Don’t you just love exams? The stress, the cramming, the fatigue?
Believe it or not, it doesn’t have to be this way! Exams don’t have to be the dreaded events they’re typically made to be. With the proper preparation, exams can be a less stressful and more pleasant experience with better results.
1. ORGANIZE YOUR STUDY SPACE
Create a designated study space in your apartment, dorm, or home, whether that be in a home office, at your kitchen table, or on your sofa (maybe not the best spot).
Don’t study in your bed or in your bedroom if possible. Doing so can make it difficult for you to fall asleep, as your brain now associates your bed/bedroom with studying and staying focused, rather than winding down and relaxing.
Store your necessary study materials (pens, pencils, sticky notes, flashcards, etc.) in this space and keep it tidy. Invest in a desk organizer, folders, or bins, to keep this area clutter-free.
Organizing your study space also means keeping your laptop/desktop organized. If you take lecture notes on your device, be sure to store the notes in a folder designated for that course. Save your lecture notes with titles that will help you stay organized -whether that means using the title of the unit of study/topic, or simply making the date of the lecture the title. Find what works for you, but make it easy for you to find your notes when you need them.
2. FUEL YOUR BODY
How can you expect your brain to retain all of this new information if you’re not taking care of it? Eat properly (throw some veggies in with your ramen noodles), drink lots of water, and get enough sleep.
During your study sesh opt for healthy snacks such as veggies and dip, yogurt, trail mix, or other great brain food. WebMD lists blueberries, avocado, pomegranate juice, and dark chocolate among their list of “smart” superfoods. Try mixing a few of those into your diet for ultimate brain power!
3. MINIMIZE DISTRACTIONS
Is multi-tasking your thing? Can you complete a report while creating and editing content for your Instagram, while simultaneously watching the Kardashians and texting your mom?
However, not advantageous when it comes to studying for an exam.
When studying it’s best to focus on one thing, the content that you’re studying. Minimize distractions by playing around with your phone settings: the “do not disturb” feature is there for a reason! Before you start studying put your phone on silent and put it away, somewhere out of sight so you won’t be tempted to check it.
If being around others is distracting to you, make sure that your designated study space is somewhere private and quiet, rather than a public space like the library. If studying at home is too distracting for you (you can’t resist the urge to just take a nap or watch TV) then head to the library or a coffee shop.
4. DON’T FALL BEHIND
Catch up on any missed lectures right away, don’t wait until one week before the exam to realize you don’t have the content to study. If you know you’ll be absent for a legitimate reason email your professor beforehand to let them know and ask if he/she would be kind enough to send you the lesson notes for that day.
Another tip is to find a “buddy” from each of your classes at the beginning of the semester. Exchange email addresses with other students in your courses; this way if you are absent, you will have another point of contact to help fill you in on what you missed.
5. MAKE YOUR STUDY GUIDE
Start making your study guide 3-4 weeks before the exam. This may seem like a long time prior to the actual exam, and you may not have covered all the exam material in your course at this point; however, starting early is always better.
You’ll be hand-writing your exam, so even if you prefer typing and typically type out your course notes, hand-writing your study guide is an excellent way to improve your memory of the content for the exam.
What To Include In Your Study Guide:
A summary of your lecture notes/course material. Only include relevant material (concepts included in headings/subheadings, concepts that are bolded, italicized, or underlined, concepts that have been talked about more than once, anything that your professor has said will be on the exam or that is important to know.)
An outline for potential essay questions. If your exam will include long-answer or essay-style questions, prepare for these species as they are likely worth many marks. Essay questions often ask the student to compare or contrast; so focus your outlines on answering how 3-4 concepts/theories/people had an impact on your area of study.
Comparison charts. Making comparison charts is an easy way to compare and contrast information. It is also a visual way to help you memorize the information; many people find it easier to recall information that was presented in a diagram as opposed to information in paragraphs.
Remember to keep the type of exam in mind when making your study guide. If your exam is multiple choice, your study guide should focus more on definitions and quick facts. For essay-style questions, you should focus on broader concepts and being able to provide examples.
6. STUDY GROUPS
Take advantage of the study groups or exam-prep groups on your campus. Many teaching assistants host review sessions before exams in order to further solidify your understanding of the concepts. Studying in a group setting allows you to bounce ideas off of one another and explaining concepts to others can help deepen your understanding of them.
If your campus or course doesn’t offer study sessions, create your own study group with students in your class. You might be surprised how many other students would appreciate the opportunity to come together and discuss the course or exam. We’re all in this together, right?
Flashcards will stand the test of time! They’re fairly quick and easy study tools that are effective for improving your memorization of key terms and concepts. If your course uses a textbook there are likely definitions found throughout or at the back of the book, consult these!
Be sure to hand-write these flash cards as another way to improve your memory. After they’re prepared, use them to test yourself or have a friend test you!
