Study Tips and Strategies to Prepare for Examinations

Study Tips and Strategies to Prepare for Examinations
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Taking exams can make or break one’s academic credentials, one that may have an impact on the students’ life way onto adult life. Whether it is the midterms or finals, or a surprise test, an exam is one way schools measure student aptitude in the form of test scores. Some universities even treat exams as the sole metric for traditional or standard based grading. Learn more about what is standard based grading.

With so much burden put on school tests, the pressure is on for students. But taking exams not need be stressful. With a study strategy, one can prepare for tests with more confidence. The article provides the eager learner with practical study tips and strategies to prepare for examinations. The tips not only include actual studying techniques, but also proper nutrition and sleep habits.

It should be noted that preparations for examinations and similar requirements are the accumulation of various efforts throughout the entire semester. An entire coursework cannot be crammed into one intense all-nighter. Conversely, this leads to disappointing results. Exam tips can only go so far if you are generally unprepared.

The goal of this article is to help students prepare for the stress of examinations. Regardless of the topics or courses, this article touches on various exam tips to ensure success. It covers plans of action right before the examination date to study plans throughout the semester.

Study Tips and Strategies Table of Contents

  1. Study the Class Curriculum
  2. Use Note-Taking Techniques
  3. Create Study Guides
  4. Organize Course Materials for Studying
  5. Schedule Study Times
  6. Review Past Examinations
  7. Work With Others
  8. Get Enough Sleep and Nutrition

1. Study the Class Curriculum

Most, if not all, classes are required to follow a specific curriculum. Furthermore, each class has a syllabus that outlines the topics and lesson schedules throughout the entire semester.

These course syllabi can be highly effective in facilitating learning (Grunert, 1997). According to a 2002 study by Parkes & Harris, this is because of the different purposes of a syllabus. It is first and foremost created to provide information about the topics to be discussed and what types of tasks students should expect for the semester. That aside, it is created to help students understand the nature of the course from the teaching methods and grading rubric that will be used to some common misconceptions about the course. It should also help students identify whether they are prepared for the course, allow them to see if it will fit with the other courses they are taking, as well as serve as a model of professional thinking and writing.

That said, a course syllabus is a great study roadmap for the entire semester. Additionally, it can help track which topic is scheduled for the week to ensure that you are always prepared for exams and other requirements.

The topics outlined in each syllabus can help secure the necessary reading materials and books. Libraries offer books and other study materials that are not available online or in bookstores. Additionally, you can easily identify topics that may need extra attention, especially in advanced courses.

2. Use Note-Taking Techniques

Note-taking, along with reviews, produces the most recall of the concepts and topics (Fisher & Harris, 1973). Because you will be listening and recording information during classes, an efficient note-taking method is necessary. Here are some of the most popular techniques:

  • The Sentence Method – Also known as the Rephrase method, the sentence method is the simplest note-taking strategy. It is suitable for fast-paced lessons where important information needs to be recorded efficiently. Each point discussed is written as a sentence which is then categorized under various headers. The lecture notes are then rewritten after the class to simplify and reorganize for easy reading.
  • The Outline Method – This method is most useful for complex topics with details, making it the most popular note-taking method for classroom lectures (Morehead et al., 2019). The outline method makes it easy to organize notes into headers and bullet points. Additional details can easily be added using more subheadings and bullet items. Each point can be turned into study questions during review sessions.
  • The Cornell Method – This method provides a systematic process of organizing and condensing notes (Pauk & Owens, 2014). Each notebook page is divided into a bigger Notes column and a smaller Recall column. Notes and discussions from the lecture are written in Notes, then relevant questions, ideas, phrases, and keywords are written in Recall that will serve as cues for reviewing the notes. It is further improved by gathering related information from other sources such as books, web pages, etc. At the bottom, a Summary section can provide space for condensing the topic discussion and its key points.
  • The Charting Method – If lectures involve a lot of interconnected facts and topics, then the charting method is a quick way to record such information. It is made up of columns for each category or topic. Details are added under each column, and relationships are noted across each row.
  • The Mapping Method – For a more flexible note-taking method, the mapping method can accommodate almost all types of lectures. Each topic branches out into related subtopics and so on. Details and notes can be made under each topic. Relationships between concepts can be easily highlighted using this method.

Source: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

These note-taking methods can be done using a pen and paper or any organizational apps for students. While experts say that writing notes longhand aids information processing better (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014), note-taking still depends on your preference.

3. Create Study Guides

Study guides will help you organize materials and lecture notes. Also, it will help you understand and consume large amounts of information in a much shorter time. A well-prepared study guide also helps visualize the concepts and how they relate to one another. Furthermore, it is much easier to remember information if they are connected to each other.

