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How to Study for Exams

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Exams are inevitable for students, but they don’t have to be painful. Taking exams is stressful, but you can make it easier by improving the way you study and taking the right approach for the examination. Studying for your exams effectively and efficiently will keep you from feeling unprepared and tensed, and it will set you up for success!

There are different forms of examination. These include for example, multiple choice, essay, open book, take-home. Each of these examination types requires different approach and preparation. These tips can help you get ready for and get through your exams. They can also help you prepare for tests and class presentations, and tackle in-class assignments.

1. Pay attention in class

This seems like a no-brainer, but actually paying attention while you’re in class will help you immensely once exam time comes. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you’ll just “absorb” knowledge; be an active learner. Try sitting at the front of the class, this will make it easier to focus.

Listen carefully, because teachers often give hints like “The most important thing about this topic is…”. Or they may just place emphasis on certain words and issues. This is the real key to testing well. The more you absorb the information early on, the less studying you’ll need to do.

2. Take good notes

This is easier said than done, but learning how to take good notes will help you immensely once it comes time to study. Write down everything your teacher writes on the board or puts up in slides. Try to record as much of what the teacher says as possible, but don’t allow taking notes to distract you so much that you forget to listen. Review your notes daily, right after class. This will help reinforce the information you just learned.

3. Create an optimal environment for learning:

  • Study in a clean , quiet and orderly room. Keep anything and everything away from where you are that may cause you to get distracted. Jumping up to read a text message on your phone or periodically checking social media is ill-advised whilst studying.
  • Turn on the light! Studying in a dark room is not recommended. Add lamps at night, or in the daytime, open the window coverings (open the window a little, too). People tend to study and focus better in a brighter, oxygenated room with little noise.
  • Turn the TV off. Many students believe that they’re good at multitasking, such as studying with the TV on or while chatting online with friends. This is not absolutely true. Research suggests that this is not true for the vast majority of people. For better studying performance, eliminate distractions such as TV and loud music with lyrics. Rapidly swapping attention between studying and watching TV makes it more difficult for your brain to prioritize information acquisition.
  • Decide if music is right for you. Music’s effect on memory performance varies between individuals. Some studies have found music to aid the memory performance of individuals with ADD/ADHD, while reducing it in individuals without the disorder. Classical music appears to be the most effective in enhancing studying performance. You must determine whether you’re better off with or without it. If you do enjoy listening to music whilst studying, make sure you’re actually concentrating on the material you have to study for, and not the catchy tune that’s playing in your head.
    • If you absolutely must listen to music, find instrumental music so that the words in the music don’t interfere with your studying.
    • Listen to background sounds from nature in order to keep your brain active and prevent other noises to distract you. There are several free background noise generators available online.
    • Listening to Mozart or classical music won’t make you smarter or keep information in your brain, but it may make your brain more receptive to receiving information.

4. Find out about the exam

Different types of exams require different study strategies. Here are some tips:

Essay exams

These usually focus closely on a couple of topics, so if you are sitting an exam that requires answers in essay form, find out how many questions you have to answer so you can focus your study. For example, if you have to answer four questions, select and study four topics in detail plus one extra.

Multiple-choice exams

Multiple-choice exams usually involve a broad overview of a course, so tend to cover lecture and tutorial material. Use the course outline as a framework for study and to identify the main themes and concepts.

Open-book exams

One of the biggest myths about open-book exams is that you don’t need to study for them. While these exams don’t test your memory, they do test your ability to find and use information, solve problems and apply knowledge effectively. Make sure you are fully familiar with your texts and notes and know where to find necessary information

Know your enemy – find out as much as you can about the exam. Questions to ask include:

  • How much is the exam worth to your overall mark in the subject?
  • What type of exam is it (for example, multiple choice, essay, open book, take-home)?
  • Will there be a choice of questions or tasks?
  • How much will each question or task be worth?

5. Start as early as possible

Don’t cram. Cramming the night before is proven to be ineffective, because you’re taking in so much information at once that it’s impossible to memorize it at all — in fact, you’ll hardly retain anything. Studying before and going over it multiple times really is the best way to learn the material. This is especially true with things like history and theoretical subjects.

  • Always study when you have the chance, even if it is only for 15 or 20 minutes. These short study periods add up fast!
  • Study in chunks of 25 minutes using the Pomodoro Technique. After that make a break of 5 minutes; repeat the process 3x, then make a longer pause of 30-45 minutes.

