Do you revise theory first, then attempt questions? Don't!

  • Put yourself in the examination mode right now. Working backwards is the most effective way to gain marks. It means to first attempt a question, then read theory and not the other way around. Reading theory first will give you a false sense of how much you really know for the exams.

  • Besides, when you struggle with each question, you will remember more on EXAM DAY. It will also give you an honest appraisal of how much you really know after the coursework is over. This in turn will help you study smarter and not just harder.

  • Then, if you cannot recall or apply logic to solve a particular question, go back to your textbook and look up just that amount of information / theory you will need to know to answer it. Use your textbook as a reference book only (like a dictionary).

  • It is most important that you mark in your textbook with a highlighter pen all the keywords and formulae you could not recall while solving a particular question. In this way, you can build up an inventory of the facts you should especially attempt to remember on EXAM DAY. Your mistakes are your best diagnosis to success.

  • Have you done past 10+ year papers systematically yet? Working Backwards means first attempt all the past questions in the revision process before doing any other questions. Also, start with past questions on those topics that are easiest for you. This will build more confidence in you than any other revision work you can possibly imagine right now. This is true for all students whether they are 'weak' or 'strong’ in a subject.

  • A better prepared student will jump many steps ahead of others in their cohort regardless of their present position in a class or batch.

  • Attempt past questions topic wise, not year wise, so that you can understand your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to each topic.

  • Sometimes, you think a topic easy until you make an attempt, so attempt all past questions, even if they appear easy to you at first.

  • Notice any common mistakes you make. Make a special entry of these as short notes penciled right inside your textbook on the relevant pages. This will create an inventory of those facts that you personally need to remember and so that you can avoid these same mistakes in the future.

  • Mental calculations should be double checked with written rough work and backward calculations, for example, recheck your division with multiplication. Don’t forget, many older children make frequent mistakes at class V level or below!

  • Topic wise study of past questions (not year wise) will give you a fair idea of the trends and patterns on the types of questions that have come on a topic in the past. Taking an exam is a technique and you will learn many important techniques when you solve past papers.

  • Once mastered, you can move your attention to those questions not covered by the past papers including model questions and back of the textbook questions. When choosing extra questions to solve, choose them in those topics that did not feature well in the past papers, just in case those topics come up in the future, but do not attempt these questions before past questions for five to ten years are first fully attempted and mastered.

  • Throughout the revision process commit to memory all that which needs to be memorised. These are marks waiting for you to get, only if you can recall them on EXAM DAY.

  • Working Backwards is the best way to identify which bits you need to commit to memory. Read further to know how.

Do you revise chapters one by one in a row? Don’t.

When you begin your revision process, you are best not to do as most students typically do:

  1. a. They revise theory by chapters in a row, one chapter after the next and run out of time just before the exam. They lose marks in the process.
  2. b. They revise the chapters they think are most difficult first. They thus spend so much time in fixing their difficulties that they lose marks in topics easier for them because they do not get to revise them well before the exam.

‘Working Backwards’ as explained here is far more effective a technique to prepare you for an examination than other methods and techniques.

You have already completed your course work. This means your teacher or coach has already gone over the chapters and explained them to you in class throughout the period of study. Now it is time for you to prepare for the examination. Just like metamorphosis of a cocoon into a butterfly, your own struggle with past questions will prepare you better for an examination than if others help you in the process. No one else can prepare you better for the examination than you yourself!

Working backwards means that instead of going over the chapter in your textbook, start to attempt the past questions first, then go back to revise theory in your textbook as and when needed. When you study theory first, your short term memory kicks in. You have a false sense that you know something but there is no guarantee that you will remember this on exam day.

It is better therefore that you put yourself in the exam mode at the beginning of your revision process and as you begin to work backwards from questions. And, if you find in solving a question, you cannot recall a fact or theory, just go back and look up theory.

Working backwards means that you solve past questions before any other type of questions. Only after past questions for the past 10 years or so are fully attempted, should you consider attempting model questions or back of the chapter questions from your textbook, many of which you will have already attempted during your studies.

It does not take long to go over past ten year papers. Imagine if one paper is worth two hours in a real examination, then past 10 year papers in that subject will be a mere 20 hours worth of revision. Consider also that some questions are repeated over the years so you will save some time. Of course, you will still take considerably longer than 20 hours to go over past 10 year papers if you are ill prepared at this point in time.

If you are ill prepared at this point in time, it is not that you are a weak student or less intelligent than others. If you did well in Class III or V or VII, then you can do well in Class X or XII or competitive examinations. You are not dumb. It is simply a fact that you are less prepared than you need to be at this point in time and you have lost valuable time in the past. But if you plan better and study smarter, you can more easily gain marks. First work backwards, then as you master each subject, practice for speed and accuracy.

Find past papers that are already organised topic wise. Working backwards also means you have to work from your strengths, that is, from easy, to moderate to difficult topics and not the other way around (as covered in the previous chapter–Differentiate).

