Exam study tips and techniques

When you start studying for your exams you may feel overwhelmed by all the material you have to revise. The tips below will help you focus and find a way of studying that suits you.

Before you start studying, make sure you plan your study time and know what the exam format will be, and what sort of questions you will be asked in your exam.

Reviewing your course materials

As well as reading through your course materials and notes to study for exams, there are a number of ways to help you study and remember what you are reading.

Summarise, using key words

Summarising reduces the amount of material you have to remember, while helping you to learn. It involves reading your course materials then reducing the main ideas to key words that can be memorised. To do this:

  • Start by deciding on the main (most important) idea in each paragraph. Ask yourself what the paragraph/section is about.
  • Rewrite the main idea in your own words then reduce it so you're left with a short sentence.
  • Write a few key words (the supporting details) under each main idea.

This technique is also useful for helping you to remember any model answers you prepare.

How to paraphrase and summarise

Distillation and re-creation

A similar method to the one above is distillation and recreation, which involves:

  • Reducing or distilling the material into manageable chunks by identify the key words and underlining or highlighting them.
  • Re-creating the information by re-telling it in a different way (paraphrasing it) and/or summarising it using your own words.

Reciting aloud

  • Read each section three or four times and listen carefully. Pay attention to what you're saying.
  • Hide the page from view.
  • Recite the main points from memory.
  • Check to see if your recall was accurate.
  • Repeat these steps until you can recall the information easily and accurately.

You can also try recording what you say and playing it back, perhaps in the car while you’re driving to work.

Post-it reminders

Using post-its can help you review/remember important facts or key words. Stick them up in places where you won’t miss them: next to the bathroom mirror, on the fridge door, next to the coffee mugs, etc. Each time you see a post-it, review the information.

Move the Post-its around so you don’t become so used to seeing them in a certain place that you no longer notice them. Also, try using different coloured Post-its and pens, symbols, etc. This will help you to remember.

You could also try using flashcards, which you can carry with you anywhere (see below).


Write model answers

Predict possible questions

When you know what sort of questions to expect you can try to predict what those questions could be. To do this:

  • Read your course materials/pages and note down possible questions.
  • Check your course page, and any emails and posts from the lecturer/tutor for hints or tips.

  • Work through old exam papers to see what sorts of questions have been in previous exams.

Remember to check if the course or exam format has been changed or revised before relying too much on old exams papers.

Work out model answers to your questions

For each question that you come up with work out a model answer:

  • Start by brainstorming (perhaps use a mind map for this).
  • Group and order your ideas.
  • Decide on a draft outline and write it down.
  • Then fill in the gaps.

Practise writing your answers

Practise writing your answers from memory. When you feel you know an answer well simulate exam conditions by giving yourself questions to answer and a time limit. Remember to check how much time you should spend on each question first. As well as helping you learn the information, this will help you get used to writing non-stop, as you would in an exam.

Test yourself

Recite aloud

Testing yourself could be as simple as trying to recite information aloud, in your own words, without referring to your study notes. Being able to explain something in your own words is the only way to be sure that you really understand it and know it well.

Do a model exam

You could also try and set yourself a model exam and try it under exam conditions. This will allow you to practise writing to a time limit, and using your own words to answer the questions.

Use flashcards

Studying with flashcards is a form of active learning. They force you to think about the material and do something with it, rather than just reading it. To make flashcards:

  • Identify and not any questions you could be asked as you work through your learning material or review your notes. Or try imagining you're teaching the course: what questions would you ask in the exam?
  • Note any terms, concepts or formulas that you need to learn.
  • Write each question, term, concept and/or formula on a separate flashcard.
  • Write the answer or explanation on the other side of the card, using your own words whenever possible.

From there shuffle the cards so you can't figure out any answers based on their location in the deck then pick the top card and try to answer the question or explain the term. If you know it, great! Put the card at the bottom of the deck.

If not, look at the answer and insert the card a few down in the deck so that it will come up again soon. Keep working through the deck of cards until you know all the answers.

Carry your cards with you wherever you go so that you can take advantage of any spare time you may have, such as when you’re waiting in a queue, on the bus or train, or getting dressed in the morning.

Study with a friend

Teaming up with a friend, fellow student or study group (face-to-face or online) is another great way to study. It will allow you to bounce ideas off one another, get help with difficult concepts, and it’s motivating.

Ideas for studying with others:

  • Quiz one another – each person draws up a list of questions to ask someone else.
  • Teach one another – teaching is a great way to learn. It’s also a good way make sure that you can explain something in your own words.

If you don’t have anyone to study with try teaching a family member or a friend. The very act of talking about the work will clarify your thinking/knowledge and will reveal any gaps or weaknesses that require your attention.

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