Exam Prep Day 7: How will you study?

Example of a Cheat Sheet

Example of a cheat sheet from a cell biology course I did - a lot of information can fit onto one letter size sheet! Copyright 2011 Scratches on the Notepad.

While planning is important, buckling down and actually working through the material is the only way to do well on an exam. Luckily, this process can be greatly streamline and made less painful by using good study techniques. Good study techniques tend to have the following characteristics:

1. They allow you to interact with the information. Be active, not passive.
2. They require you to approach what you learned from different angles, present information in different ways, or generate new content.
3. Result in you being able to explain concepts clearly and concisely.
4. Increase your confidence in your ability to achieve the mark that you want!

Put another way, good study techniques are not get quick rich schemes. They take time to implement properly. Start with techniques that play upon your strength and tweak them until they fit you and the course you are studying for. Do you have a friend who seems to breeze through their courses with little effort? That’s because they have found their “golden techniques” and are able to use them optimally. (“But my friends are geniuses!” you say. And maybe you’re right. Maybe they only need to see the material once to get it. But that – just seeing the material once – is their “golden technique” because it works for them. Some people need very basic techniques, others need some more ingenuity. Work with, not against yourself, and don’t use other people techniques indiscriminately!)

As final exams are coming rapidly there is no time to completely rework your study habits and techniques. Instead, pick one or two to try from the list below and incorporate them into what is already working well with your studies.

Ready? Set? Here we go!

Scratches on the Notepad’s Best Study Techniques:

1. Teach someone. I’m sure you’ve heard that the best way to learn is to teach someone else. Got a classmate who is somewhat lost? Help them! Part of a study group that discusses certain tough questions together? Participate actively! Got no one to talk to? Get an imaginary friend! Yes, you’ll look stupid while doing it, but when you’re trying to explain how to get from A to C and can’t, you’ll realize that you’re missing B. If you’re in a class with a terrible professor who made the topic much more complicated than it needs to be, pretend you are him or her and give mini-lectures to yourself. Better yet, record yourself and put the videos up on youtube to help everyone else. There is something incredibly cathartic (and “in your face”) when you can do the prof’s job better than he or she can, and it is a huge boost of confidence.

2. Make a cheat sheet. If you happen to be in a course in which you are allowed a cheat sheet into the exam, thank your lucky stars. Cheat sheets are incredibly useful not because they’ll provide you with answers on the exam (in fact, I’ve never looked at my cheat sheet for anything other than clarifying details or difficult formulae), but because the real learning occurs while you’re making it. To make a cheat sheet, you have to understand the material, evaluate its usefulness and importance, condense it down to its most important aspects, and then present it on your sheet clearly. All of this means the most crucial part of the course is drilled into your head multiple times. If you’re not allowed a cheat sheet, still make one. All the learning benefits are still there. Another similar option is the mini textbook method. I routinely use a process that is very similar to it. One caveat is this: DO NOT use someone else’s cheat sheet. That just plain doesn’t work because that sheet is specifically adapted for that other person (it may not even make any sense to you). You don’t think the way he or she does and looking at the end product is not nearly as useful as the effort expended to produce it.

3. Make a mind map or a concept chart. If you’re in a course with lots of information that connect with each other (however dubiously), a mind map or concept chart maybe the way to go. These two techniques are very similar and are ways to visualize connections between topics and concepts. It is also good for showing how to solve some problems (i.e. if yes, do this, if no, do that). Making mind maps/concept charts by hand is not difficult, but there is a plethora of mind mapping software as well. I particularly like xmind.

4. Make compare and contrast charts. In courses in which you are presented with several theories for one thing (e.g. theories on personality) or several systems that work together (e.g. cell organelles), try making charts showing their similarities and differences. This method is terrific because you actually have to understand how each individual component work by itself, then compare it with others. I love this method because it clarifies things greatly.

5. Make your own practice exams. Look at an old exam for how questions are worded, then write your own. Think like your professor. When you can write good (read challenging) exam questions and answer them well, you’ve got the material.

Here are some study techniques I know other people have used. They are here for illustrative purposes to show the diversity of techniques that work for different individuals.

– Taking detours on the way to class to work out problems in their heads.
– Always wearing ear plugs while studying.
– Write practice exams under exam conditions, but giving yourself only half or ¾ of the time.
– Doing questions on white boards.
– Writing jeopardy questions.
– Switch locations and studying activity frequently.
– Discussing questions while playing tennis/football.

Now on to the last step! Putting your best self forward.


2 thoughts on “Exam Prep Day 7: How will you study?

  1. Pingback: Midterms ‘n You (Studying for Midterms) – A Resource for First Year Students

  2. Pingback: How to Properly Use a Textbook – A Resource for First Year Students

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