Yesterday, I received an email from a young woman who was struggling in Chemistry when I met her a year ago. She had high academic and professional aspirations but was a little discouraged about her grades. I sent her a draft of my book, Working Smarter, Not Just Harder, and I especially encouraged her to read the chapter on how to study for exams, which I’ve excerpted below. Yesterday’s email made my day. She made the equivalent of the Dean’s list, and she was beaming with confidence and swagger.
The steps that I’m about to share work. To butcher a tag line from a famous commercial, “You’re gonna like the way you feel. I guarantee it.”
Preparing for Exams
Back in an earlier post, I wrote about how I discovered the Deep Dive Learning process in my freshman year in college. This post summarizes a step-by-step approach to preparing for exams and some of the rationale behind it as well. Please note that this is longer than my previous posts because I realize students are entering exam season and splitting this up across several posts may not be timely enough for those who’re in the mix right NOW.
While this approach will mostly benefit those taking quantitative courses, the principles also apply to less computational exams, for example those in English, History, or Sociology. The key here is to “eat the meat and spit out the bones.” In other words, try this process, but ultimately you need to discover an approach that works for you and your learning style. Here we go.
Gather Your Study Aids
Prior to going to your study location, two (or more) days before the exam, gather all of the materials you’ll need to study—textbooks, notebooks, graded assignments, online websites, problem sets and exams from previous years that you can get your hands on. Bring a separate notebook or mobile device to capture your notes before each exam that you’ll ultimately reference for the final exam. Even if you have a laptop or a tablet, bring pens, pencils with enough ink to get you through the study period. Until all your tests are given digitally, you’ll need to get comfortable with the old school writing instruments—pens, pencils and paper. You should have everything you need so you won’t have an excuse to bail out.
Find a Location to Go Deep
It’s important to find a location that you’ll use for studying going forward. This should be a quiet place where you can concentrate, one to which you can return throughout the semester, and indeed throughout your college career. Eric Jenson in his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind says that our physical settings influence what and how we hear, feel, and see, and these senses in turn influence our thinking and emotional performance. If you’re an athlete, you know how pumped you get when you enter the gym or smell the chlorine from the pool. A place that’s dedicated for studying becomes familiar to you and signals “study time” when you walk in. You won’t have to amp yourself up to study if your mind and body know the dedicated purpose of the place.
I found a 24 hour library that became my deep dive learning center. For you, it might also be a library or a reading room. You might choose an empty classroom. Try not to use a place that has another purpose, such as your dorm room or a dining hall where there will be distractions or may condition you with the wrong response, like sleep!
Now that you know the importance to find your spot, let me turn to how to study for exams.
What to Do Two Days Before the Exam?
Two (or more) days before your exam should be dedicated to understanding the concepts, theories, ideas and procedures that will be tested. Set aside enough time to review all of the readings, online lectures and lecture notes. Giving yourself at least two days leaves time to internalize the material, enabling your brain to migrate information to long-term memory. It also avoids cramming which has a dampening effect on learning. Cramming triggers stress and lends less time to synthesize the material, leading to very short term retention that’s here today, but often gone when you need to recall it.
Actively reviewing the reading and notes may take four to six hours, or more, depending on how much you’ll have to cover, and how fast you read. For me, I was (and still am) a line-by-line reader, and so I would plan for four to six hours to comb through the materials. If I started after dinner, say at 6pm, I’d wrap up about midnight with two breaks. If that seems intense to you, it is. If you’re unaccustomed to this level of focus, start an hour at a time and work your way up to studying for two hour blocks.
Comb Through Your Readings and Notes
Actively review all of the readings by writing as you go. You’ll remember more if you use more parts of your brain. By reading, seeking to understand, and writing you’re multiplying neural connections – the key to memory formation — than if you just read (or browse).
As you read, write down key definitions, concepts, ideas and procedures in your dedicated notebook (or mobile device, using a freehand app like Noteshelf). Jot down theories and definitions that are hard to understand. Note questions in the margin that you’ll ask your TA or classmate the next day. Work the problems as they appear in the text, once again, in your notebook (or equivalent device). Try working them on your own before referencing the steps and solutions that are in the text. If you get stuck, consult the text for the next steps, then try to continue on your own. Jot down the explanations as well, in your own words. Here, you’re attempting to understand the Why, not just to memorize the What. A good professor will test you on your understanding of the Why by giving you problems on the exam that that’ll look completely unfamiliar to you, but that forces you to apply the concepts you’ve learned (or not), rather than just have you regurgitate the procedures from memory.
