Mr. Damon's guide to preparing for and taking the compositions groupées:


Several Weeks Before the Exams:

Get organized:

  1. Organize your TIME - look at your weekly time table.  Planning your time now will reduce stress in the future.  Look at the number of hours of homework you do each day (6 days a week - leave one day to relax!).  Make a new schedule just for revision.

    • To start with, add 1 hour per evening just for exam revision.  This hour is in addition to the normal homework you do.  Pick a subject which you will study for that hour that day.  For example Monday - Math, Tuesday - History, etc.  

    • A week or two before the exam, increase it to 2 hours of revision each day.  

    • DO NOT plan to study all weekend or during vacation time.  Neurobiological experiments show that the human brain does not work like that.  The brain works better (and you feel less stressed) if you study information a little bit at a time over several weeks rather than asking your brain to 'cram' information in during marathon study sessions a few days before the exam.  It's like not eating anything for 3 weeks and then suddenly eating 30 kilos of food in one day!   Your stomach, like your brain, likes things in reasonable quantities.

    • Where will you find the time?  The revision hours will probably have to come out of hours you spend playing video games, watching TV, talking on the phone or going to the movies.  This having been said, though, planning your time means that you plan not only the time to work but also the time to have fun.  And when you are having fun you can really enjoy yourself knowing that you did the studying you said you would do and you don't have to worry about it! 

    • Why not make up your schedule with a friend?  Pick the same hours and the same subjects for each night.  That will not only push you do stick to the schedule, it will also mean that if you have a question about history, you can call your friend knowing that s/he is studying the same thing.  Also plan to go out and have fun on the same night with that friend.  That way, one of you won't say "Let's go to the movies tonight!" while the other one says "Oh, sorry, I planned to study French tonight."

  2. Organize your PAPERS - get your folders and notebooks in order.  Make sure they are complete.  Put the homework assignments, tests and quizzes, worksheets and notes together by chapter or topic.  If you realize the day before the exam that you missed a chapter of notes or you do not have a copy of your last homework to study from, it will be too late to ask the teacher or go find it in your locker.  Start now to avoid problems later.  When you are leaving school, look at the revision schedule you made to see which books or folders you need for that night's revision.

What to study:

Ask each of your teachers what you should study and write down what they say. Start asking several weeks in advance so that if you find something which you do not understand, you have time to ask the teacher about it.  

Some teachers just say "study everything since the beginning of the year" or later in the year they might say "everything since the last exam."  If that is the case, make a list by yourself and show the teacher what he or she thinks.  There might be some things on the list the teacher will say, "spend more time on this part here" or "don't worry about this section - that's not important."  Or you could show the teacher your folder, notebook or textbook and flip through the pages asking which things had more importance.  Other things which could give you hints about what is important is to look back at the homework or quizzes and tests.  Were there certain themes which came up frequently?  Can you see a pattern?

How to study:

First of all, studying is a solitary act.  You must choose a place where you can concentrate and where you will not be interrupted by family, friends or pets.  There is no such thing as 'studying' with a friend.  Yes, you can work with a friend helping each other to explain things or you can quiz each other but revision or learning is not something you can do with someone else. 

This is working together, helping each other to understand.  This is not revision or studying. 

This is what revision or studying looks like.  It is a solitary act.  Only you have access to your brain, no one else can do the learning  for you.

What about techniques for learning?  There is no one method which is 'right' or 'wrong' because each person's brain works a little differently.  Some people are visual and need to see a diagram or a graph to understand ideas.  Other people are more number-oriented and things need to be logical in order to be clear.  Other people are better at remembering things which they hear rather than see.  Some people need to write something down before it really sinks into their memory.  Knowing which method is best for you means trying different techniques and seeing which one works best.

You need to find what works for you.  Here are some ideas:

  • Flashcards help to remember both by writing and by seeing.  Just making them helps to get ideas into your brain.  Using them frequently helps you to remember.
  • Outlines ("des fiches") - are a good way to summarize what you have been learning and helps you concentrate on only the most important bits of information.  Making them takes a long time but in the process of writing and thinking about what is important to write helps you to remember.
  • Audio recordings - read your notes or chapters aloud into an audio recorder and then put on your headphones and listen.  This is a good way to study while walking to school, waiting for a bus or just giving your eyes a rest during those study sessions.  Don't spend all your time making the recordings and when you listen, really listen - don't daydream!
  • Mnemonics - little "tricks" to help you remember things.  For example, in biology, "King Philip Came Over For Good Soup" is one way to remember the classification system of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and species. You can invent your own. For example, to remember numbers, you could associate each number with a letter A=1, B=2, C=3, etc.  Sometimes there are little rhymes to help you remember a date:  "In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."  Doctors often say that mnemonics were the only way to remember the hundreds of names of muscles, nerves and bones in anatomy class at medical school!