Some of the components that can be included in a study guide include::

  • Concept maps – Complex ideas and concepts are much easier to understand when they are laid out visually. Concept maps allow for the spatial organization of information where relationships can be indicated. Additionally, general concepts can be expanded into more specific ones along with relevant details, such as definitions, examples, etc. Examples of concept maps are mind maps and branching diagrams.
  • Comparison charts – Relationships between concepts are often important in order to gain a deeper understanding of the topic. Comparison charts help identify and highlight similarities, differences, and other connections between various facts, subjects, ideas, and more. They can be organized into categories or characteristics, which is great when tackling complex topics.
  • Freeform diagrams – Procedures and processes are often difficult to fully understand in a linear manner. Freeform diagrams help visualize how each part element connects to the others while providing the “big picture” view. Additionally, details can be added to each step, such as their importance and how each one affects the entire process. Many topics can be easily understood using a diagram, which includes photosynthesis or the passing of a bill into law.
  • Timelines – Time is often a necessary element to show development or progress. History, biology, and many other disciplines often require the chronological presentation of concepts, facts, and ideas. Timelines help organize information according to time, progression, or development. Furthermore, details can be added to various elements to highlight their relationships with one another.

4. Organize Course Materials for Studying

Throughout the semester, it is important to have a study roadmap to follow. As mentioned previously, it starts by having effective note-taking habits during classes to capture important information for reference later on. This information is then used to create study guides that will be helpful when tackling various requirements, especially tests. A school that has adopted a mastery learning approach will emphasize the creation of this document.

To complete the study roadmap, the last step is to create and organize review materials. Below, we’ll discuss some ways to keep your review materials organized.

Written and Printed Materials

Notebooks are quite handy in taking down notes, especially during classes. However, ring binder folders and loose leaves offer greater flexibility and versatility. If you are still taking basic courses, all your materials will probably fit in a folder or two. However, advanced courses will require one folder for each class, as you will accumulate more review materials for your in-depth studies.

Aside from loose pages, buy dividers that will keep your binder folder organized. Here are some necessary sections for each folder:

  • Syllabus – May include study guides or strategies for the entire semester.
  • Admin and class information – May include references, suggested materials, contact number of the instructors, schedule of class consultations, and more.
  • Calendar – Includes important dates and deadlines of class requirements, club activities, and more.
  • Notes – Lecture notes, rewritten review materials, etc.
  • Assignments, projects, exercises, and tutorial notes
  • Printed slides and class handouts
  • Exam information – May include review guides, topics, and references for each exam.
  • Supplementary review materials – May include more materials to aid in studying such as flashcards for the Leitner system, etc.

Sections can be added and removed as needed. However, one important thing to remember is to regularly transfer class notes to their appropriate folders. This can be done during study hours outside classes as you write and create your review notes.

Digital Review Materials

Some may prefer converting study and review materials into digital format, which makes them portable. With the right software or tools, for instance a screen recorder, materials can be accessed using a laptop or even a mobile device. The increased mobility makes it easy to capture more information wherever the class is located.

Microsoft OneNote
Some applications mimic traditional pen and paper notes. One such example is Microsoft OneNote, which resembles notebooks and folders. That means you can use the organizational scheme detailed in the previous section, albeit in a digital form.

OneNote Note Taking

OneNote is similar to a traditional notebook and folder.

Digital note-taking applications vary, and most follow their specific design philosophies and functionalities. What they have in common is the ability to organize digital notes into categories or tags. Categories can correspond with various courses. Then, tags can be used to further organize the notes into study guides, review materials, notes, admin, etc.

For instance, Evernote, a popular note-taking application, includes notebooks for high-level organizations. Tags can also be used to categorize notes into types, such as lecture, review, readings, and more.

Evernote dashboard

Evernote is available on the web, desktop application, and mobile apps.

Google Docs
Other applications are geared towards collaboration where multiple users can work on the same document at the same time. Google Docs is a popular online document application with advanced formatting, sharing, and collaboration features.

Google Drive dashboard

Google Drive allows multiple users to edit and comment on the same document.

Another advantage of using digital note-taking apps is its advanced organization functionalities. Notes can be ordered by date creation, last modified, and more. They can also be filtered using the categories or tags, which make studying efficient. Furthermore, most apps have search functionalities, which is useful if you are looking for specific notes.

5. Schedule Study Times

Developing study guides, writing review materials, honing note-taking skills, and organizing course notes make up the preparation phase of the studying process. However, studying should be spread out throughout the entire semester. Then, special study sessions should be done a week or two before the exams to ensure that all topics are covered.

