The right way to study for exams
Students typically make studying harder than it needs to be. Our easy and effective process will help you get ready the right way7 min read Published: 5 Jan 2022
Long after college is over, graduates still have nightmares about exams. Waking up in a cold sweat after dreaming about a big test is one of the most common night terrors out there.
Exams can be the most stressful experiences in education. That is, if you’re underprepared.
We want to put you at ease. Exams don’t have to be dreaded. They’re always challenging, never comfortable, but shouldn’t be overwhelming.
This post will give you an easy and effective method for preparing for the big day. And hopefully it’ll make you think again about some common, ineffective study methods, too.
What we get wrong about studying
Research has shown that we often pick unreliable methods for studying. This same research has identified an optimal way to learn that’ll put you in a much better position come exam day. We’ll show you both.
First, let’s talk about what you might be doing now. This isn’t a lecture or a criticism. We all make these mistakes because they come naturally to us. Recognising them is the first step to studying smarter.
Mistake #1: Rereading
Rereading your textbooks and notes is about the least effective way to learn. Yet it’s a study strategy used by 84% of students. So why is it so ineffective?
Firstly, rereading is inefficient. It takes time to go over materials, wasting precious energy for activities that will really help you.
Secondly, it’s not active. As we’ve written about before, learning is about creating connections. To forge these new links, you need to kick this process into gear through cognitive effort. In other words, you need to do stuff with the information in front of you. This could be as simple as talking about the information with a friend or family member. Or it could be as detailed as creating mind maps or structured notes. Continually re-reading information just makes you a better skim-reader - don’t fall into the trap!
Thirdly, rereading is a linear process. By that we mean that you’re viewing information in a pre-set pattern, looking at information as a series of individual facts or ideas. This is unhelpful, as it’s not how we remember things. Our minds make all manner of connections as we learn. We look for patterns and points of comparison, often between ideas that don’t at first seem related.
It’s much better to recognise this and go with the grain than follow a route our minds find naturally difficult. Think about how you personally relate to the information. Do you understand it? How do you understand it? Can you compare it to anything you know already? Think a little more loosely about what you’re learning and you’ll find a better way to process it.
Mistake #2: Highlighting
It’s quite similar to rereading, but the unique problem with highlighting is what you end up with.
Highlighting text creates a series of key phrases with no wider context, contained in a source separate from the rest of your study materials. Every time you need to see a highlighted section, you need to return to the book. You haven’t integrated this information with the rest of your materials.
You might write out highlighted sections. But simply copying text from one page to another doesn’t do much for you either.
The reason is connected to the third mistake many students make.
Mistake #3: Treating your notes as dead matter
It’s tempting to think of our notes as finished articles. We got them down in class and now we just need them for reference (if we think about them at all). So maybe we’ll go back and read them over. Besides, if our notes are all handwritten, it’s a pain to reorder and add to them.
Notes are really like living documents. They’re there to be improved, refined and used for deeper learning. Thinking of them as finished is a mistake.
This is backed up by research. Working continuously with your notes is directly correlated with higher performance. It goes back to our point about ‘doing stuff’ with the information you’re learning. By rephrasing information, adding summaries and working directly with your notes, you’re helping forge those new connections in the brain. It’s like you’re sewing a new patch onto a quilt.
Ultimately, students that leave their notes alone have less chance of achieving higher grades come exam time. It’s that simple!
A better way to learn
So how can you improve your study habits easily and effectively? Here’s what we know about good study practice from recent studies on the subject, and some simple tips to improve your exam prep.
Pro-tip #1: Refine your notes
Your notes should be a place you come to to get reliable, comprehensive information on a specific subject. To get to that stage you need a process.
Glean is designed to make your notes a living, breathing study tool. It does so through a 4-step note taking method. It’s very simple. First, you capture your notes from class. Then, you organise them, making them easy to sort through and find.
After you’ve captured and organised your notes, the next stage is refining them.
By refining, we mean add detail, create summaries and combine media types. You want your notes to be complete with all the stuff you need and everything else discarded. This will help you immensely when it comes time to study for an exam.
Want the bigger picture? Watch this video to see how Glean helps you solve note taking for better learning.
Refining your notes gives your learning a real boost. Make it part of your routine.
Pro-tip #2: Quiz yourself
If you want to really learn something, testing yourself is one of the best ways to do it. Not only is it a useful study habit in its own right, it can also help you test your overall study process.
There’s a reason exams exist in the first place. Though they’re not perfect for every course, they are effective at testing your grounding in a subject through your information retrieval.
While studying, create a quiz for yourself using your notes. There are plenty of free apps and sites out there for this.
Give it a day or two and take the test. How did you make out? Use the result as a basis for your next study session. If you struggled with one particular area or concept, go back to your notes and materials and give it a once over. Try using different methods to learn the info, like creating flashcards, rephrasing your notes or talking it over with someone.
