Studying Effectively for Exams
The exam period is a stressful time, and it can be difficult to know how to get started. This guide will provide you with helpful tips and tricks for staying on top of revision and standing out.
The earlier you start, the better you’ll do. ‘Cramming’ is a poor way to absorb information, and is a recipe for panic and stress. The more familiar your notes seem during exam term, the less painful you’ll find revising and the more you will take in.
Organise Your Space
Make sure you revise in a quiet, tidy, well-lit space, free of distractions. If you know you won’t be able to resist chatting to your friends, work alone. Make sure your work area only has out the notes you need for the particular topic you are revising.
Organise Your Notes
Have all your notes ready and in order long before the revision period begins. It is a lot easier to get into revision if you’ve made sure your notes are prepared and in a logical order and format as you go along.
Arranging Your Time
The first thing you need to do is make your revision plan. This is the best way to stay organised and on top of things, leaving you in control and less stressed. List your modules and break them down into smaller topics that are easier to compartmentalise and digest. Allocate each topic to different days and plan out how and when you are going to complete sub-topics.
Be realistic about what you are able to do in a day. If you cram too much into each day you’ll remember less and less and your revision will be less effective. Allocate more time to subjects you find difficult, and be sure to schedule adequate breaks and leisure time.
Don’t just study a single topic on a single day and never touch those notes again. You need to be constantly going back over things you’ve revised and testing yourself to see what sunk in. If anything didn’t, go back over it again. When making your revision plan, allocate part of each day to testing yourself and re-revising anything you aren’t clear on.
Active Learning Techniques
The Great Highlighter Mistake: every year, students think that reading and highlighting notes will help them remember or understand. It won’t. For effective revision and studying, you need Active Learning Techniques.
Active Learning Techniques
You should not be reading your notes and passively hoping that the words on the page will soak in. The best way to learn is to do something active to force your brain to focus, process and remember. This can be as simple as writing a piece of information out over and over. When doing this, you focus far more on what you are writing than what you are reading. This makes you much more likely to take it in. Of course, that is boring. There are plenty of other methods of active learning that you can incorporate into your revision.
Convert your notes into question and answer format and put them onto flashcards, with the question on one side and the answer on the other. Test yourself until you remember. As you start picking things up, mark the flashcards you usually get wrong, so that you can skip the stuff you know well and focus on what you don’t.
Like flashcards, testing yourself with quizzes is a great way to learn and revise. This site has plenty of quizzes for your to use, but it may be helpful to make some of your own just so you are not answering the same questions each time.
A mind-map is a diagram with the key topic at the centre, with branches coming out leading to more specific ideas and information. They allow you to organise and link ideas and information in your mind, which will improve your ability to plan and write interesting and original essays in the exam. This site has some free mind-maps to get you started.
If you learn well by listening, record yourself on your phone reading out parts of your notes and key pieces of information. That way, even when you are out on your lunch or exercise break, you can be revising on the go. This is best done as a supplementary revision technique, as you won’t take as much in while multi tasking.
A great way to solidify your memory is to try to teach what you know to a friend. Use your mind-maps, or make a PowerPoint presentation and give them a lesson! One of the best indicators of understanding is being able teach other people in a clear and understandable manner.
If you are trying to learn specific cases or quotes, a great way to supplement your revision is to make stickers or post-it notes with the information on and stick them to something you use often, like the fridge. Read the note before you use the object. This works best for short, concise bits of information.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Learn to apply your knowledge. Do past papers. Do lots of them. And when you’ve done lots, do some more. As well as helping your exam technique, writing essays are excellent revision, since they involve applying knowledge. This will also improve your ability to apply, understand and evaluate the facts you learn.
Set a target, such as writing an essay a day. Assign problem questions or mini-essays to each topic you study. Take full advantage of any tutor or teacher willing to mark all of your work and critique it. Look for mark-schemes and model essays written by past students to compare yours to.
If you have friends in your course, suggest setting up a Dropbox or Google Drive repository where you can read each other’s essays. Then you can see how other students approach different issues and learn new ideas and ways of thinking about problems.
Looking After Yourself
The exam revision period is intense and can be all-consuming. Staying at the top of your game mentally also requires you to stay at the top of your game physically. Ensuring that your diet, exercise regime and sleep cycle support your needs can greatly enhance your performance in exams.
Exercise is incredibly important for making your brain function at its peak. Hundreds of studies link fitness and good grades. Exercising regularly will increase your concentration, improve your memory, reduce stress and even enhance your creativity. Exercise is also vital in staving off and reducing the intensity of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders. Signing up for yoga, going for a run or scheduling in some swimming can make a huge difference.
