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How to study effectively: applying what you know

This is the fourth part in a series (parts one, two and three).

The key to this part of the learning process is the simple, magic question: Why did I get this wrong?

To apply knowledge, we need to focus on learning from our mistakes, deconstruct good exam technique and duplicate it in increasingly realistic simulations of the actual exam.

Why this gradual approach? Why not start with realistic simulations of the exam?

We want to look closely at our work, face up to our mistakes and drill them out of our performance. We can only do this if we focus on a handful of practise exam questions in each study session. This ensures we’ll have energy to really dig into how we can improve our answers and enough time for a do-over to consolidate our improvements.

The key to this part of the learning process is the simple, magic question: Why did I get this wrong?

Answer honestly, update your notes to make sure you won’t repeat the mistake, and take another run at the same questions to rehearse success. This will get you a long way, but there are two types of question that require special attention:

Long form written questions
When you know what makes an answer great, writing great answers becomes possible.

When I looked at the GCSE Psychology exam for a post on this blog, the textbook gave examples of answers that the author considered to be excellent. By scrutinising these and consulting a marking scheme I spotted some common factors. In this case, I would score highly on most questions if I included: Appropriate Terminology, Explanations, Examples, Evidence, Assessment, Alternatives and Comparisons.

This shows how good technique can out perform brute force. It would be perfectly possible for an expert in psychology to write an answer which waffled on for five paragraphs and missed most of those key ingredients. But once you know what you need to include, those marks become low hanging fruit.

Good technique can out perform brute force.

The recipe for high marks can vary depending on the type of question and the number of potential marks. For example, questions asking you to describe something require a different recipe than those asking you to evaluate it. This sounds more complicated and time consuming than it is. Ten minutes spent deliberately trying to write down the ingredients of a high scoring answer can have a dramatic effect.

The next step is to memorise those recipes and practise using them on past paper questions. It’s fine to start with just a few questions each session. Check your work against the marking schemes and refine as you go.

Problem solving questions

Marking schemes highlight things that might trip you up, such as using the wrong number of decimal points, but they don’t thoroughly deconstruct good answers. For this, there’s a special style of textbook called a workbook, containing plenty of practise exam style questions. Well written ones will walk you through the answers in detail and gradually ramp up the difficulty rather than throwing you in at the deep end with an ill-fitting scuba outfit and a shopping trolley for a shark cage.

If you arrive at this stage with a thorough understanding of the concepts and experience of applying them to direct questions, a good workbook might be all you need. However, if you do hit an especially tough question Tom Miller has an interesting approach called the Reverse Learning Technique. This encourages you to look at problem solving questions from a different perspective and can be found on his website here.

Tutors are helpful; however, naturally gifted students have good instincts, which means that they’re not consciously aware of the processes they’re using. This lack of awareness makes it unexpectedly hard for them to tutor others. To counter this, ask them to write down everything you would need to know to successfully answer your problem question – especially rules, caveats and processes. This is exceptionally helpful in spotting gaps in your knowledge. If you don’t know everything necessary to solve a problem, lateral thinking isn’t the issue.


With dedicated effort, you should shortly find yourself answering questions quickly and with few mistakes. When you hit this point it’s good to build test-day confidence by simulating exam conditions. This generally means sitting a full-length exam in unfamiliar surroundings, without music or other creature comforts, and within a time limit. Having someone else mark your work is also a good way to add a little pressure.

  • Start with a small number of past paper questions in each session
  • Scrutinise incorrect answers
  • Update your notes/self-testing materials to ensure mistakes are only made once
  • Use workbooks, marking schemes and tutors to deconstruct high marking answers and spot recipes for success
  • Simulate exam conditions to build confidence

My book is now available! You can read about it here.

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