Studying For Exams
Okay, the moment of truth. It’s exam time.
You might be thinking that this is where you need to put in a lot of work, but you’re wrong. You won’t have to cram. Cramming is a failure of planning.
Exam time should actually be easy. If you’ve followed the advice in this site, you’re ready. You’ve probably been ready for a long time.
Here is what makes for a successful exam.
- Spaced repetition.
- Self testing.
- Only study what you don’t know.
When are you going to start studying? How are you going to start studying? What are you going to study?
1. Spaced Repetition
Not to oversimplify, but exams are about the 3 R’s—Read, Retain, Regurgitate. You have to put stuff in your head and keep it there long it enough to put in on the exam. Getting it in there is easy. It’s keeping it there that is hard.
There are two ways you can try to retain information for an exam. The first way is to wait until you are very close to the exam and then try to cram it all in. That’s what happens to most students who don’t manage their time or have a good study plan.
Cramming is a losers game. It’s highly stressful and woefully ineffective.
The second and more effective way to do it is spaced repetition. That is doing small frequent reviews of all of your material over a long period of time right to test day.
Studies have shown that this will improve your ability to retain information over time. It’s easier, way less stressful, and assures that you’ll uncover any difficulties well before the exam.
When I was in college, I’d never heard of spaced repetition, but it’s just a fancy name for frequent review. I always did that anyway.
The concept is pretty simple. Whatever you learn, you’re going to forget it over time. If you want to increase your ability to retain the information, study it more frequently over time.
There are a bunch a studies and charts out there that show the between the passage of time and the ability to retain information over time. Let’s just say, without spaced repetition, it’s short.
Spaced repetition is frequently done with flash card apps that present the ones you get wrong more often than the ones you get right. You can do something similar on your own.
When you took notes and read your textbook, you wrote those test questions. You’ll be using those to do frequent reviews.
One big question is how far in advance should you start studying for any exam.
Again, there have been all kinds of studies that try to really quantify the time / frequency rations on this stuff. I’ll keep it simple for you: study early and study often. You can start right after you leave your first class – and you should.
It’s important for you to self-test as frequently as you can. How often will depend on the class and how well you remember the material.
You’ll know how often by how well you score yourself on self tests. If in doubt, more is better.
The key to spaced repetition is making sure you have time to do it.
You may have noticed that I’ve been harping a lot about the importance of having time in college: getting things done early, using every minute as soon as possible, and not wasting time.
One of the big benefits of that is always having as much time ahead of you as possible. Having time for frequent reviews is why.
When you do things right, you’ll find yourself done even days ahead of your deadlines. You’ll have plenty of study time blocks you can use for other things. You could get even farther ahead, or you can start using some of that time for your frequent reviews. You need to balance both.
Whenever you have extra study time and nothing due, it’s tempting to just go have some fun. Don’t waste that study block. Remember, you committed to it.
Pick a class and start doing a review. It can literally be a couple of days after your first set of notes. Just do a quick self-test and see how you do. Get some early indication of what you know and don’t know.
There is no hard and fast rule. Remember that everything you do in every class in college leads up to an exam. There’s no such thing as too early or too often.
If you have time, start using it to study. I’ll explain how next.
Start With A Complete Review
One big benefit of self-testing early and often is that you find and fix any problems well before the exam. There are no loose ends. If you wait until right before the exam to start studying, you might be in for some painful surprises.
The first thing you need to do is a complete review of your materials—the class notes and your textbooks. You’ve covered a lot of ground. Time to go back and take a high-level view of everything that will be covered on the exam.
Do you remember it all? Do you recognize all of the concepts? Missing anything? Any more clarification needed? Do you need to schedule a visit to the professor? Do you have test questions that cover every testable concept?
Take some time to review, refresh, and confirm.
The beauty of the work you’ve done so far with your readings and your notes is that you can speed through your review and get a good idea about how much time you’ll need to spend studying for that test.
Plan Your Test Review Time
Make sure that spaced repetition is planned and not just what you do with your extra time. Identify specific study blocks and add some test study each week into your plan.
Remember, it’s small, early and often. You don’t have to sit for hours studying for an exam. Just focus on one concept, one lecture, one chapter of your textbook.
In Shovel App planning study time for exams is part of the process and you can add more as an Ungraded Task.
If you can get your hands on some practice exams, start with those. Work on them as early as you can and get an idea of the format and the way that the professor comes at things on the exam. That can help when you are writing your own.
Practice exams are good, but they’re still not a substitute for self-testing with your own questions.
The way to an ‘A’ is to know it all—by heart. You’ll be sure that you can ace any exam, regardless of the form it takes. Studies have shown that being able to explain the specific concept by heart is the best way to remember it.
Read the Questions, SAY the Answers
So you wrote lots of test questions in your notebooks and textbooks. Start asking them.
First cover the notes side of your notebook with a piece of paper. Start looking at those test questions and no peeking. Scan down the side and slowly and carefully read the test question.
Now say the answer as a complete sentence. Remember, no shortcuts here. Say the answer as if you’re explaining this to someone who doesn’t have any idea about the subject.
If you don’t know it, they slide the paper down to expose the notes and then give it another try.
Just revisit the question as often as you need to until you get it down. Slow it down, think about it, say it, and you’ll learn it. If you can answer every question by heart, there is no test format that you can’t ace. None.
3. Only Study What You Don’t Know
The biggest benefit of self-testing one question at a time is that you won’t waste time studying things you already know.
Have you ever watched someone study for an exam? Students look at each page of their class notes and textbooks, scanning the material that they need to know for the exam. They scan one page and then turn to the next and the next and the next wondering if they know what’s on there.
