How I aced most exams (in spite of skipping most classes)

study, read, book

It’s been a couple of years since I had my last university exam, but I still remember a thing or two from it – especially from the exam season(the rest of the time I was working or simply skipping classes). My girlfriend, on the other hand, is right now in the heat of her summer finals. This collection of tips on how to study better for your exams is dedicated to her and to all the readers out there who still need to pass an exam or two once in a while.

Pay attention in classes
Sure, it’s obvious and you’ll hate me for telling you this, but if you pay attention during your trimester/semester, finals will always be easier. Try to do your homeworks yourself, study during midterms, etc. This method worked nicely for me till the end of high-school – by paying attention in classes and asking questions whenever you don’t understand stuff, half of the studying is done as you go – after-hours study is now a piece of cake – a matter of rereading your class notes.

The above tip, however, doesn’t always work in college or afterwards – after all, on many occasions you’ll have to skip classes for various reasons – you might be working or you simply are too tired to go to class from all the partying. You have to take studying a bit more serious.

Collect all the material a couple of weeks BEFORE the exam
For me, in college, the couple of weeks before the exams was the busiest part of the semester – I had to get photocopies of a lot of class notes. Since I used to miss half my classes in order to go to job, I ended up running around borrowing other’s notes and get them photocopied. By sorting the notes and looking for what’s missing, the first contact is established. Try to remember as many things as possible from each written course – chapter titles, sections titles, etc. You will barely notice it, but eventually these things will stick to you and help consolidate the knowledge.

Skim briefly.
Once all the material for a given course is in place, ordered and neatly arranged, spend half an hour skimming through. Take between 10 and 30 seconds per page, reading the most important things on it – pay attention to titles, underlines, bolded notes. Don’t start reading stuff, don’t get started on demonstrations. This is the “getting in the mood” stage, where you further improve your knowledge of the field, keeping at the same time a complete top-down vision of what the aim of each chapter is, etc.

You never have enough time to study for your exams. So you should try getting a bit more organized:

Start as soon as you can
The old fairy tale – “it’s too early to start studying, I’ll forget everything if I start now” is just that – a self-lie to argument your procrastination. It’s never too early to get started. It might be too late, on the other hand. No good can come, for instance, from starting to study with only one day or two before the test. You need to get started at least 3 to 4 days in advance. For most difficult classes, sometimes even weeks of study aren’t enough. It all depends on the circumstances and on your skills.

You always overestimate yourself. You are never as committed as you think you are, nor as smart, nor as hard-working. You need to make a study plan and stick with it. Get started in the morning, when there are less chances to be distracted by unforeseen events. Study in bursts, for instance two-three hours in the morning, two in the afternoon. Whatever schedule suits you, as long as you stick with it.

Plan your study – Cascade or Iterative
Some people prefer to read one course a day, looking on the recommended material, checking out internet resources and generally only focusing on one chapter at a time. My method is a more iterative one, where I’d rather go through the class notes as much as ten times, each time looking into it a bit more in depth. This leaves less time for reading the extra material, but it suits me better – I don’t have the memory of details, but I can remember things if I have a logic understanding of the whys and the hows. As I said, your style may differ, the important thing is to understand how your brain works and study accordingly.

Don’t waste your nights
Being tired dumbs you. Studies have shown that a tired student has much worse results than a student with a lower IQ. Sometimes it’s better to leave some chapters unread than to be too tired for the exam because you spent the night before it studying.

Relax regularly and take breaks
While having studied without any break for the last 20 hours is something to brag about to your colleagues, it’s really nothing to aim for. Your brain gets tired quickly and it will show. What you need is to keep your head clear and your energy level up till after the exam. For instance, don’t study for more than two hours in a row. Take small breaks in between. After two hours, take a longer one – change the context, take a break, take a walk. Try to think of nothing or of something else.

Take naps and sleep healthy
While you sleep, short-term memory is turned into medium and long-term one. What this means is that while you sleep your brain gets better at storing knowledge. You can try this: read the material once, right before you go to sleep. When you wake up, re-read it: you’ll discover you memorized it a lot better than expected, even better than if you’d have spent the whole time studying.

Don’t multitask
I can’t stress this enough: as much as we’d like to dream of it, we really aren’t Quad Core 2 Duo processors, nor multi-parallel computer clusters. We simply suck at multitasking. Sure, we can do several things at the time, but only trivial ones. Studying for exams is not one of them. Don’t study when interesting things happen around. If you really want to study in front of the TV, make sure it’s not showing any movies, sports or other things that may wake your interest. Try instead to find a quiet place, a comfortable position(not too comfortable, mind you – you don’t want to get too sleepy) and roll up your sleeves. It takes a bit to get in the flow, the perfect mood for studying, but once you get there it all becomes soo easy…

Careful with caffeine
Coffee, Coke or Red Bull are ok to get you through a night of clubbing, but not one of studying. Caffeine, though boosting your short-term memory, has a temporary effect at the expense of the ability to focus. If you feel really tired after a lot of studying, try to take a micro-nap – a quick 10 to 30 minutes nap. As pointed above, it’s a lot more useful for a successful study.

When in trouble, ask around
Don’t be lazy, shy or stubborn. If you have problems with some subjects, go ask your friends, go ask the teachers, or go look for it on the Internet. Seeing things in a different light and having someone else explain them to you is most enlightening. Even better, try to help others as much as possible. Explaining stuff to others is actually a huge boost for your own understanding and memory(just go take a look on the charts over here – see the cone of learning)

Always look for what’s been passed the years before
I’m always surprised when I hear that this mantra is ignored by so many students. Really now, this should be the first thing you do, right after you first read the courses. Go get the subjects from the last years exams. It will give you a feel of how to study, the kind of tests, the kind of questions, the kind of thinking involved.

Want more tips? The internet is full with tips on more efficient studying. From speed reading skills to mnemonics, to getting organized, all you have to do is a quick Google Search.
My favorites? Scott Young’s post on holistic learning and Speed Reading, the book Breakthrough Rapid Reading, Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory.

As usual, if you have your own pointers to share with the world, drop a line or two in the comments.

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