When I was young, my mum would tell me to clean my room. Unfortunately, her definition of 'clean' was vastly different from mine. I thought the appearance of tidiness was what she wanted. She meant 'put everything away properly, in its proper place'.

It took a few times of her raking my clothes from the heap I had thrown them into in the closet for me to understand that her version of cleaning meant doing things right, not just making things look good. Did you have the same experience when you were growing up? 

In school, I found myself similarly bewildered. Teachers would say 'Study module 5' or give some other such vague directive. We students had no idea what she meant by 'study'. Should we read it? Analyse it? Try to understand it? Do the exercises in it? Just stare at it for a decent amount of time???

My experiences are not unique to me. Over the years I've spent teaching, I met many students labouring under the same confusion over assignments, instructions and directives, supposedly delivered in plain language but serving only to befuddle.

So, now, you're told to revise for English Literature exams.

For Maths, Science and English, it's not hard to guess what you're supposed to know going into the exam centre but English Literature is a different proposition altogether, isn't it? Are you supposed to just read the literary texts on your reading list or should you also memorise poems and master sonnet writing?

Luckily, Superprof can show you exactly what you should do to make your revision most effective.

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Find Out What's Expected of You

Often, spontaneity is a good thing... but not when it comes to exams. You can't simply walk into an exam centre, flash your credentials, whip out your #2 pencil and answer away. As important as it is to know your subject material, it's just as vital to know how your knowledge of that subject will be tested.

As this article's introduction shows, if you don't know what's expected of you, it's hard to deliver the desired result.

You would happily do your work if you know what work was expected
Most students are happy to put in the work if only they knew what work was expected. Photo by Aman Upadhyay on Unsplash

A stellar way to discover those expectations is with exam past papers and marking schemes. The schemes should be your first step to revision.

Marking information is laid out in easy-to-read tables. Each set of answers is listed under which literary work it addresses, with one column showing acceptable answers and the other unacceptable ones. Often, several answers are deemed un/acceptable, in which case they are listed in bulleted points.

Studying marking schemes is especially effective if you match them up with their corresponding exam paper. As you read over those exam questions, you can use marking schemes to get an idea of how to respond to them.

Unfortunately, though, past papers and marking schemes do not offer much help on how to structure your English literature essay...

Study Examiners' Conclusions

As critical as past papers are to your revision process, examiners' reports matter even more. These summaries critique the entire English testing population's performance, pointing out what those students did well and where they could have done better.

Have you ever learned from others' mistakes? If you see someone get in trouble for doing something bad, you would likely avoid doing the same thing... because you learned from that other kid's mistake that punishment will be the outcome of that action.

Besides all of the paragraphs that talk about where students shone and where their literary light dimmed, these reports end with a bulleted list of recommendations for future students to do better.

Huzzah! Not only can you know what's expected of you, you now have suggestions for how to do it better than other students!

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Read the Literature

You might have a 'well, duh!' all ready to fly out of your mouth at this segment header. Before you let fly, though, consider the number of students who resort to CliffNotes, Bitesize and/or films to gain exposure to the literary texts they're supposed to read.

Statistics show that ever fewer students read English literature. Sadly, they point to a bigger problem: overall, more people are turning away from literary texts, preferring to take those tales in through visual performances such as plays and films.

And, as for poetry? Forget it! Fewer people than ever - and that includes students read poetry, even if they're packaged in easy-to-study modules. Why?

Living in the now, as we are, many students have trouble relating to the themes and topics addressed in English literature. A century ago, the world and society were very different but - and this is key, humans have not changed.

We have the same fears and hopes, desires and feelings. Modern trappings have not altered who we are or how we think, nor has it impacted what we want or need: love, acceptance and success.

Indeed, understanding the continuity of the human experience is one reason why we study English literature.

Mapping Information

Your English Literature course boasts a substantial list of literary works for you to read, study, analyse and write about. However, unlike bingeing on your favourite streaming shows, you can't simply read one written work after another with nary a pause for reflection between them.

