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How To Maximise Pre-Exam Study

Fiach Smyth

Oct 10, 2017

For many people it's the last couple of weeks before exams, so how do you study?  You have multiple exams in a small period, and you'll be better prepared and more confident about some than others.  Which approaches give the best returns with the least time requirements?  What's going to be most effective?  How do you hammer down the weak spots without losing touch with what's working?

Here are 11 tips to help you make the best use of this crunch time.

Don't radically change anything

Or at least don't try to innovate a whole new study approach right before exams.  If you already have a study regime, and it's been working for a few months, or all year, or for several years, don't mix it up.  You have learned to study in a particular way, so even if you now feel that there is a better way to study, you're best doubling down on what you've already got.  The thing about study is its largely about familiarity: you are attempting to make yourself comfortable with the information, the skills, the exam questions, so that when you are in an actual exam you already know what to do.

If you have a study strategy that is working for you right now, stick with it.

Identify your weak spots ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

And your strong points.  If you know that you've got maths in the bag but you struggle with Russian History essays, be conscious of that fact.  Why is Russian History hard?  Is it because you keep forgetting the timeline?  Is it because the essay questions confuse you?  Are you having trouble remembering your primary sources?  Drill down into it and see what it is that you are tripping on.  If you can, spend a little extra time just trying to embed those things that are causing you trouble, get them stuck in your head by writing down timelines daily, being quizzed on them, or practising breaking down essay questions - just go over and over and over it to get those sticking points stuck in your head.

But don't forget you have strong points too.  Everyone has something they're strong with, and something they find a challenge.

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Review past exams

And maybe attempt a few.  Past exams and practice tests give you a very good idea of the range of skills and knowledges that exams are intended to test, because while the questions may change, the testing base does not.  If you go through an exam and have trouble with particular questions, that's great: now you know what you need to focus your prep on.  It's also always helpful when you get your actual exam to find it familiar and similar to the exams you were expecting.

Don't neglect your strong subjects

There's a tendency right before exams to want to focus on the things you find hardest - the last two points were about doing precisely that.  And that makes sense: something with which you struggle needs to be lodged in your head before you go into that exam room.  But don't forget to revise the subjects you are already across.  If you're good at physics, for instance, you still want to make sure those formulae are in your head and not going anywhere, that you remember how to work certain proofs, that particular key terminology is fresh in your mind.  You're going to spend less time on this, but don't spend no time or you'll be kicking yourself when you drop a few marks for forgetting something.

The best pre-exam study for strong subjects is to quickly run through one or two questions per skill, or essay plans in the case of essay-based subjects, and to review formulae, terminology, or anything else that needs to be remembered.

Study with others

The benefit to a study group or collaborative study is that you can ask someone right on the spot to help you with something you're stuck on, while it's right there fresh in your head.  And if you're the person being asked for help, then explaining a question or a concept to someone is a huge aid to you remembering it yourself.  It also allows you to do exercises like quizzing each other, and gives you a chance to check out each other's study notes, which may highlight some things you didn't think of when making yours.

You don't want this to be the majority of your study, but mixing things up a little bit can help you think of things in a different way, which is great at keeping things fresh in your head.

Study everything every day

Or almost everything almost every day.  Don't spend one whole day studying maths, then one whole day studying English, then one whole day studying Chemistry.  At this point you want to be scooting through questions rapidly, and frequently, so that answering them becomes second nature.  If you're trying to remember something you have more success frequently touching on it briefly than you do intensively cramming a lot of it over and over in one sitting.  Focus this approach on those subjects that need the most review or the most support; realistically you can't study everything every day, so you might skip one or two of your stronger subjects every day or two, but keep everything on high rotation.

The one exception to this is the day before an exam, when you should be focused mostly on that particular subject.

Actually write things down

You want to save time, you want to study quickly, and it's natural to notice that reading notes is quicker than writing things down.  In the exam, though, you're going to be writing answers, so writing things down should be a part of your pre-exam prep.  See here's the thing: we feel like we understand something, but when we try to actually explain it, it doesn't always come out right, or easily.  That's how our brains work: the way we store information, and the way we communicate information, are not the same part of the brain.  Understanding in your head how Stalin came to power in the USSR is great, but you're going to be assessed on how well you can put that down on paper, so putting it down on paper should be a part of your exam prep.

Also, writing things down engages your memory in a different way to reading something, so putting pen to paper enhances your memory of things.

