Preparing for online assessment

In this post, the Learning Development team, who run the Academic Success Centre and Study+ on Canvas, offer advice on preparing for assessments which have been moved online. We cover pre-exam preparation, planning for the assessment period and what to do during the exams itself, as well as who you can speak to if you’d like to talk to someone about preparing for assessments.  

Pre-exam preparation

Even though the format of your assessment will have changed, it’s still important that you prepare for the exam period in the usual way. Aim to revise the course content well in advance, so that you can go into exams feeling confident that you know what material might come up. Even if you are not doing time-constrained exams, and may be allowed to consult resources during the assessment window itself, you won’t have enough time to learn new information, apply it, and write a convincing assessment answer within the exam period itself. Make sure you revise as fully for these exams as you would for any others.

Most people find it helpful to prepare a revision plan some weeks before the exams themselves. Make sure you know what topics each exam might cover, and then think about how confident you feel about each topic, and how much time you have available to revise each one. Create a schedule for each week in which you plan which topics you’re going to study and when – doing so now can help manage anxiety around how much content you need to cover, as you break it down into manageable chunks. This resource from the University of Liverpool has lots of advice on preparing for online assessment, and in particular the section on creating a study plan may be useful to you at this point.

When creating a revision schedule, always remember to schedule ‘downtime’, including exercise, self-care and family/ social time. These are all vital for staying healthy during the exam period. Try not to block out every hour and day in your calendar with planned revision activities, but instead leave some free space each week to catch up on things you haven’t finished, reflect on what’s worked well, and ‘re-revise’ any topics that have proved more difficult than expected.

During the assessment period

It’s worth taking some time to think through your schedule during the assessment period itself, particularly if it’s going to be unlike any assessments you’ve done before.

You will have at least a 24-hour window during which to choose when to take your assessment. This is to accommodate the varying time zones, technological resources, and home-study set ups of all the students on your course. Depending on the format of your exam, it may be that you choose your start time within the 24-hour window and then have a fixed period (e.g. 2.5hours) immediately following this start time in which to complete your work. For other types of assessment, you may be able to read the questions at the start of the 24-hour window and then be free to work on them at any time during the window, provided your answers are submitted on time. However, this doesn’t mean you should spend 24 hours doing the work! For long answer or essay-style questions your programme team will give you a word count to indicate how much detail they expect in your answers, which will help you figure out how long to spend on them. This shouldn’t be significantly longer than you would spend in a more conventional exam, and certainly shouldn’t take longer than a normal working day.

Try thinking through the following questions in order to feel prepared for the assessment period:

  • When in the window will you access the assessment? Is there a time of day when you work best, and/ or when your home life is most conducive to unbroken concentration?
  • What exactly are you being asked to do in the exam? Check that you’re fully aware of the instructions (i.e. how long you have to submit your response, and how long it should be) in advance.
  • How does the online system work? You should be given the opportunity to do a ‘practice run’, possibly completing a general knowledge quiz or similar, before the assessment itself. Ask your programme team if you have any doubts about this process.
  • Who will you contact if you have any difficulties during the assessment period? Have the contact details for IT support on hand, as well as your programme team.
  • What can you be doing to make sure you’re in the best possible frame of mind when you complete the exam? Think about how you’ll plan your day to make sure you’ve eaten well, rested well, and feel physically fit to concentrate.

During the exam

During the exam, be ready to apply the usual time management strategies and exam techniques you would in an in-person exam. For example, know how many questions you need to answer, how many marks are available for each, and how you plan to divide up your time to ensure you don’t spend too long on any one section. If there are different sections covering different topics, will you prefer to start on those you’re most confident on, to build momentum, or those which are trickiest, and may be freshest in your mind from last-minute revision? Do you have time to read through all of the questions before you start answering, or will you be up against the clock, and needing to keep a very strict eye on time?

If you’re not sure of an answer, or if you have a choice of questions and don’t know which one to go with, you may find it useful to jot down some ideas next to each question to help you decide. Be careful with how long you spend on this, but do allow yourself some time to plan answers as this will save you from waffling and mean more efficient use of your time overall.

If you are doing any work outside of the main submission portal (e.g. in a Microsoft Word document) remember to save this regularly or make sure auto-save is turned on. Alternatively, have some note paper next to your device so that you can jot thoughts down separately from the assessment itself.

Try to leave at least 10% of the exam time free at the end, for you to review your answers. This is important for proofreading of long answers, and checking you’ve followed all the correct procedures for shorter questions, i.e. that you haven’t missed out any questions or ticked any wrong boxes along the way. This is where you can get easy marks from rectifying simple mistakes, so it’s definitely worth saving time for!

If you’d like to speak to somebody outside of your programme about preparing for assessment, one-to-one appointments with the learning development team are available via Microsoft Teams. Click here to book, or visit Study+ on Canvas for more information.

Ten tips for adjusting to remote learning

In this post, the Learning Development team, who run the Academic Success Centre and Study+ on Canvas, offer advice on adjusting to remote learning and continuing to engage with your course in the era of social distancing.

The last five weeks have seen unprecedented changes to life as we know it, with inevitable disruption to your studies and daily routine. Teaching, learning and assessment are now continuing remotely, and as we all shift to this new way of working, it is necessary to reflect on and adapt our study practices to fit with the new environment.

This post is adapted from the Study+ resource on Tips for Distance Learning. Log into Canvas for more information, or contact Rosie MacLachlan at rmaclach@sgul.ac.uk with any queries

1. Get organised, within reason 

It’s easy to think that, with restrictions on socialising and being outdoors, we’ll now all have lots of extra time on our hands and you’ll find it easy to smash through all your work. Maybe you will, but don’t fall into the trap of expecting too much of yourself and then getting demoralised and demotivated if you can’t meet unreasonable expectations. Be gentle with yourself, and acknowledge the impact anxiety and disruption can have on your work rate. Now more than, ever it is important to get organised, prioritise tasks, and ensure a healthy approach to study.

