What has up to this point been a distant meteoroid in the ether is approaching and, quite suddenly, you see it—the meteor shower of exams has arrived.
Sometimes exams hit hard and fast, and the time you thought you had to prepare seems to have evaporated. If you find yourself only having a very limited amount of time (maybe because of a hectic exam schedule), here are some steps you can take to focus and maximize your studying.
Step 1: Prep the environment
Plan out where and how you’ll be taking your exam, and mimic this setup in your studying environment. This can mean turning off music, putting aside your phone, and wearing earplugs!
Just before you get on with studying, take some deep breaths to create a sense of calm and focus—the way you would during your exam. You can even breathe in time to the animation below:
Step 2: Review
Figure out how much time you have for each topic
- Divide the material into chunks, and set aside study time for each
- Factor in breaks and some time to test yourself at the end
- Select the areas you want to spend the most time on—if the exam is cumulative and you already had a midterm in the course, prioritize the post-midterm topics (but definitely still review the midterm solutions!)
Revisit the learning objectives
- Check the syllabus for the course’s key objectives
- Review the larger concepts associated with these learning objectives—you may most likely be tested on those!
- Practice answering questions (related to these objectives) on paper or—as we’ve found helpful—out loud
Quickly look through your notes and the lecture slides
- Focus on the testable material i.e. what was covered in class (avoid just passively re-reading your textbook)
- Skim the notes you took, or open up the lecture slides in case you missed taking something down
Devote more time to areas and concepts you’re not as comfortable with
- Skip details that won’t be tested or are not relevant to the overall concepts
- Make small reminders to yourself for things you might’ve forgotten the first time
- Flag questions you have and the concepts and details that tripped you up
- After you’ve gone through all the course material, search Piazza (if your class uses it) to see if another student has asked the same question, or go over problematic areas with a friend
Pro tip: To ensure you don’t make the same mistake twice, prepare a list of any mistakes you may have made while completing practice questions. Consider listing out any other content details you noticed you'd missed while studying. Prior to your exam, return to this one sheet of paper to refresh yourself!
Step 3: Practice
Do the sample exams if they’re provided, and time yourself
There’s a reason that this is our top tip in this section. If you only have time to do one thing for practice, you should do the sample exams and go through the answer key.
Past exams are likely similar to what you will encounter, so do them if you can—they’ll reveal which concepts tend to get tested and indicate how you may do on the real final. Check your answers against the key!
Pay close attention to what questions you found the most challenging, and be sure to understand the concepts behind them, whether by rereading your notes, clarifying with the prof or TA, or asking a classmate.
Revisit past problem sets and quizzes
If you still have time (or if you don’t have sample exams):
- Redo problem sets
- Add to the list of questions that threw you off
If your exam is open book...
- Read over the notes and texts quickly so you’ll recall which section to refer to during the exam—annotating them will help you out even more (create a table of contents somewhere!)
- Load sample solutions in your browser (or print them out for faster flipping), particularly to problems that tripped you up the first time you did them
Bonus step: Think about how you think
What study techniques have been effective for you in the past? How do you learn best?
Studies have shown that students with greater metacognition—that is, a greater awareness of one's own learning process—perform better on tests than students with lower metacognition. The techniques that work well for someone else might not work as well for you, so, most importantly, study in the most effective way for you.
Finally, 3 things to remember
1. Get up regularly to get your blood moving and prevent burnout
Every 40 minutes to 1 hour, get up and do some light exercise. Use a timer! This can be as simple as a few jumping jacks or stretches—anything to give your mind a break and wake your body up. And hey, regular exercise can actually help improve your memory.
2. Get enough sleep
3. Take a break right before the exam
Stop studying 30 minutes before the exam and give your brain a rest. Know that you've done the best you can in the time you have—big hug!