Quizzing yourself for an exam is like training for a marathon. Start off slow and easy, building intensity to the big event. You’ll have the mindset and the experience to see it through on the big day.
Pro-tip #3: Spaced repetition
If you have a test coming up soon it might be a bit late to implement this tip, but it’s an important one to think about.
How we remember information isn’t just about how well we can pick something up after first encountering it. We need to experience something multiple times before we have it encoded into our long term memory.
This means we need to find the right time to return to information. Spaced repetition is about tactically reviewing key pieces of info at staggered stages.
To try out spaced repetition, review a class...
- 1 week,
- 1 month,
- Then 6 months after you first heard it.
Set reminders to do this. You could use the sessions as an opportunity to work through Glean’s 4-stage note taking process, in which case it would look like this:
Capture your notes from class, then
- Organise your notes 1 week after
- Refine your notes 1 month after
- Integrate your notes into your studies 6 months after
It’s a proven way to learn more for longer. Give it a try!
Planning your exam prep
So let’s pretend you have an exam in 1 month’s time. How should you approach it?
Taking the mistakes and pro-tips into account, let’s plan a study schedule to get you ready.
First, here are a couple of general rules to get you started.
Rule #1: don’t try and build Rome in a day
Do a small amount of studying every day to avoid cramming. By chipping away at the subject, you’ll reduce stress and learn more naturally.
Rule #2: Get organised
Keep your study time focused and effective by breaking everything down into small tasks or daily objectives. Not sure how to do this? Don't worry, we'll soon have a guide to organisation available to help get you there.
Your exam plan
- Get all your materials and notes together. Do you have everything you need? Now’s the time to identify any gaps in your knowledge and the information available to you.
- Do you need anything from your professor? Send them an email today to make sure you get an answer in good time.
- Using our guide to organisation, plan out a schedule of work for the next week. We recommend an hour’s studying per day. Your schedule should include…
- Time to review and refine materials (5 study sessions)
- Time to put quizzes together (1 study session)
- Mock exam time (1 study session)
Days 2 - 7:
- Begin working through the schedule you’ve set out
- You should have a list of small tasks to get through. This will help you tackle bigger concepts manageably.
- Remember to avoid simple rereading and highlighting exercises. Your notes are there to be upgraded!
- Keep your quizzes fairly simple at first. This is about testing your base knowledge of a subject. You can start developing these tests as you move towards the big day.
- Keep rewards in mind
- If you’re naturally a crammer, you need to keep rewarding yourself for sticking to a plan. Set a goal and a reward for a session at the same time. That way, you have something to look forward to when you’re done.
- How did you do on your first test?
- If you’re happy with your results, well done! You have less to work on with this subject. You’ll want to test yourself again nearer the time, but you can move on to the next subject this week.
- Need a bit more work? Don’t worry, this is a good thing - now you know where your knowledge is lacking. You should spend a part of this week going over any areas you fell short on.
- Adjust your schedule
- Based on your test, change your plan if you need to. Factor in a couple of study sessions to review areas that need work (if any). You’ll be testing yourself again on this subject nearer exam time.
- Rinse and repeat
- Work through your schedule. It’s a good idea to maintain a consistent routine, so repeat your pattern from week one of combining review tasks with quizzing.
- Fleshing out notes
- As you work actively with your study materials, you’ll start to build up complete, effective notes. Just make sure you follow our pro-tip #1 (refining notes) to get the most from this activity.
- How confident do you feel?
- You’ve had a couple of weeks of organised, targeted study. Now’s a good time to assess where you’re at. Do you feel confident? If you’re at all unsure, devote more time to study. If you were working a 1 hour per day schedule, bump this up to 2.
- Get into the detail
- Two weeks is an appropriate time to reground yourself in a subject. For the final stretch you need to be focused on the details. Whatever your major is, you should look to go beyond the primary information (the facts, figures, and key concepts) and move toward your supporting material.
- Remember to change things up and make your study sessions interactive. It can be tempting to revert back to old study habits when you have a test approaching, but keep faith in your new routine and you’ll be amazed at the difference it can make.
- Run though your tests again
- Now that we’re on the final stretch, it’s time to return to the quizzes you’d made throughout your study time. Run through each and see how you do, making tweaks to your schedule to go along with your performance.
- Think also about creating new quizzes. Each time we need to come up with a list of questions, we’re helping to think about information conceptually. This is a huge boost for learning, so make sure you run through it as often as you can.
With your new study plan, you’ll find that you can learn more effectively in less time than the inefficient route most students take. Give it a try the next time you’re working towards an exam. Until then, think about how you can make your learning more organised. It’s how we build skills that last a lifetime.
Written by Luke Garbutt
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