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Notes on: Acres, D.  (1991) How To Pass Exams Without Anxiety, 2nd edition.  Plymouth: How To Books Ltd

Dave Harris

There is constant advice requiring students to ask themselves questions such as 'why am I doing this?  Why am I looking at this book?'(11).  We can use Kipling's six questions: What?  Why?  When?  How?  Where?  Who?  to structure our notes or our mind maps.  [There is a clear instrumental intent already, with the main interest for students being how to manage knowledge.  As usual, we don't know what sort of students this is designed to help, unless study skills are assumed as being universal]. 

No doubt students will be asking themselves why they should read this book, and all sorts of supposed questions appear, together with answers.  For example 'Q: do the ideas work?.  A: yes.  Every one of the ideas…  has worked for some students somewhere…  I also use them…  and did so to write this book'.  However, you 'must pick and choose those ideas you feel would suit you and your needs.  Add them to any ways you [already] have' (13).  Other claims include '[this book is] very comprehensive.  It does not moralize...  It is clear and straightforward to use…  Uniquely it combines revision and examination techniques with ideas for coping with your whole lifestyle, including any anxiety you may feel' (13).  [There is also an admission that 'personal needs' lay behind the writing of this book as well, (14)].  Claimed experience leads on to seeing achievement as a sum of five factors: ability, determination, work rate, techniques, coping with your self as a person [presumably, none of the last four are any good if we don't have the first one?]

With revision, the advice is to set a clear and specific target and timescale, and to verify success with other people.  It is necessary to 'pick a task which is sufficiently demanding' and 'have a feeling of accomplishment' (21).  It boils down to getting a good idea of the task, setting priorities, and arranging the tasks according to 'interests understanding/knowledge, and ease/difficulty' (24) [All of which assumes you know how to learn effectively already]. You need to spot topics, think up your own questions, take group notes on the different topics, then reduce your notes to key words, swap them with others and discuss them.  We can reduce notes by using spider diagrams or patterned notes rather than linear ones [with a reference to the dreaded Buzan, 28].  You need to keep a diary to monitor your own progress, choose a mixture of topics to revise, choose the most effective place to revise, and above all, be honest with yourself.

We must be active in asking and setting our own questions and in motivating ourselves.  Motivation can be managed through behavioural techniques such as taking rests or breaks.  We must organize our time, producing a timetable for revision and a set of daily targets.  'A very important rule of thumb [is that] for every one unit of time…  you give to reading…you should spend at least the same amount of time on trying to recall what you have just read' (35) [no understanding required].  You must 'make the most ACTIVE use of a as many of your SENSES as possible' (38).  [Lots of pretty obvious points are then made -- keep file cards, use abbreviations, and do not use commercially produced prompt cards like the ones in the 'Key Facts' series [it's not clear why—a rival system?].

'The best way of remembering is to have a real understanding of a topic' (44) [so maybe I was a bit harsh before -- do these techniques help you do that though? ].  You need to associate ideas, verbally and visually.  You can use your eyes to assist recall [based on wacky Neuro - Linguistic Programming stuff]: 'visual eye movements are upward eye movements' so 'don't allow your eyes to drop down' (44). Use 'repetition'— mnemonics, rhymes, associations—practice and test your self.

When it comes to examinations, the basic advice is to stay healthy and to regulate your efforts, to simulate and practice.  Use comments and other feedback from teachers [but why don't students do this?].  [There is nearly some advice to selectively neglect, 55, but a note of caution is also sounded]. Getting lists of examiners' criteria is useful [but what follows is rather descriptive and uncritical, for example] use 'short simple sentences and a direct style of writing', avoid 'over elaborateness, over wordiness', and avoid the 'use of slang or spoken expressions'.  Try not to make the examiner feel 'bored by a candidate who has evidently put little effort into the exam' (56).  [It's rather like a flimsy and uncritical version of Bourdieu on academic style].

There is then a rather aristocratic moment, expressing the view that examinations are not always the key to happiness, and, at the same time, denying working class fatalism and a naive belief in techniques (57) [but this a whole book is about techniques!]. 

When it comes to taking the exam, we might borrow some ideas from Rowntree [the legendary SQR3—I don't think it is original to Rowntree].  We need to plan, review and question.  We need to underline the key words in the question, and some key words are defined, 64f—'outline, relate'.  There are some guidelines on style (66), very conventional ones including the need to write your answers with 'a beginning, a middle, and an end'.  You must also 'try not to start your final paragraphs with 'Finally…', or 'In conclusion…' These are 'boring, repetitive, and tend to cause examiners to yawn' (67).  Finally, you need to manage your time, read the instructions, and write legibly.

You also need to cope with anxiety.  Arousal is good, but excessive anxiety is bad.  You might consider practicing techniques of breathing, muscular relaxation, or visualization (72).  You want to learn, practice rehearse, and 'develop a balanced lifestyle', and 'stop thoughts that worry you' (73).  You need to rationalize your anxieties, think what the causes of them might be and then be positive: 'set a goal…  Determine an approach…  Have a plan of action' (76).  You can visualise stressful situations, so that when you feel like tensing up, you can stop and relax.  There is a checklist to reduce anxiety on 79—you need to avoid thinking about the past or future, focus on a practical action in the present.  Constantly command yourself to stop being negative.  Be positive about examinations as a chance to do well (85).  Note your reactions to places or times.  Practice yoga.  Relax before exams.  Don't get there too early.  Get proper sleep and 'enjoy the close company of others' (90).  'Seek out those people to whom you can talk with confidence…  Take this book along.  Use it together' (91).

You can increase your relaxation by developing the right sleeping postures.  There are also techniques to use in emergencies to produce quick relaxation, based on Madders.  Yoga breathing is one example (94).  You can tense your muscles and then relax them (97).  You can use a relaxation programme, outlined on 98 F.

It is important to visualize success (102 F).  You can join a self help group. You can learn to ask polite questions.  Then there is a final list of tips, such as the need to 'constructively support each other…  cooperate…  make group decisions binding on each member of the group'[unpleasant and risky?].  Use this book (107).  Listen and summarize.  Work in groups to explain and discuss.  Brainstorm and do presentations to each other.

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