Study using science: A guide to effective exam prep

Students take exams at the end of each semester at McNick. Second semester exam exemptions are granted to students with an A in the class at the end of the fourth quarter.

In life, people can only count on so much. The sun rises, the sun sets, cats land on their feet, and toast lands butter side down. Even more constant than those truths is the looming threat of exams.

Like a clock, exams occur at the end of the first and second semesters without fail. Though some students may be exempt from their final exams, others still must face their terror. It would seem that we could predict when they are coming because of their perceived regularity. Perhaps we could use these predictions to prepare to defend ourselves against these demons, though many still wait until the threat changes from distant to imminent.

Based on responses from a recent Milestone poll, students use many different tactics to study for exams. About 2 in 5 students said that they read over notes to study for exams, and 1 in 3 study using online notecards. Making physical notecards is less popular, with only 15% of respondents selecting this answer. Only 12% responded that they form a study group.

Junior Megan Suckow said, “For classes like Government, Vocations, Latin, English, and Theatre I usually use Quizlets but for classes like Physics and Algebra I usually do some practice problems, get in a study group, or meet with an NHS tutor.”

Out of 71 respondents, 24 said that they start studying a couple days before, while 21 said they study one to two weeks in advance, and 13 said that they wait until the day before to begin studying.

Over the years, studies have found more effective means of memorizing concepts and facts for exams. Twenty-three percent said they would change their study habits if there was a scientific backing to another method, while another 23% said they would not. The vast majority said that maybe they would change their habits.

For kinesthetic learners, extending learning outside of the classroom through hands-on activities helps them to retain information better and there are certain tactics that can be employed to make any study time more effective both for them as well as other types of learners. One way is to actually handwrite notes. It has been shown that students who handwrite notes instead of type on a computer retain more knowledge of the subject, even if they end up with fewer notes. Drawing diagrams and pictures alongside notes is also an effectual way to help remember the content.

It may also be helpful to study while walking or participating in some activity that doesn’t require very much attention.

While it may be very tempting to wait until the last minute to study, everybody knows that it isn’t very helpful. It is actually much better to study in many smaller chunks of time, and while it may seem detrimental to study so far in advance, it is actually helpful to forget some information and study it again at a later time.

Just reading over notes is very ineffective. One way to study notes that works much better is to try to write as much as possible from memory. This method is called retrieval practice. It has been shown that students remember more when using this more challenging method. Reading over notes requires almost no thought, and does not help in memory retention.

One method of retrieval practice that works particularly well is to teach the concepts. Whether alone or to a group, actually teaching without just reading from a script is an effective means of studying. However, teaching is not very helpful if it comes directly from notes.

Thinking about the way we think, called metacognition, is also important to studying effectively. The first aspect of this is figuring out what is known and what isn’t. Rather than studying everything, spend time on the tougher concepts and truly try to comprehend the notes or material. It is recommended to try retrieval practice with the material, and reference what has been “retrieved” to what the actual notes are in order to give oneself positive feedback.

Give yourself time to implement these study habits. It’s not all about the way you study, part of it is about where you study and how you feel when you study. Junior Marie Steinkuhl said, “Here is my advice: when you start losing focus/steam, take a break. Then, refreshed, get back to the work. Have a designated working area (that is NOT your bed). Have good lightning. Put your phone outside of the room you study in.”

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