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As a medical student, I did have to undertake some exams that required writing essays. One of the questions I often get asked is how you can apply techniques such as active recall and spaced repetition – that I frequently discuss as being ‘the best’ revision techniques – to essay-based subjects. During my third year at university, I adopted the following approach to preparing for my own essay-based psychology exams – it proved highly effective in my own exams and I hope that you can make effective use of it too.
The system can be broadly broken down into two stages:
- The Creation Stage
- Objective to create first class essay plans for every conceivable essay title that they throw at us in the exam.
2. The Memorisation Stage
- Objective of committing all of these essay plans to memory by systematically using active recall, spaced repetition, spider diagrams and flashcards.
The idea is that, by using these two stages, by the time the exams arrive you’ll have memorised so many essay plans that they will either come up in the exam or the essays will be similar enough that you will have the knowledge to draw up and form coherent and well-structured essay that answer the question effectively.
There are three main questions in the creation stage:
How to decide what essay titles to pick/prepare
The objective here is to ‘scope the subject’ and find essay titles that cover the entire breadth of the syllabus. The easiest way to do this is to both look through the past papers and start by planning the essays that have come up in the past and then examine the syllabus and identify areas that lend themselves to essays. Once you’ve planned out those essays, you’ll have a better idea as to what style of questions are asked and what material is often covered. This should give you a breadth of essays titles that span the course – if you find that there is still an area of the syllabus that hasn’t been address, try to come up a suitable question and add it to your essay plans to compile.
How you plan the essay
Personally, I would give myself one day per essay plan. Although it’s best to try to have this process ongoing throughout the year, I did the bulk of my essay plan preparation in the Easter holidays (perhaps not ideal!).
My process involved starting off with a question then use Google to get as much information as possible about that particular topic. I would start off with Google because it can give you a good broad overview as well as useful links to review papers that would often provide key details or interesting examples.
Once I had created my essay plan I would then look at the lecture notes and the recommended reading. This meant that a lot of my material was more original than everyone else’s because most other people would’ve built their essays based around the lecture notes, whereas I was building my essays from a Google search supplemented by lecture notes.
Once I had got my research document, I would spend a few hours writing out the essay – consolidating all the information into this one essay that I am ultimately going to learn.
How you make sure your essay plan is really good.
But how do we make an essay plan good? There are 3 key ingredients in my opinions:
- Answering the question
- Adding a bit of spice.
The introduction is the most important part of the essay because you can address all three of these key ingredients and signal to the examiner how you are going to go about compiling the essay and answer the question.
Here is an example of one of the introductions from an essay that I prepared on whether judgement and decision making is cognitive (logical) or affective (emotional).
The historical view in the social sciences has always been that judgements are based solely on content information, with individuals being assumed to form judgements by systematically evaluating all available content information in an unbiased manner. However, over the past three decades a considerable amount of research has challenged this assumption by showing that judgments may be formed not only on the basis of content information (cognitive judgements) but also on the basis of feelings (affective judgement). It is now well accepted that judgement can be both affective and cognitive. Whether it is one or the other depends on a multitude of factors: (1) the salience of the affective feelings, (2) the representativeness of the affective feelings for the target, (3) the relevance of the feelings for the judgement, (4) the evaluative malleability of the judgement and (5) the level of processing intensity. I will discuss these in turn and ultimately argue that generally speaking in day-to-day life, the circumstances are generally those that result in affective rather than cognitive judgements and decision making.
As you can see, I signpost the essay explicitly using numbered points as well as answering the question and outlining to the examiner the direction that my argument is going to go.
The Memorisation Stage
By this point, you should have a good number of essay plans that you’ve created in documents – now the aim is to ‘upload’ those essay plans to our brain. I approached doing this using three main techniques:
With my essays, I used Anki flashcards to memorise paragraphs and main points whether from an essay or key points from a particularly relevant research paper. The aim was to create blocks of content with every Anki flashcard being its’ own ‘block’ which I could then draw upon either for the essays that I had planned or for unfamiliar essays but ones which I could answer using the material from the flashcards.
However, specific paragraphs or points from research papers aren’t helpful unless you can associate them with particular essays – that’s where spider diagrams come into the equation…
Having memorised content blocks from my essays using Anki flashcards, I made one page diagrams of every single essay. The idea being that you would be able to discern the structure of the essay through the spider diagram as well as notice key words that are relevant for that topic and/or that you find particularly helpful in triggering your memory about the key points that you need to raise in answering that question.
Every day I would draw out various spider diagrams from memory and if there were any books that I didn’t know, I would look them up in the master research document or in Anki and actively work on learning those parts.
Over time, this became a highly effective way to systematically use active recall to ensure that I knew absolutely everything.
Retrospective Revision Timetable
The final part of the system involved systematic spaced repetition. If you’ve seen any of my other content, I am a big proponent of retrospective revision timetables. This approach counters the conventional idea of planning a prospective revision timetable which has a number of issues – namely trying to predict the future and inflexibility, amongst others – and instead involves creating a spreadsheet that starts with a list of subjects, topics or essays that we have compiled through scoping our subject and then inputting the dates on which we study those areas as well as colour code the system to provide a visual representation as to which areas we might need to cover again. You can read more about these sorts of timetables here, where I explain them in more depth.
This structure which combines active recall, spaced repetition, flashcards and spider diagrams was probably the most effective system that I used whilst at university. In the exam, about two thirds of the essays that we had to write, I had already planned. Although the other four essays that I had to write were ‘new’, I had built up such a systematic and in-depth knowledge of the subject that I could more easily draw upon ‘blocks’ of content from my Anki decks which I could then ‘drop’ into these essays to answer them effectively.
I hope this has provided you with a more logical structure with which to utilise active recall, spaced repetition, spider diagrams and flashcards to ensure that you can approach your essay-based exams with more confidence.
Please see the other blog posts in this ‘How To Study’ series for more hints, tips and guidance on studying and revising.