But you can make the task of analysing them more efficient by mapping each work so that, come time for exam revision, all of the elements from each of the texts are neatly organised and ready for review.

Although mind maps have been around for centuries, they weren't widely used until about 50 years ago. Today, virtually every concern uses mind maps, from academics to business leaders. They are perfect for collecting and storing knowledge in modules until they're needed.

You can download mapping software or create maps by hand for each work you'll study. Ideally, you would map each element of every literary work you study like so:

  • themes
  • characterisation
  • plot
  • setting
  • voice
  • linguistics

Still, for all the help mind maps are, we go back to this article's running theme: the lack of direction in analysing English literature texts. Wouldn't it be great to have some tips on how to do it right?

Creating mind maps early in your revision gives you more visual information
Many websites offer free mind mapping downloads. Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Embrace a Variety of Study Tools and Methods

Nobody ever said that study and revision must be solitary affairs. Could there be anything more discouraging than the idea of a student, alone with their book, doing their best to learn everything on their own with no other resources?

That may well be one of the reasons that students have trouble applying themselves to their revisions. Let's liven things up a bit, shall we?

Study Groups

Did you know that brainstorming - a group of peers tossing ideas around is considered as effective as mind mapping? Getting other students' input on literary texts is perfect for helping you refine your ideas about them.

Indeed, so popular is this idea that it has long since spilt over into society. These days, lots of people join book clubs so they can get together and talk about the texts they've read.

Part social activity and part skills-building, studying literature with your peers will promote your critical thinking skills and creativity.

Flashcards

If you really want to put your creativity to work, you may consider designing a set of flashcards. As with mind mapping, you have the option of making paper cards or using Quizlet, a web-based application that will create cards for you.

Both methods have their advantages, prime among them is designing the cards to your specifications. Quizlet offers something more, though. After inputting all of the information you wish to revise, you may then play games with it, take a quiz and invite others to join you. 

If neither of those options appeals to you, you may buy ready-made flashcards for each of the texts you read from Amazon for about £8 plus delivery.

YouTube

After bashing watching literary texts come to life in film and on stage, you might wonder why we suggest watching YouTube videos to help revise for your English Literature exams.

Watching such videos work a bit like group study; those hosts do not give you answers or show excerpts of any film or play. The best channels point you in the right direction for conducting analysis and to better understand the work in question.

They go into the historical record to explain what was happening at the time the piece was written so that you can better see how the work serves as a testament to the times.

If you've never tuned into Anderson English or Mrs Whelan's English channels, having a look would be a great idea.

A tutor can help you get ready for your exams
You could engage an English literature tutor to help you revise for your exams. Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash

Private Tutoring

Knowledge and experience have one thing in common: they're useless unless they're shared. Who is better-qualified to share knowledge and experience than an English Literature tutor?

Whether you need somebody to go over the exam modules with you or want someone to help you make sense of Shakespeare, an English tutor will tailor each study session to your needs.

Whether online or in-person (when the pandemic permits, of course), they can go over the most renowned works of English literature you've been assigned and help you write about them, too.

Start Early and Pace Yourself

This is the best tip anyone can give you, unrelated to English literature but having everything to do with revising for exams.

Don't wait until the last minute to crack open those books, draw your mind maps and conduct your analyses. Don't count on second-hand information like SparkNotes or Bitesize to give you the intuitive insights you would get on your own, if only you had read the texts.

And don't believe for a second that, just because past papers contain text excerpts that your exam papers will arm you with full knowledge and understanding of the entire literary work.

There is only one way you will make the grade on your exams: you have to work at it. The earlier you get started, the more time you have to perfect your craft.

Read each text you will test on; twice, if possible. Research what was happening at the time of the writing- wars, famine, and so on. Build yourself a trove of study tools and a network of study partners. Practise your creative writing so that, when it comes time for you to write your exam essays, you will know just how to craft one.

And don't forget to get your teachers' feedback throughout. After all, what would your introduction to English literature have been if not for them?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.