Exams are a big part of any student’s life. And knowing how to prep for exams a foreign concept to many.
You’re probably familiar with the sight of worried faces, flipping through notes right outside the exam room.
You’re probably one of them.
But you can make your life so much easier – and make sure you’re totally ready to ace your papers – if you know how to prep for exams.
Going in with a game-plan can make all the difference to your studying and mindset before exams.
You’ll find that you’re entirely calm before entering the exam room, and this clarity helps you think faster and better when answering questions.
So, how do we prep for exams?
Let’s get right into it.
10 Ways to Prep for Exams
Maybe you’ve stumbled upon this article a week before your exam and want to close it now in frustration because you didn’t start early.
But that’s okay.
Many of these strategies apply for trying to learn something quickly, as well as for building lifelong learning strategies.
If you have the choice, though, do start early.
You play less catch-up when you’re reviewing class notes the day you take them, don’t wait until the last minute for homework or research projects, etc.
By starting early, you’re allowing your brain to do 2 things that neuroscience shows build memory.
The first is retrieval.
Frequently reviewing and revising information makes the neurons involved in recalling that memory fire more often.
The more they fire, the stronger they grow.
The stronger they grow, the more robust and long-term your memory of that topic becomes.
The second is chunking.
We’ll talk about chunking more in a bit.
What I will say right now is that this process involves breaking a big mass of information into smaller, more manageable pieces.
Your syllabus for any subject is usually arranged in some kind of order.
You learn certain concepts at the beginning that help you understand topics that show up later in the syllabus.
So, starting early and reviewing topics helps lay a solid foundation for future knowledge.
Say, for example, that it’s your first year learning chemistry, and you were taught to read the periodic table in the first few lessons.
Now, later in the year, you’re learning ionic and covalent bonding.
Chances are, you’re going to be pretty confused if you don’t have a good grasp of the periodic table already.
Avoid this by starting early.
This is essential to prep for exams
Pay Attention for What to Expect
I had a lecturer who used to classify information he shared in class as “Must know,” “Good to know,” and “Nice to know.”
“Must know” was for absolutely critical information, which would definitely show up in assignments and exams.
“Good to know” was for information that might come up for assignments and exams.
“Nice to know” was for information which he felt helped enhance our understanding of the topic, but wouldn’t be coming up in any assessments.
This little key helped me stay organized throughout my classes with him, and I always knew how to prep for exams on his subject.
Because before studying for a quiz, test, or exam, I could zoom through my notes looking for what I’d labeled as “Must know” and “Good to know.”
No matter how prepared you are, sometimes it just isn’t realistic to study everything in the syllabus for a subject.
Along with all the other subjects you’re sitting exams for, it just isn’t feasible.
And most of the time, teachers understand that.
So, they’ll try to prepare you by highlighting or emphasizing specific topics in class.
You’ll find quizzes and homework and tests assigned on specific topics.
Review sessions would go over specific topics.
Make sure to note down where your teachers want you to focus throughout the school year.
These are reasonable indications of what might show up for your exams.
Make Notes as You Go Along
It’s totally understandable to slack off or get a little lazy sometimes.
But keeping regular notes makes your life so much easier come exam time.
Not everything you’re going to need is always available in one textbook or reference book.
While some lecturers provide notes for class, they may not have enough detail because teachers do want you to do your own research and reading.
So, making notes as you cover the material is an excellent way of gathering all the relevant information you need in one place.
Right before exams, no one has the time to flip through multiple references and scan through to look for what you need.
Keeping your own notes solves that problem, and helps you prep for exams.
Your own notes allow you the flexibility to present information in the format that best helps you remember.
Which brings us to the next point –
- Use Mind Maps to Prep for Exams
Mind maps are an excellent study tool and my favorite revision tool.
Instead of stacks of notes, I would have a set of mind maps to look at before entering an exam room.
Mind maps help compress a bunch of text into a concise visual format.
They can help you logically and efficiently see how a topic branches into different sub-topics and how these relate to one another.
It’s also a visual representation of the information.
As neuroscience has shown, information in a visual format is a lot easier to recall than text or words.
When you’re reading chunky paragraphs of text, it’s hard to see how one point relates to another.
On a mind map, however, you can tell at a glance which point has sub-points, which points are links, how all the information falls under different categories, and so on.
For revision, after I finished reviewing a topic, I would often try to draw a mind map, using keywords and phrases, from memory.
Then, I’d compare with my notes to see if I had hit all the points or forgotten anything.
If you find you’ve forgotten anything, the process of recalling it strengthens your memory through the retrieval process we talked about earlier.
By looking at your mind map for the keywords to trigger detailed memories of each point, you also engage in retrieval.
