the ART of studying (part 3): Tips to tackle technical written examinations

While my friends are chasing ‘A’s, I proudly proclaimed that I am chasing after perfection. It is not because I am a memorising king of the class. Quite the opposite, I sat through my A level Mathematics paper with only one single formula in my head; I derived everything else on the spot.

So imagine, doing well without much memorisation. Isn’t that a dream? I think it is possible and what I hope to do today is to summarised this personal studying technique that I adopt into a few palatable points.

By the way, if you have any personal routines that works for you, I hope to learn from you too so please share them in the comments below.

Practice Question Focused

Through years of taking examinations and now, being an educator myself, I understood what I was doing that worked. My method is practice question focused and works best with science, technology, engineering and mathematics related topics.

Collecting Past Year Papers

I collect as many past year papers as my time allows myself to go through. If there are answers than all the better. Mock papers are used if I am unable to locate actual past year papers.

I divide them into three piles:

  • Collection 1. Somewhat new past year paper except for the latest (about four papers)
  • Collection 2. Older past year papers (over 3 to 5 years old)
  • Collection 3. The two newest past year paper

Studying Phase

Open the first two papers from Collection 1 and start doing! Open book. No time limit.

The idea is to find a way to go through your notes. Practice keeps the studying process active and a great way to help your brain remember things.

The other main point is to keep the studying process stress free. There is no need to impose a time limit and don’t be too hard on yourself for not being able to do the question. It is your first attempt anyway.

If you cannot answer a question with an open book, ask for help.

This means that we are facing a knowledge gap. There is something we do not understand. Ask your friends or your prof for help.

Practice Phase

Use the next two papers from Collection 1 and rely less on your notes. Also, spot for “patterns” in the question and find out the method to answer the question.

Relying less on notes means that you will only refer to it if there is a need to. This is to test your memory. The hope is that when you have repeated the same type of questions for a couple of time, you already remember the facts so that there is no need to memorise it.

Spotting for “patterns” is also an important process too because these are your “giveaway” questions that you can score. Your professor probably think you should be able to answer those questions anyway. If there is a pattern, there is usually a standard method to solve those questions. This help you to increase the speed in solving those questions.

Mock Exam 1

With the second newest past year paper from Collection 3, find a quiet place where you cannot be disturb and sit for your first mock exam. This is a closed book and timed exam.

Time management is also an important part of the examination. If you did not finish the paper in time, note how many questions are left blank. Proceed to complete the exam to identify speed gap, memory gap and knowledge gap that you might have.

If you can complete the question without your notes, you have a speed gap. You need to find a method that allow you to complete the question faster.

If you need your notes to complete the question, you have a memory gap. Memorisation at this stage will help.

If you can’t answer it with an open book, you have a knowledge gap. You need to ask for help.

Further Practice Phase

Do papers from Collection 2.

Do this if you still have time to spare before the big day. Keep your brain active and do not let it rest. Keep getting in touch with your study material through this method.

If there are questions that you can’t do, it may not matter as much because some of the content tested may be outdated.

Mock Exam 2

Do the newest past year paper from Collection 3 one to two days before your examination. This is a close book and timed exam.

All that applies to Mock Exam 1 applies to Mock Exam 2 too. At this stage, you will know how well you are going to do for the examination and it will give you some certainty over your grades.

One difference. If you have a memory gap, write down the facts on a piece of paper. Bring this paper along to the entrance of the examination hall.

Night Routine: Relax, Eat well, Sleep Well

Do not attempt to study the night before. The focus is getting yourself cared for so that you are in your best mental state to attempt the examination. Stay away from coffee and spicy food, any detractors that will upset your stomach or keep you awake at night. Do ordinary things that you do to relax.

Sleep and your brain will help you do the memoriastion sub-conscientiously. This is where memorisation take place.

Last Minute Rush

Open up the piece of note you have written for yourself after Mock Exam 2. Read through it and hope for the best.

Tell yourself that you have done all that you can.

Concluding Remarks

The examination study technique is a practice question focused method which keeps the learning process active. Part of which would also require me to address the following gaps that I may have:

Speed Gap: Caused by working too slowly on a problem. To increase speed, find a standard method that allows you to solve the problem quickly.

