Let’s face it. Exams can be anxiety provoking and challenging.
Many of my clients experience issues with exams such as stress and anxiety as they go about their preparation, destructive patterns of procrastination, or crushing feelings of failure if they don’t pass their exams.
While the emphasis on exams is changing (as it’s becoming less common for Year 12 students to sit exams to complete the SACE, and many subjects at University do not include a final exam) exams aren’t going away any time soon.
Here are three ways to prepare better for exams.
Create an organisational system that works for you
Lot’s of students struggle with timeliness and organisational skills. This can be due to a number of factors such as balancing study with work and life commitments, learning disorders which make these skills more challenging to execute, or difficulties finding motivation.
Here are my favourite tips on getting organised.
- Simplify and organise the way to keep your notes. It’s helpful to organise your notes into a system of folders (digital or physical) so that you can find what you are looking for. Using a consistent file naming convention helps too. I keep my notes in a folder on my computer organised by subject with subfolders for lectures, tutorials, assignments and so on. Popular options include Microsoft One Note or Google Drive.
- Keep an electronic or paper diary. As David Allen said, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” Let your diary do the remembering for you. Make sure you add classes, due dates, and personal commitments. The more information you have, the better picture you will form about what time you have available and when things are due. I like Google Calendar, but Apple Calendar or Outlook is fine too.
- Use a year planner to track due dates on a longer time scale. It’s easy with a regular diary to get caught looking only at the week you are currently in. A year planner helps you to keep a clear view of how long it is until big assignments or exams are due to take place.
- Keep a checklist or to-do list. Lastly, break down all the tasks you have to do into a simple checklist. I’ve combined the tips contained in Ryder Carroll’s book The Bullet Journal and Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky’s book Make Time and use a physical notebook to write the top three things I need to do each week and day. You may prefer using an app like Todoist, Microsoft To Do, Google Keep or good old Reminders.
Many of these techniques form part of the problem solving skills that I discuss with my clients as part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
If you do these things, you will be able to organise the content you need for the exam in a way that is easier to use when preparing.
How then should you study?
Practice effective study patterns
Begin with the end in mind. What are the specific questions that I will need to answer on the exam? Frame your revision with a targeted aim with the end in mind.
In order to answer the exam questions, you need to first understand the content, remember it, and produce it under exam conditions.
This requires a simple understanding of memory science. German Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that repetition helps humans to retain information (see below). Therefore, if your exam requires recognition or active recall from memory, we need lots of repetition.
This shows why cramming does not work. I once heard a lecturer say that if he could do his entire degree again, he would not focus on summarising notes or re-listening to content, but by focusing on doing practice exam questions.
Not all exam preparation techniques are effective in actually getting better marks. Common ineffective strategies include passive strategies like highlighting, textbook reading or re-reading.
It helps to repeat exercises that simulate a real exam by getting the information out of long term memory.
Here are some examples.
- For multiple choice questions (MCQ), use flashcards. This is because it trains you to actively recall information. I would suggest turning the examinable content of the course that will be assessed using MCQs into a pool of flashcards and repeating them until you can predictably and accurately recreate the correct answer.
- For essays or short answer questions (SAQ), I suggest getting hold of past questions or making your own pool of likely exam questions, making short essay plans or spider diagrams and then practising writing essay answers from memory until you can accurately write the necessary answers under the relevant time limit.
- For both, I encourage using a spaced repetition pattern of study. Spend a little bit of time regularly doing active recall tasks, and assess how you performed each time. Repeat until you are confident on each topic. Learning is strengthened by repetition separated by breaks.
These techniques ensure that you are targeting your preparation on things that actually are relevant to the exam and simulate your performance on the exam.
But, there are lots of barriers to being able to do this effectively.
Avoid common pitfalls that lead to poor academic performance.
This is the bit that psychologists are most frequently asked about.
Procrastination often occurs when a student anxiously avoids study or preparation because (1) the study feels too overwhelming, (2) there is too much study to be done, or (3) they are unsure about where to begin.
Here are some tips on how to beat procrastination.
- Change your environment. It’s easy to scroll social media or binge watch Netflix in your bedroom. Increase your personal accountability by working in a space where someone else can see your screen. Try the kitchen, study, a local library, or (my favourite) a cafe. This also prepares you for thinking hard under exam conditions with background noise and distractions. Train like you play.
- Break the task down into smaller chunks. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of writing a large essay, or revising a large amount of content. Start small by breaking the larger tasks into a shortlist of shorter ones. For example, writing a 1,000 word essay can easily be broken down into an introduction, three body paragraphs and a conclusion. Each paragraph should contain a topic sentence, supporting details and a summary sentence. You can start with a small step.
- Reframe your self talk. When we feel anxious, it’s easy to say to ourselves, ‘I can’t do this!’ or catastrophise by saying, ‘I’m going to fail!’ Actively reframe your thoughts to become more balanced by saying things like, ‘Yes, this will be challenging, but I can do it!’
- Give yourself small rewards. We often do better when we are kind to ourselves. Studying is hard and consumes a lot of energy. I find the best rewards are the smallest such as a coffee during a study session, or walking around the block to get the body moving.
- Work in short bursts rather than long bouts. Our focus decreases quite quickly especially if the task is cognitively demanding. Try working in consistent bursts like 30-60 minutes with a short break in between. This will help you work more efficiently. Taking a break can create a breakthrough!
- Ask for help. This is probably the best tip of all. Your classmates, teachers or family members are one of your greatest assets because they can help you better understand the problems you are facing or refine the quality of your work. I once had a tutor who told me that you are likely to increase your grade by at least 2% if you get someone else to review your work. It’s also helpful to work in groups as this can help you stay focused, give you scaffolding for your revision and fun along the way!
If you are keen to learn more, check out the video, below, by Ali Abdaal, the world’s most followed productivity online creator and former doctor.
If you are keen for even more information, try Make it Stick by Peter Brown.
You are welcome to book an appointment with me to help you through your own exam study, especially if you are experiencing clinically significant distress surrounding your study.
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