No one can deny the joy of winter transforming into spring, of days getting longer and a genuine mood of optimism which is tied to the arrival of warm weather. However, spring is when many students must start studying for upcoming exams. If this is you, ‘stress’ is likely to be your most-used adjective. And if you’re at a different stage in your education, you may be wondering how to remember avalanches of new information while working on assignments and practicing the skills you need to get good grades.
Well, if consistency is key with anything, it is studying. Consistently going over older topics throughout the academic year and making the effort to understand trickier ones straight away will save you the grief of facing the unfamiliar a week before your exams. Always start early to give yourself the opportunity to find techniques which work for you and after that, apply them on a regular basis. This principle, although explained in simplistic terms, guarantees less stress in the run up to exams. Throughout my International Baccalaureate (IB) experience, frequent revision throughout the programme was my saving grace: given the absence of exams in your first year, two years’ worth of information has to be firmly planted in your mind for a three week exam period , which is better done far in advance than days before your first paper.
However, as mentioned, how we best retain information depends on our individual characteristics and the subject for which we are studying. For example, a visual learner will find greater utility in colourful mind maps than an auditory learner, and flashcards could prove futile for exams which test critical thinking as opposed to memory. You have to remain flexible and adjust your strategy based on what’s required and what works for you. In other words, not retaining information through a specific technique does not make the exam a lost cause; you must simply step back and search for a different method.
Below, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite ways to study that are pretty interdisciplinary and can be adapted based on your preferred learning style. These are active ways to retain information because they push you to engage with the content, unlike something passive like reading textbooks and/or taking notes (but, both of these are important and I will be doing a separate post on how to maximise their potential soon). Also, keep in mind that I am neither a teacher nor examiner; all of these tips are recommended based on my experience. They will not work for every reader, and my advice is by no means composed of indisputable facts! Always seek help from members of your educational establishment if you are struggling with understanding content or forming your revision plan.
This is particularly useful for information-heavy, essay based subjects which can feel quite overwhelming. You must keep in mind that it is both impossible and needless to memorise textbooks in their entirety for exam papers. Excessive information may be provided for reasons ranging from the writer’s writing style to the need for context, the key points from which can be summarised in a few brief sentences.
Use either a book or a more detailed set of notes you’ve taken in the past. Pick a chapter or a topic, and challenge yourself to condense the information into a particular area – for example, a single side of A4 or a column in a table. Alternatively, set yourself a word limit or a certain number of bullet points under each heading. Both handwriting and typing works well with this technique, but as keyboard make it easier to get carried away, the former facilitates brevity.
While making pages and pages of notes, there is a temptation to copy everything without deeper thought. Some students disconnect completely, skimming over difficult information. Condensing, however, forces you to consider the value of each word and deeper, underlying concepts around which questions typically revolve. Plus, when cramming textbooks becomes futile a day or so before the exams, you will have a concise overview on hand to refresh your memory.
Some exams test skills such as reasoning and analysis, but others demand memorisation, formulas, key terms. When used properly, flashcards allow you to remember anything from tricky definitions in science-based subjects to historical dates and quotes from authors. Remember, once again, to avoid the trap of passivity: when testing yourself using flashcards, do not flip as soon as you struggle to recall the other side, or worse – simply flip through them as you would with notes. Think carefully about the answer, say it out loud and only then check if you are correct.
Making flashcards by hand is helpful if you wish to add illustrations or specific colours. However, an online resource I would recommend is Quizlet, which makes it easy to create and organise your flashcard sets.
3. Memory maps
These are similar to mindmaps, but must be done without reference to your notes. Furthermore, a typical mind map layout (i.e., arrows emerging from bubbles) can be replaced with anything of your liking. In the run up to exams, this technique helps me find gaps in my knowledge and see how far I can push myself with a particular topic before my memory runs dry.
On a plain piece of paper, write down different headings: points from your syllabus, themes, keywords. Then, as quickly as possible, scribble down everything you can remember about those headings in the form of anything from paragraphs and complete sentences to brief bullet points. Either set a timer or keep writing ‘until failure’, when you can no longer recall a single fact about a given prompt. An example is given in the photos below: I gave myself 10 minutes to (messily – use a computer if you want to keep things neat) write as much as I could about a topic. I’d recommend starting with an overview of a topic, and then picking a sub-topic/theme within it and performing the exercise once more. Afterwards, refer back to your notes to see if you’ve missed key information and repeat on a regular basis to check for improvements in the amount of knowledge you’ve absorbed.