Memory Gap: Things you can’t remember for nuts. Do more questions that uses that part of the content and get in touch with it as often as you can. Relax, eat well and sleep well and let your brain help you do the memorisation for you.

Knowledge Gap: Questions that cannot be solved even with an open book. Ask for help from your friends or your professors!

I hope this has been helpful for you and once again, if you have any personal routines that works for you, I hope to learn from you too so please share them in the comments below.


the ART of studying (part 2): Effective Studying Techniques

I pushed myself to take up a Specialist Diploma in Teaching and Learning offered by my institution recently. It came with a thick reading list spanning three textbooks.

THREE! That’s thousand over pages!

It’s a fearful thought for me. After all, I didn’t manage to successfully continue my Japanese language learning, ever since I tried to restart the effort late 2014, and 2015, and 2016, and… you get the picture.

I figured that I have great problems focusing:

– My attention span shortens.

– My energy dips very quickly. This is especially so during weekday evenings, all tired from work.

– I get bored easily.

I really thought I lost all discipline to be able to learn something new effectively. Whatever happened to that drive I had while I’m in the university?

But I must pull through this. It is after all something that I wanted to do.

I needed a strategy to do this and hence, what it seems like for the first time in my life, I began to study how to study.

This is what I found worked for me to do some serious studying and I would like to share it with you. I like to summarise it using three ‘S’s: Start, Sustain, Study


Start: Beat Procrastination in a Minute

Don’t feel like studying? Just start studying for one minute whether you like it or not. I got inspired by the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, but instead of turning studying into a one-minute activity for that little improvement, I use the one minute to see if I can get into the groove of things, into that focus mode to study. If I can, I’ll continue to study!

But there will also be days which I just don’t. If that’s the case, I’ll cut myself a bit of slack and maybe just do a 15 minute session instead. Just need to make sure that this doesn’t happen too often.

Sustain: Pacing with the Pomodoro

The next part was really about sustainability, how to keep up with study and keeping the energy level up. The Pomodoro technique advocates that we can keep our energy up by working in the following cycle:

  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 5 min (Get up and walk around!)
  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 5 min
  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 5 min
  • Study: 25 min
  • Active Rest: 15 min

The best part is, it need not be 25 minutes and 5 minutes. We can tune it according to what our body can take. I find that I work the best using 35-5-30-5-30-10-25-30 cycle. I guess when I start getting even better at focusing, I can study for a longer period.

Study: The Mechanics of Reading a Textbook for Understanding

Reading for me is a very slow process and doesn’t work well for the kinesthetic learner in me. To read a chapter off a textbook more quickly and effectively, why not try the P2R method advocated by Cornell College:

1. Preview the chapter. Read the headings, the introduction paragraph, the concluding paragraph and the practice questions behind if there’s any to get a feel about what this chapter is going to be about. Reading the introductory paragraph to me is important because it can help to interest me to read further rather than stopping after previewing.

2. Read the chapter. Now, read it bit by bit. Make a mental note of the main points and the examples. If a chapter is very long, you may even want to divide the reading task into sub-chapters. Do NOT highlight or make notes at this point. Focus on the reading.

3. Review. Highlight, underline or write notes only at this point. I prefer writing notes because I no longer need to refer to my textbook that much after reviewing. I also have a tendency to draw pictures in my notes to make it fun to read.


I’m glad to say, it worked out well so far! I clock in 6 hours of reading the very first day I hit the books and still managing to focus for a good productive 1 to 4 hours for days to come.

I still haven’t quite figure out how to prevent my energy from dipping in the evening without napping or coffee (these have serious effects: insomnia may kick in!). As for Japanese, it’s really about going through the grammar guidebook which I felt works differently from textbooks. I guess I will need more time to figure out what will work for me better.

If you have any ideas how I can stay awake in the evening, or how I should go about learning a language at an advanced level, please let me know in the comments below!



the ART of studying (part 1): the POWER of two JC students

We seldom meet and seldom speak. But we knew can have the most intellectual conversations together even after not contacting each other for so long. It’s always great to meet an old friend and reminisce about the past. Time really flies and it’s almost two decades since we’ve known each other.

And so, eventually, the topic about how N and I studied for examinations came into our conversations. My pet topic with the polytechnic students I teach. I find it an imperative to let them know how hard the JC students actually studied so that they won’t get a culture shock when they hit the university.

