One of my all-time favourite business productivity books is Steven Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. It’s why almost every blog post and Buzzfeed article now has a title like this: ‘The ten ways I totally changed my life’ or ‘Seventeen things that tell you your boyfriend is an alien’. It can get boring.
But this is actually a very good book: maybe when you’ve surfaced from exam-hell you might give it a go. And this morning it got me thinking about how we might apply some of these habits to your revision and exam technique over the coming weeks.
I’m not focusing here on a particular subject or paper, but rather seeing how Covey’s ideas can resonate with you and help you right now.
Let’s have a look at the first 3 of these habits and think about how we might apply them to revision and exam technique.
HABIT #1 BE PROACTIVE
It’s good that this habit is first, as in many ways it’s the most important. Covey says that being proactive is understanding that we are the authors of our own lives: that our behaviour is a function of our decisions, not our conditions. In other words, we can choose to respond in any way we wish to the things that happen to us, rather than let the things/people around us decide how we respond and feel.
Think about this in relation to your revision. You know you have masses to do. You look at the pile of books on your desk and you don’t know where to start. So, you go online and tweet that you don’t know where to start. And you read lots of people saying the same thing.
The thing is, it’s not the books that are the problem. It’s your response to the books that’s the problem. And honestly? Twitter will just reinforce it. It’s not that helpful, believe me.
Another example: the exam hall. It’s probably the same hall you’ve been playing badminton etc. in since year 7. And yet. With those desks.
Same hall. Different response.
What you therefore need to do is move from being reactive (to the people and situations outside of yourself) to proactive (basing your actions on your values – the things that are most important to you.)
Sound easy? Of course it isn’t. It’s really hard. But if there is one thing you should continually recite to yourself over the coming weeks it’s this: THESE ARE YOUR EXAMS. THEY ARE NO ONE ELSE’S. THE EXAMINER DOESN’T CARE ABOUT HOW STRESSED YOU ARE OR HOW MANY TWITTER FOLLOWERS YOU HAVE. YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN AND IT’S UP TO YOU TO ORGANISE YOURSELF AND GET YOURSELF INTO A GOOD PLACE IN YOUR HEAD BEFORE YOU ENTER THE EXAM ROOM.
Sound harsh? It’s not. It’s a fact. And the sooner you realise it, the better.
Let’s have a think about what we mean by values. These are things that you hold as most important to you. We all have them, even if we haven’t thought much about them before. Whilst many of you may have struggled throughout your time at school, most of you will recognise the value of getting reasonable grades, and understand that it is your ultimate decision as to whether this happens or not.
Some people might look outside of themselves for reasons and excuses: their teacher was crap, the subject wasn’t interesting for them, the other kids in the class would never shut up etc. But these are only excuses: there are so many great online resources out there that you can teach yourself pretty much anything if you want to.
When I was at school (a long time ago) there was only one choice: Lett’s Revise books. No internet. No Facebook. Nothing. After getting an F in my maths mock, I bought a copy of the revision guide (I still remember its blue cover) and spent the next three months going through it on my own. And guess what. I managed a B grade in the exam proper (my dad almost fell of his chair as he’d given up hope). So there is no reason why anyone with enough willpower can’t teach themselves through online and print revision materials.
Remember: one thing at a time. One subject at a time. One book at a time. One note at a time. If all we see is a mass of stuff that we cannot differentiate, we will panic. This mass of stuff changes when we put the books to one side, take one, put it on our desk, turn to page one, read, make notes. One thing after another. This is proactivity in action: what we do is determined by a calm and ordered mindset, not a big woolly chaotic mess.
There’s another thing about being reactive: it’s too easy to be affected by the opinions of those around you. It’s way worse for you today: you have social media bombarding you with other people’s opinions every day (oops I’m doing the same thing aren’t I). It’s so easy to react and react, jumping from one opinion to another based on the last blog post you read. If you have a firm set of values, understanding that, for the next hour, you will focus on preparation for exams that you know will have lasting impact, you are far less likely to be caught up in other people’s panic.
So: take control of your revision. Get off Twitter. Be proactive.
