Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Study isn’t fun, but the thought of doing it is worse that doing it. It's true!
Harden up. This is not the time to be a cream puff.
Rote learn – notes, cue cards, recordings on your phone are your tools here.
Understand your studied texts – it’s all about main idea(s), effects on the audience and creator purpose.
Look after your health
Crib time by studying at school as much as you can
Understand timing in the exam
It’s that time of the year, so let’s cut to the chase about studying for English. Students, this is for you. Study is boring, painful, and sometimes overwhelming, but so’s training for your favourite sport and you go hard with that every week. Here are some handy home-truths to help you train for exams, because it's time to harden up and just do it.
Step 1: Get organised
If you have a shabby-looking 1B5 or ring-binder that’s jampacked with a jumble of dog-eared bits of paper, there’s work to do. So…
FIRST: Divide and conquer. Make some dividers. A bit of card will do. Label them with:
Written Text (Novel) …or you could be doing the short story or poetry or whatever…
Visual/Verbal Text (Film) …or it could be a documentary, podcast or whatever…
SECOND: Sort it out! Put those bits of paper behind the correct divider. If you have a 1B5, now’s a good time to rip the pages out and graduate to a ring binder. Chances are, your teacher skipped around a bit so you might have a handout for Unfamiliar Texts glued in with all your work on your film. Separate them. Assign them to their piles. Ditch the scribbly ‘nothing’ bits. Also, if ‘internals’ are done and dusted, file that stuff in a separate folder, or container – like the bin.
THIRD: Behind each divider, make sure you have notes on the key things you need to study. If you’re not sure, take a look at what to study here (scroll to the bottom of the page – it’s a free instant download). If you’re a bit light in the notes department, see your teacher or grovel to the most organised person in your class (you know who it is) to see what notes you should have.
Step 2: Make your study notes
FIRST: Find the key stuff. Get out your highlighter – highlight key points (important things about character, quotations, film techniques etc).
NEXT: Get a blank piece of paper. Make wee headings of the bullet-points from your what to study list. So one heading will be Main Character, one will be Symbolism, another will be Setting etc. Look back at all those highlighted notes then write the key points under each of your wee headings. These are what we call study notes, and the geeks pin them up on their walls or make cue cards out of them to flick through at the bus stop. Alternatively, record it all on your phone to listen to everywhere you go. Be a geek. Rote learn this information.
ALSO: For unfamiliar texts where you have to read a text and discuss the ideas and techniques in it, learn those techniques. Again cue cards, or recording techniques and their definitions on your phone are the way to go. Rote learning is key.
Step 3: Understand the information
For each of your studied texts (eg, your novel, poem, film) make sure you can:
ONE: Say what the main ideas are.
That is, WHAT the author/director/poet wants us to understand about human behaviour (eg: we’re a greedy bunch!) or the wider world. Make sure you can state this in a sentence that contains the words:
For example, The main idea is that people can be hypocritical when it comes to making changes to prevent climate change. Or, The text explores the idea that despite our best intentions and arguments, people have inherent traits that they struggle to keep below the surface. Saying, The theme/idea is prejudice doesn’t make sense. What is it about prejudice that the author, poet or director wants us to understand?
TWO: Discuss how audiences are affected by your text. What do audiences (like you) feel? How might audiences (like you) react? Go for gold and talk about:
how an audience feels and reacts that way because of a certain point of view.
how a different audience may react in quite the opposite way because they’re viewing that text through a different lens (point of view).
Whoop whoop! Don’t tell me you’re not excited by this!
THREE: Talk about the purpose of your texts. The purpose is WHY the author/director/poet wants us to react a certain way, know certain things. What’s going on in that creator’s life or out in the world to make them want to influence us so badly?! Think of the creator as a puppet-master, manipulating you like a boss with all his tools of the trade. Tools of the trade? Techniques!
FOUR: Talk about the techniques used by the creator. These are the things you used to identify the main idea, effects on the audience and the purpose. Like builders, doctors, teachers, authors and directors use tools to create their masterpieces. These tools (aka techniques) include things like character development, flashbacks, metaphor, assonance, camera angle, music… you know the drill (and it’s all in that free downloadable you grabbed earlier). So make lists, make cue cards and learn those techniques!
The same kind of thing applies. Understand that when you read that unfamiliar text you must:
1. Find and discuss:
a. The main idea. What do we learn about people’s behaviours, our history, our possible future…?
b. The effect of the text on the audience. Eg, what mood do I feel when I read this part? Would others feel differently?
c. Why has the author written this? To reminisce? To vent? To persuade? To inform?