What they are doing is looking for things that they may not know.
I had this actual conversation with my daughter when she was in high school:
“What are you doing?”
“I’m studying for the exam.” (Paging through textbook) “Really? Do you know all of that stuff?”
“Yep, I think so.”
“If you know it, then why do you keep looking at it?”
Most students spend endless hours looking at material they already know, or . . . that they don’t know. They aren’t really sure.
You’ve probably been there yourself. You tell yourself, “Okay, I know that concept. Yep, I know those. Uh, that one I better spend a bit of time and re-read that. Should be okay with that one.” And on and on it goes. Why do students do this? It’s completely ineffective and a waste of time.
Here’s a clue: it’s because they have never separated the material that they DO know from what they DON’T know. The only way they’re able to find what they don’t know is to keep paging through the same material until they notice something that they think they don’t know. Then they stop and spend some time on that. Then they start looking again. Page after page after page. Then they repeat it again the next day, constantly looking at pages that don’t matter.
That isn’t how material really sinks in. First of all, just re-reading it is a poor way to remember it. Secondly, continually looking at things you already know is a monstrous waste of time and effort.
What if instead you could focus your complete attention on only the things you DON’T know? What if instead of just reading it, you had to recite it by heart so that regardless of the form of the exam, you would absolutely know the answer?
Check Off The Questions You Know
Writing those test questions makes it easy to review what really matters in the most effective way possible.
Just look at the questions. When you’re absolutely sure you know the answer to a question and can recite it by heart, just draw a thin line through it or otherwise indicate that you know it.
Every time you come back to study, just scan down your questions. Stop and ask yourself the questions that you still don’t know and skip right by all of those questions you checked off earlier. You won’t waste any time continually looking at material you already know.
You can now focus ONLY on what you don’t know. Isn’t that where your time should be spent? When all of the questions are crossed off, you just took the test. And guess what—you got an A!
My only warning is to just make sure you aren’t crossing off questions too early during your periodic reviews. You will forget things over time, so keep reviewing everything until a couple of weeks before the exam. After that, you can check things off when you’re absolutely sure you will retain the material come exam time.
If you are using a flash card app most of them will automatically show you the things you get wrong more often and eliminate the things you know well.
The beauty of studying only what you don’t know is that you won’t over study. Most students actually study too much. They get so worried that they might be missing something that they keep going over the same things again and again. It’s hard to believe that studying for exams can be a waste of time, but it often is.
Sooner or later you will reach a point of diminishing returns. It’s time to stop. Your time is better spent getting other things done. When you know the answer to any question by heart, you know you’re done. You don’t have to guess.
Trust your system and trust your instincts. If you took good notes, read carefully, and wrote good test questions, and self tested until you are confident you have it, you’re done. Don’t waste even more time continually looking at things you already know. Use that time to start reviewing for a different exam or getting ahead on your other assignments. Move on.
The night before your exam, all you need to do is take a quick glance down the test questions and review the few remaining difficult concepts. Then call it a night.
You’ll never need to cram for exams.
I don’t remember ever studying for any exam past 8:30 p.m. the night before. My goal for that night was to be completely confident that I knew everything days before. My ritual the night before an exam? I went out for a beer. Seriously. I didn’t even think about school. I was ready and I knew it.
When I walked down the hall late at night, I’d notice lights on under many of the doors. Everyone was up cramming, probably on the wrong things, and not really learning it anyway. Crazy. Inefficient. Ineffective.
Guys would often come to my room asking if they could review my test questions and copy my essay outlines. Sure, if you think it’ll help you this late, here you go. It rarely helped them.
Self test, early and often, and don’t waste time on things you already know.
You Got Your A
You WILL get A’s. And it will be easier than ever before. You managed your time. You knew everything you had to do. And you knew you had time to get it done.
You broke it down into small bites and knew how long it would take.
You showed up at every class and sat front and center. You were totally and completely undistracted. You took copious notes and prepared them for review. You highlighted your textbooks.
You got the hardest things done early so you had plenty of time at night if you needed it. Usually, you didn’t. You were way ahead so you went out and had fun. You understood everything because you started so far ahead that you never ran out of time to clear things up if you needed to.
You wrote the test questions, and with all that extra time, you self-tested often and many weeks ahead. You never crammed at night, ever.
You knew you were ready.
You focused all of your time on the things you didn’t know and never wasted a minute on what you already knew. It didn’t matter what question was on the exam because you knew it all by heart anyway.
You will never worry about an exam ever again.
No matter how well you did on your exam, take the time to reflect on it. Is there anything you learned taking it that will give you an advantage on the next one? Was the form of the exam as you expected? Did the material come mainly from your textbook or class notes? Did the hints your professor dropped during class or office hours show up on the exam?
If you did miss some questions, ask yourself why. Go back and find the material in your notes or your book and understand why you missed it. Did you not think it was important? Did you fail to highlight it? Did you fail to write a test question? Understand exactly where and why you didn’t get it right and fix it next time.
Read every single word your professor wrote on that exam—and this goes for papers, too. Your professor is telling you exactly what you need to do differently next time. Adjust your study accordingly.
Remember, anything less than perfect is an opportunity to improve.
Whenever you think less than perfect is OK, remember this:
When I took my private pilot written exam, I got a 90% and I was very happy about it. When I told my instructor, he gave me a cold stern look and replied,
“Which 10% of flying an airplane do you not want to know?”
That will stick with me forever.
Don’t ever accept anything less than perfect. You don’t have to.