Whichever method you use, make sure that you stick to your list of what to study.  As you progress, check off what you have done and make sure you have planned enough hours to be able to study everything for that subject.  

To find out if your studying is productive and useful, test yourself.  Cover up words and dates and names and see if you know them without looking.  Use flashcards to see if you know the information without turning each one over.  Ask a friend or family member to give you a quiz.  Make it fun.  Keep score for yourself.  When you get tired and nothing makes sense, take a 10 minute break - have a glass of milk - open the window and get some fresh air.  Look at your favorite cartoon book and have a good laugh - then get back to the studying.  All the hard work will pay off and you'll feel better about yourself.  Exam week will be over soon and you'll be able to relax again!

Don't Stress Out!

Exam time is often thought of as stress time.  The definition of stress is asking your body to do things above and beyond its normal capacities.  Stress can be good - pushing you to perform better and increasing your abilities.  Like the muscles in your body, sometimes your brain has to hurt a little to grow and become more powerful.  But stress can be managed.  The best way to manage stress is to get organized (that's why I put it first in this section).  Prepare your time so that you don't run into endless hours of worry and panic.  Plan your weeks so that you know when you will be studying hard and when you will be rollerblading or going to the movies. Another way to reduce stress is to make sure that your body is operating at 100% potential:

  • Did you ever wonder why your parents made you eat your vegetables?  One reason is that they help reduce stress by helping your body to operate at optimum levels.  Take a look at the table below showing different ways of eating and of spending your time. 
      Tired / stressed-out / poor results Energetic / optimum performance
    Snacks junk food: potato chips, chocolate bars  real food:  bananas, apples, carrots
    Free Time Activities time wasters:  watching TV, surfing the web energy-boosters:  rollerblading, walking the dog, laughing with a friend
    Habits bad habits: smoking, alcohol, all-nighters (staying up all night) good habits:  reasonable sleep patterns,  read the newspaper, drink lots of water
  • It should be clear that if you want your brain to do its best, you have to treat it well.  Taking care of your body, too, means that the brain will focus better. 
  • Just as a mobile phone won't work unless you recharge the battery, you need to recharge your body by eating well, sleeping well and getting some exercise.  Stay away from the things that drain your batteries.
  • Screen time (time in front of a TV, a video game or Internet) is fine for a little while - helping you to escape and relax after a busy day.  After more than about half an hour, though, these activities numb you into a state of total breakdown of creativity and interaction.  You become a zombie drained of motivation and inspiration.   Turn it off, get up, go for a walk, get some air.  Get your blood flowing and wake up your brain.  (Well, finish reading this page, first, then get up).
  • Do you smoke?  Smoking introduces carbon monoxide into your blood.  This molecule takes the place of oxygen in your body.  As a result, your cells (including the ones which make your brain work) are literally gasping for air - they are suffocating.  Brain cells which are not getting enough oxygen cannot process information correctly.  Also, if all you can think about during the exam is when you are going to get out of there and be able to light up a cigarette, it is clear that your brain is wasting a lot of neurons on that thought rather than on thinking about the exam.  Personally, I never understood why people say "Cigarettes help me to relax," because the main active ingredient in them is nicotine, which is a stimulant, a type of drug which actually makes you more stressed-out and nervous.

Life is kind of like an exam.  Every day.  Those who have developed strong positive habits have rewarding, successful lives.  They never seem to run out of energy because they are constantly recharging their batteries.  And then there are those who always waited until the last minute to study.  They may still have those bad habits today in their adult lives - paying their bills after the deadlines - always running late - always stressed out.  Look around.  Do you know anyone in each of these categories?  Among your friends?  Your family?  Your teachers?  

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A.W. Damon 2011

clipart images & photo 2003 Micro Application. 
All rights reserved.  Used with permission.

Last modification: 2011-03-01