+++++++++++++ Update: We are right in the middle of exam period in the UK, so instead of publishing a new post on a different topic I thought it was just a good idea to refresh this post. Hopefully it will benefit you! I wish you good luck and great success! ++++++++++++++
When taking part in higher education there is this one evil that will haunt you no matter what country you live in: Exams, or finals or whatever you want to call them. Depending on your country and/or university this (terrible) time of the year will either trouble you only once per academic year, as was the case for me during my time as undergraduate student in the UK, or there will be various exams spread throughout the entire academic year without an official exam period at the end. Or it could be both, that is, an exam period at the end of the academic year or semester/term coupled with constant testing throughout. While we could debate about what is the best approach from a pedagogic point of view or suits students best, it is the same duty or problem for all students that they need to prepare for their exams. (I am very grateful that back then I only had to worry about exams once a year during summer term rather than friends of mine who studied in my home country Germany, where there are exams at the end of each semester. And, to make things even worse, exams tend to take place during official holidays, making them less valuable for students…as there are, effectively, no holidays!) Now, having gone through secondary education, you should all have some kind of idea of how to study and surely many of you have developed their own strategies. I still think it is a good idea to share some of the strategies that I have used successfully throughout my student career. Again I’d like to stress that it is not my intention here to proclaim that my way of doing it is the only possible and right way. I merely want to share what has worked well for me and what could work for others.
- Familiarize yourself with your exam timetable
First of all, as soon as you get your exam timetable, look at it and prepare an overview of when you will have to sit what exam and where. This could be as simple as taking a sheet of paper and dividing it up into weeks and week days and clearly indicate when you will take what exam. Don’t forget to write down where it will take place. This will avoid confusion and rushing come exam day. Sometimes your university’s online learning environment will even provide you with such a detailed exam timetable, so look out for it! Once this is done you should know what you will need to revise first and how long you have between each exam. This overview is essential for the next step.
- Get an overview of all the subjects that you have to revise and what you will need to know for each.
Now that you know when each exam will take place, quickly review the content you need to know for each exam so that you can estimate how long it’ll take you to study it. This requires no more than flicking through your lecture slides or other materials you may have to prepare. Such a quick scan will be sufficient to get the overview you need for the next step.
- Develop a study plan detailing when to study what.
Once you have an idea of what you will have to revise, you should develop a detailed study plan, and detailed meaning planning every day until exam period is over. This may sound like a lot of work but it really is worth it when you think about the payoff at the end, that is, a stress-free study period and great results. And it will make you feel more relaxed as you will know you will have sufficient time to do it all, once you have done the planning. I am fully aware that a lot of people think now they will never stick to this plan; but even if you don’t, it is still a good idea to do it, as the mere thinking about when to study what will help you structure your day and make you realize how much or how little you have to prepare for each exam. Now, when I was preparing for exams I would simply use the exam timetable overview sheet I made and I would then assign each day the content of certain term weeks for review. For instance, for Marketingt101 I would write down and tell myself that during the first week of May I would revise lectures 1-5, second week lectures 6-10, etc. doing one lecture each working day. On the weekend you can then take time off or revise the whole set of lectures you worked through in that particular week. I would recommend you do both, take some time off but also get some revision in during the weekends.
Also, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one subject per week; in fact I wish you could do this. In reality however, it is very unlikely that you will have the time to prepare subjects one by one, so make sure you are realistic in your planning and revise more than one subject on each day. Also ask yourself what your most productive time of the day is and plan accordingly. Mine always was and always will be in the morning, but I know lots of people work best in the middle of the night. So go for it, as long as you do it regularly!
- Prepare your study space.
Next you should decide where you want to study. Do you work better in the library quiet area, in an open space or in your room? Ask yourself and then prepare your space accordingly. If you are in your room, make sure that things that may distract you are banned from your desk e.g. smartphones etc. Have something to drink and some snacks in easy reach. Bring headphones or earplugs if you are working in an open space as to avoid getting distracted by other people’s conversations.
- Disable digital media.
On top of preparing your study space, there is one thing that will make your study time a lot more productive. Turn your digital devices off, don’t go on facebook, don’t leave Skype open, or any other digital communication channel. I know this is hard and a big ask and may not be possible all day but it really works! Assign yourself periods when you are allowed to check facebook messages etc. This requires a lot of mental discipline but it gets easier with time. Believe me, I know what I am talking about through own experiences and at the end of the day, this is part of my PhD topic J!
- Prepare summaries of content in your own words.
Once the planning is done and the study space prepared, the next step is the actual revision process. I always found it very useful to go through my lecture slides and notes and compile summaries for each topic. Such summaries can take various forms, of course. For me they mainly consisted of handwritten sheets that covered everything I considered relevant for the particular exam. Interestingly, when comparing to class mates I realized that there is a psychological process going on here. I used to fit as much as possible on one sheet as to make it look like it isn’t that much to study. Others would use lots of paper, writing very little on each so that they would quickly progress through a huge pile, giving them the feeling they had already achieved a lot. Whatever works best for you, such summaries are, in my opinion, crucial to success, as they are part of the learning process and by writing all the content down you are already revising and memorizing. And especially handwriting is said to be very useful for remembering things!
- Stick to your study plan!
Sounds simple but isn’t. Still try it, it’ll pay off and you will feel good about yourself at the end of the day if you have managed to do what you set out to do.
- Constantly review already learnt until the day of the exam.
This I mentioned briefly in step 3. Yes, it sounds horrible as more and more lectures pile up as the reviewing process progresses, but this is the most effective way of avoiding blackouts. If you revise the same thing every day for 2 weeks, you will laugh in the face of blackouts!. And the added benefit is that it will stay with you much longer if you constantly revise it. Last minute revision is not going to be transferred to your long-term memory; and really, you are at university to take something away with you!
- Get hold of previous exam papers and WORK THROUGH THEM!
Once you are through all the content you need to know for a particular exam, make sure you practice by doing past exam papers or mock exams as to check for gaps in your knowledge and to familiarize yourself with the question format. Include these practice tests in your study timetable.
- Compare results with friends.
Again, very simple step. Usually you can get a hold of past exam papers but not of the solutions. Here study groups with friends come in especially handy as you can solve the questions individually and then compare your answers. This is of course not perfect as you still don’t know for sure if your final answer is correct, but it is by far better to do this then not to.
- Ask for help from lecturers or tutors if needed…but not the day before the exam.
For any questions you may have, ask your teachers. They are there to help you and that’s why they have office hours. Just make sure that you don’t ask questions that would be clear if you had attended the lecture and avoid last-minute panic appointments. At the end of the day it is your responsibility to start early enough to get everything done on time.
- Tick off things completed.
At the end of each day cross out the day on your study plan and tick off what you have already done. This will help you feel good about your revision and your progress!
- Take exam and relax!
If you stick to your plan, you will be finished on time and can be totally relaxed about the exams coming up. There will be no surprises as you won’t have gaps in your knowledge. You will sit the exam and leave with a smile as you know you have done well. Try it! It has worked for me every single time.