Unfortunately many students do just the opposite. They work first with topics they find difficult or they revise in a serial order from first topic to the next. In this way, they lose many marks. We further explain the rationale for working with your strengths in the Chapter: Work to Improve Your Average.

Now choose those topics you find are easy for you and start immediately to solve past ten year questions on these topics.

In solving individual questions, if you find a question that is difficult (even though the topic is overall easy for you), refer to your textbook. Look up just that amount of theory that you will need to solve that particular question and no more. This is similar to looking up a dictionary. Obviously, you do not read the entire dictionary when looking up a word. Similarly, look up just that portion of theory that you need to solve that particular question.

This will ensure that you move swiftly from one question to the next in that topic and get a very good understanding of that topic from the back end point of view – what has come in the examinations in the past and learn valuable lessons like what is expected of you in the end in that topic and subject. You get to know which questions are frequently asked, how many marks each question is worth, in what style the questions are written and whether they are compulsory or optional, short or long.

Remember, taking an exam is a technique. Beyond what you know, you should know what is expected to be written in your exam copies, what kinds of questions come, how long it takes to answer each question type, where you stumble the most, what you need to avoid, what you need to do to speed up, what bits you need to commit to memory, etc. This is invaluable information that you collect as you attempt past questions.

You might find, for example, that a topic is easy but that certain questions are difficult for you to solve. Also, you might find that your own classification of a topic as easy, moderate or difficult is sometimes wrong and a particular topic is easier or more difficult than you first thought. This self-analysis helps you work smarter and not just harder.

Moreover, in working backwards you learn most about your own strengths and weaknesses. You feel highly empowered as you master each topic and move on to the next.

Working with easy topics first means that you are working with your strengths first, not your weaknesses. You are likely to spend less time in solving questions in topics that are easy for you. These are marks you earn as you prepare from all easy topics for you to those you find increasingly difficult. Such a process builds confidence and is more time efficient than if you work on your weaknesses first (unless you have already mastered everything ‘easy’ and ‘moderate’ and are in the top rung of your class already).

Until and unless you attempt past questions, you cannot be sure of what you have truly mastered for an examination. Many students spend the vast majority of their time reading and re-reading their textbooks and notes but never litmus test whether they can actually attempt past questions well.

Knowing your theory well does not translate into good marks in an examination. Fact is, unless you solve past questions and confront them, you can never be sure you have mastered a topic from the examination point of view.

The process of solving past questions is in itself invaluable to your success. This is because when you struggle with past questions, you are more likely to understand your own stumbling blocks, what you need to fix and which facts you need to commit to memory, for example.

Other important considerations:

  • Invest in a stop watch. Use it each time you to time yourself as you attempt each past question and make a note of how long you took to solve that question. After you have attempted all possible past papers, you should have a fairly good idea of the time you should take to solve each question type. Observe how long you are taking in comparison.

  • After you have mastered your past papers, you may practice for speed and accuracy by attempting loads of questions from any other source (model test papers, for example) in topics in which you need to speed up and still accurately answer the questions.

  • Sometimes you will find that you can do a question correctly only in the second attempt. That is, even though you know the answer well, you make mistakes in answering it as you rush through questions you think are easy. This is a terrible way to lose marks!

  • Accurately answering a question in the first attempt is extremely important, so think before you write your solutions. Otherwise, you are bound to lose many marks. In an actual examinations, there is rarely any time left to recheck your answers, so you will get zero when you could have got full marks for the same question as you knew it well but ended up not answering correctly. Priya of Class X, CMS Rajendra Nagar Branch is not an exception. She knew her quadratic equations well but her answers for ‘a’ and ‘b’ were wrong. Can you believe this. She made a KG or Class I error! She misread her own 4 as a 9 in the second line of solutions. Another student in the same class, Manishi, did not change signs from positive to negative when she moved a number from the left of an equal sign to the right of it – a Class VI level mistake in Class X!

  • Beware! Careless mistakes are more common than not. Consciously remind yourself to avoid any careless mistakes. Make a special entry of these mistakes you have made in the revision process as notes on a Post- It slip on relevant pages in your textbook as explained in the next chapter, so that when you turn the pages of your textbook, you are reminded not to make similar mistakes in the future.

  • Therefore, it is always better to work with a slight under-confidence than a slight over-confidence. Check and recheck your mental calculations with written rough work. Also, check calculations in more than one way, for example, check division with multiplication, etc. Especially recheck those questions you are most likely to think are easy!

Aspects of exam strategies you should focus upon most are:

  • Balance your time spent on each question with accuracy and double check the steps and answers; and, consciously remember to avoid any careless and common mistakes.

  • Learn techniques of writing answers and their stepwise presentation and familiarize yourself with the examiner's marking scheme so as to maximize marks.

  • In some subjects, for example, economics, it is preferable that you write down the main points or keywords instead of writing long prose to explain which is wasteful of time.

  • Avoid writing long answers when a question is weighed with low marks. Unfortunately, students often answer in detail one mark questions they know well instead of spending that time on high scoring questions.