When I was at school I wasn’t a terrible student, but I was terrible at studying. Yes, I was good at cramming my head full of facts and concepts at the very last minute that I was able to recall for tests and exams, but the good grades I often obtained concealed the fact that I wasn’t learning very much at all in this way. Every exam was an uphill struggle and, as soon as it had finished I would forget a considerable amount if not most of what I had learnt.
Like most of my contemporary students and many students nowadays, I believed that spending hours reading, rereading and underlining important bits before an exam was the best way to learn. But it isn’t. It is in fact a very poor way to learn, as none of this does very much for the long term retention of knowledge and improved understanding, which, arguably, are the main objectives of studying.
But in recent years a greater understanding of the principles of cognitive psychology among the teaching profession has generated a renewed interest in what works well and not so well in terms of teaching and learning. So, what do we know about successful studying? How can we best prepare for impending exams?
- Space your studying – Don’t leave revision to the last minute. Instead organise yourself so that you space your studying, revising smaller chunks more frequently in the run up to the exam or, preferably, throughout the course. This is an effective strategy because learners remember information better when they are exposed to it multiple times, not when they cram.
- Interleave different topics – Closely related to the notion of spacing revision, interleaving is the practice of alternating different topics and types of content. Although we may intuitively feel that we learn better by focusing on one topic at a time, this is not actually how we learn best. Research suggests that better, long term retention is achieved when students interleave different but related topics or skills into their revision schedule.
- Pair graphics with text – Your textbook or teacher may well have started capitalising on this by providing you with relevant diagrams, illustrations or mind maps. The reason why this is a great strategy is because graphics present examples and depict overarching ideas or concepts, and in so doing they help to explain how these ideas and concepts connect. If ready-made graphics are unavailable, spend some time as part of your revision schedule creating your own graphics. Not only can this be very handy when it comes to last minute revision, but it will also help you organise and conceptualise your knowledge more effectively, so that you remember it more easily.
- Test yourself frequently – Tests are not just good at assessing how much you know and, therefore, how much you still need to learn, but it turns out that tests may well be more effective at helping with the learning than they are with the assessing. This is because frequent retrieval practice – that is to say: recalling concepts or meaning – is one of the most effective ways to ensure you commit something to memory more permanently. Testing yourself is easier than ever these days, with a multitude of smartphone and tablet apps and web tools that allow you to create your own flashcards and quizzes that you can use and reuse as part of your revision routine.
- Ask the right questions – Research suggests that planning, monitoring and evaluating your own learning have great impact on learning. You can achieve this by asking yourself where a task might go wrong; by breaking down the steps that you think will lead to mastery of a topic; by producing your own worked examples; and by formulating appropriate questions and providing possible answers beyond those already provided by your teachers or textbooks. These metacognitive strategies are effortful but extremely effective in achieving secure knowledge and understanding in any given topic.
When I was at school, I often felt that the climb to get to the top and over Exam Mountain was steep and daunting. With these strategies we are still climbing, but we do so by building the steps and pathways required to get us to the summit more leisurely, so we can then aim higher and be better placed to continue on to the next challenge.
This piece was originally published by Galore Park under the title “Gearing up for the exams”.