Revision stategy for the astronomy (S282) course

All Open University courses with exams offer a certain amount of guidance as to what and how to revise for the final exam.

So, for instance, ED209 and SK277 gave a list of chapters from which the essay questions would be drawn. Unfortunately, S282 doesn’t have any essay questions so the assumption is that you will know the entire course. In practical terms that means that the amount of revision required for this 30 point course is much more than you’d normally need to do for a 60 point course.

The lack of essay questions means that there’s no difference in the approach to revision between the multiple choice questions and the short answer ones. The only practical difference arises on the day itself (the 18th is awfully close, isn’t it?) when you’ve to answer all of the multiple choice questions but only six from eight of the short answer ones. For example, “The solar spectrum can be approximated by a black-body spectrum with a temperature of 5770 K. At what wavelength, in nm, does the peak emission occur in this black-body spectrum?” could (and has) appeared as both a multiple choice question and as part of a short answer question.

So, given that there’s getting on for a thousand pages in the course books, what’s the best approach to revising for the exam?

First off, don’t forget two very important pages in the exam headed “Useful data, equations and expressions” which contain all the constants and equations that you’ll need to answer the questions and some more that you don’t need. Thus you don’t need to memorise the equations dotted throughout the course although you will need to remember what the symbols mean and, of course, what equation to use in which circumstances.

Second, the best place to begin revising seems to be to pull out all the excellent chapter summaries along with the learning outcomes (only available through the course website). If you’re doing the course in 2010 you’ll find my copy of this on the TMA4 conference under question 4; I can’t make it available here as it’s OU copyright. One important thing to note about this is that the chapter summaries don’t address all the learning outcomes although there aren’t many that they miss. Also, they don’t include diagrams thus they don’t have the frequency spectrum (required for a couple of questions in past papers) and they don’t include the HR-diagram which is regularly required in exams. You can easily add those to the summaries though.

Finally, there are the past papers. Only five years worth of these are available at any one time thus in 2010 you can get 2005-2009. Whilst somebody has quite usefully done a full analysis of where the questions came from, in reality the answer was “just about everywhere”.

A very useful approach seems to be to go through the chapter summaries, then work through the past papers to gain speed and confidence with the questions (you can get the answers from the past papers forum) and finally go back to the summaries and add whatever additional information was required to answer the questions. It’s time consuming but there seems to be no way to avoid that for this exam.

It’s also worth noting that it is possible to pass this and around 85% of those sitting the exam in 2009 passed. The questions might initially look impossible to do but with a bit of work they are doable and fairly quickly too for the most part.

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