Education & Science Seeking Knowledge

10 steps to Ace your Exams: First things first – keep it simple, make stories and share them!

By Abid Mohammed

10 Steps to Ace Your Exams: Part I | Part II | Part III is the third in a series of articles entitled “10 steps to Ace your Exams”, in which I hope to extract gems from traditional Islamic sources which are of benefit to students struggling to revise for their exams.

  1. First things first

Allah said in a hadith qudsi (divine narration through the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him): “…My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more beloved to Me than the religious duties that I have made obligatory upon him; and My servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory work such that I love him…” (Sahih Bukhari)

There is a difference between acing our exams and becoming an expert in the subjects that we will be tested on. The former can be achieved in a relatively short time period and involves identifying what topics we are expected to know for our exams, to what degree we need to know them and which questions have come up in previous exams. As for the latter, we can spend the rest of our lives trying to become “experts” in our respective fields. Unfortunately, many students, in their quest to “aim high”, fail to distinguish between the two. They try to understand absolutely everything about, for example, neurology, when they are not even going to be tested on much neurology in their exams.

Putting first things first is a law that Allah (subhanahu wa ta`ala – exalted is He) has instituted for those wishing to draw near to Him, and just as it is applicable to praying your obligatory prayers before performing any supererogatory works, it also applies to our revision. Let us therefore strive to pinpoint exactly what we need to know for our exams and not expose ourselves to the inevitable onslaught of despair and procrastination that comes from shouldering information that we do not need to bear.

  1. Keep it simple, silly

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Islam is based on five principles: to testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger, to offer the prayers dutifully and perfectly, to pay zakat (obligatory charity), to perform Hajj (pilgrimage) and to observe the fast during the month of Ramadan.” (Sahih Bukhari)

It’s difficult to remember a thousand different facts with no apparent relation to one another, so let’s try to make life simple for ourselves. Are there any core messages that we can identify in our revision? If there are – and I guarantee there are – then it makes things easier for us. These core messages provide the foundation for further details to be added, just as the five pillars provide the foundation upon which our faith can be established. For example, as medical students, we are taught to simply list all the possible diagnoses for a particular patient using the “surgical sieve”: the cause can either be congenital or acquired; if it is acquired, it can either be vascular, infective, autoimmune, metabolic, inflammatory, neurological, neoplastic or degenerative in nature. Once we’ve started considering the relevant causes, only then can we start to explore specific diseases and their subtypes, eventually reaching a diagnosis. Of course, we could just jump to a diagnosis straight away, but for beginners at least, this is very difficult to do and it could potentially result in overlooking other possible causes.

  1. Story time

“There was certainly in their stories a lesson for those of understanding…” (Qur’an 12:111)

How do you ensure that you are internalising what you revise? How do you turn your revision from a passive colouring-in-a-book activity to an interactive experience? How do you prevent your mind from forgetting everything you have revised in the actual exam itself, let alone months or years afterwards? Turn your list of facts or theories to remember into stories.

Stories are one of the best ways for us to understand, remember and, as a result, convey a message – for life. In fact, they are also an incredibly effective way to act upon what we have learnt, as they serve as verbal simulators – translating what may be abstract concepts into practical examples to be followed. For this, and many other reasons, stories are one of the communication media of choice in the Qur’an. Therein, Allah (swt) has perfected the art of storytelling, thereby providing us all with the best example to follow when dealing with messages, in any shape or form.

It doesn’t matter what topic we are revising, from anatomy to economics – if we do steps 4 and 5 properly, we can easily turn our revision into a boredom-free, procrastination-free, interactive story telling process and pass our exams with flying colours, inshaAllah (God willing)!

  1. Sharing is caring:

The Prophet ﷺ said: “Convey from me, even if one ayah (verse), for it may be that the one being informed will comprehend better than the one listening (at present).” (Sahih Bukhari)

If we did step 6, then 7 is the next natural step. If stories are an awesome way to convey a message, then it doesn’t make sense to create a story and not share it. By sharing our stories, and our knowledge in general, with others, we are not only following the Prophet’s ﷺ command, but we are following in the footsteps of Allah (swt). Out of His Mercy, He “shared” knowledge with us (though in reality, all knowledge belongs to Him) – the Qur’an being a perfect example of this. Again, we find that by heeding Allah’s (swt) instructions, He takes care of us by instilling in us habits which enhance our learning.

As the hadith (narration of the Prophet ﷺ) above alludes to, sharing knowledge is not only the best way to test whether we have truly understand what we have learnt, but it also encourages others to share information with us. Thus, we are able to learn and gain new insights from others, even if they are just asking us questions. Those of us who fear that our own grades will suffer even by spending the slightest amount of time helping others should renew our intentions, and remind ourselves that “to Allah will be the outcome of [all] matters” (Qur’an 31:22). Results only come from Allah (swt), not from our own efforts. Let us therefore direct ourselves towards Him and follow His commandments, and start sharing what we have learnt with others, even if it is just one fact.

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  • Jazak Allahu khayran for the excellent series….the tips presented are not only valuable for excelling in our exams, but offer gems for excelling in life as well.

    Keeping that in mind, I somewhat disagree with point one, which recommends we narrow our focus primarily to what will be on the exam. I understand the rationale that we can get lost in details that won’t be tested or won’t even need.

    However, the point of learning is ultimately to learn, not to pass exams. A too stringent focus primarily on exam prep may prevent one from actually learning and internalizing the material.

    I grew up with this mentality…I was able to ace exams in childhood but as an adult I found that I remember little of what I learned…I am taking some courses again as an adult and its like I am taking them for the first time…and I am also enjoying them much more…and insha Allah benefiting much more as well.

    • I actually agree with you Spirituality – ideally, we would all master and understand our chosen subjects, instead of knowing how to pass their respective tests.

      That being said, I believe the initial point remains valid. If you revise 1 year before your exam, you might have enough time to master your subject. But, as is the case with most individuals, your time is limited – you really should focus on what you’ll be tested on, as opposed to trying to be an expert. If you do well in your exam, you will always have time to revisit certain topics and better understand them.

      Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many brothers and sisters try master a subject within 3 months and end up not covering what they need to, but rather what interests them! At the end of the day, the exam is set by the examiner! Not ourselves.

      We need to learn to separate exam revision from general learning.

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