Work has been crazy, so you snoozed instead of studying for your WSET Diploma. Now with a month to your next set of exams, you start to stress. The textbook is long, dry and hypnotising. Whatever information you absorbed during class has all escaped you…
Sound familiar? I went through a similar emotional rollercoaster.
To make life easier for my fellow wine professionals and enthusiasts, I’ve shared five study tips and a bunch of freebies: fill in the blank maps, flashcards and practice questions. Hope they help!
A little bit everyday
Cramming isn’t a good way of studying. We all know that. Still, we can’t help but fall back into it. Perhaps this is because we don’t know exactly how bad cramming is for us.
Two centuries ago, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered the concept of the “forgetting curve”: information that you take in will be lost over time unless you actively retain it. Think of your highschool maths or history. How much do you remember?
Studying wine has its own challenges. You have to memorise what appear to be endless regions, grape varieties and random numbers on yields and ageing requirements.
Don’t worry. There are many ways to minimise forgetting and make the most of your time.
My favourite method is an old but tried-and-true one: flashcards. This method uses what academics refer to as spaced repetition, which is basically recalling the information before you forget it.
There are many free flashcard apps. Some even use science-based algorithms to repeat cards at optimum intervals to help you overcome the forgetting curve.
I use Brainscape. Its simple interface and powerful community database is great for busy professionals like you and me. I have the app on the same screen as my social media, so that I can do something useful before I start to mindlessly scroll through Instagram and Twitter.
Doing a set of 10 cards while you are commuting, lining up for lunch or waiting in a Zoom lobby is very achievable. After a week you will nail a big chunk of the study material, be it vineyard diseases or the fortified wines of Portugal.
Good habits compound. Every little effort matters. Download your flashcard sets now and make the most of your spare time!
Believe it or not, rereading is not the most effective way to study. Active recall and timely feedback help you achieve way more.
Again, research on learning shows that rereading the textbook may increase our perception of understanding. But when sitting in the exam room, our illusion of mastery often lets us down.
This is why I recommend doing practice questions and comparing what you’ve written and what’s in the textbook. Writing is a far more active way of learning. When you spell out all the relevant information you’ve retained, the neuron pathways between the question and answers will become clearer and wider, making it easier to retrieve the information next time.
The information that we’ve taken in during class is there in our heads somewhere. Knowing how much you don’t know will give you a clearer roadmap to success.
Plus, the WSET Diploma is all about writing! The more you write, the faster and better you will be at writing.
Below are some practice questions and actual exam questions. Some of them are by me and others by Alex Tsui, a WSET Diploma Alum and Oxford University PhD candidate. Happy writing!
Update July 2023
I started a free daily newsletter on Substack to send past D3 theory exam questions to fellow coursemates like you! It's completely free of charge and advertisement. The number of questions you will receive increases every 33 days, until our 25 October exam!
One of my biggest frustrations with studying WSET Diploma is the reliance on memorisation.
Except for the first two theoretical units, everything else seems to be all about small details. Fermentation temperature, bottle ageing requirements, clone and rootstock names, you name it. At this rate, you might as well start studying quantum physics on your own!
The key in memorising details is about having an overarching structure, according to Mike Bennett, a retired doctor and medical professor and the best student in my class.
Mike used an interesting analogy: we need to build a chest of drawers to store the myriad of knowledge points required to attain a WSET diploma. The wood frame is the metastructure that holds different regions and styles of wine together. The drawers can be a particular appellation, style of wine or a grape variety – anything that helps you index and receive information.
I use a slightly different tool called the Ishikawa diagram, also known as the fishbone diagram. It was created to identify why defects occurred in a product.
As a process-driven person, I love how the diagram organises and makes sense of small details into a larger process. The following is how I have adapted it to making traditional method sparkling wine for D4.
I usually draw my Ishikawa diagram freehand, tailoring the main bones to the style of the wine. What follows is an A4-size blank diagram to save your time!
Cross region analysis
We tend to study wines in silos: red and white, Old World and New World, France, Italy and USA, Left Bank, Right Bank and Pomerol, and so on. It’s convenient. It’s logical. It’s how the human mind works - putting things into boxes.
We all know siloing is bad for cohesiveness, efficiency and creativity at the workplace. Companies spend millions of pounds trying to fix this problem. Why should we take this approach when it comes to studying?
According to Make it Stick, baseball players who practise different types of pitches in one setting reported better learning outcomes than those who exclusively practise one. Players that take a varied approach develop a valuable skill: recognising and reacting to different types of pitches.
Many of the practice questions in the previous section ask us to compare and contrast two regions or styles of wine. They require both a good factual recall and the ability to think critically. This is often how it works in reality - convincing a friend why a certain Central Otago Pinot is better than a village level Burgundy.
To break down preconceived silos, we can try to look at wine more holistically across regional and state boundaries.
The following is an example of how I studied sparkling and fortified wines of the Iberian Peninsula together.
Once you step back from preconceived silos, you start to see the bigger picture and gain a deeper and holistic understanding of wine.
I have created some print-quality A4-size blank maps that cover multiple regions and countries. A preview is as followed. You are more than welcome to use them your own way!
If you prefer staying with the norm, here is a set of fill-in-the-blank maps that Alex extracted from the official course materials.
I would strongly recommend challenging yourself though. The harder the learning process is, the more likely the knowledge will stay with you!
Study wine how you would drink it
A question you may ask after reading all this: why should I try so hard? All I want is a pass so that I can move onto the next stage of my life.
But deep down you know that you didn’t spend all this money and time to get a pass.
The Diploma is a means to an end. It could be a promotion to senior buyer, a badge of expertise, or a look of recognition on your boss’s face when you pick an unusual but truly amazing wine. All these require a thorough understanding of wine that can’t be achieved through cramming.
Having a clear goal keeps us going. Creating a positive feedback loop is essential to making us happy and proud of the progress we’ve made so far.
If you are a gregarious social animal who studies better with peers, try starting a local tasting group. If you’re doing the Diploma remotely, try joining an online peer group such as the WSET Diploma in Wines Worldwide Facebook group or Wine subreddit.
In the end, wine is about sharing and having fun. Why not enjoy studying it?