This is one of my best tips to prep for exams!
Use Graphs, Illustrations, Diagrams
Memory athletes, spelling bee participants, learning experts – everyone uses and recommends visual aids as a brilliant way to recall information.
The mind recalls images a lot easier than random words or numbers.
So, visual elements like graphs and diagrams, which illustrate written information, are more natural to recall than the sequence of sentences and facts.
For example, you’re practicing drawing or studying the digestive system.
As you do, you add little notes to each part of your diagram to describe what happens here.
You’ll find that you are much better able to visualize this diagram when describing how digestion happens than long paragraphs explaining the same process.
These visual elements greatly benefit visual learners, to whom processing information as mental images comes naturally.
Since mental images significantly improve recall and learning, it’s a wonderful way for auditory and kinesthetic learners to prep for exams!
Use Audio Resources
Some people retain information better when they are listening to it, rather than writing it down or reading it.
For these auditory learners, try recording yourself reading out your notes or the textbook, and play it back to yourself.
If you find yourself struggling to take notes in class, ask your teacher if you can record the session.
Then, after class, play it back to review and see if there’s anything you missed out on.
Audio recordings, and even podcasts on your topic, online tutorials, audiobooks, etc., can be exceptional learning resources for auditory learners.
Information in this format is also very portable.
You can listen to your class notes on the bus or walking home from school without needing to lug around heavy books.
Study with Friends
They say two heads are better than one, after all.
There have been tons of times I only decided to review a topic or knew the answer to a question because a friend had mentioned it.
Because we tend to be so focused on what we’re studying when exam season is upon us, it’s easier to overlook things.
Studying with a friend increases the likelihood that if you missed something, they might have caught it.
And vice versa.
Studying with others or in a group can be an excellent exercise for kinesthetic learners.
It makes the learning process more interactive.
You can ask each other questions and check off the answers.
You can also discuss any difficulties you have and ask your friends to explain it to you, and vice versa.
This is actually one of the best ways of knowing if you have learned the topic effectively, and prep for exams.
When you can explain it to someone else, and they understand it, you know you’re ready for that topic.
Keep a planner.
As soon as homework or an assignment comes up, input that into your planner.
You then can tell at a glance what your schedule looks like and when you should start working to have enough time for everything.
You also avoid the trap of forgetting or starting too late on any assessment.
Staying organized also means keeping your notes in order.
Use notebooks with dividers to separate different topics or subjects.
Use stickers, sticky notes, and tabs to help you flip to and locate what you need in seconds.
Start off the semester organized, or get yourself organized before the exam period starts.
You’ll cut down time wasted just looking for things.
Any time you want to find something, you’ll know exactly where to look.
Learn Through Chunking
We’ve mentioned chunking before, but it deserves its own point because it is such an effective learning strategy.
Rather than trying to learn everything at once before exams, it’s essential to learn in increments.
Set the foundation, allow it to cement itself, and then you lay the next chunk of information on it.
And then the next.
And so on.
So, instead of setting yourself impossible goals like finishing three chapters all at once, start early, and break each section down into easy to swallow components.
By making sure you’ve learned the first chunk thoroughly before moving on to the next, you build knowledge more substantially.
Otherwise, learning haphazardly is more like a stack of cards about to fall down.
Remember to Take Breaks!
If you’re one of the people who groaned at the very first point –
This is one of the biggest benefits of starting early.
You get to pace yourself much better when you have more time on your hands than a couple days before the exam.
Breaks are a necessary part of learning.
When you take a break, your mind gets to switch out of focus mode, where it’s been trying so hard to learn and recall.
When it switches into the diffuse mode, and you’re relaxing listening to music or taking a walk. Your mind subconsciously starts to soak in what you’d been learning.
Like every other part of your body, once you’ve given it the tool it needs, you need to give it some time to absorb it.
Other parts of the body absorb and use the nutrients to make you healthier and stronger sometime after you’ve eaten a good meal.
Similarly, the brain takes time to consolidate what you’ve been learning.
It does so when it’s not preoccupied with focusing on something intensely.
And there you have it!
These are the exam tips that have helped me maintain a healthy balance between work and play through all years as a student.
I guarantee that that extra bit of time spent preparing helps you prep for exams!
These tips have helped me remain calm and confident for every exam I sat through my Bachelor’s and Master’s degree.
And now I want to know if they’re helpful to you too!
Write in and let me know which of these tips helped you prep for exams!
Nafisa Shamim is a writer who enjoys asking questions, and enjoys finding their answers even more. She has been a student, even while working full time, so her more exam study tips are a great resource for you.
As she works towards her Ph.D., she hopes to actively contribute to academic literature on communication, especially how individuals use and process new media, and learn while helping others learn.