Now, it is the end of the year, and my spring classes start next week at GCU. This means that I have this week left to finish all my exam preparation before the new school semester begins. AGH! Yes, I need to get all my ducks in a row, so to speak because the next 16 weeks will be filled to the brim with teaching, grading, and mentoring students.
The good news is that I love my job. I love the fact that I get to teach at GCU, and I love this school, and I love the opportunity that the Lord has provided to me to be a college English instructor. My new semester is going to be full, for sure. I checked my rosters yesterday, and as of now, I have 166 students and three instructional assistants spread over three English Composition II courses. Whew! It is going to be a jam-packed semester, at the least, until I get through my comprehensive exams and move up into candidacy. Then, I will have sweet, blessed, rest! Sigh!
It has been a bumpy ride learning to be a "teacher," and the process has been challenging and difficult. I have seen, and I have experienced great strides toward fluency in my subject area, and I finally feel more settled in this profession. God has been so good to me. He has taken me by the hand, led me through this difficult transition (from corporate worker to educator), and He has helped me learn the ropes, learn how to teach, to present, and to educate my students. He has done all of this, and while I have been the recipient of His training and preparation, I know that I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for His grace and His mercy in and through every area of my life (Selah!). Thus, today, I am giving all praise, honor, and thanks to the Lord. He is good! He is so very good to me!
It is December 29, if you hadn't noticed, and that means that there are "technically" two more days left in 2015. I have made some progress on my study and preparation program for my qualification exams. This whole process, planning, organizing, and then preparing study materials has been difficult, to say the least. It would be easier if the examination was standardized, but it is not. Instead, while the exam itself follows certain conventions, it is customized for each doctoral student. This means that there is no "rule" to follow when preparing your study materials. As doctoral students we are responsible for the course content of each of the eight subject areas we are tested on for written and oral exams. This means that while the content for History is the same regardless of the semester it was taken, the content itself is only a starting point for study. There is so much more information available that as scholars we are supposed to know. Thus, the study approach has to include covering course content AND anything that might be useful to demonstrate subject matter knowledge. In short, anything is "fair game" when it comes to examination questions.
How do you prepare if you don't know what will be on the exam?
Good question. This has been my issue from the get-go. For example, in my Advanced Theory class, it is pretty much a given that we will be tested on Craig's Seven Traditions (Theory framework for Communication) as well as the main issue or argument within Communication (whether Communication is a field or a discipline). Furthermore, it is assumed that we will be asked to assess several theories from each of the traditions, describe them and identify strengths and weaknesses of each. With this in mind, the study for Theory is pretty straightforward. Study Craig's work, his theoretical framework and commit to memory several theories (2-3 each) that support each tradition.
The problem with this approach is that it works well for courses that are formatted more along the lines of a textbook because there is a logical order and sequence to the process. But, for other more, interpretive courses like History, for example, the course content is broad and very generalized. This means that you are attempting to synthesize 5-6 or more books along with a broad historical timeline of events. The questions asked may be subjective, but they require the ability to draw from multiple sources. Normally, this would not be difficult if the exam were open-book, but it is not. No, all of this information must be memorized and then must be recalled in a useful way to allow you the opportunity to write a 5 page essay (no notes).
Planning and Organizing
I've struggled with getting a plan together. Everything I have read has said that it doesn't really matter how you plan or what system you use, what matters most is that you are consistent in how you use it. I agree.
I was also told to plan ahead, to give yourself plenty of time to "prepare." I started my whole process of preparing for exams 16-weeks out. My examination date is February 11-12, 2016, so I started in early October, by creating an exam schedule. I had great hopes, high hopes, that my schedule would keep me on track. Every website I read said that your electronic date book is your good friend, keep it handy, stick to it, etc.
Reality Check #1: I found that my dates and my schedule were excellent, but that my life simply didn't cooperate fully to ensure I met my own high expectations.
My first plan of attack was going to be to spend 8-weeks organizing my materials. This included:
- Course overviews
- Course notes
- Chapter outlines
- Book reviews
- Written discussion board responses
- Papers and assignments
- Journal articles
- Flash cards with keywords, definitions, theories, etc.
I thought my plan for what to "gather" seemed reasonable, logical, and very doable. After all, I had all that material at hand (in various places), so really I just needed a good system to corral it all.
In early November (October didn't pan out), I started using what I affectionately called the "dump" method. By this I mean, I collected everything related to the subject (see the list above) along with information I found on the Internet. My plan was to print all this material off, and place it in a three-ring binder with tabs. This method seemed good to me, and I thought it would provide a manual of sorts for me to review content.
Reality Check #2: As I started to print, I quickly realized that each binder would contain hundreds of pages of information, some of it irrelevant to my study.
I knew I needed a new plan, a new method, so I thought I would synthesize the information I already had, taking only the important bits and tossing the rest. After all, I reasoned, there is only so much that can be remembered about a subject. So, I started to pare down my research to 20 or so pages of bullet items. My mind reasoned that this would make it easier to review. In my effort to pare down, I found I was plagued with "information overload." The decision process of what to keep and what to let go haunted me. I worried, I stressed, I feared...what if? What if I didn't study the best material to pass the exam?
Reality Check #3: Less may be more, but less is not always the best approach to take unless you are already a subject matter expert.
