Please take a moment to digest this excellent article by my brother Mohd Nadzrin Wahab of Malaysia - JD
When I was a silat instructor, several matriculation students asked me what tips I had to help them study. I decided to give them what worked well for me.
Tip No. 1. Know and adapt to your lecturer's expectations
When I took Introduction to Anthropology, no one in IIUM history had achieved an 'A' in that particular course. This was because Dr. Aris Othman was considered an eccentric and 'killer' lecturer.
However, I took note of something he said very early on in his lectures. He said, "Follow my instructions to the letter". I was scared spitless of the man, so, throughout the semester, I made it a habit to do as he said.
He asked for a five page assignment based on a statistical survey of our choice with questions of our own choosing to be submitted on the 25th of October 1997. I, of course, forgot. On the 24th of October, I realised that I was going to be screwed (you know the sudden heart drop feeling), so at about 11pm, I quickly typed up a smoking survey, printed out 50 copies and ran around my dorm forcing friends to answer them.
At about 12am, I ran back to my computer and began drafting my assumptions based on the results. The information was so scant, and I knew Dr Aris would know if I made something up, so I decided to reach for just the 5 pages he asked for. I filled all five pages by 5am, with an extra page for the bibliography, waited until 8am for the stationery shop to open, got it bound and ran to his office, hoping he hadn't arrived.
I panicked because I couldn't push it under his door. His office floor was full of assignments. Suddenly, he turned around the corner, and I, white as a ghost, handed it to him and ran in the opposite direction.
A week later, it was time for the moment of truth. People started getting their assignments back. Almost the whole class got a zero. I got 29/30. I could feel the girls burn a hole in the back of my head with their stares. How the hell did the laziest guy in the class get 29/30? I remember Dr Aris' words to this day:
"I asked for 5 pages. All of you gave me 6, 7, you sisters gave 15 pages, with pictures of bunnies and smelling of perfume. I asked you to submit it on the 25th, but no, you gave it to me days before. I only accepted those I found on that morning. You want to know how to do it right," he suddenly pointed at me, "ask him".
I became very unpopular that semester.
Another time, he said, "I want to see, everything I tell you, come back to me in the exam. If I don't get it, I won't like it. Keep it short and straight to the point".
Something in me said, "Keep to the line, man!" So, I did. For the mid terms and finals, for every question on the exam paper, I repeated his exact words verbatim from class (it helped to have an auditory memory and fast writing skills). Each answer came up to 3 paragraphs and took up half a page.
My classmates hated me anyway, so after 30 minutes into each exam, I left the exam halls.
It paid off. I was the first person in the Anthropology Dept's history to get an 'A' for the most 'killer' introductory course.
I repeated this process for Dr Mumtaz Ali Jaafar's course (Islamic Aqidah) and Dr Susan Zaharah Ardis Keeney's course (Inter Cultural Communication).
Dr Mumtaz preferred a clean exam answer sheet with a skipped line between the writing and Dr Susan wanted critical thinking (so instead of answering her exam questions, I criticised the validity of her question, deconstructed it, proposed a more valid question and answered my own question). I got A's for both of those courses.
Understanding requirements and expectations is an important part of managing and fulfilling them, with your family members, your clients, your colleagues and even your participants. Knowledge is power, and knowing wins half the battle.
Tip No 2: Never backbite the fountainhead of your knowledge
This second tip was controversial, because I managed to make myself very unpopular with the girls when I shared it.
A sister asked me, "How is it possible that while we girls come to class early, take notes, discuss with our lecturer, while you guys saunter in late, tak mandi, fall asleep in class and still manage to get high grades like us?"
It was a strange phenomenon in IIUM, that the scruffiest guys in class could also be the smartest.
I gave my opinion to them, and whatever husband potential I had in their eyes went flying out the window.
"The only reason we get by, is because, we never talk about our lecturers the way you do."
(FYI, I was an introverted nerd for most of my life and stood in the background. I grew up observing people and eavesdropping on conversations).
"Every time you girls start talking about a lecturer you don't like, you go all the way, making fun of him or her, their dress sense, calling them names and make enough ketupat (menganyam ketupat= mengumpat) to last several Hari Rayas [you can tell this was translated from Melayu]."