“… and I started studying during the mid-term break at about 9 weeks before the examination, doing past year papers, even though the Professor has not finished teaching more than half the material.

By the time we got into the examination study week, I would have almost ran out of past year papers to do!” I proudly declare it to N.

“Same here. I started studying two weeks before the start of the semester. As in, I will always read the lecture notes two weeks before the actual class.

By the time we got into the examination study week, I’ve already ran out of past year papers to do so I started search for Harvard and MIT papers from the Internet to do.” N spoke about it casually.

“You WHAT?!”

Didn’t realise he was that hard core.

There’s one thing we can both agree. Don’t ever study the last minute. We both spent the day before the examination doing something else much to the envious eyes of our own groups of friends.


Reflecting ON Reprofiling: FIRST try at Adult Teaching

For any other lecturers in the institution which I taught in, teaching adults is probably a usual thing that they need to do. For me, it was a totally new thing.

I am asked to train a small group on my colleagues to be able to do a bit of programming. It is part of the school’s initiative as well as a national drive to upgrade employees with digital skills. We called such upgrading training a reprofiling exercise.

What are the challenges that I thought I will face?

  • The course should be conducted with only 20% face-to-face time. 80% of the course should be curated and online.
  • My colleagues are also extremely busy people who many are possibly forced will struggle with time to take this course.
  • Of course, I never taught adults before. Yes, I always say that I treat my students as adults, the truth is some of the more controversial techniques that I use in teaching are meant for people without working experience.


I like to see such challenges as a crisis. And I like to bring a Chinese perspective into this. This is because, the Chinese characters for the word “Crisis”, 危机, is made up of two very meaningful characters, danger and opportunity. I always feel that seeing opportunities in challenging moments is key to success.

Initial Strategy

What Matters Most

The 20% face-to-face times was extremely crucial to the success on whether my colleagues would be able to “get” programming. After all, programming had a bad name, urban myth knew it as a “you get it or you don’t” sort of subject.

Without the certainty of whether my colleagues are going to have the time to practice programming, I made all face-to-face sessions practice-oriented.

In the first session, we went through how to set up their learning and programming environment involving a couple of installation and creating a learning account.

I also just start programming right away, asking them to follow what I type, flashing out bits and pieces of programming knowledge along the way.

In essence, making sure that they leave the first session with an environment and knowledge of how they can start to programme, an extremely daunting task for first time programmers to learn on their own.

Motivation, Relevance and Just Enough

For all sessions, I start working on problems rather than explaining to them the concepts. This actually flips the way that I usually tackle my lessons, where I will explain concepts first, then tackle the problems.

The main reason was that I felt that there is no need for them to know every piece of concept. Important concepts will come naturally into our discussions when we worked through the problem. The rest can be considered a good to know.

The problems are also specially chosen among one of three themes to make programming more relevant to them:

  • Industry 4.0 (The participants are all engineer-trained)
  • Student result processing
  • Some Singapore-life related use cases (Eg. IPPT Score calculation)

Unlimited Self-evaluation Quizzes and Flexibility

I also crafted out a few self-evaluation quizzes for my colleagues which can be attempted unlimited times. Each answer they give comes with a personalised feedback on whether they are correct or where they might have gone wrong.

I may have given my usual students some bargaining power in terms of choosing their deadlines for assignment submission but to my colleagues, it was full flexibility so that they can work their study plans into their schedule. At the back, I was just encouraging them to submit before the study term begins, telling them that the consequence of submitting after is that they are going to feel more stress once their teaching load kicks in.


Sometimes I wish I had gone for the andragogy course organised by my institution earlier but hey, I’ve already did my best based on whatever I know and whatever ideas I can think of.

Understanding more about Andragogy now and reflecting on my first ever lesson delivery to adults, here are my takeaway points:

What worked really well: Learning Concepts from Problems

The idea of learning concepts along the way while working on a problem seems to work well with my colleagues. Once they have grasped the general concepts, the rest is all about searching for sample codes online to figure out how to do more advanced stuff.

Of course, there were also more stuff which I did, such as providing a set of mock questions and sample answers for the lab test. The lab test is also open book, rightfully so because that’s how most programmers do programming anyway, they code a bit, search for information on the Internet and then code some more.

