How to Study for Exams

     The immediate goal of studying is to help you remember. You are probably never more aware of this than when you're confronted with an examination. If exams make you tense, try to relax. As is the case with most skills, your success on tests is greatly affected by your study technique. Consistent success in taking exams is possible once you understand that your ability to recall information is largely determined by the way you study the material in the first place.

     Research clearly shows that learning takes place most effectively when information is processed in small chunks spread out overtime. So, if you want to remember what you study, review ideas a few at a time, many times. The way to get a head start on effective learning is to complete all assignments, including reading, before class. Then attend all classes and take thorough notes. This should be followed by reviewing and editing your notes as soon after class as possible. This process alone will ensure that a significant amount of learning takes place prior to becoming involved in what most students think as actual "study." If you have prepared yourself in this manner, studying for an examination should be largely a matter of systematic review. For most courses, this will involve some SILENT REVIEW, where you alternately read the information you want to learn and then quiz yourself until you can recall it without referring back to your notes.

     Effective learning involves more than simple recall, however. It includes developing a sound understanding and the ability to use the ideas you are learning. One easy way to improve upon silent review is to increase the number of senses involved in the learning process. RECITATION, or repeating information aloud, increases recall through stimulating the hearing sense as well as the visual sense. Transforming ideas into DIAGRAMS or MAPS is another way to increase sensory input. In addition to the extra thought involved in developing a diagram, recall of that information will often be increased simply because of the newly created visual structure.

     Many students also find that the motor activity involved in the act of WRITING out information they wish to learn helps them to remember it better. A technique that often accompanies silent review or recitation is the use of CUES. A cue is usually a word, phrase, or question selected because of its ability to trigger the recall of specific information you want to learn. Cues can be incorporated into your notes by placing them in the left-hand margin beside the ideas or information they summarize. You can then study the material by covering your notes and using the cues to help you recall as much as you can. To improve recall, this procedure is repeated until you are able to recall each idea completely.

     A good variation of this technique is to write the summary word or phrase on one side of a 3x5 card and place the information you want to recall on the other side. STUDY CARDS offer two important advantages. First, the work involved in making the cards helps you begin to learn. Second, study cards allow you to physically separate and focus on one piece at a time, which can be important for some learners.

    There are two techniques which can be of aid when you must learn long lists of information. The first is called CHUNKING and refers to breaking the list up into related groups of information. To chunk effectively, make sure that each group contains only those items which have something in common. When you cannot chunk information or you need to recall a list in a specific order, you might want to use a word or sentence MNEMONIC. A memorable word can often be created by using first letters of the terms you have to know. The word HOMES, for example, can help you remember the first letters of each of the great lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior. Where a word cannot be made, the first letters might be used as the first letters of words in a sentence. For example, if you needed to remember the order of the first nine planets of our solar system you might develop this sentence using the first letter of each planet as you move from the sun outward: My Very Earthly Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. The M in My is for Mercury, the V in Very represents Venus, the E in Earthly- Earth, the M in Mother - Mars, the J in Just - Jupiter, the S in Served - Saturn, the U in Us -Uranus, the N in Nine -Neptune, and the P in Pizzas -Pluto. Another very helpful method of preparing for exams is to PREDICT TEST QUESTIONS. The special advantage of this study method is that it requires you to consider what you are learning from your instructor's point of view. In fact, the actual success of your predictions is not nearly so important as the processing you must do to develop the questions. In courses where you can expect computations on the exam, it is important that you prepare through PRACTICE. You can do this by reworking any homework problems that you missed, by working additional problems that were not originally assigned, or by working problems on old exams. Tests involving computations usually adhere to a strict time limit, so you should emphasize speed as well as accuracy when you practice.

     An often overlooked source of aid in preparing for exams are the CLUES PROVIDED BY YOUR INSTRUCTORS. Instructors are frequently more helpful in pointing out what will be emphasized than they are given credit for. If you are serious about your studies, you should always be willing to take the initiative to find out as much as possible about the exam. At worst, your instructor will only decline to answer some of your questions. Chances are, however, that you'll receive useful advice.

     Finally, should you cram for an exam? You should do so only as a last resort, remembering that if you need to cram it is too late to learn everything! Instead, be selective. CRAMMING leaves little time to process ideas in depth so focus mainly on basic concepts, terminology, or lists that can be memorized. And, because time is very short, study first those ideas which you strongly expect to be covered on the exam. In addition, having a GOOD NIGHT'S SLEEP and PROPER FOOD is an advantage in the recall of information.

Adapted from Penn State University

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