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The Scaffold Study System

Managing Director of Dymocks Tutoring, Mark Buckland, walks you through his tried and tested study system! Quick, grab your pens. pencils, laptops or chalk and start scaffolding your study notes.

Find it hard to prepare for exams?

One of the biggest problems that students have is working out the most effective way to prepare for their exams. Without a clear idea of what “exam fit” looks like, it is difficult to prepare in the most effective way.

In this post we review one way of preparing for exams which can make the process of sitting exams easier and less stressful. We call this the Scaffold Study System

What is a scaffold?

A scaffold is a temporary structure which is used to build something. In the context of our study, it involves creating a temporary structure to help us memorize and recall content.

How does it work?

The scaffold study system has 5 main stages. Set out below are the stages and what you need to do at each step of the process.

The 5 stages to scaffolding

Step 1: Prepare Study Notes

This is the easiest part of the process. You probably recognise the need for study notes. Where people can go wrong, however, is that they prepare study notes that are too long to be of use. For a particular topic it is generally recommended that the study notes be no longer than 10 pages. When preparing the study notes you need to make sure that you have covered off each syllabus dot point. Your study notes need to be a complete reflection of what may be tested in the exam.

When preparing the study notes avoid the tendency to write in prose. For reasons that will become clear in the next stage, it is important that your notes have headings and subheadings and that the content summary be in dot point form.

Step 2: Prepare a Scaffold Summary

It is in this stage that the magic begins to happen. 

Now that you have a complete set of study notes you are able to move to the next step. This step basically involves preparing a summary of your summary. If you have followed the suggestion to use headings and dot points your summary might look something like this (from a part of our Business Studies summary on Finance): 

You now need to prepare the scaffold. This is a list that summarises the contents of your study notes. What you do is as follows:

  1. Create a separate document
  2. List in it each of the headings used in your notes
  3. Against each heading or subheading, place a number. The number is the number of dot points that is under that heading in your summary notes.

You now have your scaffold summary notes. It is a scaffold because it represents the basic structure that your study notes are built on.

Step 3: Review Study Notes

Now that you have both a set of Study Notes and a Scaffold Summary you begin reviewing your study notes. It is recommended that you take only a few days to do this for all subjects (say 2 – 3 days). The aim here is not to make sure that you have memorised the notes but rather that you are familiar with everything that is written.

You will know that you are familiar with your notes when you can read a section and either you remember what is to be covered (even if you don’t know the exact words) or you can immediately recite back what the section covered. 

Step 4: Review and Recall Practice

This is the most challenging part of the system. It is the part that requires an investment of time plus a little bit of faith. Results are not immediate. 

What we are doing in this stage is:

  1. Reviewing our notes section by section
  2. Then testing ourselves on what the section included

This involves you:

  1. Reading a section (the heading and all the dot points under just that section
  2. Covering the section with your Scaffold Summary
  3. Looking at the Scaffold Summary and identifying the heading and how many dot points were there
  4. Then, from memory, reciting what each dot point was
  5. Checking your answer by uncovering the section
  6. Where you made errors, testing one more time by covering and reciting again

In the first week of study you would do this at least once but preferably twice a day for a full week. If you feel that you have not yet got a good grasp of the content, continue into a second week of daily practice.

After the first or second week you should be ready for the next step. In this step we move our review and recall practice to every 2 – 3 days. We follow the same process as before. That is, read the notes and then cover and recite. Check and correct if necessary.

What happens next is different for each person. However, somewhere between 2 – 4 weeks you will notice something happening. You will find that you should be able to look just at the Scaffold Summary and recall the points without even reviewing the notes. When you have reached this stage you move the interval between review and recall to weekly. That is, only review and recall on one day of the week.

Step 5: Active Recall Practice

Once you are comfortably recalling at 2 – 3 day intervals you are ready for Step 5. In this process we engage in another type of recall practice. Here, the focus is on recalling without scaffolding. The best way to do this is to get exemplar questions or past papers and practice in exam conditions. 

Once you have completed the exemplar or past paper, review the material and mark yourself. This will be an invaluable step because the ability to understand what a good response looks like will dramatically improve your writing and understanding. If you are struggling with this, have a friend or tutor help you.

Some additional tips

Tip 1: stick with it

Once you start the Scaffold System you continue it until your exams. Don’t take a break from the system at any time. It will take up a lot of time at the start as you prepare notes and start your review and recall practice. However, you will find that the time required to study progressively decreases. With enough preparation time you can get to the stage where you are only studying 2 – 3 hours a week for a subject (not including practice papers) right before the HSC exam.

Tip 2: get rest!

Studying smarter not harder is the key here. That means:

  • Study in blocks of time. Normally 50 minutes with a 10 minute break. The break should, if possible, be outside in the sun and around nature. 
  • Study no more than 8 – 10 hours a day.
  • At the end of your study session reward yourself. Do something that brings you joy and helps you switch off.
  • Study no more than 6 days a week. You need a day to fully recharge and let your mind process what it has been taking in.

Tip 3: interleave or ‘mix it up’

People tend to think that studying in a block is the best approach. That is, take a morning to study Business Studies and then, in the afternoon move to English etc. This is not backed by scientific evidence. The best approach is to mix ‘chunks’ of study so that you are constantly engaging different parts of your mind and memory.

What this means is that your study looks like this:

  • Study Period 1 (50 minutes) – Finance (Business Studies)
  • Study Period 2 (50 minutes) – Crime (Legal Studies)
  • Study Period 3 (50 minutes) – Module A (English)

Etcetera. You get the idea. Mixing it up keeps it interesting and ensures that your mind is kept engaged.

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