What seemed lacking: Getting everyone to tap on each other’s knowledge

Robust discussions does not come naturally in my institution. With probably 400 over staff, it’s my 5th year with the institution but I still do not know everyone. One of the big thoughts is how best can I get everyone to talk and help out each other?

I’ve already set up the platform for them: there are both online and offline options for them to share their thoughts but there just seemed to be no incentive to do that, especially a good group of the class is possibly volunteered for the course rather than volunteers.

Or should some face-to-face time be devoted to pair work?

Then again, time is limited and I need them to be individually proficient for this fundamental course. However, I am glad that most of them isn’t too shy to approach me at all. The constant engagement and “love emails” I wrote to them paid off.

Man, it’s tough to change “deep-seated cultural issues” 😀 Asians are just really shy. I myself would probably bahave like that in a coding class too.

What could have been better: Getting them started

Part of what I did during the first session was that I got them started to install the required software on their laptops and start programming straight away, even if they don’t know a single thing about programming.

It didn’t work as well as I expected. I still find people who are not sure how to open what files to write codes and to run the codes. Others didn’t even successfully set up their laptops ready for development, even though I have packaged them nicely in zip files and gone through the steps in the face-to-face session.

I guessed I also assumed a lot about their technical capabilities to handle the computer and this is where my typical 18-year-old trumps them. For the next run, I’m going to write a step-by-step installation and coding guide. I probably want them to show me how they can write and run their programmes and they can be given a classroom participation score for this.

So, when do I start again?

Ideas, Journal

Pokemon GO: Perspectives from a Random Lecturer in Singapore

Pokemon GO has been making waves in Singapore since it’s launch just a few days ago.

It has managed to do what Singapore’s Health Promotion Board has been trying to do, get people to exercise! And then there is this awesome Republic Polytechnic lecturer that lays down the rules against playing Pokemon GO in class!

I’m no Pokemon fan. I belong in the age of Doraemon. I’m also one of the curious lecturer who downloaded the app to see what my students are exactly enjoying. Students always seem so surprised that lecturers are also playing Pokemon and gossiping exchanging information about students, doing the things that students do. But hey! Have they forgotten that we are humans too?

In my opinion, every hype and fab that our students are into, there’s usually a positive outcome for teachers and lecturers to dabble into. Pokemon GO is no exception. In fact, it is so big that the rewards are many folds bigger for teachers and lecturers to reap.

(1) Pokemon GO gives me an instant shared experience to connect with my students.

Such rare opportunities provided me with the chance to break the barriers with students, especially those who I may not have connected well with in a class of 20 to 24. “By the way, have you check out the Pokestop at the fountain? Remember to top up your Pokeballs on your way to the MRT”.

Pokestop at NYP

(2) Pokemon GO gives me a language to talk to my students.

Want to go through all the Pokestop in the shortest amount of time to get your refill of Pokewares? Here’s your motivation to learn about the Travelling Salesman Problem. Can’t get my students to understand a theory in class? Whip out a Pokemon metaphor, they might just get it. Pokemon GO is probably doing very well in this aspect. It is complicated enough, in the sense that I can see lots of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics behind the game. An art in every design and a technology to drive every enjoyment.An expressive example for some pretty confusing theories.

A common question I get from some people: You’re a lecturer and an educator, shouldn’t you be frowning upon games in the first place?!

Short answer: Why, whatever for? Everything in moderation. Work hard, play harder. Life’s too short not to have some fun?

TL;DR answer: Taking away the extremes, the fanatical bad publicity that Pokemon GO has accumulated which included trespassing and getting into car crashes, I placed great trust that my students will game on in a moderate manner. No need to discourage, just need to encourage them to get their priorities right if they have not done so.

After all, I am an avid gamer myself, a Level 80 Maplestory Ice Mage (without the use of 2x Exp cards mind you), guilty of playing Maplestory quietly at the back of the lecture theatre and taking photographs of lecture materials in the age when camera phones are still sucky and Nokia still champs (I use a real point and shoot camera with a tripod!). Hey, I still score an A for my AI lecturer~

The world already expects the next generation to be super-humans in many aspects; I think they should just be more human instead.