Then, I thought that rather than printing and carrying around paper copies (in 3-pronged folders), I would create a blog on line and simply post the material where I could read through it. I liked that idea because it seemed environmentally friendly and it was a heck of a lot cheaper for me to produce (no printing toner and paper costs). Plus, I would always have access to all my materials -- on phone, iPad or computer -- I could review wherever I was and for however long I had available.
This was my go-to method for this past week. It made good sense to me and I thought it would work. Until, that is, I started to put everything online and I realized that there was so much work involved AND the format (reading online) simply isn't my preferred way to digest information (for example, I do not like to read e-books, but prefer paper copies).
Reality Check #4: Sometimes a good idea is a good idea, but it is not the most practical given the time constraints of the project.
Last night, I was about to give in and state emphatically that I would simply NOT sit these exams -- ever! Yes, my frustration got the best of me, and I really was about to give up on the whole process, when I started to look through one of my saved folders (on my hard drive). My former Theory professor had provided us with 37 power point presentations that accompanied our primary textbook. These were resources provided to her as instructor, and she made them available to us for use for our assignments. I started to browse through them again (I had looked at them a couple semesters ago), when I got this idea that perhaps what was causing me all the problem was not just the massive amount of content, but also it was the way the content was being presented.
Reality Check #5: Use a method of organization that works best for your learning style.
I am a visual-learner, and by visual, I simply mean that I learn best through presentation. I do read, but it is not my prefer mode for taking in new material. I am not a reader, even though I teach English (I know, weird, right?) I will read when I have to do it for a class, but I simply do not enjoy reading. Thus, for me, reading must be presented visually, with format and style. So for example, if I have to study a textbook that is mostly text, my eyes will glaze over. But, if I can study a textbook that has charts, graphs, pictures, and nice "chunked" content, well then I am able to follow along. I need lists, tables, and other content holders to help me sort and organize. I think this is why I enjoyed web design so much. I loved being able to organize data, to categorize it, and present it visually so that it made sense to others who might be reading the web pages.
The power points I viewed contained anywhere from 8-13 slides. They were set up in a series that allowed you to progress through the book systematically. This made the content easy to digest. I liked the way the authors chose to do this, and of course, I understood their rationale. These slides would be used by teachers in the classroom so the content had to be chunked and bullet pointed for ease of recall.
This got me thinking that perhaps I should do the same thing. If I made power points for each of my courses, I could in essence, recap the class and cover the most important information in chunky-style. Furthermore, rather than write out flash cards (which I had planned to do), I would simply watch the presentation on the computer screen. I could review each course and with a push of a button, the content would be large enough for me to see it clearly and to remember the details.
I started last night by creating my first class, History of Communication. I have five power points so far, and I am thinking I need about 3-4 more before I will be done with this course. Most of my other courses are already completed or 3/4 completed (in a Word doc), so the process of creating power points for them should be relatively easy. I am pretty content with this approach though I still wonder if I need a paper review sheet to help fill in the gaps (thinking on this approach a bit more).
Now that I understand what works best for me, for my preferred style of learning, I feel content to proceed with this approach. I have six-weeks (beginning January 1) to cover eight courses well enough to handle both written and oral comprehensive exams. I am sure I will miss some important information, but at the least, I will feel that I have covered most everything expected. My goal now is to review these power points each week for five weeks (a tentative schedule is listed below):
Monday - History and Theology
Tuesday - Leadership and Organizational Communication
Wednesday - Family and Crisis Communication
Thursday - Advanced Theory and Research Methods (Historical/Critical)
Friday - rest my weary brain!
In addition, I plan to devote each weekend to writing answers to practice exam questions.
Week 1 - Theory
Week 2 - History
Week 3 - Historical/Critical
Week 4 - Theology
Week 5 - Family
My applied learning courses, Leadership, Organizational and Crisis Communication, along with Social Media will more than likely cover projects, proposals or syllabus creation. I plan to create samples to review throughout the period.
Week 6 will be for final review, and I hope to practice what are commonly called "brain dumps" (timed sessions where you dump what you know). My colleagues who have already passed recommend this approach as it helps to free you up so you can concentrate on writing a well-formatted essay.
I have been warned about over preparing for exams, and how that can lead you to freeze up as you begin the test. I am concerned about losing all the content I have studied, so for now, I am working on the assumption that between weeks 3-6, I will pare down the content to a streamlined folder with 8 tabs and only 5 pages of reference points.
Moving Forward and Pressing On
So that is my plan of attack. I am trusting my plans to the Lord, and if He needs me to change things up, so be it. I am letting the "planning part" go, and moving on to the "doing part." The time has come to start the work, and in that sense, I am committing to sitting and passing both parts of my exams. I am not coming back to repeat any missed sections, that is for certain (Lord, willing). He is good, so very good to me! Selah!
I ask that you bless my approach, my method, and my abilities to prepare for these exams. I have struggled to figure out what would work for me, and I thank you for helping me find a way that will satisfy my needs and my learning style. I ask now that you cover me as I complete this work. Help me to know what to study, what to let go, and then "do" the work. The time is nigh, and I must be busy. Help me to stay focused and fixed on the Lord's will for my life, which includes, passing these exams. I ask now for your mercy and your sweet grace as I do this good practical work today. Give me peace, help me focus, and keep me steady. I ask this all in Jesus' matchless, marvelous, and most majestic Name, amen. So be it, thy will be done! Selah!