Take Regular Breaks
Give yourself breaks every 90 minutes to two hours. Short breaks will help you stay sharp during those periods of focused review.
The Day Before the Exam
Make sure you get your questions answered that arose during your review the day or evening before. Seek out your TA or an informed classmate to discuss matters. Since most material builds on previous knowledge, a gap in your understanding may inhibit your understanding of more complex content. It’s therefore important to get all your questions answered—leave no knowledge behind!
Attend an exam review if one is scheduled. Because of your disciplined approach the night before, you’ll get the most out of the review; you’re not going in with an empty container waiting to be filled. Rather, you’ll have questions and a deeper knowledge base to draw from.
If you’re taking a non-quantitative course, then you may use this night to meet with your study group and quiz each other on potential questions, arguments, or essay questions that may be posed. Having done the conceptual review the night before, you’re not coming in empty handed. Test your and your study group’s knowledge to solidify your understanding by teaching those who may have gaps in theirs.
Gather Your Study Aids
Get ready to study by gathering all of the materials you had the night before—your notebook in which you’ve summarized your lecture notes and text review, your textbook, problem sets, solution sets, old exams, pens, and highlighters, etc. While the previous day was dedicated to understanding concepts, this day is dedicated to problem solving. Therefore, in addition to the other material, pull together as much scrap paper as possible to work problems, and mechanical pencils so you don’t have to constantly get up to sharpen them. It is said that prior planning prevents poor performance. The more you plan, the better your performance and, in this case, the less likely you’ll have to interrupt your study to go back to your dorm to get something. You want to give yourself no excuses.
Location, Location, Location Revisited
Return to your Deep Dive study location. Try to secure one of the same spots you’ve previously used so you don’t have to spend any time getting used to it, figuring out where the plugs or the bathrooms are, etc. It should be a familiar place that will spur you on to get right to work.
Review Notes from the First Night of Study then Work Problems
Begin by reviewing the material you recorded the night before in your dedicated notebook. Review the sample problems; make sure you understand the Whys, and not just the What.
After your review, work problems. Using your scrap paper and mechanical pencils (or freehand writing app), redo the problems in the textbook or other online and lecture materials. See if you can do them on your own. If not, then reference your text only when you get stuck. Understand what the next steps are, then turn over your notes and continue working the problem. Similar to practicing your lines in a play, by focusing on the areas you have difficulty mastering—that is, the parts on which you’re getting stuck—you’ll eventually master that section. When you’re done, work the problem again.
Once you’ve finished the problems in your notebook from the text reading the night before, then work the problems from your lecture notes, problem sets, and old exams. Follow the same approach. Try working the problems on your own. Keep a running dialogue in your head. “How did she do that?” “Why did he go to this step?” Reference the notes only if you get stuck, and then rework the problem without an aid.
As you begin to work the volumes of problems I am suggesting, you’ll notice that you’ll be developing a problem-solving rhythm. Every problem has a rhythm, an approach, and you’re learning how to tap into that rhythm. I remember how I’d begin to approach every problem a similar way, and with growing confidence. I’d begin by writing down all that was known or “given.”
Review with your Study Group
Having studied individually, now would be a good time to get with your study group. This gathering would have been scheduled with a defined start and end time. Two hours is reasonable to get together to test each other, like the students did in the Uri Treisman study. The length of time, though, would depend on the course and the amount of material that is to be covered.
Get Enough Sleep
The night before the exam, make sure you schedule at least 7 hours of sleep. As I’ve mentioned, you need at least this amount of time for ideas to be consolidated in and by your brain, transferring from short-term to long-term memory, and ensuring more lasting neural connections that facilitate recall and understanding. Sleep deprivation puts at risk your ability to remember the material and think creatively, both of which are critical on exams.
Working Smarter Takeaways-The Behavioral Shift
Studying for Exams
• Schedule your study group
• Find a location where you can study uninterrupted
• Two (or more) days before the exam, understand the concepts
• One (or more) days before the exam, focus on problem-solving
• Get sufficient sleep