Tips on Studying for Exams

Studying efficiently requires you to organise your time and resources. The following are general guidelines to help you prepare for exams.

Find out the kinds of exams you will be sitting

Different types of exams require different study strategies. Here are some tips:

Essay exams

These usually focus closely on a couple of topics, so if you are sitting an exam that requires answers in essay form, find out how many questions you have to answer so you can focus your study. For example, if you have to answer four questions, select and study four topics in detail plus one extra.

Multiple choice exams

Multiple Choice exams usually involve a broad overview of a course, so tend to cover lecture and tutorial material. Use the course outline as a framework for study and to identify the main themes and concepts.

Open book exams

One of the biggest myths about Open Book exams is that you don't need to study for them. While these exams don't test your memory, they do test your ability to find and use information, solve problems and apply knowledge effectively. Make sure you are fully familiar with your texts and notes and know where to find necessary information.

 

Preparation

Begin studying early 

  • You can start thinking about the exam from the beginning of the course by keeping your ears open for hints and tips.
  • Revise your notes after each lecture so you have a clear and complete set to study from.
  • Start doing more revising about four weeks before your exams.
  • Don’t cram the night before—it’s ineffective, because you’re taking in so much information at once that it’s impossible to memorise it all. You’ll hardly retain anything and will be tired and stressed when the time comes to actually sit the exam.

 

Organise your time 

  • Fill out a weekly study planner (pick one up from The Learning Centre or download a copy here) and use it to organise your time. Cross out the hours when you can’t study because of other commitments (e.g. lectures or work). Then plan one-hour time slots to use for exam revision.
  • Make use of short study times. Fifteen minutes can be ideal for revising lecture notes or looking through note cards. Use time spent on the bus or train to review your course materials.
  • Don’t study for longer than 50 minutes without a break. It’s better to study for short intense periods with sustained concentration than long blocks of time when you are tired and not working effectively.
  • Work out when you can study most effectively. Are you more alert in the morning or evening? When in your day can you find quiet time and space? Schedule study times that suit your personal rhythms.
  • Don’t study when you’re really tired. It’s better to get a solid night’s sleep after a short study period, than to push on until 2am. You won’t remember much and will be less effective the next day.

  Check out The Learning Centre's guide to Time Management 

 

Organise your subject material

  • Gather the materials for each course. Make sure you have a complete set of course notes and copies of any handouts, slides or visuals. Make sure they correspond to the topics in the course outline.
  • If you’ve missed lectures, find out whether they have been recorded and catch up. Borrow copies of lecture notes from another student and review any lecture slides and handouts available. Make sure that you have copies of any extra readings or materials distributed in classes. Once you have a complete set of course materials, you can study by topic.

 

Rewrite your notes

  • Rewriting your notes helps you to remember them. Don’t just copy out your original notes—you’ll end up simply memorizing the exact wording instead of the actual concepts. The key is to read and think about the contents of your notes, what you noted down and why (in what way it is important), how to express it most efficiently and memorably, and then re-write them in your own words.
  • When you finish studying a section of notes, ask yourself questions relating to the material to see if you remembered what you just read. It can help to answer your questions out loud as if you were trying to explain them to someone else.

 

Sort out what you don't understand

  • Clarify the meaning of any words or concepts you don’t understand before trying to study them. If you aren’t clear about what information means, memorising it won’t help. 
  • Prioritise the hardest subjects first in each study session. Allocate more time to studying the subjects you find most difficult.

 

Study hard BUT set limits

  • Set study periods. Don’t study for longer than 50 minutes without taking a break. It is better to study for a short intense period of time with sustained concentration than long periods of time when you are tired and not engaging well with the material
  • 'Chunk' information. Don't try to study the entire course in one sitting. Divide the subject up into topics and aim to study  a 'chunk' at each study session.

 

Set study goals 

Set yourself a goal for each study session to help you keep track of what you are revising. Write them down as soon as you begin your study session, or set them at the end of the study session for next time.

  • I will read through and summarise chapters 3 and 4.
  • I will work through five equations.
  • I will learn the main concepts that were discussed in lectures from weeks 2-4

Study to suit your learning style

If you’re a visual learner, diagrams and pictures can help you remember. Auditory learners should listen to lecture recordings or make their own recordings of notes that they can listen to later. If you are a physical person explain key ideas aloud to yourself while moving around. Explore different ways to help you remember key facts and to increase your understanding of the main concepts.

 

Form a study group 

Form a study group with other students. Swap practice exams and give feedback. Drill each other on study topics.

 

Review past exam papers 

Review any previous exam papers for your course (info about finding them here). Past papers are not available for every course, but if they are, work through them. Note how they fit into the course. Look at the wording of the questions and familiarise yourself with the clue words. Practice doing the papers under exam conditions and carefully review your answers.

  See The Learning Centre's guide to Exam Skills - Clue Words

 

Creating a good study environment

To study effectively, you need a good study area with minimal distractions.

Create a good study area:

  • Is it a quiet environment free from interruptions and distractions, loud noises and people coming and going?
  • Can you access it whenever you need to? An exclusive space is the ideal option, but if the only space available is shared, work out a schedule.
  • Does it have all the necssary materials? Does it accommodate your computer? You should have supplies, reference books or equipment on hand. Make sure there is a power outlet within easy reach.
  • Is there a large enough desk or table to hold everything you need? Do you have a good chair? It should be comfortable enough to help you concentrate, but not so comfortable that you’ll fall asleep.
  • Does the space have enough light to read by? If not, eyestrain and headaches can be the result.

Minimise distractions:

Identify what distracts you. Is it social media, television, email, phone, family, flatmates? Once you’ve identified distractions, take steps to counsciously block them out. Turn off your phone and leave it in another room, close email and social media. Hang a ‘do not disturb’ sign on the door; put on ear phones and listen to some ambient sound to shut out external noise or conversation. It’s important to do this actively; distractions won’t go away, so it’s important to learn how to shut them out. Reward yourself when the work is finished – but only if you’ve remained focused and used the time well.

Revising to remember: use the SQ3R method of study

Survey, question, read, recall, review.

Survey: Before you begin to study, survey the material to get a quick overview. Skim through lecture notes to get a picture of the main ideas. If studying from a book, look at tables of contents, possible chapter summaries, graphs and tables.

Question: Your reading is more active and memorable if you look for specific answers to questions. If there are headings in the material turn the heading into a question. For example, if the heading is Organisational Theory, your questions might be: 'What is organisational theory and where did it start?'

Read: Read through the material once, without making notes. On your second reading, make notes of the main ideas. Try to use your own words.

Recall: Close the book/ cover your notes. Try to recall what you have read. Make notes of what you remember then check their accuracy against your study material.

Review:

  • Review all your notes at the end of the study period. This is an important part of the study process because it can really help you remember what you have studied.
  • Try summarising your notes down to key words that will act as memory triggers for related ideas.
  • Set review times separately from your study times. Read through your review notes, cover them and then recite them. Check the originals for accuracy.

Further Readings

Barnett, K. 1978, How to Study, Sun Books, Melbourne.

Burdess, N. 1991, The Handbook of Student Skills, Prentice Hall, New York.

Freedman, R. 1991, Mastering Study Skills, Macmillan, London, 1991.