"You take knowledge from them, but you disparage the fountainhead it comes from. I don't think Allah likes that".
Tip No 3. Take courses that share a similar level, theme or resources
This third tip has more to do with course selection than anything else. It needs a bit of research and asking around, but the effort is totally worth it.
In my first semester at the IIUM Main Campus, I noticed that all the introductory courses had a common thread in them, in that they were all first level Human Sciences syllabi.
As such, the themes that were discussed were similar. It was at this level that the essence of individuality, relationship, society, interactions and power are discussed.
Although the word "society" is defined differently in Communication, Political Science, Anthropology, Sociology and History, taking all of these courses at the same time gave me an appreciation and focus of the same theme.
Therefore, the books I borrowed from the library actually cross-referenced each other nicely, and instead of thinking of the courses as separate subjects, I felt like I was studying only one subject.
As a result, in the exams, I actually used the same example to illustrate the same concept of society in my Intros to Political Science, Communication and Anthropology papers, but modified to suit the perspectives of each field.
An analogy for this would be referencing the same Quranic ayat or Hadith for different Islamic studies exam papers, or the same precedent for different Law papers, or even debriefing the Traffic Jam activity for different learning programs.
That first semester was my benchmark and I carefully selected my courses in every semester to find complementary themes and resources, so I won't have to study too many different topics. I had an advertising/marketing semester, and a creative writing/journalism semester and even a law semester where I took as many law electives as possible.
(I failed badly in that one. I can never understand law. Law students must be crazy peoples, I thought)
Tip No 4: Use visualisation, audio memory and muscle memory for facts
Long before I learned about VAKOG (Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, Olfactory, Gastro), I had already been practicing some basic methods surrounding it. When I was in Form 4, Lawrence Walter Ng came to my school to promote his Art of Learning methodology. During his short talk, he introduced us to visualisation.
He hypnotised everyone in the hall to imagine seeing a can of Coca Cola that he 'held' in his hand. I was impressed, because when he took his hand away, the can was still there, hanging in the air. I never did go and learn from him, but I used that method successfully in my SPMs.
I 'copied' the Van Der Walls device, the human digestion system, the map of ancient Melayu civilisations and many more diagrams in front of me. It was so vivid that to this day, when I look to the top left corner, the Van Der Walls is still there, the digestive system with all its labels and enzymes are on my top right and the map is behind me (I can visually pull it from the back like a cloak). Others, I've managed to delete, but I decided to keep these for future reference.
For facts that are difficult to diagram, I used audio memory by repeating it to myself and sitting quietly during group discussions and debates. I discovered this technique while watching a comedy where Joey Lawrence played an idiot who tried to cheat on his exam, so he wrote hundreds of cheat sheets to sneak in to the exam hall. In the end, he never used them because, "I wrote it down so many times, that I actually wrote it all in my head!" to which his brother quipped "That's called remembering, Joey".
I was never the smart kid, but I sat next to the smart kids during lunch, when they were studying in the dorms or in class. That way, I eavesdropped and stole many a tip and repetition.
Once, a totally unintended fluke, during an Arabic group study session, I actually fell asleep while they continued discussing. Everything they discussed was 'recorded' in my brain and I could actually summon the whole discussion and replay parts of it during the exam, even when I didn't understand what I was writing
When I was studying silat, I was introduced to the concept of muscle memory which implies that with enough repetition, the nerves, independent of the brain, can groove a neural path that creates a second nature reflex. I found that when I paired up my physical movements with the visual and audio techniques, I could easily access any data I memorised.
So, not only did I memorise the Van Der Walls, I could also play with it. I could dissect the organs of the human anatomy (once, I even crushed the model's heart and it died :P) and I could rotate the map of the peninsula and zoom in to each kerajaan (long before Google Earth). When I saw Minority Report with Tom Cruise, I rolled over laughing, because that's exactly how my friends saw me doing it in exam halls (and thinking I was crazy).
