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spring semester study tips: how to study for an exam

23 February 2012

"UCLA's Powell Library" by Justin Kern shared with cc license via Flickr

I just passed back the first set of exams from my African Politics class, and I’m surprised at the average performance on the exams — because I thought it would be much better. Since we will have two more exams this semester, and given my commitment to this series on spring semester study tips, I thought I’d focus this week’s post on how to study for an exam. If you are a student confident that you will do well on exams and think you already know the best study habits for your own learning style, chances are you are wrong: research using university students in Canada found students overestimate their use of study tactics and are overconfident about their achievement. The researchers then speculate that other things being equal, when students see their lower-than-expected grade, they then abandon study tactics that they overestimated using before the exam. All of this is to say: even if you think you know how to study, you should still probably read this post.

Before I make my own suggestions, I strongly recommend Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld’s tips on “How to Study Like a Tiger Cub” — not just because I think they’re good, but because they’re written by a college student, not some lame professor who hasn’t taken an exam in almost a decade.

In preparing yourself for an exam, create “desirable difficulties.” This is a term coined by UCLA psychology professor, Robert Bjork. Desirable difficulties are conditions of learning that, while apparently creating difficulty, lead to more durable and flexible learning. Here are some straightforward tactics from one of Bjork’s texts:

“varying the conditions of learning, rather than keeping them constant and predictable; interleaving instruction on separate topics, rather than grouping instruction by topic (called blocking); spacing, rather than massing, study sessions on a given topic; and using tests, rather than presentations, as study events.”

To simplify these:

  • Varying the conditions of learning: try to learn/study concepts in different places. Literally this means you should study both in your dorm room and then study the same concepts again, in the library, or in a friend’s dorm room — just somewhere, anywhere else.
  • Interleaving instruction on separate topics: people often use a sports training analogy here — so, imagine you’re trying to improve your tennis game. Rather than spending an hour mastering serves, you should instead spend 20 minutes on serves, 20 minutes on footwork, and 20 minutes on your backhand. In the context of learning, rather than spending all of your time mastering one topic, study multiple topics. In the case of my African Politics course, rather than trying to master a chronological block of related ID terms (i.e., the 5th Pan African Congress with Pan-Africanism with Kwame Nkrumah with Julius Nyerere), study many ID terms that seem to have no connection to each other (i.e., the 5th Pan African Congress with Decentralized Kingdoms with cash crops with Mau Mau Rebellion with Lugard Administrative Memoranda with Hinterland Theory with Mogo wa Kebiro with Berlin Conference).
  • Spacing rather than massing: If you study something, wait, and then study that same thing again. In short: don’t cram. It might seem like the natural thing to do (and maybe this is how a lot of friends in your dorm approach exams), but you’re far better off studying the entire semester and giving yourself a series of reviews the week before the exam rather than trying to cram all of your studying in the night/weekend before. Bjork’s research shows that the longer the interval between two study sessions, the more you’ll have learned after the second study session. Of course, spacing relies on your ability to retrieve — so you wouldn’t want the interval between the sessions to be so long that you can’t even retrieve what you learned during the first study session. As one journalist appropriately summed up the approach:

You should space your study sessions so that the information you learned in the first session remains just barely retrievable. Then, the more you have to work to pull it from the soup of your mind, the more this second study session will reinforce your learning. If you study again too soon, it’s too easy.

  • Using tests, rather than presentations, as study events: Tests are powerful as learning events (see supporting research here and here). If your goal is to do well on an exam, why not give yourself a practice exam before the exam? Not only will this increase your probability of doing well on the actual test, it wil also increase the likelihood that you retain the concepts in the longer run.

Other research shows that using the read-recite-review method (see the earlier haba na haba post in this series on “how to read”) also has a positive impact on exam performance:

The 3R strategy was compared with rereading and note-taking study strategies using free-recall, multiple-choice, and short-answer inference tests immediately after study and after a 1-week delay… 3R improved immediate and delayed free recall of fact-based passages, relative to the rereading and note-taking strategies… performance on multiple-choice and problem-solving items was better in the 3R than in the rereading condition, and was equivalent in the 3R and note-taking conditions, though 3R took less study time than note taking.

Do you get anxious before a test? A proven way to deal with test anxiety is to write down your worries before starting the test. Doing so essentially puts the anxiety out of your mind. From the abstract of the research study:

The intervention, a brief expressive writing assignment that occurred immediately before taking an important test, significantly improved students’ exam scores, especially for students habitually anxious about test taking. Simply writing about one’s worries before a high-stakes exam can boost test scores.

Another useful tip comes from a Wall Street Journal article on the best way to study. Quoting Dan Taylor, director of a sleep-and-health-research lab at the University of North Texas: Review the toughest material right before going to bed the night before the test. That approach makes it easier to recall the material later. And don’t wake up earlier than usual to study; this could interfere with the rapid-eye-movement sleep that aids memory.


This post is part of a series on studying in college. For this post, I’d like to thank suggestions via the Twitterverse from @manzanosyl, @texasinafrica, @lukasneville, and @khwimamchizi.

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