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Preparing for your final exams? You’re probably doing it wrong. Try this instead

Image: HaticeEROL / Pixabay
By Téa Bell
26 Oct 2021 0

If you’re like most students, you’ve probably had note-taking drilled into you as the holy grail of studying techniques ever since you first picked up a pen and learned to write your name. But how effective is it?

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that research has increasingly found note-taking, highlighting, re-reading and summarising to be among the least effective methods for long-term learning, despite the fact that they are some of the most commonly used revision techniques by students.

With the year nearing its end, it’s about that time when exams and final assessments begin to pop up; last-minute panic ensues and students are in a frenzy to cram 12 months’ worth of content into a two-week study leave period.

Here, we bust the age-old study myths and break down some evidence-based learning techniques to help you get the most out of your upcoming revision sessions.

Maybe stop doing this…

Why is note-taking an ineffective practice? Well, it’s not – not entirely. It depends on how you’re taking your notes. If you simply read and re-read a textbook chapter, highlight its salient elements and transcribe them onto a separate document or piece of paper, you’re unlikely to retain much information. This is because these techniques are all passive approaches to learning; you haven’t had to actively retrieve any of the information from your memory.

Similarly, while highlighting and summarising texts are valuable skills and may help students to organise their thoughts and distill complex passages into key points, they should not be solely relied upon as a study strategy. 

If you bank on these techniques to get you through exams, you’ll probably end up falling victim to the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon i.e. the words that you’ve read will lie dormant in your brain; you’ll be aware of them but you won’t be able to access them because you haven’t practiced retrieving the information without your notes to prompt you.

Try this instead

If you’re finding it hard to shake the habit, there is a way to incorporate note-taking in your studying endeavours without compromising the efficacy of your revision sessions: through active recall. The authors of Make it Stick explain how to put active recall into practice:

“When you read a text or study lecture notes, pause periodically to ask yourself questions like these, without looking in the text: What are the key ideas? What terms or ideas are new to me? How would I define them? How do the ideas relate to what I already know?”

Instead of summarising passages or taking down notes verbatim from the original text, try phrasing notes in the form of questions instead. When you start your revision and revisit these questions, you’ll have to make an active effort to recall the information that you read. Doing this helps you to make connections between disparate bits of information and ensures that knowledge is transferred to your long-term memory.

Another way to incorporate active learning in your note-taking practices is to write down as much information on the topic as you can remember immediately after reading through a passage or textbook chapter. Once you have done this, you can then refer back to your textbook and “fluff out your notes” by expanding on certain details and identifying gaps in your knowledge before revisiting the content. Using this technique will bolster your learning efforts and will likely improve your test performance. 

Pupils write a Matric exam in 2011 Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Daniel Born)


Though its key teachings are transferable to subjects that centre around problem-solving and application, active recall must be applied to these contexts in a slightly different way. 

For example, skimming through a textbook, closing it and trying to recount as much content as possible is not the most effective way to prepare for a maths exam, nor is it an effective way to prepare for language subjects that require you to write descriptive essays. Such subjects require a firm grasp of procedural knowledge and conceptual knowledge. The best way to incorporate active learning strategies in your learning endeavours for subjects like these is through self-testing: regularly practising past papers or constructing and completing pseudo-test questions.

Some research has shown that chewing the same flavour of gum during an assessment that you did while studying makes you more likely to recall content.

A commonly held belief by students and teachers alike is that every individual has an optimal style of learning which is best suited to them. These are generally grouped into four main categories: visual, auditory, read/write or kinesthetic. Although individuals do tend to show preferences for one or more of these styles of learning, researchers have reached the consensus that stimulating two or three senses at once during the learning process makes you more likely to recall course content. Neurologist Judy Willis explains why:

“The more regions of the brain that store data about a subject, the more interconnection there is. This redundancy means students will have more opportunities to pull up all of those related bits of data from their multiple storage areas in response to a single cue. This cross-referencing of data means we have learned, rather than just memorised.”  

