Like many people, I frequently struggled with exams during my years as a student. I always wondered why some students always performed better than others. Over the years, I started to notice a common denominator between all the students who did well, and decided to create my own ‘list’ of things that those students always did. It wasn’t that they were smarter – it was that they knew how best to prepare for an exam.
Here is a list of 10 basic but effective strategies that were common denominators – things that I found students who performed well in their exams always did:
1. Study with like minded people
The old saying that attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference by Winston Churchill stands true. When you need to focus and concentrate on something, it is always best to surround yourself with people who have similar goals and have the right attitude. When in the company of people who do not plan on performing well on an exam it is likely to impact you in a negative way as you find yourself feeding off their attitude.
Also, studying alone may be boring, and you may find yourself starting to daydream or getting up from your desk frequently. When you study with people who are committed to doing well on the exam, you will be surprised at the difference this makes. You can help each other understand areas you need clarification with and try to quiz each other to make sure you know the material well.
2. Avoid cramming
While many students put off studying for an exam until the night before, this rarely results in getting a good grade and does not give you enough time to get help with a topic if you realize you need assistance. Find out how much time you normally need to study to properly grasp the material and make sure to plan for it.
While it may be true that some students do cram for an exam and do well, such instances are the exception and not the norm.
3. Use a lot of pictures and diagrams
Reading blocks and blocks of text can be tedious and often confusing. One approach is to summarize the main key points from the text and use them to draw diagrams and pictures. This makes it much easier to visualize the information during exam time and you are able to remember all the major points. Use the major points to build up your answer.
While back in the day, the traditional pen and paper were all that was at a student’s disposal, today, software programs and apps make summarizing text a breeze. Mind mapping software is an excellent tool to use, making it easier to summarize text and build creativity. A simple program such as MindNode, Mindjet, or XMind are very effective in helping you create effective mind maps and visualize the material. Even Google offers a free mind mapping software in their Google Drive arsenal. All you need is a gmail account. Use mind mapping software to gradually build up your notes for each class. When it is exam time, you will have everything ready in a visually pleasing format.
4. Review some old exams
This is probably one of the most overlooked strategies, as sometimes, past exams are seen as outdated and irrelevant. Maybe even past exams cover slightly different topics. However, when you read through past exams, you can get a very good idea of the type of wording and questions that may appear on your exam. If you can get hold of more than one past exam, compare the exams and check which topics are common between the two, and you can almost guarantee that the same topic will appear on your exam.
Believe it or not, professors usually stick to a particular approach and use it over and over again. Carefully check whether there are recurring themes, and how many points they are worth. This also tells you which parts of the course or subject are the most important!
5. Always prioritize!
When starting to study for an exam, identify which areas you already know well. Go over them quickly, and make sure they are firmly in your mind. It might feel good to know the easy stuff, but it is more worthwhile to spend most of your time revising areas you don’t know well. Spend the bulk of your study time on areas you are not sure about, lectures you might have missed, or areas that are most difficult.
6. Get plenty of sleep the night before an exam
There is no need for you to stay up all night before an exam studying. If fact, pulling all-nighters probably contributes to a poor grade. According to research conducted by Harvard University and the University of California, Berkley, a lack of sleep can affect a person’s blood pressure, increase anxiety, and even contribute to forgetfulness. During the exam, those who did not sleep well, might find themselves forgetting answers then knew last night, and in essence, defeating the purpose of staying up all night studying.
7. Take plenty of detailed notes
When preparing for an exam, your lecture notes are probably one of the most important tools you have. Most professors and teachers focus on the most important areas in class, and you can almost guarantee that the areas they highlighted in their lecture will be on the exam. Using notes also helps you focus most of your reading without the distraction of the textbook’s seemingly endless text. If you find it difficult to take full notes during class, it is best to make some shorthand notes and write them out once you get home. Take an hour or two to really write down some detailed notes – more often then not, you will be glad you did.
8. Take regular breaks
It is easy to burn out if you study for hours without a break. In order to stay focused and avoid losing concentration, it is important to take regular breaks. It is a good idea to take a 10 minute break from your desk every hour. It is also important to make sure you avoid extending the breaks too much; always commit to returning to your studies. You may find it useful to have an alarm clock on your desk that indicates when its time to take a break and when it is time to return back to studying.
9. Always stay motivated
One of the biggest problems with studying is actually getting started. Personally, procrastination was my biggest problem. By being motivated to study, you will find it much easier to get started. One strategy is to visualize the grade you want for your exam, and set your mind to achieving it. Another strategy is to break down your study material into smaller more manageable tasks that do not discourage you from the whole studying process.
10. Ask for help if you need it
Finally, if you find yourself stuck on a question or you are unsure of what the question is asking, don’t spend too much time lingering on it. Ask for help. Sometimes, a tutor or professor can explain something to you in a matter of minutes, which otherwise might have taken you much longer to figure out by yourself. This alleviates a lot of stress and makes sure you are better prepared for your exam.
More great tips and ideas for improving your study skills
Find out what affects your grades through The University of New Hampshire’s CONNECT Program
Learn more about Study Skills and Tutoring from Harvard University