Monday, December 15, 2014

Useful Study Tips for Exams

It's that time of the year again ….. caffeine filled nights getting ready for exams. I know that this subject may be overdone, but I've decided to summarize a few tips to make this month a bit easier for you.

The first piece of advice that anyone will tell you is to pay attention in class, take great notes and start studying really early in the semester, and not at the last minute. If you are anything like me, that is never going to happen... so, I'll move onto some more useful ideas (If my mother is reading this, I am clearly lying and do all of the above).

I'll start off with my six general steps and then a few specifics tricks that may prove to be helpful. Overall, stress is the worst thing for exams so positive thinking, lots of sunlight and chocolate are a great way to start.
 1. SLEEP First thing first, sleep! I know, I know, everyone tells you this but I bet you ignore this every year. Two hours of studying when you're exhausted will do more harm than good! This is  because  you'll be even more tired the next day, and will remember very little of what you studied. Studies show that students should get 8-10 hours of sleep every night. But, if that's not possible, I'd recommend at least 6 hours of sleep. On that note, don't take this as an excuse to sleep the day away (I have been guilty of this).
I'm well aware that this can be both a foreign notion to some of you and a way to procrastinate for others, but it is important! Before you start the never-ending studying session, clean your work area. Declutter, hide the distractions (including your phone), remove any dirty dishes, and give it a quick wipe down and vacuum. This won't take long but it can make all the difference. Please, do not turn this into a three hour cleaning session (or a three hour session of thinking about cleaning). Something else that I find useful, is making lists (I might be addicted) and plans. Make a quick outline of a study plan for the 2-3 weeks of you have left (or more if you're lucky) before exams. Separate the days into hours for specific course subjects, rest, work, etc. You should also make a quick plan for each day of study right before you start that day (ex. get through ch.3-5 of mechanics for today). This will give you a goal to achieve and make it easier to stay on track. Note: DO NOT be like me and spend hours doing this while achieving nothing on the lists.

3. STUDY GROUP As an antisocial and extremely awkward person, this is a hard concept for me to grasp but it really is worth it ; join a STUDY GROUP. Study groups will give you a bit more structure, motivation and focus while you study. It's also great because you can ask your peers for help when you need it and you can help them when they need it. Teaching other people is a great way to cement the knowledge in your brain and ensure that you understand the material. Try to ask some friends or people in your tutorial classes to form a group. In the case that you cannot find a group, remember you always have your TAs and professors that you can go to ask any questions. Also, give yourself or a group of invisible people (I know it sounds silly) a presentation on a topic that you just finished studying. Go full out; diagrams, talking out loud, writing down notes, etc. This will honestly help in the long run. 

4. BREAKS Breaks are very important to take or you'll burn out and you will not retain as much information. Taking breaks will improve performance, relieve stress and increase your overall well-being. The research differs in terms of the agreed length, frequency, and number of intervals a person should take a break for that will be most beneficial. I personally like to study for long periods of time (roughly two hours) and then take a 30 minute break. In reality a thirty minute break every two hours may be too long of a break, but it’s what has worked best for me. Another great idea which has been instrumental in my studies has been to create a study music playlist. Create the playlist for the length of time you intend to study for and turn it on shuffle. When the playlist ends, you know that it's time for a break without ever having to look at the clock (try not to spend time watching the time on the clock). Also, try not to pick music that will distract you. Ideally, choose music that is instrumental or calming, but make sure to pick something you like. I personally love classical music, orchestra music and soundtracks (they're not necessarily calm but at least you don't get distracted by the music too much).

5. DANCE PARTY This brings me onto my next subject; what to do during those breaks. Have a dance party! Put on some fun music and just start dancing (don't worry if you can't dance, this is why you do this in private). You may think I'm joking but I'm very serious and expect to see a lot of dancing students once this trend catches. It's a great stress reliever; a quick way to loosen up your stiff joints and a great way to have your endorphins released. Doing some exercise and going outdoors are another way to achieve the same benefits. Unfortunately, in the real world (in Canada), there's already snow on the ground, and no one in their right mind wants to go freeze their behinds off for fun. If you do, good for you; but for the other lazy and winter hating people like me, just dance! It's the best workout to quickly get your heartbeat going (I may be lying) but don't worry about technique since you're not getting in shape or showing off your dance moves, you are just shaking some stress off.
Napolean Dynamite(2004) 

  6. CAFFEINE Depending who you ask, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. On a realistic note, it's impossible to get through this without caffeine (if you can, I hate you) and it really should just be accepted. My only note of advice is to try and avoid it at night since sleep is more important and cut down on the caffeine when you start getting the shakes. Honestly, what you eat and drink is purely up to you and I know it is hard but eating healthy can go a long way for your energy levels and retention abilities. So remember moderation and even though caffeine may be one of my food groups, I don't have a drastic increase in my intake. Plus, remember to drink plenty of water.