4. (Pretend to) teach someone else
Your ability to teach a topic to someone else is an ultimate test of your understanding. In many subjects (maths and science in particular), if one component of an explanation is missing, the final answer makes no sense. Mindlessly staring at notes and textbooks risks you saying ‘yep, that makes sense’ and moving on, or skipping the ‘hard parts’ in their entirety despite the likelihood of those coming up on exams. When facts have to be applied as opposed to regurgitated, deep understanding is crucial. Moreover, as many people are more at ease when expressing themselves through the written word, talking about a subject could make a written exam feel less demanding in comparison. So, test yourself by teaching a topic or a concept to someone who has no, or very little familiarity with the subject in question. Alternatively, in the absence of volunteers, simply pretend you are teaching someone, or addressing a large audience (I would not advise using this technique in private, lol); the advantage of involving another person, however, is the ability to gain feedback on the clarity of your explanation afterwards.
5. Practice questions and essays
I’ll forever and always advocate this technique. Get your hands on any opportunity there is to apply your knowledge and familiarise yourself with what your upcoming exams actually demand. Different exam boards, while teaching similar content, will vary in terms of question style, markschemes, skills under scrutiny. Answering questions from past exams, moreover, will help you spot redundant content in your textbooks, and the topics you need to prioritise based on reoccurring questions and your weaker areas.
At first, do a paper or two in the absence of time constraints to ease yourself into the exam style. Some people like to take it a question at a time, making sure they’ve understood everything before continuing. Afterwards, I recommend doing as many questions/papers as possible under timed conditions because a good sense of timing can make or break the outcome of an exam. Note down where you stutter and any areas of difficulty. If possible, ask a teacher or a friend to mark the paper for greater objectivity once you are done. Otherwise, strive for honestly when marking your own work by picturing an examiner in a bad mood and acquiring the same degree of leniency.
6. Pomodoro technique
This article and this website explain everything in more detail, including the reasons for why working in this style is effective, but essentially, the technique involves setting a timer for twenty-five minutes, working on a task without any distractions, taking a five minute break and repeating three more times, after which a longer break is permitted. This method splits overwhelming tasks into smaller components and curbs procrastination: avoiding various distractions, like your phone or emails, for twenty five minutes is a far simple endeavour than hours of unbroken focus. I don’t often work like this myself because though trial and error, I’ve recognised my efficiency peaks during longer work/break intervals, but still apply the Pomodoro when strict time constraints are in place and to eliminate needless overthinking.
This powerful memory technique is hard to explain because there is no one-size-fits-all. But in simple terms, visualisation/association aids retention because we find images easier to memorise than abstract words and phrases; making a connection between the two allows you to recall the latter due to its association with the former. Going beyond basic colour coding and highlighting, visualisation forces you to couple words with specific images or familiar concepts – by working hard to create an intricate relationship in the first place, you are more likely to remember it.
A few examples of how visualisation/association can be put into practice (although, I will be doing a more detailed post about the technique in the future):
- Connotations. Think of what a word reminds you of. If a particular image or familiar phrase spring to mind, take note. Whenever possible,make the connotation funny. Humour is undoubtedly one of the best ways to make an arbitrary term feel less alien.
- ‘The journey’. Aka, one of my favourite methods to memorise larger blocks of information, which is best illustrated through example: as a way to memorise the chronology or my analysis of events in history, I assigned a person or an argument to random objects (like distinctive trees or houses) on my walk to college. When exam season started, I could recall the journey and the information associated with each landmark. Of course, ‘journeys’ can be different: you could stick post-it notes on objects in your home (after all, remembering the location of your couch is easier than a chemical formula but this technique will render them inseparable!) or conceptualise an imaginary place with a symbolic relevance to your syllabus.
- Structure/visual prompts: colour coding is good for organising (not retaining) information, because memorisation requires something more specific, like finding a unique connection between a colour and a definition or key word. Tables and charts are much easier to remember than blocks of text: think of a distinctive way to arrange information in columns or simple infographics, a layout you can recollect with little difficulty. There, alongside illustrations and colour patterns, are an indispensable guiding hand for visual learners like myself.
There isn’t a magical study technique/method of information retention that works faultlessly across all individuals and subjects. However, as aforementioned, finding your preferred style of learning and tweaking it based on the content in question requires trial and error: be open to change, and start studying early to refine your approach should the need arise. Discard anything which impedes your progress (even if it works for other people) and choose active learning methods whenever possible to avoid incomplete comprehension of key themes and concepts.
Let me know in the comments: which one of these techniques would you like to see covered in more detail in future posts? What do you like to do to prepare for tests/exams?