How to apply knowledge in VCE exams or SACs

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One of the most annoying problems within VCE is that students do not know how to apply their skills during exam conditions. Often the student will do every single exercising their textbook, yet find themselves struggling during an exam or SAC. Why does this happen? And what can you do as a student or teacher to prevent this from happening?

Exercises in books do not prepare you for the exam

Exercising textbooks often simply teach you the very basic foundations of skills that you need to know for your test or exam. These are often simply robotic exercises that do not necessarily require any critical thinking. Usually the exercise is explained with many examples – and the student understands what formula or concept they are developing in the exercise. All the questions are sorted and grouped together so that students automatically use one formula or concept to answer questions.

Why is this not effective? Because students may not understand exactly how this is relevant to the bigger picture. They don’t know when to use the formula, or exactly what purpose it serves. They simply understand how to substitute numbers in, or what concepts the question focuses on.

This is why students often become surprised when they don’t achieve good marks in tests and SACs -they claim that they have understood all the exercises, however got confused when applying the knowledge.

Developing knowledge is like painting – you need many layers of it until it becomes good quality

If you have ever painted a house or your room, usually we don’t just paint the room or house once but many times. Firstly you will need an undercoat, then you need to first layer and finally your second layer.

Be sure to make your learning in layers as well.

Firstly you need the foundations. The foundations are found within exercises of your textbook. These are simply very basic questions that you need at a minimum level. You cannot rely on foundations alone to accomplish a good mark – passing is possible, however focusing only on foundations will definitely not allow you to achieve a 50 study score.

Make sure that these foundations are very strong, because they will build the framework of how well you understand the topic. Remember that the stronger the foundations of the house, the stronger the house is – but it is flawed to think that you can live comfortably in a house that only has strong foundations. Obviously you need a roof, walls and some structure for your house!

Understanding the bigger picture of the foundations
Secondly you need to understand the bigger picture of the foundations. For example if you simply look at a piece of wood in the framework of your house, this piece of wood may not make much sense. However when you step back and look at the total framework – a piece of wood is not an individual part of the framework, it has a very important part of maintaining the entire framework of the house.

Likewise with your foundations, realise that each of the exercises you are doing in your textbook will link up in some kind of way to the overall framework of knowledge. On its own in, when you zoom into exercises they may not seem like they have any relevance – however if you take a step back realise how important this exercise is to the bigger picture of the subject.

In this case you need to learn how every exercise you are doing links up to the topic you are studying. It is recommended to draw mind maps of how each exercise relates to the bigger picture of the subject. This way you will understand more about how everything you are learning is relevant.

Using the foundations for more challenging questions

In building a house this would mean putting in bricks, roof, walls and turning a house from its foundations into an actual enclosed space.

Remember the foundations are not the only thing that you have to strive for, these foundations need to be used for more apply purposes. Likewise in your studies you will need to focus on more challenging questions in order to use the foundation skills.

By challenging questions we are referring to ones that require you to apply knowledge – for example in maths long worded, problem-solving questions. O

Obtain different resources

As was mentioned before, textbook questions are not necessarily the best source to use if you’re serious about adding layers to your knowledge. It is very important to broaden your prospective and find different resources. This may include going to the library and borrowing a more advanced textbook, searching the Internet for various types of worksheets or are simply asking your tutor to bring in more advanced material.

Do not simply rely on your textbook! If you want to strengthen your foundations or gain a bigger picture of the subject, it is best to read different textbooks and refer to different sources in order to gain experience.

Develop your critical thinking skills

In the past I’ve noticed that the very best students always ask questions about how a concept works. They really want to develop a deep understanding of the topic, rather than having a simple idea of how everything works.

By asking questions, it shows that you are thinking about the material. Some students do not ask questions at all, not because they know everything but because they don’t understand the topic enough to even ask a question! So don’t just blindly accept what you have learned, question it! Be curious about what you are studying! This will develop your critical thinking skills.

Teach the material

When you are in a position of teaching, you cannot maintain passive thinking. It puts you in a position where you have to understand the topic deeply – otherwise you will not know how to teach. By teaching we are also asking ourselves questions about how a concept works, or how it applies to the bigger picture.

It also reinforces what we understand about the subject we are studying, and can pinpoint our weakness points.