Revision Tips: Humanities and Social Sciences
On this page you will find suggestions made by St Hilda's tutors. Return to the general Revision Tips page.
I do stress the importance of shaking off the tutorial essays and tutorial topics at this stage, breaking everything down into component parts (i.e. bits of evidence, passages of set text, individual points and ideas), with a view to building up fresh arguments in response to the actual questions asked on the paper. The worst questions to answer are the ones that look most reassuringly like ones they've done tutorials on - it's never the same question again, but, instead of concentrating on answering the new angle there on the paper, they're diverted by half-remembering old work - never goes well.
Having readily usable material in your head, but answering a question which isn’t just like the tutorial topic, can produce better answers because it demands fresh thought in the exam room. I do also make something of showing both breadth and depth in essays - wide vista alluded to (fine to do this in brackets and very briefly) but also a few times in each essay the need to drill deeper, take a case study etc, to show the rich texture that can be achieved.
More generally, I always tell them to read the entire paper before starting to write - particularly important on papers with many elements (e.g. 3 commentaries and 3 essays) where it's important to have a strategy for how to avoid overlap, show oneself off to best advantage across the whole paper; but also important because then the brain has already got going on the later questions so that one arrives at them pre-warmed-up at a time in the exam when tiredness is beginning to set in. 5 mins reading benefits the whole paper massively (as of course does 5-10 mins planning before starting each essay).
For Classics, although I imagine it would hold true for several other humanities subjects too, the best use of revision time is to go over set texts thoroughly rather than focus too much on old essays, which can lead to stale regurgitation rather than thinking about things in a fresh way in the exams.
For the exam itself, mine is the most obvious tip in the world, yet somehow still often needs repeating: in the exams, read the paper carefully and answer the actual question, not something that just relates to the topic of the question!
Revision: reading articles and books, and writing practice essays, is worth far more than rereading your lecture notes endless times. Collaborating with your peers is invaluable - even if doing different papers they are historians and can evaluate and challenge your argument.
Exam history essays need a clear, consistent, strong argument throughout: as if you're a barrister. And read William Zinsser, On Writing Well. For Finals, remember examiners are assessing your paper as a whole, not just individual essays, so have an overall view of the period and how social, political, economic and cultural developments fit together (constructing timelines while revising can help).
I acknowledge that Oxford examines individually and encourages independent (not group) study per se, but I endorse finding a suitable study buddy. The operative word here is suitable. I encourage my students to look beyond the college and obvious friends for someone who can provide mutual support and structure to a revision schedule. Someone who keeps to a schedule and forces you to keep to it as well. Someone who will help you reflect on what you are learning/revising because you may have to explain concepts to that person and they will reciprocate. It is my view that a committed study buddy can facilitate better outcomes and reduce stress. I structure my group revision in a way that encourages these relationships to happen naturally.
Do not assume that just because you revised a topic that you will utilise the material in the exam. Always have a back-up strategy and always read all the questions available to you before you start writing. Be flexible and choose the best questions in an exam, they may or may not be the ones you thought you would answer.
Know your papers: get hold of the past three years' papers for each paper you are sitting, and study them for any rubric restrictions, the format of the paper, the patterns of questions (check any 'conventions' posted online, so that you are aware of any expectations not explicitly stated in the rubric on the paper itself)
On the basis of this study, make a strategic selection of topics which you will prepare for each paper; having a smaller number of topics allows you to go deeper into them.
When preparing your topics, don't rely only on material from when you did these topics in tutorial; do some extra work to expand your comprehension of the issues and because new material will be fresher in your mind when it comes to the exams.
To keep the preparation for each paper within limits, make out a reasonable timetable of preparation for each paper, and try to stick to it; this will probably involve thinking of some short cuts with some material (e.g. instead of re-reading an entire book, focus on excerpts, e.g. writing a commentary on a selected passage or two in order to focus on the detail).
Create a form which enables you to keep your prepared topics for each paper in bundles relevant to the paper (e.g. putting all the notes for each paper in one specific place), and try boiling down all the information you have for each paper into a brief set of 'mnemonics' - for example a single page of memory prompts which you can check over immediately before the relevant exam.
It is important to get as much practice as you can in writing answers of the length and duration expected in the actual exam - e.g. for a three-answer, three-hour exam, practice writing 50-minute answers (3 x 50 mins writing time will give you 30 mins for selecting your questions, drafting answers, thinking); get the 'feel' for what you can do in 50 mins, and practice getting a 'shape' for your answers which you can fill with different material, depending on the specific exam; get your tutors to look over your practice answers with you and discuss which are the best and why; then continue honing the technique.
Practice writing dense, informative, well-structured answers which respond directly to the question asked; get yourself accustomed to discerning whether a question needs qualification or 'unpacking' before you can write a clear answer to it - i.e. define the terms of your answer to a question first, before you write the main body of your answer.
Everyone gets nervous preparing for Finals and sometimes the nerves can be overwhelming; if this happens, take some time out; go for walks, maybe even go out for the day, go shopping in London, go and see friends who are not studying in Oxford - i.e. get 'normal' for a space of time; it'll freshen you for when you return (and give the head time to work out the relation between bits of information you've been revising; the mind is miraculous in the way it carries on working at problems you've been thinking about even when you are not concentrating for a period of time).
It is possible to divide yourself into a person who is suffering from nerves and a person who is calmly observing what is happening; keep the sense of that calm observer and use it to maintain focus on your strategy for the exams.
Once in the exam period, keep looking forward; if an exam goes badly (there are always some that feel as though they do or even actually do!), don't spend time worrying about it; it's all water under the bridge; focus on the task ahead, not on the one you've ticked off the list.
If there is a problem with an exam paper (a mistake in a question, for example), report it immediately to the Academic Office when you come out of the exam.
When it's all over, enjoy a long bath; it'll be the best bath of your life.
In philosophy the biggest point loser is not answering THE QUESTION. Questions are specifically designed to be from a certain angle. The point is not just to regurgitate old essay answers. The student should take time to think through what specifically is it that is being asked about a certain topic. And they should look out for any important or interesting words used in the question.
Students needn't be in a position to answer more than the needed number of questions. The rest are there to ensure that different modes of teaching are covered. So no individual student should feel that they ought to be able to answer all or even most of the questions on the paper.
Finally, don't avoid questions because you "know too much". Sometimes students tell me that they avoided questions where they had too much material and went for something a little different. Big mistake. What is important is having plenty of relevant material at hand, and knowing how to hone what you know to the specific question.