2. Plan your days 

It’s difficult when working from home but try to emulate your daily routine from before the lockdown. Treat studying as you would a job, getting up and going to sleep at your usual time on weekdays. It may be tempting to study in your pajamas, but getting washed and dressed every day will help you feel more engaged and connected to reality. In terms of what to study and when, it is important to break tasks up into manageable chunks, and set yourself achievable tasks for each (short) study session.  See the Study+ page on Organisation and Time Management for help with this. 

3. Find a dedicated study space

As far as possible, try to set up a dedicated study space in your home, and use that space only when you’re studying. This will help get you into professional mode, and create a separation between your home and study life. If this isn’t possible for you, can you follow a schedule where a space (e.g. the kitchen table) is used only for study between certain hours of the day, after which you’ll put your materials away and return the space to its usual purpose?

If you’re asked to attend an online seminar, try to do so from a private space without those you live with passing through. Try too to work from a table and chair as much as possible rather than a sofa or your bed – following the usual habits of professional life will help you engage better in these unusual circumstances, and help to prevent stiffness and backache.

Photo of person studying at a desk.
Find a dedicated study space

4. Don’t try to study through your mobile!

As more of your learning moves online, it will be important to ensure you have access to the best computer set up you can manage. A good internet connection and up-to-date computer/laptop/ tablet are essential – speak to St George’s Learning Technology Services (LTS@sgul.ac.uk) if you have any concerns about this. Although it may be tempting to access Canvas etc. through your phone, such a small device is not conducive to good learning or healthy posture, so please try to avoid this. If possible, it’s also worth investing in a USB headphones and microphone set, as these make the online experience more immersive, removing distractions and thereby improving concentration.

5. Take regular breaks

Most people can’t concentrate on one task uninterruptedly for more than about half an hour. Don’t expect yourself to be able to work non-stop from 9 to 5, it’s important to take regular breaks. The Pomodoro Technique utilises principles from educational psychology to recommend concentrated study period of 25 minutes at a time, followed by a 5 minute break, with a longer break every two hours. See if this works for you – we’ve found it really helpful, particularly when struggling to get started. It’s easier to tell yourself you’re going to read a textbook for a 25-minute-stint than to sit down thinking you’ll get through the whole thing before you stand up again.

6. Aim for variety

You may find that the majority of your learning will necessarily be coming through your computer. However, staring into a screen all day every day isn’t good for anyone, and is unlikely to promote effective retention of information. Aim every day for some variety in what you’re physically doing. If you’re watching lectures or reading online, can you break this up with times of physically making notes on paper, or talking through your learning with somebody else? Many people find it easiest to synthesise their learning in a visual form, creating a mindmap or diagram of large concepts. See the ‘After’ section of our Learning From Lectures resource for examples of visual notes you could produce on scrap paper. If you haven’t already, it’s also worth reading through the Effective Study and Revision page, for ideas on how to be ‘active’ in your independent study.

Blank example of a mindmap
Try to do a mind map to consolidate your learning.

7. Talk to whoever’s around you

Learning is an inherently social activity. We learn most effectively when we’re discussing ideas with other people, asking and answering questions, and confirming understanding through debate. If there’s somebody at home who can help you with your study, ask if you can talk things through with them (they don’t need to have any prior understanding of what you’re studying) for five minutes at a time. If you can explain something clearly to somebody with no prior knowledge, that’s a sign you’ve fully understood it yourself.

8. Stay connected to your classmates

Try to stay engaged with peers on your course. It can be really helpful to impose some ‘accountability’ on yourself through agreeing targets or deadlines with peers, and then checking in regularly. For example, you could text a friend to tell them what you’re planning to study on a particular morning, and then video chat with them at lunchtime to compare notes on how the morning went (as well as having some important social downtime) – all the better if they’re working on the same topic as you. You might like to think about setting up a study group using one of the many options for online videoconferencing or chat software. Everyone should be able to access Microsoft Teams through their St George’s email address, or you could use your existing social media channels. Within any new group, it’s useful to discuss the purpose for meeting – what are your priorities and aims, and does everyone agree on these? Set small targets for each session, rather than a vague ambition to ‘do’ a whole topic. 

Stay connected

9. Be active when you study

In a face-to-face lecture, there is a time pressure for the lecturer to convey as much content as possible in only 50 minutes. When studying remotely, this time pressure doesn’t need to apply. Just as when reading an academic paper, it’s useful to pause and reflect on what you’ve read at regular intervals. When following a lecture on Panopto, aim to stop it every 10 minutes or so to ask yourself what you’ve understood from it. This is more productive than aiming to take notes as you listen, and encourages more genuine engagement. Try watching short blocks of the video, and then intersperse this with something more active: writing a summary paragraph or series of bullet points on what you’ve just learnt. Better still, write questions about what you’re still curious on – taking ownership and determining your priorities, rather than passively receiving information. If you’re using this approach, you may find there’s no need to take lecture notes at the same time as listening. Although it may take longer to keep pausing the video, you can be more confident that you’re retaining the information if you’re actively engaged with it. 

10. And finally… we’re still here for you!

While the university campus may be shut down, remember that most of your learning resources, and particularly St George’s Library, are available via remote access. You can use Hunter to access thousands of learning resources from home, or contact the library for one-to-one support from a Liaison Librarian. The Academic Success Centre, which provides one-to-one advice on study strategies, has moved to remote appointments. Click here if you’d like to book one of these. 

There is still lots of support available.