes of our “thought experiments”. Why not download the specimen/example papers from your module site and invest in the previous exams? A quick read through should indicate whether our deductions are valid for your particular course.

It would be wrong of me to present this as a panacea for all exam woes. It isn’t. The only guaranteed way to pass an OU exam is to know everything about the subject and be able to demonstrate that understanding to the examiners’ satisfaction. It does, however, provide a strategy to help us prioritize our exam revision if time is limited.

Given that the vast majority of students’ modules begin in September/October, it’s very possible you haven’t even looked at unit 1 yet! Isn’t it a bit early to start thinking about exam revision? I would answer this by asking another question: Why make life difficult for yourself, why not start your studies with a revision plan? That way you can allow yourself extra time when you see potential exam themes come up in the study planner. Better still you can work through some of the questions in previous papers and get feedback on your answers via the course forums (but do check with the moderators first!). Then, at the end of the year, you simply need to recap on all the revision you have done and use the allotted revision time to plug the gaps – i.e. those things that haven’t come up before but it would be worth knowing just in case Murphy’s law comes into play

So, does this approach guarantee success? No but by adopting the same Weltanschauung will help you focus your revision process and enter that exam room with a little extra confidence!

Open University Graduation

Figure 3: Their Weltanschauung is obviously in tune (Credit to Catrina Austin for this excellent image).

(Wouldn’t it be nice to get an OU version of this!)

Rollo Jones works as a tutor for the Open University. Read more of his excellent contributions here.

How do you approach exams? More importantly, do you know what Weltanschauung means? Please LIKE/SHARE/TWEET or leave a comment below, we would love to hear from you. This social currency helps us to grow and improve the value we are able to provide for OU students.

The Open University study guide is now available! Click on this image to find out more.

The Open University study guide is now available! Click on this image to find out more.

Image attribution: 1 – Mad Scientist 2 – Students