After all, no person can absorb an entire semester’s worth of coursework in just a few days. As such, preparation for exams and other course requirements start at the beginning of the semester when your schedule is created.

Study Schedule Throughout The Semester

Aside from class schedules, take note of extracurricular activities, part-time work, and other endeavors that will take time each week. Work in study times in between these to ensure enough time to do projects, assignments, reviews, and other coursework.

Daily study hours also allow “spaced repetition,” which is an effective learning technique, especially when dealing with complex and difficult concepts (Smolen, Zhang, & Byrne, 2016). It is also suitable for courses where memorization is vital such as language classes.

For each unit of credit, expect to spend two to three hours studying outside classes. That means a typical course with three credit hours per week (that is, three hours of class per week) will need an additional six to nine hours of studying. Full-time students with a total of 12 credit hours will need to study 24 to 36 hours per week outside classes, depending on the difficulty of the courses

The weekly number of hours will depend on your program of study and courses during the semester. For example, architecture majors may spend more hours studying outside classes as they need to practice drawing and similar skills, which are time-consuming. This fact is reflected in the average number of hours students spend per week based on their majors.

Source: Indiana University (National Survey of Student Engagement)

Successful and all-rounder students have one thing in common: time management. The combination of classes, work, socialization, and other extracurricular activities can be demanding for anyone. As such, proper and regular scheduling of the most important task, namely studying, is necessary. The consistency of having the same study hours make it easy to shift io a focused mindset even with such busy schedules.

Furthermore, other activities should be loosened, canceled, or moved when coursework becomes challenging. One such scenario is during finals week, where professors schedule the most demanding exams and course requirements within the same week or so.

Study Schedule A Week Before The Examination

A week or two before examinations, extra study hours should be scheduled for a more focused review. Identify topics that require extra attention. This is also the time to start going back to topics previously discussed during lectures. If possible, conduct further research, especially on subjects and concepts that require critical thinking.

At this point, you should have studied most, if not all, topics covered in the examination. This ensures that your mind is not tired and panicked before and during the test. Scientists noted that relaxed minds perform better, especially when learning (Kelland, 2010).

As such, cumulative work throughout the semester is needed to successfully pass a course requirement. The week before the day of the exam is reserved for exercises, practice tests, and other self-evaluations that facilitate a better understanding of the topics and lessons. These can also be done throughout the semester to determine your readiness for the next course requirements.

6. Review Past Examinations

Professors who teach the same courses each semester often make their old tests available to new students. These are usually available from the department or the library upon request. Some student organizations or clubs also compile past exams for new students.

Old exams are great for determining the topics covered in the past semesters. Along with the syllabus and curriculum, past test modules are great roadmaps, especially when designing study guides.

Furthermore, you can determine the type of exam used in the course. If the professor prefers objective-type exams, such as multiple choices or identification or concepts, then you can focus on memorizing terms and facts. On the other hand, if past tests mostly involve essay-type questions, then a focus on critical thinking and in-depth knowledge of the topics could be beneficial.

Mock tests using past examinations are also great for building confidence and eliminating exam jitters. Some experts say that mimicking the conditions during the test, such as the quiet setting of the classroom, can help the brain remember concepts and topics (Godden & Baddeley, 1975). Mock exams are a great tool in contextual-learning, especially when recalling large amounts of information.

7. Work With Others

Studying need not be a solitary activity. Working with your professors and other students will make studying more efficient. Concepts and topics can be understood faster when ideas are exchanged between different people.

Organize Study Groups

Organizing study groups is a very effective way of enhancing learning. Working with each other also allows students to share insights and learn from one another. Furthermore, confusing or difficult concepts can be clarified during group discussions. Learning by teaching also improves students’ self-efficacy (Gartner, Kohler, & Riessman, 1971). Consequently, it can increase their confidence when taking tests or other course requirements.

In a 2015 study that monitored study groups and communities for engineering undergraduates,  it was revealed that 87% of students found it academically beneficial to participate in study groups and lab groups (Wilson et al., 2015). Similar research has also found that study groups helped students develop a more positive attitude towards learning in STEM courses (Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999) and that cooperative learning paved the way for greater academic achievement for students than individualistic learning (Johnson et al, 2006).

Some benefits of working with other students are as follows:

  1. Sharing insights and skills is much more efficient within a group than self-study sessions.
  2. Improving notes by comparing and filling in any information that you may have missed during the class.
  3. Students can cover more material by studying different concepts and explaining them to the rest of the group.
  4. The group can provide the necessary support system as the students are in the same situation and are facing the same pressures.
  5. Students can socialize while studying, which makes it more enjoyable compared to studying alone.

