Exam time can be extremely stressful for students. I’ve seen many students in my private practice through these tough times and know that exams aren’t always easy. Here are some effective study strategies that can help students prepare for the big day and make the grade.
Begin studying early. Ideally, students should have been reviewing their notes each day since the first day of class. This way, when exam time arrives, students are ready to go.
While studying three weeks ahead of your first exam is beneficial, this timing may vary; some students need more prep time than others and some exams, especially the sciences, need more prep time than others. Try not to cut it too close to the exam.
Cramming is not an effective way to study because it does not allow you to think deeply or actively enough about the big ideas which in the end, makes it challenging to answer short answer and essay questions.
Look at past tests and quizzes
What we as teachers know from cognitive science research is that strong students will bring out their quizzes and tests in order by unit from the beginning of the semester and do what’s called an “error analysis”. This means going through the material and finding small errors that have been easily fixed up. In math, for example, it could be missing an exponent. In history, it could be an incorrect name or date.
Then, students will go through those quizzes and tests looking for what we call “I don’t knows”. These are errors where they did not, and still do not, know what the correct answer was. Once they know what they don’t know, they can go find that information out from their notes, their teacher or their textbooks.
There is much power in teaching our teens to develop the skill of knowing what they don’t know. Once students know what their sticky spots are, they are ready to begin to complete their study notes and review packages given to them by teachers.
Using review packages to study for exams
Students should remember that review packages are studying gold; they hold great insight into what the teacher could focus on. As students complete the review questions/packages they want to be actively aware of their errors from having analyzed their quizzes and tests.
I encourage students to review questions and be aware of their ability to answer them and whether they fall into one of these categories:
- “Got it” – meaning they can answer those questions without thinking about it
- “Kinda get it” – meaning they think they answered the question correctly but they aren’t too sure. Maybe they had to check the answer or they had to think about how to answer it, which means the information is not automatically on hand.
- “I still don’t know” – meaning they still do not know how to answer the question
From here, they can determined where they need to go back and improve their learning. They will need to use their texts, notes, teacher, tutors or other educational experts to help focus on turning their “I still don’t knows” into “Got its”.
Following this strategy is because students determined what they DON’T know and they do something about it! Once they have fixed up their remaining “I don’t knows” they can go forward with reviewing their notes and practicing any remaining review questions.
Other important ways to prepare for an exam
Brains learn best when they are balanced. During exam periods students need to make sure they are still getting regular exercise and more than enough sleep on a nightly basis. It is also important to schedule brain breaks into study routines. For some students that means heading to a karate class, for others it means taking a nap, while some students enjoy taking time to read a book. A student’s brain needs a break from studying to have a chance to consolidate the learning that is happening.
Ultimately, while exams are important and we want to set students up to be as successful as possible, at the end of the day, an exam is just one piece of a whole semester’s work of worth; one mark does not define their success as a student. Work hard, study and don’t forget to get some sleep to boost your brain power! Good luck!