Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Surviving exams 101

Last week I had my first exam in the MBA- Heriot Watt which I am "reading" for via an approved partner. I had deferred the attempt from last December for various reasons. Now I was determined to attempt the exam, just for the experience as I did not believe that I could amass enough technical knowledge, or write 3 "good enough" essays to pass. I was not aiming for excellence, just not failure.....  So having survived the attempt, here are some things which I learn't along the way and after the exam:

1.  Know and understand the pass mark for the question(s) and for the paper on the whole
     Knowing the  grades and the marks as listed below is step one in the process. The second step is to have a plan of how the attempt the questions so as to gain the most marks, either number 1, 2, 3 in that order or number 2,3,1 or number 2,1,3. This is especially important when there are different combinations of marks in each question and each question may contribute to a different weight of the marks in the paper. This is something that you will learn and decide upon as each person is different and the layout for each exam may be different. See the info below for a start to the assessment:

Results are issued by EBS approximately 6 weeks after the relevant diet. You will receive both a grade and a percentage, as follows:
X for 80% or above.
A for 65% to 79%.
B for 50% to 64%.
C for 45% to 49% (fail).
D for less than 45% (fail).


2.    Timing is important.
       Prior to the exam, this meant working out the number of minutes which would be spent on each question. On the day of the exam, this translated into allocating, not only the number of minutes for the question, but the start and end time for each question in the order in which it was chosen to be attempted. Writing down the start and end times at the top of each page of the question was a visual reminder of the start and stop time and this freed up my mind to focus on the important things. More importantly, sticking to the schedule meant that I gave myself the best opportunity to gain the most marks possible, since it is easier to earn marks on a new question, than to try to increase the marks on the existing question. I can go back if there is time to spare, however each question contributes so much to the whole and no more.
3.    Technical knowledge matters
       Most of my revision took place over a relatively short period of time which included the the four days of Carnival, Ash Wednesday  and the remaining days to the exam which was on a Monday morning after Carnival. Thus after a weekend of writing essays and not being happy with the results, on Ash Wednesday and Thursday I started learning or relearning.  Luckily, my text came in soft copy or PDF and I had slides from the lectures, which I had not printed. So I started reading and selecting the information which I wanted to retain/study indepth for printing. Thus if the slide was the preferred source based on the time of the day, that was read and printed. If the summaries in the book were to be relearn't, then those were printed. I kept reminding myself that I had time. Paper clips were handy, for keeping chapters together and  so were plastic cases for easy storage of information for transporting. I had  to learn and relearn and I had to be patient with myself.

4.    Review past papers and model answers
       Prior to my review period, I had printed the questions and both the examiner's solution and the student's solution for all of the questions which were available. There was to be no cheating... For me to have a reasonable chance I had to put my thoughts on paper and  see where I agreed or disagree with both parties as well as develop my writing skills and the discipline of putting a reasonable response in the time required. If I did enough  questions from the papers cold turkey, to an estimate of the time that I would have in the exam, I could develop enough "thinking on the spot" experience to function on the day fairly competently.

5.     Practice, practice, practice
         Yes, I wrote some more essays! I re read the papers which I had written, so that I could refresh my knowledge of  the topics which were covered previously, the style of questions, where was I with my thinking, identify where I needed to fine tune the concepts, add more "technical phrases", where  was I strong or weak due to a natural bias. 
       Remember this is a tertiary level exam and if the response seems to be too simple for the question which is asked, then ask yourself, what else can be added that is relevant, how do I add knowledge which will add value should this be a real life situation which is placed in front of me. This was particularly applicable in relation to a buying situation, where there is a straight rebuy, a modified rebuy, a new task buy, a buying centre, the composition of  the team of a buying centre, the working of the buying centre as it relates to an upstream or downstream entity in an industry. The application of the concept was where the practical experience, knowledge and imagination helped. Of course I could be wrong in my thinking and in what I think the examiner or marker is looking for.

6.      Understand your strengths and weaknesses
          The writing of the essays helped me to understand, that I would veer towards market development over market penetration (see Ansoff's Product Market Matrix) just as  I would veer towards geographic and demographic analysis, to name a few.... I would leap to the use of/ the benefits of earnings and a marketing strategy geared towards foreign currencies, rather than start with the models which we had to learn and apply. Whether any other student was inclined towards using  foreign currencies in their marketing strategy, that was key to my marketing strategy, I was weak without a foreign market/ foreign currency to consider. 
I also had to learn when to let go and take a break, get some rest, have family time, so that I was functional after the exam as life had to go on.

7. Hope for the best
    Hope for the best characterises so many things:, such as if you are optimistic, chances are you will see the opportunities rather than the pit falls and you will be able to write creatively, you will be refreshed rather than tired and weary. There are so many things that you can control and so many things that you have to experience, that you have to leave room for opportunity to work for you.

8    Conduct a post mortem
       After the exam, I have conducted several post mortems and I have realised  things as follows:
  • I may not have this opportunity again for the exam to occur so close to Carnival as this timing will not occur for awhile. This impacted on the number of days which I took as vacation.   Also this will mean that I have to start preparing earlier for the next exam so as to improve on the things which I learn't as well as learn new things.
  • A minor diet is followed by a major diet, where there will be more persons sitting the exams. So this can impact on both the type of question as well as the scoring in a particular exam.
  • The core subjects tend to be offered in the minor diets and not every core subject will be offered in each minor diet, so I will have to chose my classes wisely in case I need to defer my exams as another lecturer pointed out.
  • Go ahead and start another course, as some of the information in the other module will feed into the knowledge  for the exam which you are preparing to sit.
  • Work out how many marks which you think that you could have earned easily or not. This meant having a worst case and  a reasonable case.  There was no best case, just to be pessimistic...
  • Try to memorise as many models and applications as possible in case you have to resit..
  • Try to keep calm in the period when you are awaiting results as stress uses energy.
Thank you.