Schedule Consultation Hours With Your Professors

Professors, instructors, and teaching assistants typically offer consultation hours. Students can take advantage of these and conduct a more focused discussion. This becomes necessary when the class population is fairly large, and lectures only cover basic concepts and topics.

It is important to note that consultations with the professor are much more effective if you have already studied the core topics. Advanced concepts can then be discussed with the most competent person in your class, namely your professor, during these one-on-one sessions. You can ask for recommendations on what topics to further study or other learning approaches to better understand the topics.

Furthermore, such meetings can be used to deal with difficult exercises or projects. You can request for guided walkthroughs or explore various solutions with your professor.

8. Get Enough Sleep and Nutrition

There is a reason why all-nighters do not work at all. The brain cannot perform its best when it is tired and lacks rest. Nutrition also plays a vital role in keeping the body and the brain in shape.

How Sleep Aids Learning

Various studies suggest that sleep plays two important roles in memory and learning (Ellenbogen, Payne, & Stickgold, 2006):

  1. Sleep-deprivation significantly lowers the ability of the brain to focus. Consequently, it cannot process stimuli efficiently, which leads to poor learning.
  2. Sleep is also significant to the consolidation of memory. It is a vital component in processing new information and recording it in long-term memory.

Learning and, in turn, memory involves three cognitive processes (Dere & Easton, 2008):

  1. Acquisition – New information is introduced to the brain.
  2. Consolidation – A process when a memory stabilizes in the brain.
  3. Recall – The ability of the brain to consciously or unconsciously access stored information.

Acquisition and recall happen during wakefulness, such as when a student is studying. However, consolidation occurs during sleep. The strengthening of the neural connections helps form stronger memory. While the entire process is still unclear, experts believe that this process also helps in learning new concepts.

That means getting enough sleep every day is important. But how many hours of sleep do you need?

The answer depends on your age, activities throughout the day, and your overall health. Typically, adults require seven to nine hours of sleep. However, some people may only need about six hours, while others require 10 hours of sleep.

Getting a good night’s sleep can be challenging, especially for busy students. Just like studying, short naps can be scheduled throughout the day to allow the body to rest. However, it should be noted that naps cannot compensate for the lack of sleep.

Some students schedule their study hours after waking up in the morning. It is easy to focus and learn new concepts while the brain is not yet busy thinking about other things. On the other hand, others prefer studying right before sleeping. It helps them remember more information when sleep immediately follows learning. While preference may vary, it should be noted that a full night’s sleep is required for both.

The Role of Nutrition and Exercise in Cognitive Processes

It is well-established that proper nutrition and exercise are vital in cognitive processes (Hollmann & Strüder, 2000). Various dietary factors affect brain processes and characteristics, including membrane fluidity, synaptic transmission, and signal-transduction pathways. For example, specific types of foods such as fruits, tea, beans, and cocoa contain flavonoids that improve cognitive processes that promote learning, memory, and more.

The brain requires an immense amount of energy, especially during intense cognitive processes. As such, food that provides energy to the body also helps the brain function optimally. Caloric intake affects synaptic plasticity, which has a direct effect on cognitive functions (Gómez-Pinilla, 2008). Furthermore, nutrients influence cell processes in the brain, which means a healthy and balanced diet is essential to making sure that the brain is functioning at its best.

Aside from food, exercise also has positive biological and psychological effects on the brain (Mandolesi et al., 2018). Regular physical activities are linked to neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to form new connections. Better brain plasticity results in more efficiency in learning new skills and handling stress, among others (Mcewen, 2016). That means regular exercise does not only promote fitness but helps the brain absorb and learn new information as well.

How To Study Well for Exams?

There are no shortcuts when it comes to preparing for examinations and other course requirements, such as reports, presentations, and more. How to study well involves making a deliberate and consistent effort beyond all-nighters and cramming sessions. Being prepared for exams begin at the start of the semester, from securing the class syllabus to developing a consistent and adaptable schedule of activities. Preferably, add in the best music for studying for ambience.

Additionally, studying requires deduction and consistent practice of skills beyond the course lessons. Writing study guides, taking notes, and organizing course materials are just some of the skills that you should develop and improve throughout the semester. Along with a commitment to schedules, these skills serve as the building blocks for productive study sessions.

Furthermore, students can take mock tests to gain confidence before the actual exams. Working with study groups also proves to be helpful in learning difficult concepts while socializing with other people. Learners can also visit places related to the reviewed subject to tap into the learning advantages of field trip initiatives. Lastly, maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise ensure optimal brain processes, which are beneficial when tackling mentally challenging activities such as taking tests.



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