HABIT #2: BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND
This links nicely with the first habit: that in order to stick to your values you need to have a clear idea of your destination. If you know this, you are more able to plan your journey knowing that everything you do moves you towards your goal.
Covey has a brilliant analogy here: he says that it’s so easy to work incredibly hard at ‘climbing the ladder of success only to discover it’s leaning against the wrong wall’.
Think about this for a moment in relation to your revision. How many of you have taken the time to go onto the exam board website and read everything you can about what the examiners will be marking you on? To really understand the different questions and what they are going to test you on? To analyse the assessment objectives and apply them to your revision? I’m guessing not many of you as it’s quite boring.
But remember: there is only one person you are writing for. The examiner. Not your teacher or your Twitter followers or a future employer or your dog (ok that one’s obvious). One person, with a mark scheme, sitting at their kitchen table some time in July. It’s his ladder and no one else’s.
So surely it makes sense to begin knowing exactly what they are going to want from you? How many minutes you should spend on each question? What different sections of the exam will actually test you on? Because I can guarantee you that no amount of writing notes on index cards will help you if you don’t do what the examiner wants you to do.
There’s another valid interpretation of this habit for anyone preparing to enter an exam. It is this: all things are created twice. There is the first, mental creation, and then the physical act. An architect designs a building on paper before it is built. A composer writes his score on a stave before an orchestra performs it.
The same can be applied to our habits: we can ‘design’ our reaction to going into an exam before we get in there. We can rehearse entering calmly, sitting at our place, taking out our pens, arranging papers neatly, breathing.
This can have a remarkable effect on how we react when we get into the exam hall. There is no reason why you have to stand with your friends just before you go in. You can hang back and take a few moments to rehearse. We can do the same with every part of our lives: even our revision can be so much more effective if we visualise our approach even before we begin.
So remember: if you want a certain outcome, plan for it. After all, an unplanned building is highly likely to fall down with the first breath of wind. Just look at the three little pigs. You don’t think the third pig built his house made of brick without hiring an architect in the first place, do you?
HABIT #3: PUT FIRST THINGS FIRST
Before we think about habit 3, let’s think about where we’ve got to. In Covey’s words, habit #1 says ‘you’re the creator: you are in charge’. Habit #2 is ‘the ability to create in our minds what we cannot yet see with our eyes’. Habit #3 is getting our hands dirty and doing what we’ve been planning.
This one is all about ‘self-management’. This is about breaking things down, deciding on the right order to do things, prioritising. However, in order to do this we have to have a sense of mission, a set of values that we use to guide our decision-making.
Once we have a destination, we have to start walking. In the words of a famous Zen Buddhist: ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. Visualisation is worthless unless we follow through. It’s not like we can say to our teacher/university admissions tutor/employer ‘well, I visualised an absolutely brilliant exam where I got every question right’. There are no qualifications for nicely written lists on post-it notes.
Yes, I know. This is the hardest thing in the world to do, isn’t it. The fact that you’re reading this post rather than revising is an indication that you are procrastinating, putting off the C1 practice paper or going back through the periodic table (no I didn’t do Chemistry but surely the periodic table is still important?). To put first things first is to make a list of things to tick off and then actually tick them off. In order.
To be an effective self-manager means resisting the impulses that drag you away from your work. Responding to Whatsapp. Checking Student Room, playing Call of Duty. It means understanding that, once you have put a plan in place (habit #2) it’s worthless unless you carry it out.
But these impulses can only be resisted if you genuinely practice both habits #1 and #2. Steps towards a goal are only worthwhile if there is a goal. And that’s not a ‘if I spend 20 minutes revising I can have a Snickers’ sort of goal. It’s a ‘I genuinely understand that if I bollocks-up this exam I only have myself to blame and therefore have no choice but to revise as I’ll be all alone in the exam room with no Twitter followers to help me’ sort of goal. See the difference?
I hope these three habits help you. I’m not into giving you warm and fuzzy advice. At the end of the day these are your exams. And you can either take ownership, or you can make excuses and blame.
And guess which gets results? Just ask the third pig.