Memorising names and dates for an exam

tl;dr: I ‘cheated’ in my final exam.  I took in a crib sheet.  I smuggled it in, hidden in my short-term memory.

The Problem
I cannot learn names or dates, or quotes.  I have known that since secondary school.  One of the first homeworks we got was to learn a very short poem and I could not do it and got a detention for failing to do so.  I dropped English Literature at O level during the final year because I could learn the stories and what happened but not who the people were.  I frequently lose track of who is who in films and books and just enjoy the story, sometimes wondering why someone said or did a certain thing because I could not work out who they were.

Trying to Learn a Poem
In English Language there was a poem, The General, on a poster in front of my desk.  Every English lesson for four years I practised learning that poem.  I must have read it at least 400 times, probably over a thousand times.  I can recite it fairly accurately, but only because it has a story and I visualise that, plus it is timed to match a marching step, which helps get the words in the right places.

Left, right, left right.

“Good morning, Good morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on the way to the line.
Now the chaps that he spoke to are most of ’em dead
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Left, right, left right.

But I cannot tell you who wrote it nor in what year, despite that being clear on the poster.

It’s funny what I can remember.  I know scientific terms based on names such as Boyle’s Law, the unit called the Newton, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but they are not names of people, just words.

In history O Level we did global exploration and the conquest of the Americas.  I am confident I can still re-tell most of the story about the spice islands, piracy, the involvement and achievements of the Portuguese, Italians and Spanish, the discovery of the Americas, trade, some of the adventures, the treatment of indigenous people – all manner of stuff.  But I am not sure what centuries in which this happened and can only recall Elizabeth, Drake, Magellan and – for some reason – Quetzalcoatl.  That meant I could not do History O Level because it is all about names and dates.

A327 was seemingly a history module, but was all about the debate about what happened, not who did what and when.  No need at all to learn dates or names, amazingly, and so that went fine for me.

Consequences for My Degree
So when my tutor – who had been an exam-marker for some years for the module – said one cannot get beyond 65% in the DD301 Criminology exam without inline references in the exam essays, I was gutted.  That would mean a Pass 3 for the module and a 2:2 for my degree and failure to get to do a Master’s as planned.  I need 70% in this final exam to get a 2:1 for my degree.

What I Tried
I had been using Quizlet all year to produce flashcards to help me learn the subject: my DD301 set.  I enhanced that to focus on names and dates.  It didn’t help.

I also used a timeline tool called TimeLine for visualising when things happen and thereby learning the steps between them.  Here is an A327 example I had used the previous year for its intended purpose:

I tried using that to visualise developments in criminology writing to see if that helped.  It didn’t.

DD301 TimelineI asked on the module forum for advice on learning techniques but got no useful advice from the tutors.  The only student suggestion was for Quizlet.  I asked my tutor for advice, his conclusion was I should get the names tattooed onto the inside of my eyelids!  I have a few books on learning, study and revision but they all have generic advice and not how to deal with specific problems.

Searching online for advice got me nothing other than flashcards (for which I was using Quizlet) and reading out loud to a mirror.

So my carefully constructed revision plan of learning standard paragraphs, practising writing essays, laying out the standard arguments and so on all went by the wayside as I spent the entire time trying to learn names and their significance.  It wasn’t working since just a few hours after learning one, it had gone from my head.  This was despite going over them scores of times, some of them for months.  It was the same as The General poem above: I know the subject but not who wrote it or when.

What I Needed to Memorise
What I needed to learn was the names of the authors of five chapters from the text books (each one a multi-author chapter), plus a selection of theorists, what they said, and the dates of publication of their books.  At this moment I can recall Muncie (2001), Talbot (2010) [wrong, forgot two other authors], Mehigan (2010) [wrong, forgot two other authors], Green (2004) [wrong, forgot the other author] and Cohen (some time in the 1960s) but not what they said.  That is the entirety of a year’s trying to memorise them – I needed many more than that.  I had tried to learn 27 names and dates.

The Day Before The Exam
I finally found a solution on the day before the exam, by accident.  I was thinking – yet again – about why I could only hold the data in my short-term memory and why it could not be transferred to the mid-term or long-term memory.  That is, I could spend a couple of hours going through the flashcards over and over again and eventually get almost all of them right, but just another two hours later and I could only get a handful right.  But there’s the answer: use my short-term memory.

So I wrote out a few hand-written lines like this:

Book 1, chapter 1, crime, Muncie, Talbot & Walters
Book 1, chapter 5, corporate crime, Tombs & Whyte
Book 1, chapter 7, state crime, Green
Book 2, chapter 1, justice, Drake, Muncie & Westmarland
Book 2, chapter 7, human rights, Mehigan, Walters and Westmarland

for the key chapters I would be using in the exam.  Any reference to criminal theory and I could add “(Muncie, Talbot & Walters, 2010)” with confidence it would be from that chapter in the text book, or refer to “human rights are contestable (Mehigan, Walters & Westmarland, 2010)” and I’d probably got that right.

I also wrote a number of key concepts and theories:

Michael & Adler, 1933, Black Letter Crime
Tappan, 1947, crime requires a guilty verdict
Quinney, 1970, crime is defined by the politically powerful
de Haan, 1990, crime is a distraction from real harm
Reiman, 2007, Pyrrhic Defeat Theory in “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor get Prison” (vital to learn this one title)
Hillyard and Tombs, 2007, the social harm approach
Whyte, 2009, corporates and governments make laws to protect themselves
Muncie, 2001, “a conception of crime without a conception of power is meaningless” (vital to learn this one quote)

From those a number of arguments can be constructed.  I know the material pretty well, just not who thought it up and wrote it down.

I then hand-wrote those lines out over and over and over again for the rest of the day.

The Day of the Exam
I got dropped off at the exam centre two hours before the 10 a.m. exam.  I sat in Reception for 90 minutes copying the lines out again in an A4 pad, exactly the same, for another six A4 sheets.  At 9:30 I closed my eyes and fell asleep!  At 9:50 they called us in.  At 10:01 I started writing those lines out on the first sheet of the answer booklet from short-term memory.  I then spent until 10:30 writing down every name, date, quote, concept and theory name I could think of, joining them up where I could.  In 30 minutes I had ¾ filled an A4 side of chapters and concepts with most of their names and dates.

I then looked at the question sheet and spent the remaining 2½ hours of the exam actually doing the exam, with my very own hand-made cheat sheet on the desk.  And all perfectly legitimate.

The Result
So I used my short-term memory to visualise about 15 or 20 lines of text and took that mental image into the exam.  It cost me about 30 minutes of the three hour exam but meant I included 11 references which I was sure were correct, plus two more I think were right and a couple more where I said (either Bloggs or Jones, 2001) or (Green and someone else, early 2000s).  I also nearly got the Muncie quote right – I wrote something like “You cannot have a conception of crime without a conception of power” which is near enough, I hope!

I wrote two essays, each with an essay plan, a proper introduction, a critical argument and a proper conclusion.  The second essay referenced the first (since you can’t use the same arguments twice) and came to a conclusion critical of the first essay’s conclusion!  With 11 inline references, a quote and an explanation of the significance of a seminal book on the subject, I am quietly confident I ought to get the 70% I need.

The Outcome
I won’t know for another five weeks…

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