I relearned this technique while in Accenture, when Mahan Khalsa of FranklinCovey, who called it the holographic method said: "If you can see yourself do it and hear yourself say it, your brain takes these three inputs and records it as a hologram in 4 dimensions in your brain".
So, why did I get A's in some subjects and none in others even when the techniques were so powerful? Simple answer. I was malas, and only had passion for the subjects I was interested in.
Tip No 5: Hype yourself up for the battle
My roommate Zulfadhli Hamzah, was the son of a retired army major and conducted his life with a regime. He would shine his shoes once a week (you could see your face in them), ensure there were iron lines in his shirts and pants.
But during exam time, he ramped it up. He woke up earlier, put on a solemn face, ironed his shirts and pants for the day and shined his shoes, every single day. He would stand at our room door, take a deep breath, and literally march out to the exam hall.
I asked him why, and he said, he was preparing for war. And a good soldier is ready for anything. He was a good scorer. When I look at my other friends who just serabai-ed their way to their exams, I decided to follow Zul's example. I was going to find my war preparation.
So, I experimented for a couple of semesters, and found my formula that worked to strengthen my spirit, reduce my stress and prepare me for battle. This is what I use, so determine what's best for you.
A. Solat hajat 2 rakaat with as much servanthood as possible, as if it was my last solat on Earth. My friends noted it took me almost 30 minutes to complete it, but I never noticed the time. All I felt, was a surging of my spirit.
B. A theme song to walk out and strut my way to the exam with. In the beginning, I experimented with playing Bonnie Tyler's "I Need A Hero", then "Eye of The Tiger" and halfway through singing the song, I'd walk out of the room still singing it. Finally, I settled on the Imperial March Theme from the throneroom final scene in Star Wars: A New Hope. I'd still hum it throughout the day. Later, I actually brought my Walkman along, and the song accompanied me all the way to the exam hall. My heart was beating with purpose and I had a determined look on my face. People thought I was crazy. But I had a theme song and I strutted!
C. At the exam hall, I stayed away from the other kids, because most were sitting outside doing last minute studying and that would always screw with my confidence: "Hah? Itu masuk exam ke? Eh, ada ke belajar benda ni? Kenapa aku tak ingat?". So, I just hung out far away with my Walkman playing with my VAK 'friends'.
Tip No 6: Promote and Prevent with Chemicals
Yeah, take this tip with a pinch of salt and always keep updated on scientific studies (and I don't mean watching the Discovery Channel). It all started while in school, I read in The Star that bananas are effective destressers, especially for exams because it helps manage the fight-or-flight mechanism from blocking your brain functions.
So, I'd always bring a banana to the hall and eat it while the other kids were busy reading. I might have sent some wrong messages along the way. Anyway, it was very effective and I have never felt anxiety in an exam ever since, except when I really didn't study for it.
Another thing I discovered about my physiology is that I fall asleep when I drink coffee and I stay up, hyper with ideas and imagination when I drink tea after 8.30pm (yes, I made recorded observations. So, I'm weird. Sue me).
So, I took to drinking teh tarik which would keep me up until 3am or ice tea until 6am to study (tidur the next day :P) I haven't had to use this tea thing since university as I've found mental switches to achieve the same effect. Still eat bananas though.
Again, read as much as you can about food and drinks that can help with your studying. Now, there's a ton of research and new products that aid memory and stuff, so I'd say students now are better off than 10 years ago. Just be careful. That's all.
Tip No 7: Make peace with the people you love and who love you
When I was studying silat, a friend of mine kept finding it difficult to perform a particular technique properly. Even after weeks of training, he just couldn't get it right. The instructor went up to him, and asked him a few questions and then my friend ran off for about 20 minutes. After he rejoined training, suddenly, he could got the technique perfectly.
I asked him what had happened. He said the instructor discovered that the last time he met his mother, he had forgotten to salam her as he was late for class. The instructor told him to give his mother a call (from a public phone) and ask her for her forgiveness and blessings for his studies.
Lo and behold, all was well, and he gained a greater respect for his relationships since then.
So, an exam is just another challenge in your life, and the people who want the most to see you succeed in life are your teachers, your mother and your father. Nurture, preserve and protect these relationships and you'll find life becomes easier in many ways.