Exam Preparation (for students)

Preparing for an exam, particularly for the first few exams upon entering university, can be very challenging. I would like to summarize a few tips, which have helped me during my studies. Of course, practice habits can vary and different strategies can succeed.

1) Start early: Particularly if exams tend to come in bunches at your university (final exam period, yearly exam period, end of semester, or similar phases), then having a bit of extra time can be worth many grades. Therefore, if you give yourself, say, 20% more time than usual can often lead to substantial improvements. Another possible advantage is that this extra preparation period can mitigate unforseen circumstances (e.g. a flu).

Another key advantage of starting early is that you are going to learn the subject more thoroughly. At least for me, and as far as I have talked to others, spreading out the material and learning it in smaller bits and more slowly seems to transfer it better to long-term memory. Of course, this approach does mean that it is going to take more time to prepare in total. Or does it? In the short run, the answer is indeed affirmative. In the long run, the situation is less clear. If certain knowledge ‘leaks out’ then it might be necessary to try to put it back in for future exams. This can take considerable time!

2) Stick to a system: In the beginning of university studies, it usually takes a few trial-and-error attempts to find a working system for preparation. Personally, I have worked through the lecture notes first. During this process, I tried to condense the definitions, results and examples to an absolute minimum. This led to a survey of around 5-10 pages per course of essentials. This ‘summary sheet’ was then used during the entire learning phase and  I went through it again frequently. Then I considered exercises assigned during the course. The last step was to try to grasp more of the available literature and try to see, whether my knowledge would hold up in different contexts (new exercises, other books or lectures, trying to extend parts of the lecture notes myself, etc.)

The system at least guaranteed that I had the basics available to pass a course. Depending upon the time and effort, those basics would then scale to a level to completely master the material. However, this system is by no means perfect (can you see the flaws?). Nevertheless, having these standard steps, I always knew roughly, where I was in the process and I also had some confidence that the effort would pay off. Hence, if you have found a strategy that works for you, my personal advice would be to just stick to it for a considerable time frame (say multiple exams and semesters).

3) Examples vs theory: Most exams, at least those testing material beyond multiple choice, require some more theoretical aspects as well as practical ones. For example, you may need to know facts, results, definitions and so on. Practical and more open-ended aspects include new calculations, creative writing, etc. Preparing for both aspects of an exam simultaneously can be very challenging. However, this problem can be actually used to one’s advantage.

Just studying an endless string of facts can be quite boring and may not be motivating. Similarly, just playing around with simple examples, reading certain parts superficially and trying to do exercises by trial-and-error without any background knowledge is often equally frustrating. Therefore, one advice is simply to switch if one aspect becomes repetitive or dull, i.e., to change from more creative practice to learning facts and vice versa.

Of course, if an exam just requires a large number of facts via multiple choice, then the most important aspect is to develop a strategy to avoid frustration while studying. Once you found one, which works for you, just stick to it (see 2).

4) Be aware of risks: Exams may have many different formats and regulations. This may include, what you can bring to the exam (e.g. some exams may allow a single page of notes while others are closed book). The duration of exams may differ drastically, some professors may structure exams differently than others, or parts of the material may not be exam relevant (usually distrust this statement, if it is in the notes, just learn it). There are many other changes and variations, which you may encounter for the first time at university.

The key issue in this regard is to be aware of the most problematic aspects already during the preparation phase. Suppose you have identified that the highest risk regarding a bad grade and/or even failing, is the limited time available. However, the material is not too difficult. Then it does not help much to repeat simple theoretical facts multiple times in the last few days but it would be more helpful to practice time-demanding questions. As an example, suppose you have to solve a certain class of equations in the exam as an auxiliary task. If solving this problem is easy but takes you a very long time in practice, just doing the calculations several times on different examples should increase the speed quite naturally. Similar remarks apply for other high-risk issues as there is usually some aspect in the preparation process to reduce the risk considerably.

5) Reach out: If you really feel stuck while studying and simply cannot comprehend several aspects, don’t despair. First, try to learn all those aspects well, which you can grasp. In breaks from learning these parts, reach out to others. Probably the most natural place to start is not the academic staff in the first place. The far more natural starting point is the discussion with your fellow students. Usually, the skills and perceptions are somewhat complementary and this can clear up already 90% of the difficulties via discussions, and be it only 10 minute exchanges at lunch. Furthermore, this helps you to isolate the really difficult aspects from those, where just you have managed to be quite stubborn or were misled somehow.

In the second step it is then crucial to approach the academic staff with the remaining aspects, where most of the class is stuck. This is tremendously helpful for both sides as it makes it a lot clearer for professors and teaching assistants, where the difficulties really lie and how to improve the material. Furthermore, as students the process to sort the challenging from the straightforward aspects should have already produced a tremendous practice effect.

6) Take it seriously: Although this may sound obvious to most of you, it may be the most important aspect in the preparation for an exam. Do take the preparation for an exam seriously, i.e., really view it as an important task or a critical job that needs to get done thoroughly and accurately. The moment you try to reduce the exam to a nuisance or minor matter, this is the moment, when you have already failed. It is worth remembering that in the vast majority of cases, failure in an exam is not caused by ‘having a bad day on the day of the exam’. It is simply caused by lackluster preparation. Therefore, you should think of the preparation phase as the real exam, the day of the exam is there to actually give a condensed survey, how your preparation went.

