How do I effectively memorise literary criticism for my A-Level exam?

Getting to grips with a wide range of critical viewpoints is, without fail, one of the largest concerns for students when it comes to A-Level English exams. However, with a little guidance, you discover that the best way to go about learning criticism for use in your exam is to make it as simple for yourself as possible, and it's easy to find a way that works well for you.

The first step is to check your exam board's mark scheme thoroughly.

If your exam board requires direct quotation from critical sources:

Your revision needs to be very focused when working with direct quotations. Paradoxically, however, this focus needs to be on finding the broadest and most all-encompassing quotations possible. Not so much that they don't really say much about your text or your themes, but to a level where they can be usefully employed in a variety of situations. Having a barrage of quotations specifically on Caliban if you're studying The Tempest is fine, but will you remember all of them in the exam? It's much more useful and far less stressful to find two or three broader quotations about colonialism in Shakespeare's writing, or engagement with nature in The Tempest. When you've got a key set of quotations ready, it's time to memorise. At this stage, if you have any quotations that are a little wordy, or are relatively long, cut them down or use [...] marks to take out unnecessary waffling from the middle of them. Making it as easy for yourself as possible is guaranteed to mean that you're more likely to remember the quotations and actually be able to engage with what they mean.

If your exam board necessitates only paraphrasing or acknowledgement of the ideas presented in critical sources:

If your exam board necessitates only paraphrasing, then you can take a stack of flashcards, and on each one put a critic's name on one side, and a few bullet points covering their key ideas on the other. Don't make these bullet points too long or excessively complicated -- most likely, when in the exam, you'll be looking at broad ideas and so your conceptual understanding of critical viewpoints must also be able to span a wide range of broad ideas.

Tried-and-true revision exercises

Have a go at some of these exercises and figure out which ones fit well with your learning style. Naturally, it can be hard to determine which ones really "work" for you, so when it comes around to figuring out which ones you might deploy for your exam revision, choose the ones that 'feel right'. Trust your gut instinct -- it'll work out. (There are also many, many more methods of learning and revising than featured below, so don't think that this list is prescriptive or comprehensive!)

1. Repeat quotations or bullet points aloud to yourself over and over again, until you've reached a stage where you can use flashcards of critics' names and be able to recite the quotations or summarise the ideas you've memorised for them.

2. Make flashcards, each one with a critic's name on one side and a quotation or set of bullet points on the other. You can test yourself by flicking through one side of all the cards at a time, naming critics by their views/quotations or vice versa.

3. Ask a parent, friend or sibling to help you -- they can test you on your memory, and an interactive approach is engaging for those who find it difficult to simply stare at words on a screen or sheet for long periods of time.

4. Write by hand! It's surprising how well some students are able to remember something important by simply copying it out by hand a few times. It creates visual and kinesthetic prompts for when you're actually in the exam with the same pen in your hand.

5. Sit with past exam questions and try and determine which quotation or critic or idea you'd deploy for each one. This will help you remember (and test your other revision) by putting your learning into a practical context, and as such is best for the later stages of your revision.

To summarise: figure out what your exam board wants; select information and quotations accordingly; adapt your information and quotations for purpose; learn them via any one or several of a multitude of methods; start to apply your learning to an exam context... and then go into your exam feeling calm and prepared!

Francesca C. GCSE English tutor, A Level English tutor, GCSE English ...

2 years ago

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