Effectively Studying for Exams

This has been in the works for little over 8 months, and for that I apologize. I was busy, doing the things I am about to suggest you too, do in order to do better on your exams. I am always reminded that this would be a good post to write just before finals, since that is the thought most prominent in my mind. However, I do not suggest you ever try studying last minute, or “cramming”, since it rarely works for anyone past high school. As such, nothing I say here will be useful to you if you are preparing for exams that are coming up in less than 2 weeks. Good luck to you, and good bye (it is a contraction of “God be with ye” and by God, you will need it now.) So I think in the end, this post is perfectly timed after all, since this is directed at university students and most of you are starting soon this fall.

What are my qualifications to be giving you this advice? Experience. Ah yes… I was one of those high school students who never studied for anything, attended classes, barely took notes, reviewed said notes the night before/day of the exam and did great on everything. While at the time I thought I was lucky, to be so smart, it turned out to be my downfall first year of university. Suddenly, I was no longer easily one of the smartest kid around (because, well, everyone is smart at university, at something or another); also, and more importantly, I had zero study skills. I floundered for most of first year and a bit of second trying to find the adequate skills and resources to become a good student, and my GPA reflects this change. And I am fond of saying now, that I no longer consider myself an “intelligent” person, but rather, a hardworking one.

So let’s just dive right into it.

Before classes start:

  1. Do your research on each of the professors. Read their ratemyprofessors reviews, take suggestions from former students (with a grain of salt, of course, it is the internet), check the course they are making those comments in regards to. Professors, like all of us, are humans and inevitably enjoy teaching certain classes more than others and it shows. So it may be worthwhile to take into heart comments about, say PHYS 301, more than PHYS 123, if the former is what you’re taking.
  2. Be reasonable about what supplies you will or won’t need during the semester. As a student, you will forever be strapped for cash and you do not need to buy a box of pens. Go to orientation/ first week of classes events and gather a few free pens and sticky-notes booklets. My most used stationary in the past 3 years are freebie stationary. Although I have bought stationary in the interim, it’s not because I need them, it’s because I have impulse control issues and as a child held a fixation for stationary that most children hold for candy and toys. But you do not need to buy any stationary. Staplers, hole punchers, sharpeners are everywhere.
  3. Wait till first week for classes to see if you’ll even need the books “recommended” or “required” for class. My school has a textbook listing system where it tells you if it’s required or just recommended, but occasionally I’ve found that even if it’s “required”, you may still get away with borrowing it periodically from the library.
  4. Depending on whether you work with notebooks or binders best, label them, and find and insert anything you feel might be useful for that course (eg., a print out of the periodic table for chemistry, or IR spectra chart for organic chemistry labs, etc.) I like to decorate mine with relevant hand-drawn dividers too (I like binders, always easy to retrospectively add stuff). I like drawing and it gets me pumped for the class.
  5. Have a pin board to post reminders for yourself. Putting up a calendar for your schedule may also be a good idea. This need not cost money. I got a white foam board from the dollar store and painted on a black border and put a clear wrap on top so I could write on it with erasable markers. (This is a good time to mention that if you are going completely paperless, which I’m trying to do this year, all of this is doable with various apps, which will be listed in a separate post).

When classes start:

  1. Make any necessary modifications to your individual study folders/binders/etc., according to that particular class. Most of my professors post their notes in pdf format online, so I always make folders on Adobe Reader on my tablet, and organize them by assignment, HW, midterm 1, midterm 2, material, and so on. An organized work space (real or virtual) is worth investing the time into because later on it will save you time you have to spend looking for it. One of my professors were very keen on hand-drawing a lot of additions into his notes and I never had enough space on the pdf documents, so I added a unlined notebook to my collection of things I use for that class.
  2. Review the main ideas for each class immediately after that class and highlight/bookmark concepts you have trouble with. Put it on your calendar right away as something you need to either ask for help during office hours, or spend more time on later. If possible, make sure this is done before the next class. I know time doesn’t always permit this, but to really solidify the foundation of learning, you should review previous class’s information just before the class and preview that class’s notes.
  3. For subjects that require not rote memorization, but practice of concepts (eg., calculus, applying physics or chemistry concepts and equations), schedule 1-4 hours a week to use available practice problems. The amount of hours depends on how weak your grasp on the concepts/the subject is. This can be in addition to HW you are already assigned or just time to do the assigned HW. The hours should also be broken up into smaller time periods over the week. Four 1-hour sessions a week is much more effective than one 4-hour session. It also protects you from fatigue.
  4. The above also applies to other subjects where you may just be trying to understand concepts and memorizing them without needing to necessarily practice their application (as is the case with most neuroscience, physiology or psychology courses I take). It is far more effective to review your lecture notes for each class for 15 minutes per day, than it is to spend the two weeks before exams cramming. You will have learnt nothing of value, and it will feel a lot more stressful. For me, “finals season” no longer feels as exhausting or stressful as it had my first year at university. In fact, it barely seems any different from any regular day during the semester.
  5. If you keep up with your reading, get help on weaker concepts and subjects right away, all you really need to do before exams is review all the material once, just to make sure the information is salient in your brain when you are writing the test. You won’t be wasting valuable pre-exam hours relearning concepts. It’s unlikely to do you much good anyway. When you cram a lot of new information within a short period of time, you are putting too much pressure on your short term memory, which by it’s very nature has a short capacity. By rehearsing material over several sessions over longer periods of time, you encode it into long term memory. This way, you will have actually learnt something from the class instead of just cramming and regurgitating for an exam.

Week before exam(s):

  1. Casually review all the material you need to know for the exam, spending a little bit extra time on concepts that were hard to get at the first time around.
  2. For things that require practice, (eg., calculus, mathematical application of chemistry or physics), don’t worry about reviewing the concepts so much if you already get it. Just do a lot of practice questions and timed practice tests. At this point, doing well on the exam will be more about getting into the flow of doing those calculations and deductions over and over again.
  3. Try to do said practice questions or review in an environment similar to that you will write the exam in. In most cases the best you can do is a library. Occasionally I can find empty classrooms or lecture halls to study in but this is rare.
  4. You can also condition yourself to certain things to aid memory (eg., chewing a certain flavor of gun while writing the exam that you chewed while studying for the exam). I did this with coffee, since I always drank it during study session, but caffeine plus pre-exam adrenaline make for unhelpful jitters so I just carry a cup of coffee into the exam without drinking it (much). Occasionally sniffing the coffee is enough to re-focus me.
  5. Pre-exam stress doesn’t always have to be bad. If you have prepared adequately, a certain level of stress is beneficial, even necessary, to keep yourself working at an optimal pace during the exam.

    The Flow

    I recently ran out of time on a particular section of a heinous 7.5 hour exam because I felt so comfortable with the material I began to zone out in between(sometimes even while) reading passages. A little bit of stress is good!

  6. Take some time to relax and recuperate between study sessions. Never schedule back-to-back study sessions. At the very least, alternate between subject materials so at least you have fresh eyes regarding the subjects every few hours. If you have something you like to do just for fun (exercise, dance, read for fun) it is also worthwhile to schedule some time to do that. That way, you don’t feel guilty for “indulging” since it is on the schedule, and you definitely should do that. If you enjoy something, it is not a waste of time. I personally prefer very physical activities such as exercise or dance since it allows my brain to disengage from exam matters  for a bit, and the endorphin helps too.

I hope this will be helpful to everyone returning to school this fall. And I hope you have fun.

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