How to use the lead up to exams – even if you’ve left your run a bit late!

I’ve spoken to a number of students lately who have told me that it is too late to study for the exams. If they haven’t been revising all year, there’s no way they can cover all the content for five or six subjects in the next month.

And, of course, to some extent this is true. If you could study a year’s worth of content in a month, we wouldn’t take a year to teach it to you!

But that’s no excuse to quit. There are still plenty of things you CAN do between now and the exams to help you score as many extra marks as possible.

Here are my top 5 study tips to make effective use of the lead-up to exams.

1. Use Past Papers

Using past papers is one of the most effective study techniques you can apply. Past exam papers, exercises in your textbook, or even questions from the internet will help you decode questions and understand what you need to do. They will give you a good sense of how questions are worded and what the examiners are looking for.

Remember, no exam question will ever ask you to tell the marker everything you know about the topic. You need to be able to decode the question to determine specifically what the marker is looking for. Then select only the most relevant information for your response.

If you can possibly get your hands on the answer sheet this would be even better. If not, maybe team up with other students from your class and get their feedback.

Try to familiarise yourself with the different ways you might be asked the same question. Do you understand the cognitive verbs and the response style that is required?

Write some of your own questions following the format of the past papers. This will help you think more clearly about key ideas that the examiners will be looking for. Use key headings and concepts to help you with this. It’s a good way to filter the content so that you look for the main points rather than wasting time on random facts and fillers.

Once you decode the question, give yourself a short amount of time to plan your response. This will give you the opportunity to practise working under tight time deadlines.

2. Create a Glossary

Build a glossary of specific vocabulary that relates to the topic you are studying. Using specific nouns helps you sound more educated and authoritative about a topic. It also allows you to pack more information into each sentence rather than waffling.

Make sure that you learn how to spell key words and the names of key people. Even though you don’t know the actual question, you can make an educated guess about who and what you will be talking about in your response. It is important to be able to use these words and names effectively and accurately. Writing about the play ‘Macbeth’ and referring to it as a book does not make you sound well prepared.

Think about good synonyms or other ways of saying the same thing to help make your writing more engaging and less repetitive. Can you turn some nouns into adjectives or adverbs to mix things up a bit?

A good study tip is to write these words down before you start answering the question. Then you can tick them off as you use them in your response. (Do this in your planning time in the exam as well).

Remember that big words are not necessarily better words. Students who try to sound sophisticated usually just succeed at reducing the clarity in their expression. No examiner is going to be fooled by big words that actually have no substance – or don’t even make sense.

Every subject area has specific terms associated with it. You don’t hear the weatherman talking about ‘rainclouds’ on the news. He will talk about troughs, highs and lows. Simply by using this specific vocabulary you will go from sounding as if you have some learned knowledge of the topic to sounding like an expert.

3. Vary Your Study Techniques

When you only have a limited amount of time, it is vital that you use that time efficiently.

It can be very tempting to keep revising things that we know we will get right. It makes us feel good about ourselves, and leads us to the false impression that we understand the information and are ready for the exam.

But at this stage, revising information that we already know is just going to waste time. If you already know something, congratulate yourself and store that information. Then move on to the things you really need to concentrate on learning.

Try to identify what it is about this information that you are struggling to learn. If you don’t understand the concepts, you need to work on this until you do. Use your networks – ask your teacher, your peers, your textbook, or even Google for assistance. Burying your head in the sand will not help. It is almost impossible to learn and recall information we simply don’t understand.

Use a range of different study strategies and techniques to help you here. If something isn’t working for you, don’t keep doing things the same way. As Einstein said, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!’

Think of creative ways to absorb the information. Use flashcards and sticky notes for incidental learning. Vary the location in which you study – this will help to reset your brain and remove any blocks you may have about the information and your ability to learn it. Can you turn the information into songs or rhymes? Can you find a Kahoot or Quizlet to test yourself with? Maybe you could record yourself reading out the information and regularly play the recording back to yourself. Can you create diagrams or flowcharts for the information. Can you find a Youtube clip that will further explain it?

If what you are currently doing to learn this information isn’t working, then stop doing it! Otherwise it’s like banging your head against a brick wall. Find a way to change things up and approach your brain a different way.

If necessary, find some shortcuts, If you haven’t read the novel, watch the movie. Maybe there is a documentary you could watch for Geography or History. Find online summaries or study guides on the topic that break the information down into its basic components. These won’t be as good as the actual texts, but at least they might give you enough of an idea to pass.