So, when in the process of studying, make a concerted effort to harness the power of one or two of your senses simultaneously. This might be slightly harder to do with touch, taste and olfactory senses (although some research has shown that chewing the same flavour of gum during an assessment that you did while studying makes you more likely to recall content) but can easily be done through stimulating sight and hearing senses.

Reading out your content aloud is an effective way to stimulate the auditory sense, so prop up a teddy bear or give your dog a lesson in algebra; they might not be receptive to it, but it’ll definitely help you to recall what you have learned.

Drawing pictures and writing down questions stimulates the visual sense, so try to supplement your notes with rough sketches or diagrams (if the content lends itself to it). The practice of integrating the written word with visuals in one’s study practices is referred to as “dual coding”.

According to the authors of “Understanding How We Learn”, dual coding is a highly effective way of helping students to encode information in their long-term memories by “giving students two pathways by which to retrieve information later”.

Studying in the same or a similar setting to where you’ll actually be taking your exam may also help to improve your recall abilities. This phenomenon, along with sensory stimulation, plays into the idea of context-dependent memory. Psychology professor Steven Smith explains that “context-dependent memory implies that when events are represented in memory, contextual information is stored along with memory targets; the context can therefore cue memories containing that contextual information”.

To ensure that learned content remains in your long-term memory, it must be regularly revisited. The most effective way to do this is through spaced repetition. Spaced repetition involves sequencing the material that you need to learn in such a way that the content that you are struggling with the most, appears more regularly than the content that you can recall with relative ease. 

According to a study by Gobbo and Vaccari, optimal brain alertness can only be maintained for 20 to 25 minute time limits.

The effectiveness of spaced repetition as a learning technique is grounded in the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. The curve represents the deterioration of memory over time; however, with regular revision, “overlearning” occurs, and memory deterioration occurs at a much slower rate. 

In his book, The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, Pierce Howard explains why spaced repetition is necessary for the long term memorisation of content.

“Work involving higher mental functions, such as analysis and synthesis, needs to be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify. New learning drives out old learning when insufficient time intervenes.” 

While the inclusion of time management as a foundational facilitator of effective studying may not come as a surprise, the dictum of Parkinson’s Law might seem rather counter-intuitive. 

Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” – this might offer an explanation as to why you tend to get just as much done the night before an exam as you do in the months leading up to it.  But don’t be fooled – Parkinson’s Law isn’t a sufficient justification for leaving your work to the last minute. Rather, its axioms should be used to your advantage to help you get your revision done well before exam time. One way of doing this is by using the Pomodoro Technique. 

The Pomodoro Technique

You can find a breakdown detailing how to implement the technique here, but essentially, the Pomodoro Technique involves allocating 20-25 minute time limits for the completion of study tasks (according to a study by Gobbo and Vaccari, optimal brain alertness can only be maintained for this amount of time). 

After one ‘Pomodoro session’, take a five-minute break and restart your timer. The science behind this is that giving yourself mini-deadlines enhances the sense of task urgency, increasing your productivity levels for the timed period. If work expands to fill the time available for its completion, breaking down your study schedule into defined tasks and giving yourself a time limit for their completion means that you’ll get more done in each revision session. 

Helpful resources 

There are a number of useful, free digital resources available to help you get started with implementing these techniques in your study sessions: 

Anki is a flashcard application programmed around the idea of spaced repetition and active recall. It is available for download on most PCs and smartphones. 

There are a number of Pomodoro-like timer applications available online, with Forest being one of the user-friendly options. Forest also taps into your brain’s reward system by planting a tree each time you successfully complete a Pomodoro session. 

Platforms like YouTube have a wealth of videos available by “productivity gurus” like Thomas Frank, Ali Abdaal and Matt D’Avella who cover a variety of topics, share time management tips, film three-hour “study-with-me” vlogs and review habit-tracking applications. DM/ML


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