 Ok, now that you've actually read through the six steps (or scrolled pass), you deserve to know the true secret of my success during exam period (not really a secret).

All subjects are different and need to be studied in a different way but in general, science and engineering courses are all about practice. Reading through your notes isn't very helpful once you get to the exams. The only way to prepare is to actually solve or work through the questions (over and over again) until you truly understand how to get to the answer and what to do in all possible scenarios.
HINT#1: My solids II professor gave me this particular word of advice: once you've done a question, do it backwards. Professors like to be sneaky; they won't give you a question in the same format that they've shown you in class. If they always give you A and B to get to C, make sure you can get to A with B and C. It adds more work but is probably the best advice I've ever received; you'll get more comfortable (and therefore confident) about the theories and equations. 

We all learn in different ways and you should concentrate on which way is best for you. So you can rewrite your notes, or read your notes out loud, or do some sort of 'short experiment' to demonstrate a concept. Anything that helps is great; rereading your notes at a high speed in your head is only useful to a small percentage of people. Try to make studying an interactive activity. Note: Even if you learn primarily through one method, I'd advise you to use a combination of all three methods.
HINT#2: You will get annoyed, tired and sore after all the studying. Documentaries are a great way to change it up a bit while still learning the material. The documentary won't cover everything you need to know but it is still covering the same topic from a different point of view. Even better, it allows you to take a break from writing and sit on a comfy couch. Remember that it doesn't need to be a documentary (Aircraft Investigations for engineer students, A Beautiful Mind for neuroscience students, etc.). 

Do not get stuck on the same material for too long. Your mind will start blurring all the information together and you'll end up making mistakes and forgetting the material. Do a few hours on one subject and then take a big break (work, school, eating, etc.), when you get back start a different subject or at least study a different section of that subject that is completely different. It will do wonders for you in the end. If you find this hard (I do), switch it up between theory and practical (or books and films, etc.) and you will achieve the same results.
HINT#3: This may not occur to most people but changing where you study is important as well. Do not study everything all at the same desk; move to the kitchen for a bit, go to the library, sit on the floor. Avoid your bed if possible though studying right before bed and after you wake up has been proven to be helpful at retaining more information * only successful when you're not exhausted*. 

Remember that you're not the only person who wants you to pass the exam. The professors will be available for extra help, and will often provide you a good idea of what to expect on the exam. The university will also help by giving you access to old exams, PASS sessions, workshops, tutors, etc. Utilize the resources available to you because there's a lot more than you may realize. If you don't know where to look on your school's website, don't be afraid to ask.
Hint #4: Humans, including professors, are creatures of habit. Complete all the old exams (not just one) you can find (especially those by the same professor) because I can almost guarantee that your exam will be similar. The old exams should be used as a tool, and you should not purely rely on them. Do keep in mind that certain subjects haven't changed in a very long time (ex. calculus) but some subjects change relatively often (ex. computers). 

 My final note of advice is a few ways to use technology to your advantage during study periods. We live in a world where technology proves to be one of our greatest distractions but can also be our biggest help.

First and foremost, GOOGLE. Never underestimate the power of Google search when you need help. You can find almost everything you'll need but remember to take it with a grain of salt depending on which sites you use. For engineer and science students, you'll find hundreds of videos online with example of questions and demonstrations.

Self Control
It's hard not to procrastinate and get distracted but there are apps out there that will help. There are a few versions of this idea but one of them is called 'SelfControl', it will block certain sites completely for a set period of time and you will never be able to access them (even if you turn off your computer). Check it out:

Sleep If U Can
Try some of these alarms clocks if you have trouble getting out of bed. The first one forces you to do a math problem to turn it off and the second one forces you to take a photo of a specified object (ideally not in your bedroom). There's many more like it; find one that works for you. 

Exam Time 
My personal discovery of the year that I'm excited for is “ExamTime”! “ExamTime” is an app that will help you study using mind maps, flashcards, notes and quizzes. The reason why it's so great is that it's shared online which means you can look at other people's quizzes and notes as well. As a study group, you can all make quizzes separately (which really does help with your memory) and you can test yourself with their quizzes. Depending on the subject, you can find hundreds (I might be exaggerating) of quizzes/flashcards/etc., that are already completed.

My point is that there's help if you need it, I just listed a few free apps that I know of but there are many others out there that may suit you. Of course, don't let the app be a distraction and don't spend hours looking for the perfect app/site either.

I hope you can utilize my six steps and tricks when studying for exams, but keep in mind that there are different ways of studying for different formats of exam. So remember to study using different techniques depending on the exam format (ie. Multiple choice versus essay exams).

Good luck to everyone and enjoy your well-deserved holiday vacation after exams!

Gabrielle is a 2nd/3rd year aerospace engineer student. She has a bachelor of science in mathematics and physics from Australia where she lived for four years. She's your typical engineer student; loves the classes (well.. most of them) but spends way too much time playing games instead. Her favorite activity is watching Broadways (even though she doesn't have an artistic bone in her body).