Unfortunately, it can be difficult to commit to consistent exercise when you are under stress. This is particularly true if you have a motivation-sapping mental illness. If you are having difficulty, try creating a reward system for every exercise session. This could be a sweet treat or some extra leisure time. There are also apps which reward you with points for going outside and walking, such as Sweatcoin and Carrot. These points can be exchanged for rewards, vouchers and even real money. This makes them a great way to motivate yourself to go for a walk each day.
Always eat breakfast, even if you don’t normally. Set aside at least an hour in your schedule and cook yourself a balanced, filling and healthy evening meal. This will improve your concentration, reduce tiredness and drowsiness and generally help you work longer and harder.
If you are looking for some easy and cheap sources of food, consider food sharing apps! They provide great opportunities for free or discounted food from local restaurants and chains like Pret a Manger. Its a great way to get pre-prepared, healthy food.
You probably know by now how much sleep you need to feel properly rested. Typically, a person between the ages of 18 and 25 needs between 7 and 9 hours a night. Give yourself an extra half hour than usual. Stress impacts on the quality of your sleep, so you may need extra leeway. If you struggle to get to sleep due to stress, try pre-bed yoga or see if meditation and relaxing music works for you.
Don’t pull ‘all-nighters’ in an attempt to get more done; your sleep-deprived mind won’t take in much. Avoid caffeine pills and energy drinks. You may feel worse when they wear off and they can make it difficult for you to sleep when you do finally do hit the hay. If you are feeling tired, it may be more productive to take a short nap.
Beating the Procrastination Monster
We all procrastinate, but during exam season it needs to be kept to a minimum. Here’s some tips to prevent procrastination:
Try Something New
If you are procrastinating because you are stuck, don’t keep trying the same thing over and over. Try a different method of revision, or move onto a different section of your revision and come back to it later.
Give yourself a treat (like some chocolate or an episode of your favourite TV show) if you complete a module or finish all of your revision for that day.
Break the Work Down
Start setting yourself smaller goals that you know you can achieve for each hour of revision. Reaching your goals, even if they are easy, will boost your confidence and motivation. This will allow you to set more challenging goals without getting distracted or bored.
Ultimately you have to acknowledge that the work is not going to get done unless you do it. Try to work out why you are procrastinating. Boredom? Rearrange your topics and do one you like, then one you don’t like, and repeat. Come up with a more interesting way of revising those topics. Is it perfectionism? Acknowledge that even if it isn’t the best work you’ve done, doing something is better than doing nothing.
Dealing with Mental Blocks
If everything has gone to hell, your textbooks are spouting pure gibberish and you can’t think straight: JUST STOP.
Put the work down, do something else. Either a lighter, easier bit of work, a different type of work. For example, if you just can’t take anymore notes, try a quiz. Alternatively, stop working altogether and go and do something fun for an hour. Once a person has gotten worked up, they need to reset. Trying to ‘power through’ makes the problem worse: you can’t work effectively in that state.
If you choose to stop altogether, don’t just watch TV. Do something that involves using your body or mind: get the stress out, don’t just distract from it. This might be a good time to take that exercise break, or to socialise with friends.
If All Else Fails: It is perfectly normal to still feel panic or anxiety even if you’ve tried the above. If anxiety is seriously affecting your concentration or interfering with day-to-day activities, or you suffer panic attacks, get help. Your university should provide you access to a doctor, student nurse or a counsellor. Your health adviser should be able to help you find strategies to cope with the problems affecting you. Don’t be afraid to get help – we all need it from time to time!
Standing Out from the Crowd
Finished learning all of the basics? Done plenty of practice? Still have some time before exams? There’s extra steps you can take to maximise your marks. Remember, this comes in after you have done your revision; it is not a substitute for basic studying.
Go Beyond the Syllabus
In all Arts and Humanities subjects there exists the potential to go beyond the syllabus. Ask your teacher for extra journal articles on a topic, skim a more specialised textbook for useful extras, and then learn them the same way you learned and revised your other material. Know which academic said what and cite their opinions in your essays. Academia.edu is a useful resource for finding papers if you don’t already have access to journals.
Form Your Own Opinion
Don’t just parrot the opinions of the articles or textbooks you read either. Sit down, think about everything you have read and what exactly your opinion of a given issue is. Think about which academics agree with you, why they agree with you, and what you have to add to their arguments. Think about how you would refute the arguments of academics who disagree with you.
Learn Your Quotes
If you’re really ahead of the game, you can even memorise quotes of leading commentators. Professors say they don’t award extra marks for quotes, but what they mean by this is that quoting won’t compensate for lack of basic knowledge, writing skill and original evaluation. If you have all of that, it looks really impressive if you can include the odd quote too.
Don’t Stop Now!
Even if you are confident that you are ready for the exam, don’t stop going over things, testing yourself and doing past papers. Things can easily slip out of your head without you noticing. Keep up the hard work, and good luck!