Don't write anything off

I hear all the time about students who believe, a week or two out from an exam, that a particular topic is just a write-off so they're going to scrap it and focus on the things they can do.  This is a huge mistake.  Let's say you're struggling with the Discovery module in English.  You don't feel you're going to be able to write a good essay on that topic.  Sure, maybe you're not going to be able to get up to a twenty out of twenty mark for that essay in the short time you've got, but what about 14 out of twenty, or even 12 out of twenty?  A huge chunk of the marks you get for an essay are for being basically competent.  If you have a basic essay structure, and you've shown you understand the question then even if your essay is not good you've got half or more of the marks right there.  Throw in a few good references to the texts, use all the texts, and give a very basic short couple of paragraphs and there's a few more marks.  Is it a great essay?  Maybe not, but the amount of effort you need to put into getting a few extra marks out of a topic with which you are struggling is less than the amount of effort it takes to get from 16 to 18 out of twenty in a topic in which you are doing well.

The same goes for maths.  If you have a 4 point maths question, the first point will be for getting the formula or initial break-down correct, one point will be for the answer, and the rest will be for the working.  Even if you can't get to the answer you can sneak 50 per cent of the marks just by getting a few steps down on paper, so don't just write them off.  There are a whole lot of marks to be picked up even in areas where you are not strong.  Give yourself the best chance to grab those marks.

Don't study all night

You hear this advice all the time, and there's a reason for that.  As much as doing study is critical to your success, your brain needs some time to settle, for the things in your immediately active memory to migrate out of there before you start cramming more knowledge into your head.  Study in short blocks with short breaks in between where you go and watch a video on YouTube, or have a sandwich, or play with the dog, or do a quick spot of resource gathering in Minecraft.  If you spend 45 minutes going through a maths exam paper, take ten or fifteen minutes to walk around afterwards before coming back to start on your English prep.  Don't feel guilty about this break.  It is not wasted time; if you try to power through multiple hours of study in one uninterrupted sitting, you're going to experience fatigue which impacts your ability to retain information.  If you want the maximum benefit of a study block, break after it.

And definitely don't make yourself overtired by studying past the point where your body wants to sleep.  Stop when you're tired, for the same reason as above: study done while tired is less effective, so rest instead so you're refreshed for more study later.

Don't cram

But also do, a bit.  Last minute cramming on the day before an exam or even on the bus ride to an exam or when sitting in the playground before an exam can actually be helpful, in one very specific way: as a memory aid for precise information.  You can't cram the meaning of the theme of Love in a Shakespeare play, but you can totally cram a particular quote for use in an essay.  You can't cram the socio-economic situation in Wiemar Germany that led to the rise of facism, but you can definitely cram the date of the Beer Hall Putsch.  If you have a little book that lists terminology for science, dates for history, key quotes for English, formulae for maths, reading over these to try to get them stuck in your active memory actually does have some effect.  It's not a good way to study in general, but assuming you just need to memorise a few quick facts, it can definitely be worth your time as last-minute intense revision.  Just save it for the day before or day of the exam, as over longer periods this strategy won't produce much.

Don't panic

This is the last tip, and it's the least practical, and the one that you're going to look at and think: "They only added this so there'd be an upbeat ending to this article; it's not real advice."  Understand that this is real advice.  It is demonstrably true that students with a positive mindset have better retention of information, improved capacity to onboard new information, and perform better under exam conditions.  There are all sorts of physiological reasons for this, to do with the 'fight or flight' wiring of our brains and the effect of hormones released when we are over-stressed or frightened.  

So here's what you need to remember:

Whether you're an A student or have struggled with this academic year, you have already put into your head a phenomenal amount of information, a whole raft of knowledge, and learned and developed a range of skills.  Don't stress about the few things you don't know, or might forget when you get into the exam; remember the huge amount you have definitely got a handle on.  And you have a week or two to review that and round it out and maximise your ability to earn marks when you get to the test paper.  If you've studied all year, you're going to be polishing your knowledge.  If you've not studied, you're going to be identifying gaps, solidifying the easy marks, and gaining a familiarity with the content.

So don't run yourself into the ground with any of this prep.  Study is important, and it makes a difference to your performance in exams, but if you understand that you're already in possession of the bulk of what you need to succeed and are simply using study to make sure that information is organised and familiar and accessible when you need it, it's a lot less stressful than just focusing on all the things you think you don't know.

 And if you feel like you could do with a little extra help, connect with one of our specialists to boost your confidence before the exam. Try it today. 

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