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Studying for Exams

Studying for exams can be difficult, especially when the strategies that have been useful in the past are no longer working.  The one thing that we want all students to remember is that true learning takes time, and students need to start shifting the focus away from studying to pass (or get an A) to actually learning, understanding, and being able to apply and actually teach the content.  The following strategies are adapted from Teach Students How to Learn by Saundra Yancy McGuire with Stephanie McGuire.  Most of the time, students don't do well because they fail to prepare well, not because they don't have an innate ability in a particular course or subject.  Students need to understand right now that reading is NOT studying.  I repeat... reading is NOT studying.

Using the following cycle is something that every single student can work on in any class:

  1. Preview the material for class: skim the chapter, look at headings and boldface words, read summaries and end of chapter notes, and come up with questions you would like the lecture to answer for you.
  2. Attend class: go to class and be engaged.  This means take meaningful notes, ask questions, and be present.
  3. Review the material from class: do this within 24 hours to fill in gaps in your notes, mark things you don't understand, and generate questions you still have over content.
  4. Study: do 3-5 intense study sessions per day that last anywhere from 40-60 minutes.  These should include a goal(s), be focused on achieving your goal(s), include a break of 10 minutes, and then a 5 minute review after the break. 
  5. Weekend review: you will need to review all of your materials every weekend to summarize your learning for the previous week.  This would be a great time to rewrite/summarize your reading and lecture notes. 
  6. Assess your learning: every week you should assess (test) your learning and understanding by quizzing yourself.  Are you using methods that are effective in allowing you to learn the material?  Do you understand the material well enough to teach others?

#4 Revisited - what do intense study sessions look like?  The following meta-cognitive learning strategies can and should be used during your study sessions:

  • Always solve problems without looking at an example or the solution.  If you can't do it, you will need to practice more.
  • Memorize everything you are told to memorize in class.  This can be vocabulary, concepts, or individual parts of a concept.
  • Always ask yourself why, how, and what if questions regarding content.  Instead of just learning the basics (what is this), you can ask yourself questions like "why does this happen?"  "How is ___ related to ___?" or "What would the result be if _____ never occurred?"
  • Test your understanding by giving mini-lectures on concepts.  If you can't teach it, you don't understand it!
  • Spend time on each subject Every.Single.Day.
  • Attend group study sessions or tutoring on a regular basis to ask questions and check your understanding.  Treat this like a normal part of class every week.
  • Aim for 100% mastery - don't play the numbers game ("What do I need to get in order to pass this class or get an A?" or "How many points is it worth?").  Chances are you will need the material later in a different course, especially if the course you are in is a prerequisite. 

If you need any help with determining which study strategy will work best for you or have any questions regarding anything discussed on this page, please feel free to schedule an appointment with a Peer Academic Coach here.  If you wish, you can purchase the following texts to learn more about these strategies on your own.

  • McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2018). Teach yourself how to learn: Strategies you can use to ace any course at any level. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2016). Teach students how to learn: Strategies you can incorporate into any course to improve student metacognition, study skills, and motivation. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.