6. Adjust your study techniques to fit your subject

 Subjects such as mathematics require a lot of practice with problem sets in order to become familiar with the processes required. Subjects in the humanities, such as history or literature, may require more information synthesis and memorization of things such as terms or dates. Whatever you do, don’t just re-read the same set of notes over and over again. In order to actually learn, you need to take an active role in knowledge creation as well as information review. Try finding the “big picture” among what you’ve taken down or reorganizing your notes by theme or date.
7. Think of your teacher
Ask yourself: What is my teacher most likely to ask on the exam? What materials should I focus on to give myself the best chance of knowing what I need to know? What trick questions or wrinkles could my teacher introduce that might throw me for a loop? This may help you focus on the most important information, rather than getting stuck on things that might not matter as much.

8. Take breaks

You need some time to have fun and it is better to study when you are feeling relaxed than to exhaust yourself studying all day! Carefully structure your break and study time. Usually, 20-30 minutes of study and then a 5 minute break is the most effective method.

    • If you have trouble bringing yourself to study, instead of long uninterrupted sessions, chunk your work into 20 minute periods, taking a 10-minute break at the end of every period.
    • Make sure that you structure the chunks logically so that you’re not breaking up concepts across chunks, as this may make it more difficult to remember concepts in their entirety.
9. Ask for help

Don’t feel bad if you need to ask for help. People you can talk to about exams include:

  • teachers
  • lecturers
  • family members
  • friends and fellow students.

If you’re feeling really stressed you might also find it helpful to speak to a counselor. If you need a counselor, click the  Student counselling page for tips for finding a counselor.

10. Sort out your subject material

Before starting to review a subject it helps to:

  • check you have all of the handouts
  • put your notes in order
  • read over any course outline or subject guide
  • write your own summaries of each textbook chapter or section of the subject guide.

Getting all your gear together makes it easier to find what you need while you’re studying.

11. Come up with your own strategies

Remember – these tips are only some of the things that you can do to get the most out of your exams. There might be other things that work even better for you.

Ask around – find out what your friends do for their exams – maybe some of their tricks will work for you as well! Maybe your teachers have some good recommendations too.

12. Review your syllabus.

 Figure out when all of your exams will be and how much of your grade they are worth. Put these dates on your calendar or planner so they don’t sneak up on you!

  • Plan review sessions beginning at least a week in advance of each exam. Ideally, you’ll do several mini-reviews well in advance, gradually increasing the time in which you study, rather than trying to cram everything into one mega session the night before the test.

13. Review past exam papers

Get your hands on any old exam papers from the subject and familiarize yourself with the structure and format. Places you can get past exam papers from include:

  • your teacher or lecturer
  • your school or university library
  • the Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority
  • your senior colleagues.

When reviewing, practice answering the questions within the specified time limits.

14. Don’t cram

Staying up all night to cram will only stress you out. It’s better to just review what you’ve already studied and get an early night. That way you’ll be as refreshed as you can be on the day of your exam.

If you want to do some preparation the night before, keep it simple:

  • Get all your materials together.
  • Read over your notes.
  • Test yourself on key concepts.
  • Set your alarm.

15. Use your reading time

The way you use your reading time can really help you make the most of your exam time. Here are some ways to use your reading time well:

  • Read all of the instructions very carefully.
  • Scan the whole exam paper.
  • Check how many pages there are.
  • Check how much each question is worth (it helps to spend more time on heavier weighted questions).
  • Plan which questions to answer first (consider starting with questions you’re confident about).
  • Plan how much time you’ll spend on each answer or section.
  • Start thinking about your answers.

16. Know where to go

Make sure you know where and when the exam is happening. You don’t want to miss your exam! Here’s how to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.

  • Check your exam timetable for time and place details.
  • Do a practice run to find out how long it takes to get there.
  • Make a list of everything you need to take with you (for example, calculator, pencil, ruler).
  • Do some study at the same time as your exams (for example, if you have an early morning exam, practice getting up and studying earlier in the day).

17. Keep your cool

Fronting up to an exam can be nerve-wracking, but here are some tips for staying calm:

  • Don’t talk too much to other students before the exam.
  • Try to get there with time to spare so you don’t arrive all rushed.
  • Make sure you have a decent breakfast.
  • Listen to some inspiring music on the way to the exam.
  • Wear your lucky shirt or bring a lucky charm (if you have one).

18. Break the questions down

A great tip for any exam is to break the questions down to make sure you really understand what you’re being asked.

Look for the key parts of the question. These can give you clues on how to answer it.

For example, for the question, “Explain the difference between study and revision”, you could split this question into four parts:

  1. Explain – Give reasons to show how or why something is the way it is.
  2. The difference – What are the distinguishing factors between study and revision?
  3. Study – What is study?
  4. Revision – What is revision?

19. Review your answers (if you can)

If you finish the exam before the time is up it’s a good idea to go back over everything, even answers you’re confident you got right. Try to:

  • review as many answers as you can
  • start with the questions you’re least confident about
  • make sure you’ve answered every question
  • make sure you’ve answered every part of every question (some questions might have multiple parts).

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