My First Self-Authored Paper

It was always a dream for me to share and contribute unique ideas on a world stage. On 13 Jun 2016, I got a little breakthrough at Turku, Finland, through the 12th International CDIO Conference, presenting the first paper which I wrote as a solo author, Industry-Inspired Experiential Learning and Assessment of Teamwork (see Page 469/470).

Perhaps this idea is not that unique unique. Original and fresh perspectives at methods found in real life would probably be how I liked to describe it. It was a small piece of work, considering that a team of psychologists from the Individual and Team Performance Lab, University of Calgary also presented something on teamwork, an excellent piece of work (Please check it out here!) which was practical, structured and on a titanic scale.

Not to mention that I had to rush out of the conference venue immediately after my presentation to meet a collaborator, leaving no time to network with those who are interested in my work.

The very next day, I saw this (see 4th tweet):


The conference organisers picked up on my research and highlighted it on their Twitter. I’m really excited about it.

Not just that, there were at least three other people at the conference who remembered my face, my name and my research. A Brazilian who worked in the aerospace industry who consulted me on leadership training for their student-trainees, a lecturer from UK who we only met over 20 seconds over the conference dinner complimented my work, and, the psychologists from the University of Calgary, who also remarked that it was a good piece!

In fact, only now, after the conference, checking out from the tweets, it might be because it was the University of Calgary who had first picked up on my research. In an attempt to reach out to me, they tweeted globally. The conference organisers followed up on that tweet and highlighted my research. No matter what the case, it is something that really excites me and I can say I am proud of.

To the ITP Lab team from University of Calgary at CDIO, thank you for reaching out to me.

I’m also glad I attended both the paper presentation and workshop by the University of Calgary too. I really learnt a lot from their experiences; they are after all the experts in this field, backing their methods by strong research. If you are interested to check out their work, I’ve put a link to their website above. The tool is free to use too I believe.


At last, a breakthrough, a small win. 🙂


my SECOND written test (part 1)

Its definitely less intimidating compared to the last time.

“You will need all the time to complete this paper! The best students in the last semester wrote from the start till the end so you better come on time!”

And they did come on time. Close to all of them did at least.

I’ve also instructed them to leave their matriculation card on their desk so that I do not need to ask them for their signatures just to take attendance in the midst of this important test.

And so they brought.

Lucky for them, they were assigned a seminar room to complete the test, with plenty of windows and plenty of light.

A conducive environment is always important when taking a test.


I’ve done all the preparation I could to help them pass the test:

  • A study guide was given to them this time.
  • A portion of the paper was really regurgitation of facts, if they can figured out what to regurgitate of course.
  • The marking scheme were adjusted such that students who are able to answer the questions just using fundamentals are better rewarded this time round. The stunts they have to do with their brains are more like bonus points which they could earn.

It is supposed to be a more motivating paper than the previous.


1.5 hours passes not too quickly but not too edgy either. Majority of the students sort of stayed around to discuss the paper with me after the test.

“How was the paper?” I was eagerly interested to know what their thoughts are.

There were many but three comments lingered in my head:

“It was ok…, but it was definitely not easy,” said a student whom I expected an ‘A’ from.

“It was difficult. You really got to understand,” quipped the student whom I expected to score one of the best.

“I have never done a paper where I do not know whether I am correct or not!” exclaimed a student whom is one of the most hardworking of the lot, whom I expected to get between a ‘B+’ and ‘A’ from.


Huh? And I thought this paper was so much simpler! I got to do lots of shitty moderation the last time round. Doesn’t sound like there is any difference in the comments I’ve heard last year.

And of course, I was terribly curious to know how well they have done too. I spent the entire weekend marking all the 41 scripts.

The problem with marking is the mundane nature of it and I tend to lose concentration doing mundane tasks really easily. However, in marking, you cannot deviate the expectations you give to each script deviate too much from one script to another so you really got to push through the marking as quickly as possible, question by question so that fairness can be better maintained.

After marking for about 15 to 20 minutes. I’ll put myself through one to two chapters of Naruto before mugging at the scripts again.

There are some more details which I really like to share but I can only talk more after the marks are officially given to the students and after the appeal period. For now, all I can share for now is that I got a beautiful bell curve after summing up all the marks. Bell curve is often unheard of in a programming module but I got one.

To be continued…