8. USE YOUR TEXTBOOK
If you haven’t been using your textbook up until this point… now’s the time.
Exam prep becomes a lot easier when you know exactly what you’re being tested on. Check the “learning objectives” at the beginning of each textbook chapter or unit of study. These objectives or goals are what you as a student should be able to do (describe, implement, use, draw, etc.) if you have a good understanding of the content. If you are able to complete these objectives, you should be set for the exam. If there are objectives that you can’t currently meet and need some help with, you’ve now given yourself an area to focus on during your studying.
Those questions at the end of the textbook chapters? Use them! Answering the chapter review questions is the easiest way to prepare yourself for questions that may be on your exam. Your professors aren’t going to test you on things that you haven’t learned. By using the format of the questions from your textbook, professors can be sure that you are being tested on the content they’ve taught, and that you’ve learned and practiced.
9. FURTHER YOUR LEARNING
Didn’t quite understand a concept that you learned about, or want an explanation from someone other than your professor? We live in the technology age, use the resources available to you! Sometimes watching an educational video (yes some can be found on Youtube) is a great way to further your understanding of the ideas and concepts taught in your courses.
Just remember, not everything on the internet is legitimate and this shouldn’t be your first or only point of content with the lesson material.
10. TALK TO YOUR PROF OR TA
Your professor and teaching assistant are the best resources you have when it comes to learning the course material and preparing for your exam.
Take advantage of your prof’s office hours to ask questions and deepen your understanding of the material. Use this opportunity to ask him/her the topics that will be covered on the exam and the exam format.
Additionally, ask for a practice test or an exam from previous years that you can consult to get a better idea of what your exam will look like.
11. TIME MANAGEMENT
Time management, not your strong suit? It’s going to have to be.
College is crazy demanding, especially during the exam period. You’re likely completing assignments and studying for exams in multiple courses while still trying to get enough sleep and have a social life. Using your time wisely can be the difference between acing an exam, or totally flunking it.
Don’t pull an all-nighter before the exam. Instead, begin your studying 3-4 weeks prior to the exam. When adding your exam dates into your calendar for the semester, add another reminder to begin studying a few weeks before the exam. This way, it won’t be able to sneak up on you!
Study in time blocks and take regular breaks. Find out how long you can study for before you start to become unfocused, whether that’s 30 minutes, an hour, or more. Set a timer to remind yourself to take a break, drink some water, rest your eyes, or exercise. When you come back to your study space you’ll be ready to focus for another block.
If using time-constraints to structure your studying doesn’t work for you, try giving yourself a goal for each study block. For example, a goal may be to summarize chapter one. You then know that you’re done studying for that block after you finish summarizing chapter one and have reached your goal, rather than after you’ve studied for a set period of time.
There is nothing worse than multiplying your exam-day stress by waking up late, arriving late, or arriving without the proper materials. Pack your bag the night before your exam with everything that you’ll need (more than one writing utensil, student card, water bottle, exam notes, etc.).
Make sure you know exactly where you’re going for your exam, especially if it is being held in a classroom that is different from where your class is typically held. Wake up early and arrive early in order to avoid extra stress clouding your mind.
13. DURING THE EXAM
You’re here, you made it. The time for studying has passed and now’s the time to put your knowledge to the test!
When you get your exam, write down any formulas, names, or other specific information that you need to get off your mind right away. Don’t look at the exam content just yet, focus on writing down these bits of information.
Next, read the instructions for the exam. How many questions are there? What types of questions are there? (i.e. 25 multiple choice questions and 2 essay questions). How many marks in each of these types of questions worth? How much time do you have to complete the exam?
Set your time constraints. Let’s say for example there are 25 multiple choice questions worth 1 mark each, and 2 essay questions worth 15 marks each. That means the multiple choice section of your paper is worth 25 marks and the essay section is worth 30 marks. If you have two hours to complete the exam, it may make sense for you to allow 30 minutes to multiple choice, and an hour and a half to essay questions. Use your judgment and try to stick to this as you go about your exam.
When it comes to essay questions, be sure to write out a brief (a few words/point form) outlines prior to writing the essay, which includes your topic sentence or thesis. This will ensure that your essay makes sense, that it is cohesive, and that you stay focused on the topic at hand.
Always be aware of how many marks the exam question is worth and provide enough information to receive full marks. If an essay question is worth 15 marks, you should include 15 different points of information. This may mean including 3 different subtopics in your essay and providing 5 points of information for each.
14. AFTER THE EXAM
You did it! It’s over, so now is not the time for stressing. You did your best (maybe not your best, but in that case, you should have studied more), and nothing more can be done at this point.
Pat yourself on the back, give yourself a reward (dinner out with friends, concert tickets, a luxurious bath), and get ready to do it all again for your next exam.