7. Helping Students with Exam Revision

This blog post considers some tips for postgraduates who teach on how they can help their students with exam preparation.

  1. Your role

Postgraduates who teach are often the most common point of contact for undergraduates students. When exam session begins, whether this be in the autumn or summer terms, it is often difficult to know how to best prepare our students for their assessments.

Normally seminar leaders have little or no say in the mode of assessment, apart from marking scripts of course. With often only an hourly seminar to cover a very broad topic, as a new seminar leader, it can be difficult to judge how much, if any, time to spend on revision skills.

This is an even more pressing concern when you are teaching first year students who are often still discovering how to be independent learners and adapt to university modes of assessment.

So, the initial task when helping your students with their exam revision is to determine what your role is, and how much time you can dedicate to helping them with revision, either during class or your office hours.

  1. Memory

The purpose of all exams is to assess a student’s knowledge and understanding of a particular topic, and their ability to recall it under time constraint. In an exam sat for an introduction to IR theory module, to provide one example, it may be important that the student demonstrates an understanding of the core tenets of Realist thought from Morgenthau through Waltz (and hopefully everything in between).

To be able to do this in an exam, it is essential that students move their knowledge from their short term memory to their long term memory. In order for this to happen, a student must regularly engage with a topic.

As a seminar leader one of the most effective ways of helping students develop their long term memories of a topic is to identify and repeat key concepts each week.

For example, in teaching a Foreign Policy Analysis course last semester, I set aside 5 minutes at the end of each class to go over a new concept such as the Agency-Structure Problem, whilst refreshing the previous week’s concept of the Strategic-Relational Model. Here, I would test students to see if they knew the definition of the concept, before revealing the textbook definition. Students would then work in groups to put the concept into context.

Every few weeks we would then go through all the key concepts covered so far in the module. This would normally consist of challenges, often as simple as students seeing how many of the key concepts listed on the board they could give a definition for. This, alone, was not enough to engrain these concepts within the students’ memories, but I also encouraged the students to spend time outside of class going over these concepts.

Although the focus on these concepts wasn’t always popular in class, by the end of the semester the students were very grateful and many commented in evaluations how the repetition of key concepts was useful for their revision.

  1. Argumentation

If you have marked exam papers before, you will have noticed that one of the most common shortcomings is that a student will simply recall, say, 4 pages of information around the question without providing any analysis or overarching argument. Pressure in exam situations can often affect the most talented students, and it is important students remember the importance of argumentation in exams.

In this respect, encouraging your students to practice writing thesis statements so that in their exams they include an overarching argument that is threaded throughout the entirety of their essay is one of the best exam revision techniques you can impart.

Of course, you can include argumentation activities in class, for example encouraging students to argue for and against the value of, say, United Nations Security Council.

However, particularly for first year students, I found it far more effective to have my students construct thesis statements and brief essay plans out of the context of IR theory and practice. The most productive example and most accessible topic I have used is to relate it to food; my favourite example being to ask students to discuss and create a thesis statement on whether they think “pizza is the best food”.

Students tend to really engage with this approach because it encourages them to focus on forming and then defining an argument on whether “pizza is the best food” rather than simply recalling all the information they know about pizza. Some of my most quiet students were actively participating in the debate, which was much more light-hearted than our usual discussions around human rights or theory. This allowed the students to see past the context and focus on their opinion and how they connect these thoughts together to build a thesis statement.

Once I have used this exercise to develop their ability to argue and develop a argument, I then get the students to return to previous exam questions and encourage them to discuss how they can apply the skills they have just developed in an academic context.

Overall, these three key factors provide a great foundation to help your students prepare for exams.


Rebecca Wilson is a PhD Student at the University of St Andrews. She works on Gender, Violence, and International Relations and is the International Campaign Manager for WORI Uganda. She has previously served on the BISAPGN Executive Committee.