2. Techniques that have helped you identify and understand the main idea, the effects on the audience and the author’s purpose.
3. Evaluate. Explain what and why you think parts of the text are interesting, note-worthy, cringy, confronting…
Strategies to make sure you understand your studied texts:
FIRST: Stick the main idea of your novel, film, poem (whatever) in the middle of a blank page. Then, around the outside of this...
Note the quotations and other techniques that help you understand that main idea. Eg: discrimination is a terrible thing – grey filters and metaphors like “this poisonous gas spills from us, around us”, and an extreme close-up on a tear-filled eye. You get the drift, right?!
Add notes here and there – perhaps in a different colour - about the effects on the audience.
Add why the creator wanted to affect the audience in that way (purpose).
SECOND: Go through old exam essay questions – there’s a link to them all from this page (scroll to the bottom), then:
Practice choosing questions that would be appropriate for your essay by thinking, “mmmm, would I have three points I could make about this AND the evidence from my text to back it up?”. What seems like a great and ‘easy’ question can sometimes turn curly when you realise that, actually, nope, you’ve got nothing.
Sure, write an essay or two or three, but you’ll get real bang for your buck by PLANNING lots and lots of them. By planning I mean listing your three points AND the evidence you’ll use for each point. There’s nothing worse than getting to paragraph three and realising you’ve already used your best evidence for that point in your first paragraph. PLAN YOUR EVIDENCE as well as the points you’ll make!
Step 4: Stop kidding yourself
Don’t go thinking that because you played Kahoot six times in class today you’ve studied. A quiz just tests what you know. If you got solid study notes, and if you haven’t rote learned them, you’re not getting much out of quizzes.
The thought of studying is worse than actually doing it. Basically, you’re going to have to harden up and get busy. Just because it’s not fun doesn’t mean you can’t do it.
Making your notes pretty, isn’t studying. Nor is having your notes out in front of you while watching Netflix. Nor is turning through the pages in your folder while stopping every minute to check Snapchat. Studying is:
Working out how everything fits together (like with that page that helps show how the main idea is illustrated).
Using old exam papers to practice.
Be realistic about your schedule. Download the free study plan from the bottom of the Exam Help page, fill it out and stick to it as much as you can. Get real about your timings too. There’s no way that school finishes at 3, then you’re at surf club from 3 until 5, then you have dinner from 5 until 6, then study from 6 until 9! Do you not travel, shower etc in any of that time? And if, after completing your plan, you realise that after surf club, tennis training, kapa haka, your job at the supermarket twice a week and factoring in a bit of down time (yep, that’s important too) you have no time left to study, perhaps, just for a few weeks, some of those things have to go. But hark! Do also remember you can ‘crib time’ by flipping through cue cards on the bus or listening to notes you’ve recorded through your earbuds while you’re walking the dog. Boom!
Health is key. That rubbish food and drink (like energy drinks) is munting your brain. Health is key. That includes getting in some exercise. If you don’t have clean air, water, nutrition and sleep … you’re toast. (Maslow!)
Study at school as much as you can, especially if home is terrible for studying. Interval (20 minutes) + lunch (40 minutes) + class time (ask you teacher for study time) = a fair bit of time.
Successful students study for 3 hours a day. Actual study. Like, actual.
Step 5: Understand timing.
Anyone who leaves an exam early is either a genius or hasn’t done as well as they should. I always used to said to my students, “If you leave an exam early, then SOMETHING IS WRONG”, and they knew I’d be hovering outside with my scary face on if they did come out.
So, if you’re doing all three papers, you have an hour for each. For your essays, spend 15 minutes planning, 45 minutes writing. In that 15 minutes of planning time you’ll be having a heart attack because most of the other students have already written half a page. But they’ve chosen the wrong question, made weak points and they’ve run out of evidence. You will have planned 3 clear points (maybe 4), and solid, SOLID evidence (eg quotations, film techniques, examples) for each of those points. Now all you have to do is basically copy it out. 45 minutes of easy breezy and you’ll deserve some Netflix tonight! If you’re only doing 1 or 2 papers, you'll have even more time to make it perfect. You should still stay for the full 3 hours. There’s a lot riding on this. Why wouldn’t you?!
(Never begin your conclusion with “in conclusion”!) Do the mahi (work), get the treats! But, you know, if you’ve worked hard but still don’t get the results you hoped for, then you can still hold your head up high. Hard work and a good attitude trumps grades every time. But if you can nail both, then woohoo!!!