Exams

You’re Ready Already

22 min read

“Well, tests ain’t fair. Those that study have an unfair advantage. It’s always been that way.”
—Allan Dare Pearce, Paris in April

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. Exam time should be easy. You’re ready. You’ve probably been ready for a long time.

One of the most important things you should be doing is small but frequent reviews of all of your material as often as you can. Studies have shown that this will improve your ability to retain information over time.

Hint: The test questions you’ve been writing in the margins of your reading materials and in your class notes will be useful here…

Spaced Repetition

Not to oversimplify, but college is about the 3 R’s—Reading, Retention, Regurgitation. Putting stuff in your head and keeping it there long it enough to put it on the exam.

Getting it in your head is easy. It’s keeping it there that’s hard.

There are two ways you can try to retain information for an exam. You can wait until the last minute and try to cram it all in, or you can take small bites over a long period of time and keep repeating that until test day.

Any guess which is better?

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. Studies have show that the rate is pretty predictable. If you want to retain the information, study it over time.

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 test questions. There have been all kinds of studies on this stuff, but here’s the key: study early and study often.

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.

In simple terms, you’ll know how often. As you get into the material you’ll get a feel of how hard it is and how much you already remember. If in doubt, more is better.

I’ve been harping a lot about the importance of time in college: getting things done early, using every minute as soon as possible, not wasting time, and always having as much time ahead of you as possible.

Spaced repetition is why.

When you are efficient with time, you’ll find yourself done even days ahead of your deadlines. You’ll have plenty of study time blocks where you can decide what to do. 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 time, don’t waste the study block. 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 recognize all of the concepts? Missing anything? Any more clarification needed? Do you need to schedule a visit to the professor? 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.

Self-Testing

If you have the opportunity to take practice exams or review actual previous exams, start there. That will give you the best idea of the format of the exam and how the professor approaches the questions. Ask the first day of class. You’ll get a lot of information about how to structure your own questions going forward.

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

You’re going to know it all—by heart. That’s the best way to make sure you can ace any exam, regardless of the form it takes.

Read the Questions, SAY the Answers

First cover the right side of your notebook with a piece of paper. Start looking at those test questions and don’t let yourself sneak any hints. No peeking. Scan down the left side and slowly and carefully read the next test question.

Now say the answer as a complete sentence. Remember, no shortcuts here. I want you to say the answer as if you’re explaining this to someone who doesn’t have any idea about the subject. Studies have shown that being able to explain the specific concept by heart is the best way to remember it.

Slow it down, think about it, say it, and you’ll learn it.

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. And it never works.

Don’t have this conversation:

“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?”

That’s the problem. 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. It’s completely ineffective and a waste of time.

Why do students do this?

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.

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?

Remember all of those test questions you wrote? That’s where they come in. Did you take the time to write those test questions on the side of your class notes? How about when you read the textbook?

Writing those test questions makes it easy to review what really matters in the most effective way possible.

Check Off The Questions You Know

Now all you have to do is just look at the questions. When you’re absolutely sure you know the answer to a question, just put a checkmark next to it.

As you scan down the left side of your notes, 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!

Just make sure you aren’t crossing off questions during your periodic reviews. Only check off questions during the last week before the exam when you’re absolutely sure you will retain the material come exam time.

Don’t OVER-Study

The beauty of doing it this way 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 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 elsewhere. 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, 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.

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.

I don’t remember ever studying for any exam past 8:30 p.m. the night before. And you won’t either. 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 never did.

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.

Post-Exam Review

No matter how well you did on your exam, take the time to reflect on it. Is there anything you learned from 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? Was it part of a self test question? Understand exactly where and why you didn’t get it right because there is no reason not to know the answer.

This is especially important when you get the exam back: 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, and most students never even look.

Remember, anything less than perfect is an opportunity to improve.

When I took my private pilot written exam, I got a 90% and I was happy about it. When I told my instructor, he gave me a very stern look and replied, “Which 10% of flying an airplane do you not want to know?” Good point, and one that will stick with me forever.

Don’t accept anything less than perfect. Use everything you missed as a learning opportunity.

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