Disclaimer: As with all my previous posts, the discussion above is certainly not exhaustive. Please feel encouraged to comment, criticize and propose other helpful strategies.


3 thoughts on “Exam Preparation (for students)

  1. As I have developed exam anxiety during my Bachelor’s, I want to add some advice on that monster to your list, because all advices you had cannot really help to solve this problem (it sometimes makes it even worse when you experience that even all those advanced learning plans did not help you overcome your problems).

    In my experience, the worst thing about exam anxiety is not anxiety during the exam itself, but during the learning phase. Actually, I would rather call it learning anxiety.
    Learning anxiety is really really really bad. It takes up so much energy: Because you are afraid to start learning at all. You are afraid during learning, and to even start and keep on learning is so energy consuming, it’s really a waste of energy (and if you have a strong urge not to waste your life on worrying it is even worse, because it takes up your energy also on this meta level). So most of your energy goes into starting and keeping up learning, it is all energy that would be better invested in concentrating on the subject (and doing fun things as well that help you relax).

    The second problem about learning anxiety is that it impedes you from having a good learning strategy. Instead of concentrating on what is interesting (hence, things you would normally pick up really easily), and how things are connected and what the big pictures looks like, you focus on tiny details: Is the Professor going to ask this? Is he going to ask that? Oh god, please don’t let him ask a question about this topic. In the end, you try to memorize a lot of details, hoping you won’t forget any of them during the exam, but they are so hard to remember because you don’t have a good picture of the overall subject.
    And then, during the exam you lack self-confidence, and even though adrenaline might give you a boost, you will perform much worse than you actually could, because you have no faith in your abilities, which totally blocks you.

    So, after years of struggle I have found a way to deal with it. In case of learning anxiety, I believe this method is much more powerful than any other method. It is basically all about having a positive picture about this exam. The perspective from which you will be able to perform best is not the worried one in which you try to avoid making mistakes, but the one where you at least feel a little bit that this is a good opportunity to show your abilities. In which you are self-confident and are able to rely on your improvisation, on the abilities of your brain as a problem solver. Accordingly, the perspective from which you are able to learn best and enjoy yourself the most during the process is that to acknowledge that this working time is time dedicated to study an interesting subject, to get to know something about the world, about the field you chose to study.

    The biggest problem with exam anxiety is that you need more self-confidence. Basically, you will get self-confidence through good result. But if your poor self-confidence makes you produce bad results, that is a vicious circle. (And even if you get a good grade once, you will still know that you could have performed much better and feel bad about your inability to do so.)

    In order to step out of this vicious circle, it takes mental training.You can trick your brain to „think“ you have achieved good results by just imagining that things are going well for you, that you will be able to perform well in the exam, and also that your learning phase is not characterized by anxiety, but by positive interest. Your brain cannot really separate things that really have happened from things that you just made up in your imagination. This will take up 15-30 minutes of your time each day, just sitting there, trying to relax and thinking of how well things are going for you and that you are to perform really well, how interesting the subject is and how you are just being your best possible self and enjoy yourself a lot. And yes, these 15-30 minutes are much better invested in sitting there, dreaming, than learning some details which you will forget in front of your exam papers. You will instantly feel that learning is more fun and less stressful. And if feel that anxiety had got you again, try to relax and direct your thoughts to a positive outcome. Of course, it doesn’t work wonders if you start with this method the night before the exam.

    Additionally, you could try to talk to your professor, ask him/her detail about the exam so that you can prepare yourself better. Sure they won’t give you details about the questions that they will ask and don’t even try ask for those, but most often they will tell you what kind of learning strategy is appropriate (memorizing things vs. being able to apply basic concepts) and sometimes assure you that they don’t want to trick you. You can also try to learn with older exams that they made in order to get an idea of the kinds of question they ask. (But don’t start with this shortly before the exam, otherwise it may freak you out not to be able to answer those questions and ruin your positive self-image.)
    Also, if you tell your professor about your exam anxiety beforehand, you will know that they won’t think you are stupid if your exam is worse than they expected. And this helps you get more relaxed and worry less about how others may perceive you. This is also a must in case of oral exams, otherwise they will wonder what is going on, really.

    In short: Don’t let exam anxiety ruin your life. Become self-determined in your learning strategy by developing self-confidence through positive imagination. Be consistent in doing this, and the results will show you it is less esoteric than it may sound.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very good point, there is certainly an emotional/motivation aspect to the whole process. I indeed missed this angle in my original thoughts thinking more about the technical aspects. THX for adding! It is certainly going to help students as well to think about it from this perspective.


  3. I hope you will refer to the blog from time to time, when you talk about exams with your students. Not only because I hope that my text will find some audience other than you 🙂 but mainly because as a student I would have been very interested to know what my professors had to offer in terms of learning strategies.


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