How to Study For Exams

How To Study For Exams

Exam Preparation The Easy Way

Okay, the moment of truth is here. It’s exam time.

You might be thinking that this is where you need to put in a lot of effort, but you’re wrong.

If you’ve followed the advice on this site, you’re ready. The exam  should be easy. You won’t have to cram.

Everything you have done so far has prepared you for this moment. You’ve taken good notes. You’ve read and highlighted your textbooks. You’ve written test questions for you to practice.

So how are you going to convert all of that into a better grade? You’re going to self test. You’re going to ask yourself those questions and you’re going to do it early and often. You’re going to focus on what you don’t know, and not waste time on what you already know.

Here’s how.

1. Spaced Repetition

Cramming is not the way

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. Cramming is highly stressful and woefully ineffective. It’s not how to study for exams.

The second and more effective way to do it is spaced repetition. That involves doing frequent reviews of all of your material over a long period of time leading up to your exam.

Studies have shown that this will improve your ability to retain information over a longer time. It’s easier, way less stressful, and helps you identify things you don’t know way before the exam.

The concept is pretty simple. It’s just practice. Think of anything else that you are good at. Maybe it’s guitar, chess, or baseball. It doesn’t matter.

The way people become good at anything is to learn one small skill and then keep building on each of those slowly over time. Learn new skills, but keep going back and practicing the old ones. Pretty soon, you’re just good at it.

Spaced repetition is the concept behind flash card apps that present cards you get wrong more often than the ones you get right.

You’re going to do it the same way with studying for exams.

When you took notes and read your textbook, you wrote test questions. Each one of those questions is one of those small skills. 

When to start studying for an exam?

How far in advance should you start studying for an exam?’

You can, and should, start studying for your exam as soon as you have your first set of notes or have read your first chapter.

As soon as you have anything to review, you can start reviewing it. All the better if it isn’t a lot. Do small amounts of review frequently over a long period of time leading up to the exam.

The more time you have, the better your retention is going to be.

It also makes it easier. You can focus on one chapter or even just one question at a time.

Give Yourself Time To Study

You may have noticed that I’ve been harping a lot about the importance of having time in college. Doing a schedule, knowing your study time, and using every minute of it that you can.

Study time isn’t only about getting your assignments done. It’s also about having time for those frequent reviews.

When you manage your time well and get thing done early, you’ll have plenty of study time blocks you can use for other things.

Whenever you have extra study time and nothing due, it’s tempting to just go have some fun. Don’t waste it.

Plan your test review time just like any other task. Identify specific study blocks and build it into your plan.

Even the smallest study time blocks can be used for doing a quick review.

Start With A Complete Review

One of the benefits of early preparation is that it forces you to do a complete review of your materials—the class notes and your textbooks.

Are your notes clear? Do you understand all of the concepts? Do you need to schedule a visit to the professor? Do you have good test questions that cover every concept?

Once your materials are ready, it’s time to start testing.

2. Self-Testing

Your wrote a lot of test questions to do self testing, but if you can also 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.

While practice exams are good, they’re still not a substitute for self-testing with your own questions.

Studies have shown that being able to explain a specific concept by heart is the best way to remember it. Self testing is the best way to do that.

If you know your material by heart, it doesn’t matter what form your exam takes, you’ll know it.

Read the Questions, SAY the Answers

Open up your notebook and textbook. Start asking the questions.

Remember, you took notes using the Cornell Note Taking Method. Your notes are on the left and you then wrote a test question for each concept on the right.

Now you can just cover the notes side of your notebook with a piece of paper. Start looking at those test questions, and no peeking at your notes. Scan down the side and slowly and carefully ask yourself each test question.

How to study for exams example with Cornell notes Method

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, then slide the paper over to expose the notes, do a quick review, and then give it another try.

Revisit each 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. 

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. 

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? 

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.

Studying for exams crossing off test questions self testing

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 still retain the material by exam time.

Again, a flash card app can will automatically show you the things you get wrong more often and eliminate the things you know well.

Don’t OVER-Study For Your Exam

The beauty of only studying 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. 

Sooner or later you will reach a point of diminishing returns. 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 your instincts. If you took good notes, read carefully, wrote good test questions, and self tested until you are confident you know it, you’re done.

Use your time to start reviewing for a different exam or getting ahead on your other assignments. 

Final Review

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. (The drinking age in Nebraska was 19 back then!) 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.

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.
You knew you had time to get it done.

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 read every reading assignment and 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 had plenty of time to clear things up if you needed to.

You wrote you own test questions and you self-tested early and often for many weeks ahead.

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 never crammed at night. You knew you were ready.

You will never, ever, worry about an exam ever again.

Post-Exam Review

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?”

Ouch! That one will stick with me forever.

Your grades matter. Don’t ever accept anything less than perfect. You don’t have to. You know how to to study for exams. Don’t cut corners. Do it right the first time and every time.

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