Break your study into short bursts with a specific goal. This will make the task less daunting and will give you frequent experiences of success, providing an incentive to keep going.

4. Use Your Networks

If you’re feeling stuck, there is no point sitting at your desk struggling to go over and over information you just don’t understand. Adopt the study habit of writing down questions at the end of each revision session. Then decide on the best ways to find the answers to your questions.

Don’t be too proud to ask for help. Make use of friendship groups by studying together (in person or electronically), tutorials and any other help you can get.

Be mindful about your approach. Your teachers probably won’t be thrilled if you just bowl up to them and ask them to teach you everything you should have been concentrating on all year. And really, who could blame them?

Show them that you are making an effort by putting in the hard work first and then approaching them about the specific things you are struggling with. This will show that you are serious about your studies and committed to improving your results.

Teaching others is a great way to ensure we really understand the information ourselves. Working in study groups allows us to increase our own understanding and help others at the same time. It will also help to keep you motivated and accountable. Have you ever started an exercise program with a friend? If you wake up and it’s raining, it’s really easy to decide to skip your run. But it’s harder if you know your friend is waiting for you. It’s the same with study. You’re less likely to wimp out if you have committed to work with someone else.

Studying can be very lonely and isolating. Working in a small group adds a social element that helps keep us engaged and interested. Just be careful it doesn’t turn into a big social gathering rather than a study group.

5. Watch Your Stress Levels

It’s really easy to get stressed and anxious in the weeks leading up to exams – especially if you have left your run a little late.

Negative self talk and criticism is not going to be helpful right now. Try not to focus on where you have gone wrong and just look at what you can do now to get it right.

Develop a clear plan of action so that you know exactly when you are going to study and what you need to achieve in each study session.

Don’t rely on long cramming sessions. Our brains can’t cope with them and they just make us tired and overwhelmed. Break your study into one hour blocks with a 15 minute break between sessions. Remember to allow yourself some time out for relaxation, eating and basic personal hygiene!

Speaking of which…it’s important to eat well in the lead up to exams. It’s really tempting to live off junk food and energy drinks, but this won’t do you any favours. Drink plenty of water and limit the late night coffee hits. Try to snack on fruit, nuts and crackers rather than chocolate and lollies. If you are full of sugar you will find it hard to sleep when you finally stop for the night.

It’s important to stop and take regular breaks and in particular to have regular wholesome meals. This will not only help to get some good nutrients into your body, but it will give you a chance to stop for a decent amount of time and re-connect with the rest of the world. It is important to remain social and engaged during your study time. Giving yourself a break and nurturing your body is a great opportunity to slow down and give your brain a chance to digest all of the information you have just consumed. A quick revision test at the start of your next study session should show a higher retention rate following this break.

You may think that you don’t have time to sleep, but this is one of the biggest mistake students make. Sleeping is a way to recharge and repair your brain. An exhausted brain simply can’t store information. When we sleep, our brains process new information and file it neatly into our memories. By not allowing time for this process, we will end up with a mass of unfiled random information in our brains, much of which won’t be retrievable. Don’t undo all your good work of studying by failing to sleep.

Without sleeping, eating and exercising you will harm your body. The last thing you want is to get sick just before your exams. Your body, and in particular your brain, will work much more effectively if it receives nourishment and rest. It may seem counter-intuitive to take time out when you have left yourself very limited time to prepare. But trying to force an exhausted brain to concentrate let alone memorise information is a complete waste of time.

Try to avoid studying too much the night before an exam. Anything you do will be under immense pressure and with a high stress factor. You would be better to read over things for a short amount of time and then have the night off. Do some exercise, read a book or watch some tv to take your mind off the exam. Make sure you get to bed at a decent time and try to relax. You may like to listen to a meditation to help you sleep. Be sure to set an alarm and allow yourself plenty of time to get ready the next morning. Again, this is not a time to be cramming more information into your head. Trust that you have done the best you can do and keep your mind clear so that you can focus and respond as effectively as possible.

So, even if you haven’t been a model student throughout the year and engaged in regular revision, it’s no excuse to give up. There are still things you can do between now and the exams to ensure you score as many marks as possible. Above all, stay motivated and positive.

For more help for students and effective study strategies, watch our Youtube videos on study tips.