January 9, 2012, by Gaby

Revision time….

Two more weeks, and autumn semester examinations start. Over the course of two weeks, thousands of students will pile into examination rooms and ‘sit exams’.

Leading up to that moment when you enter the hall, sit down, turn over the paper and -hopefully- start to write a brilliant, succinct and ‘good’ answer is a strange time called ‘revision’. Students don’t have time to go out because they are revising; for many, this might mean getting up at crack of dawn, entering the library in unprecedented numbers and literally staying there all day. Some will stay there all night, too. campus legend has it that pizza deliveries to the library during revision time are not unknown, too….
Other students are not back on campus yet because they are staying at home to revise. Other might come back for a bit, and then go home again to put the finishing touches to their revision. It seems de rigeur for some students to shun any activities that might loosely fall under the ‘personal hygiene’ category: washing hair, changing clothes, brushing hair, water coming anywhere near one’s body wastes time, and as for food or sleep or for fresh air, well, that’ll have to wait until after exams. It is quite something to behold, this frenzied activity that marks the fortnight leading up to the start of exams. Snatches of conversation in departments’ corridors will invariably include THE question: ‘how many hours did you revise yesterday’? the answers are astonishing; the minimum acceptable tariff per day seems 10 hours, anything less is slack. good workers spend 18 hours a day revising, some don’t sleep, and the sale of caffeine-laced products on campus soars.
Revising involves reading and clearly colour- coding notes, in increasingly scintillating colours and complex patterns of inter- connectedness. Revising means reading a whole semester’s worth of ‘stuff’, with reading lists being subjected to the minutest attention. hen there is the age-old game of ‘guessing’ what might be on the paper, and complex calculations as to how many topics need to be revised in order to cope with any permutations of questions that might come up. It’s all a glorious hive of activity.

Or is it? Am I the only one who feels quite bamboozled by this frenzy of activity and concerned for students’ welfare? Am I the only one who feels reservation about sometimes quite heroic attempts of reading in a fortnight what was supposed to be read, gradually, incrementally, over the space of a whole semester? After all, I do pride myself on handbooks where readings follow each other in a. Sequence that carefully build on each other, reflect on each other, interconnect with each other and lead in a gloriously serendipitous way towards ‘understanding’. and here is the crux of my concerns: humanities exams rarely work with the acquisition of ‘stuff’, of facts, of material, but there is a sense of probing questions, playing with concepts, looking at basics, and I remain sceptical that revision can allow for that understanding.

There is a wonderful case study to express my reservations, provided by none other than the marvellous J.K Rowling in ‘Harry Potter and the Half- Blood Prince’, the sixth installment of the Potter books. There comes a little study of how different forms of knowledge complement each other in a confrontation between Hermione Granger, logical, steady, analytical, and Harry Potter, brilliant, unexpected, instinctive. Hermione and Harry are facing a potions experiment in class where what is at stake is a demonstration of the understanding of basic principles. Hermione undertakes the task by ruthlessly and logically applying her understanding of concepts; Harry who doesn’t understand the concepts, approaches the task by thinking outside the box. both succeed.
I like to think of exams needing to be approached by mixing both approaches: yes, you need to understand the principles, but then, and here is the brilliant bit, then you need to think outside the box and play.

So, exam revision needs to be more than cramming facts and stewing in the library! It needs to be the culmination of weeks of engagement with a series of ideas, concepts and problems, and what happens when the paper finally arrives, is an ability to shine. Maybe the most important thing to understand is that exams in Art History in particular don’t necessarily ‘measure’ knowledge but test your flexibility, adaptability, cheek and flair, always based on sound principles and understanding.

no wonder students get stressed. It’s a tall order.

Posted in Teaching and learning