We are now in that dreaded time of year for students as exams are fast approaching. Whether you are about to sit your first set of mock exams and prelims after the christmas break, or if you are a university student getting ready to sit end of semester exams, or even if you are one of those people who picked up a free online course over lockdown and are looking for more effective ways to learn, you are in the right place! I am going to talk you through my personal favourite ways to study and some tips to make sure you are getting the most out of your study sessions. These are some things that really help me but remember that everyone’s learning can look completely different, so it is important to try out lots of different methods to find the ones that work best for you!
To best way to improve your learning is to incorporate space repetition. This is the most effective way of studying to ensure that you don’t just learn information for an exam but you learn it for life. This graph is the perfect representation of what happens to our memory retention over a period of time.
As you can see, if you don’t review the things you have learned, your memory retention of those things will drastically reduce within a few days. However, if you are able to catch that reduction before it gets too bad, and review what your learned, the amount of time it will take for you to forget that knowledge will increase, meaning you will have a better memory retention. Space repetition can be used with a number of different methods, but my favourite is to use it with flashcards. For example, I would begin with reviewing my flashcards everyday. If I am able to get everything on that flashcard correct, I move it into a new pile which I will review every second day. If I get a flashcard from this pile correct, I would then move it into a new pile which I will be review once a week. You can continue this process, gradually increasing the time between reviewing your flashcards. However, if I get a flashcard wrong, then I would move it back into the pile that I would review everyday. This ensures that I am focusing my attention on information I keep forgetting instead of things I already know, meaning I will create stronger memory connections, helping me remember what I have learned for a longer time. Anki is a brilliant software that you can download onto your device which will automatically sort your review piles depending on what you get right or wrong. It is also great because you are able to have all your flashcards digitally in once place meaning you never lose or forget them.
Flashcards are a great, only when they are used right. They should contain small, connected and meaningful knowledge, meaning you shouldn’t write too much and make the card overwhelming or extremely difficult to recall. The act of making flashcards is great because they force you to condense and find the most important information. However, for flashcards to truly be effective, they need to be used actively, meaning using space repetition.
Another form of active recall I love, is something called blurting. Whether that is its official name or not, it is extremely effective as it forces you to actively recall information from memory under pressure. Choose a topic, textbook chapter, theory etc. and set a timer depending on how big your topic is – I would suggest using this for smaller subtopics rather than a whole course. On a blank piece of paper, write down everything you can remember about that topic from memory. Once you have exhausted your knowledge or when the timer goes off, switch you pen colour and then correct what you wrote and add any information that you missed using class notes, textbooks, flashcards or any other resource. This method forces you to study actively under pressure like you will perform in an exam, and helps you identify the gaps in your knowledge and the things you need to review again or spend more time on.
A personal favourite of mine is to explain or teach someone else. This can be to your family or friends, your pets, your bedroom wall or your imaginary audience, it really doesn’t matter. What does matter though, is that this forces you to make sure you have a solid understanding and can explain things in a concise and clear way which will help you with clarity during the exam.
Although visual or object association can be time consuming, it is very effective in improving your memory retention. For object association I like to use things I know I will have in the exam room, for example, a water bottle, a clock, a ruler, a calculator etc. This study method involves assigning a fact or piece of information that you are struggling to remember, to an ordinary object. This may be a very strange process at first but it creates cognitive and memory links in you brain which, when you see that object in the exam, will recall the information you assigned to it, helping with your memory retention. Additionally, spending the extra time trying to associate it to an object in your study sessions, will increase your likelihood of remembering it. Another way I like to use association to help with memory retention is through visual representation. For example, I will make an A4 ‘cheat sheet’ of all the definitions, processes, theories etc. that I am struggling to grasp. I will use distinct shapes, colours and drawings to decorate my cheat sheet. I will try memorise what information goes with what colour or shape and where on the page. That way when I am in the exam and struggling with a question, I can visualise my cheat sheet and recall the information that I need easily. I by no means have a photographic memory, but this technique really helps my memory retention for things I know I wont remember when I am under pressure.
Finally, on of my favourite methods of studying is doing practice papers and essays. The reasons are obvious as to why this technique is effective; it allows you to actively practice what you have learned, it gets you used to the time pressure, you can identify gaps in you knowledge, and you can use the marking scheme to help you improve. For practice essay, throughout the year I would write essays or at least essay plans for the topics we were leaning and I would get my teacher to mark them. From there I could tweak my work appropriately to know what to write in the exam and I would memorise essay plans which I knew would get me a good mark. For my higher modern studies exam, I memorised 21 essay plans! I most definitely went overboard and memorised far too many, however this technique really worked for me.
Now, I just want to give you some overall advice that will be helpful during you study and exam season. These tips may seem obvious, but sometimes it’s important to be reminded of the simple and easy changes we can make.
- First of all, get some sleep! I know it may be tempting to procrastinate during the day and cram your studying in during the early hours of the morning. However, your body needs a least 8 hours of sleep each night to properly function. That means if you are pulling all-nighters or not getting enough sleep, not only will you be tired throughout the day, it will have a direct impact on you concentration levels and your receptiveness to learning new information.
- Drink enough water! Water has been proven to wake you up and improve your concentration and productivity. Similarly, make sure you are fueling your body with the right foods. You body needs enough water and food to perform its basic functions, so if you are depriving your body of what it needs, that means you study sessions are probably going to very poor.
- Take breaks often!!! This is so essential to ensure that you stay concentrated throughout the day and to reduce your levels of stress.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help! Whether that be from you friends or from teachers, it is important to ask for help with anything you are struggling with – that includes things like stress and time management.
- Work smarter, not longer! It is said that 80% of your results come from only 20% of the work you put in. That means most of your studying it probably not very effective such as taking or reading notes. However, if you use forms of active recall and space repetition to focus on the things you don’t know, you are sure to have a more effective learning experience, which means you can cut down your studying hours.
- Don’t put pressure on yourself. I know this is much easier said than done, but unnecessary pressure means unnecessary stress, which is exactly what we don’t want. Grades and academic achievement do not define you worth, love or success. As long as you try your best, that’s all anyone can ever ask.
This was a very brief insight into effective study methods I use to get the most out of my time. There are so many resources online that talk more in depth about the advantages and disadvantages of each one if you want to learn more about how to improve your studying, it just takes a quick google search. I want to reiterate that this is my personal advice on how I cope with the stress of exams as a university student, but everyone’s techniques and methods will all look different, which is fine. As a university student, I want to talk more about my passion for learning and education but I know that not everyone will share my love and that is okay. If you don’t want to go to college or university to continue formal education, just know that there are many ways to continue to grow and learn as a person outside academics and I admire and support you on your decision. But if this blog post could help one person that is struggling with education, then it will make this all worth while. If you are a student, why not leave your tips and advice for studying in the comments so that we can learn from each other? And to everyone who is going through or about to enter exam season, good luck!!!