1. Find out as much as possible about the exam.
Consult the course outline and ask as many questions as possible. Be prepared about the structure, length and format of the exam. Is it open or closed book? Some topics may not be assessable and finding this out may seriously cut down your revision time. In addition, ask the lecturer about their expectations in terms of answering questions. How do they feel about bullet points, abbreviations, diagrams etc. Though lecturers try not to give too much away about the exam, they are human after all and want you to do well. it doesn’t hurt to clarify as much as possible. If there is a revision session, make sure you attend or that you have a friend to brief you on the details. At the revision session I attended this weekend, the lecturer advised us he would not include any calculation questions in the exam, this reduces my revision content by at least 30%. Had I missed this session I would be doing a lot of irrelevant and stressful revision. If you know any students who have had the same lecturer or completed the same course, ask them for pointers however keep in mind that courses can change significantly even in the same year.
2. Regularly revise throughout the course (i.e. avoid cramming).
Keep up with the course content on a weekly basis, taking notes and practising any exercises that are allocated for that week. Keep records of the questions that you answer incorrectly. This will dramatically cut down on your revision time and ensure the time is used for just that, revising rather than cramming. I was a serial crammer during my undergraduate studies and remember hardly anything from the course. Regularly building on knowledge throughout the course helps to embed the information into long term memory rather than short term memory. Many lecturers have commented that when they set a weekly quiz in the course, a student’s final exam grade will be much higher because they have been regularly studying the materials in order to pass the weekly quizzes.
If you do need to cram, try and buy yourself at least 1-3 days to cram (rather than the night before). I recommend getting a good night’s rest before the exam, however there have been plenty of times when I’ve resorted to Red Bull and No Doz caffeine pills to keep me going (insert obligatory disclaimer here).
3. Understand how you learn.
People generally have a preference for absorbing information verbally or in writing. Determine the method which works for you and tailor your revision around that method, or a combination of both. For example, I prefer to take notes as I revise because I find that I commit information to memory better when I see it in writing, and better yet, when I’ve typed it out myself in my own words. Whereas, if you’re a verbal learner you may prefer to arrange a study session with friends to discuss and workshop the information. Generally having the TV on in the background is advised against, however I find that I abandon studying when it’s deathly silent, me and the books. I like to have music or the TV on in the background and find that I can study for extended periods of time this way. Similarly, some people study better in coffee shops or the library where there is ambient noise. Other important factors include choosing an optimal time of day to study and choosing a study space that you’re comfortable in, ideally with some natural lighting.
4. Break up your revision sessions.
Keep an eye on how long it is before you lose your attention span and give yourself a break. You need refueling and rest to study productively so break up your study session accordingly, by rewarding yourself with food, naps and exercise. You will return to your studies feeling refreshed and much more productive, rather than studying sub-optimally just because you feel like you should be putting in a certain amount of time.
5. Have a game plan.
Studying for an exam is like anything where you have a goal in mind, the goal is much easier to achieve if it is SMART i.e. specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound. I like to work out the grade that I’m sitting on before going into the exam, in order to ascertain the result I’ll need for the exam to achieve the overall mark I’m aiming for. I also go to the extent of determining what the grade will be if it is scaled down.
In terms of an actual game plan for studying, I keep a mental, or actual, list of the steps I need to accomplish in order to thoroughly revise. This may be along the lines of:
- revise notes for week 1
- re-read the textbook readings for week 1
- practice all available assessment and exercises for week 1
- make a note of where I need to improve for week 1
- Repeat 1-4 for the remaining weeks.
- Consolidate all available notes for the course
- Attempt the practice/prior exams
If I have time left, I will return to the weeks that I found most challenging and start again.
6. Test yourself.
It’s easy to lull yourself into a false sense of security regarding your understanding of the course material. When completing practice exams or quizzes, make sure you practice under exam conditions. Distill down the key concepts in the course material and test yourself by explaining those key concepts without referring to the course material. Even if an exam is open book, you are at a time advantage if you can recall concepts from memory, and are more likely to be succinct and clear in your answers. Importantly, be honest with yourself. Generally we gravitate towards things we are good at and avoid things we find difficult. Rather than revising the topics you find easy, force yourself to master the topics that challenge you.
7. If you must procrastinate, be smart about it.
I can’t help it, I’m a procrastinator, having picked up the habit in high school by finding out I could do the bare minimum and still obtain good marks. To counteract this, I always ensure my weekend is clear leading up to my exam, so I have time to get around to the revision that I should have started weeks prior. I also am aware of my usual procrastination activities, being cleaning and grocery shopping, so I build in buffer time to give the house a good clean and stock up before I get started. I also try to do meaningful activities when I’m procrastinating so I’m not just wasting time. Yes, a lot of the time I am undoubtedly wasting time reading obscure articles online, but other times (like right now) I’m being productive in other ways. At the end of the day, I mostly always have sufficient time to study, so I’m not too hard on myself about the procrastination.
8. Be organised.
As soon as the exam timetable comes out, I put the venue, time and date of the exam into my diary. I do this because I know that amidst the stress and sometimes chaos leading up to an exam, I will need to retrieve this information quickly. Similarly, pack your bag the night before the exam (calculator, notepad, pens, snacks, water, student card) so you’re not frantically rushing around on the day. If you haven’t been to the venue before, look it up and give yourself plenty of time to have a light meal and get there on time. If your exam is open book, smart pagination, a contents table, tabs etc are your best friend as you may need to access large amounts of information quickly. Can you bring in soft copy materials and use your laptop? If so, optimise your notes so they are searchable and consider using spreadsheets to help you perform calculations quickly. Further, regardless of whether an exam is closed or open book, having model answers to predicted questions will help to focus your thinking, however be flexible and open to nuances during the actual exam.
9. Maintain your inspiration.
A significant part of studying is being in the right mindset. Remind yourself why you’re studying the course to keep yourself focused and motivated. I also tend to think about how I’d feel if i received certain grades and remind myself there are no excuses if I do receive a less than desirable grade. Perhaps there is a dream job you’re vying for after you graduate and high marks will help you secure an interview. Perhaps you just don’t want to have to repeat the course and incur the costs that come with it. Picturing various outcomes and correlating those with the level of effort you put into revising can be very motivating.
10. Reward yourself.
It’s nice to have something to look forward to after the exam, to keep you feeling optimistic. Book something rewarding such as a dinner at a nice restaurant, a massage or a day trip to celebrate the milestone and the hard work.
What are your top studying tips? Post them in the comments section below and good luck with exams!
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