Seasoned IB Educator Alethea Bleyberg has put together an extensive guide on how to study for exams
Our resident education expert Alethea Bleyberg has already given us the lowdown on choosing IB Diploma subjects and put together a handy guide to managing home learning. This month, she’s pooled all her knowledge on how to study for exams, so that students can get the best results possible.
11 tips on how to study for exams
Benjamin Franklin once quipped that only two things in life were certain: death and taxes. While taxes are certainly unavoidable in adult life, for most students it is the sitting of exams that looms more immediately, and often menacingly, on the horizon. And living with an anxious teen in the run up to important exams is no walk in the park for parents either! While students know that they are expected to study, popular but passive strategies such as re-reading notes and highlighting textbooks are rarely effective. And that’s a shame since research shows that proper exam revision can increase performance considerably. So ditch the reading and highlighting and get on board with these engaging teacher-approved techniques for exam success:
1. Start early and make a revision timetable
No really, having a timetable is a must. Students take a lot of subjects and usually have two or three written exams for each one. Time for study is limited, usually to the evenings after homework and weekends, and teen brains need regular breaks so that the brain can absorb the information and commit it to long-term memory. A revision timetable that breaks down when a student is going to study for each of their exams helps them to stay focused, organised and reduces anxiety about ‘running out of time’. Using plenty of colours and blocking on a tool like Google Calendar is a great tool to keep learners engaged with a longer-term goal and allows a sense of ownership over how to make best use of precious time.
2. Take notes (but not just any old notes)
Note-taking is a tried and tested revision technique and can be highly effective if done well. Rather than simply rewriting notes, students should summarise their notes into the most important key concepts, theories, examples and case studies. Suggestions to try:
- summarise a year’s worth of Biology notes into just ten sides of A4
- use a tried-and-tested note-taking method such as Cornell Notes for active information processing
- make a glossary of key terminology and definitions for each subject
- turn the glossaries into flashcards for self-testing or testing with a partner
- draw a mindmap, diagram or other picture – a 2018 study found that drawing improves memory recall by nearly double by fostering close observation, analytical thinking and patience
All note-taking should require transposing the information in some way to actively engage the brain to commit content to memory.
3. Use apps and digital tools
- use StudyBlue, Quizlet or Socrative to upload class study material, create electronic flashcards and practice quizzes
- use an online whiteboard such as Aww to draw, annotate, collaborate and share with others
- use Gweek, a personalised speech coach, to practise for presentations and oral exams and get individualised feedback on your ability to communicate clearly, concisely and authentically
- dictate your practice exam essays to Siri, the virtual assistant, and ask her (or him, if like me you have changed Siri’s default settings to tackle gender bias!) to read your essays back to you. Hearing an essay read aloud allows errors to become more obvious than when reading silently.
4. Work in study groups
Studies have found that group revision can be highly effective. Revising in groups allows work to be divided into smaller, more manageable tasks. When group members are given a responsibility, such as to find quotes in a play about a particular theme, they are more likely to do the work because they are accountable to everyone. In addition, everyone in the study group benefits from individuals’ ideas and suggestions, and you can get peer feedback on your ideas and practice answers. Study notes, glossaries, quotation banks and other learning resources are shared, and students can learn from each other’s approaches to learning. An additional benefit is that working on a project in a group setting with defined responsibilities is an authentic task that builds soft skills that are transferable to higher education and the workplace.
5. Teach someone
Another way that revising in pairs or groups can improve exam performance is through the protégé effect which is a psychological phenomenon where teaching helps the teacher to learn that information more thoroughly. It has been found that teaching (or even preparing to teach) increases metacognitive processing and use of effective learning strategies, and leads to a boost in motivation to learn, as well as increased feelings of independence and confidence. This strategy can be used in study groups so that each member is responsible for mastering, and then teaching, a topic to the others in the group. It can also work with pairs of students in a ‘study buddy’ relationship where each takes turns to teach a topic to the other.
6. Be in command of command terms
What is the difference between ‘define’, ‘describe’ and ‘discuss’? What about ‘examine’, ‘explore’ and ‘evaluate’? Each exam question asks for a task to be completed and the command term determines which task to do; in order to score highly it is essential you carry out the task that has been asked for. Definitions of command terms for different exam boards are readily available online with examples for illustration.
7. Write essay plans for essay-based subjects
Writing essay plans can be as effective (and certainly more time efficient) than writing a complete essay. In writing an essay plan you will need to think about which concepts, theories and examples to use in the essay. You will also need to develop a thesis statement and topic sentences for each body paragraph. This forms the bulk of the ‘thinking’ work in writing an essay. Moreover, exam questions tend to be repeated in similar ways over the years which means that if you write a good number of essay plans you are likely to be able to use at least some of the ideas you prepared for an essay plan in your actual exam. However, always read the questions in the real exam carefully and answer the question you have been given. Do not try to make one of your prepared essay plans ‘fit’ the exam question simply because you have already prepared it in advance.
8. Practise past papers under timed conditions
Similarly, try to do as many past papers as you can. This is a real test of your actual memory recall and allows you to find out where the gaps in your knowledge are so you can revise those topics again in more detail. Always do past papers in timed conditions to mimic the actual experience of sitting the exam, and to train yourself to use your time as effectively. For instance, don’t spend a disproportionate amount of time on questions that are worth only a couple of points, and make sure you leave enough time to tackle the high value questions which are usually at the end of the exam. If your exam requires resources such as formula booklets, scores or case studies, make sure you know how to use them, and what they will (and will not) contain. For instance, only spend time memorising the formulae that will not be in your formula booklet.
9. Study model answers
If you have been given answers that scored full points and other exemplar answers study them carefully. How are these answers structured? How many ideas do they contain? How are the ideas presented? What kind of language has been used? Finding commonalities in answers that achieve very highly, and then trying to replicate the style of those answers for yourself is an effective way to improve your exam performance.
10. Know your exam regulations
Are you allowed to take a translation dictionary into the exam hall? What about a drink? What about your phone? What kind of calculator do you need? What paper do you use for your answers? What are the procedures for going to the toilet in the middle of an exam? Do you have to stay until the end of every exam or can you leave early?
Make sure you have read all the guidance your school has given you on exam procedures, and that you follow that guidance to the letter. Failure to follow instructions can have serious consequences and knowing rules will make you feel less anxious. Schools sometimes have different internal procedures than those published by exam boards on their websites so make sure you understand what your school expects of you to avoid unnecessary stress for all parties. If you have any questions about the exam procedures, make sure you ask your coordinator well in advance of the start of exams.
11. Practise self-care
The period leading up to exams is stressful and it is vital you look after yourself to avoid burnout. Make sure you eat well, stay hydrated, do regular exercise and go to bed at a reasonable time. Minimise distractions such as social media but taking ‘quality’ breaks is essential; it’s a must for your revision to be effective. Don’t feel guilty for taking the time to go for a walk outside or meeting up with a friend for coffee. Balance is key to achieving long-term goals.