Skip to main content

How to keep your head during the exam period

Simple study strategies say how to pass the exams successfully.

The exams are fast approaching and you feel like the world is coming to an end? While the exam period may an apocalyptic experience for some, it can quickly turn into a pleasant holiday for those who prepare in time and make use of several simple techniques for better and higher-quality learning.

Do not rely on underlining
At primary and secondary school, we got used to a certain method of learning that worked for smaller amounts of information, but is not very useful for university students, wasting their time and energy rather than helping them. It is the very popular underlining, highlighting and rereading of study materials. As a first step to a successful exam period, you should let go of the idea that these are the only ways to study for an exam.

Why? Research shows that the effectiveness of the above-mentioned ‘classic’ learning techniques is close to zero – or, more specifically, that they are only useful in a limited number of situations and for a limited number of people who know how to work with them.

‘Reading the same paragraph over and over again, underlining, and making notes are, when used in isolation, very ineffective strategies if you do them automatically and in a distracting environment. They are simple, which is why students keep using them. It is, however, an ineffective use of their time,’ says Tatiana Malatincová, a self-regulation expert from the Department of Psychology at the Faculty of Arts.

However, there is a way to make these techniques more effective: do not underline and make notes while you read, but only after you have finished. ‘Notes and highlighting are more effective if done after you finished reading the given chapter, and preferably not right afterwards. Moreover, you should note complete ideas and thoughts that you learned, not phrases copied from the text,’ says Malatincová.

What she suggests as an alternative is that after reading the text, the student should think about its main point and identify its key words and ideas before going back and underlining them.

Notes should also be written as short phrases and from memory, after some time has passed, and then compared to the study material and revised or completed. ‘You can use a red pen to make corrections in your notes, just as if it was a test. You learn the most by learning from your own mistakes. I used this strategy myself as a student and it was incredibly effective,’ adds Malatincová.

Think about what you read
However, there are other ways that can help you to make the study process more effective. One of the best is explaining the subject to someone else. Arrange a meeting with your classmates and try asking each other questions or explaining the study topics to each other. In this way, you will reinforce your knowledge and gain a new perspective on the subject at the same time.

Another interesting learning technique is the PQRST method, which can help you to read and understand texts and remember key ideas. PQRST stands for ‘preview, question, read, self-recite and test’.

Simply put, what you need to do is to get yourself acquainted with the subject and text that you are working with, ask yourself questions and then try to answer them. Another similar strategy is the SQ4R method (survey, question, read, reflect, recite, review).

You can also try the critical thinking method that makes use of the knowledge you already have. Create a table with three columns labelled ‘I know’, ‘I want to learn’ and ‘I learned’. Fill in the first two columns before reading the text and the last one afterwards. This will help you to reinforce the knowledge you already have and put new information into context.

Test yourself before you go
Are you getting cold feet before the fast-approaching exam date? What about a mock test? Testing is a very effective strategy that can help you to remember what you learned. It is not about trying to guess what you are going to be asked during the exam, but about trying whether you are really ready for different types of questions and know the context of what you learned. Students often memorise the study materials as they are and are stumped by a different perspective on the topic. This is because they do not really understand the subject.

‘You learn the most from the mistakes you make during an exam. In general, testing yourself is one of the best strategies to remember what you learned – but only if it does not consist in mindless repetition of what you just read,’ warns Malatincová.

If the exam date is just around the corner, it also helps if you engage in other activities in between study sessions. You do not need to worry about losing precious time – quite to the contrary. According to Malatincová, ‘It is very important for long-term memory, but it also works as a one-off strategy just before an exam.’ Make a study plan divided into regular sessions covering all your study materials and do your best to follow it. With such a plan, you will not need to worry whether you have enough time for everything.

There are plenty of new learning techniques, so do not be afraid to look for them wherever you can and increase the quality of your study sessions. It is a great pity to suffer through hours of reading and underlining to no effect, if there is a much simpler, quicker and better way to do it. One of the sources you can explore is Dr. Chew’s YouTube channel, which offers a number of tips and tricks.