Academic Toolbox #1: Exam & Study Tips

10 March 2011

Bonjour tout le monde!
Today I am doing my first post dedicated to scholarly pursuits and habits. More specifically, I'll be sharing some tips that I picked up while surviving the wilderness of an undergraduate degree. [Convocation is in June. I just freaked out and logged onto Degree Navigator to make sure I had all my credits. Yes, 26/20. Bada-bing!] These nuggets of info may not work for all of you, but if I can lighten your stress load by even a small fraction, I will be content.

Exams/ Midterms
Start early. Start early. Start early.
You've all heard this before, but what the heck does it mean? Very few of us have the motivation to study 2 weeks before an exam so here's how to break it down:
- In lecture, write your notes out by hand. Studies show that doing so solidifies information into your memory. If you can hand write your class notes, and then type them out at home; that's 2 revisions before you've even started memorizing. Hooray!
       Example: 1 week before your midterm start doing handwritten notes of your typed lectures. Keep it moving nice and slow. If the midterm only covers 6 lectures, then do two a day for 3 days. For a cumulative exam, start doing so a week earlier.
       *** I keep tv shows/movies/blogs running in the background while I do my note-taking. I've got no motivation this early, but I need to have this done, so SOMETHING must keep me awake, and rooted in one spot. BUT, I always finish the allotted lectures before I go to bed. Even if I have to stay up until 6am, because I slacked off after lunch.
- Next: Spend one day slowly reading over slides/ original lecture notes. Never move onto the next slide/idea until you've fully comprehended the previous one. Keep a notepad close to jot down words you easily forget, key themes, questions, interesting comparisons, points you need to wiki, etc.
- Spend the next 2-3 days repeating the above. Read you slides meticulously, write down concepts & vocab, re-read, write more. You'll notice that by the last day your side notes are shorter and shorter.
- Day before the exam: read those summarized test notes you made on days 1-3. THIS IS MY GOLDEN RULE. Why? Because I'm so used to the slides that when I'm forced to recall them, I actually know a lot less than I thought! Now, when you can't remember a key note's accompanying image, grab the slide and star it. Do not freak out every time you forget something! It's better to make mistakes now than on the exam. I like making mistakes. WHY? Because I learn from them, duh.
- Night before exam: Read over any highlighted/starred notes and slides. Begin to jot down potential questions. After packing so much information into your noggin, you could write your OWN test. Seriously. If you have time, make one and switch it with a friend. This is a great idea if you're in a study group or have class pals.
- Day of exam: Show up early to avoid the stress of being late. Drink a tea. Relax. [I tend to sit as far back as I can in the testing room; I don't want to get distracted or nervous by people leaving before me. I used to think: "OMG am I dumb? Why can't I finish that fast?" Relax. You don't know how well they did. They could have failed! Not your problem- the sheet on your desk is. DO NOT hand it in unless you have given it all you've got.]

Alright, the above tips will help anyone writing a humanities test, OR a science test that doesn't include number computations & is just verbal regurgitation. The following are no-brainer tips that you should be implementing if you're writing mathematics or calculation-based exams:
- Before you start (and by start, I mean at LEAST a week in advance) organize all your chapter notes with accompanying problem sets.
- The best way to succeed is to do a ton of practice questions. You can't get around this. Memorizing will only help you nail equations needed to SOLVE the actual problems.
- Read the chapter, read your lecture notes, start working on easy questions. Don't do the LAST question of each section! Those are crazy hard, and you haven't been practicing enough. [Star the questions that gave you trouble.]
- Alright, so you do the practice questions that are easy to medium level, and leave the hard ones alone. Now what?
- Next: Review ALL the starred questions, and the proper ways to solve them. Are you getting the same type of questions wrong? Notice patterns, and address any issues. (Ie. Maybe you keep forgetting to integrate before proceeding to the last calculation.)
- Compile all the difficult questions from the textbook. This is going to be your mini-practice test. The midterm/exam usually doesn't consist of JUST complicated/hard questions, so this should be slightly more intense than the real deal.
- Past midterms. Past exams. Past anything you can get your hands on. The larger the array of questions you are exposed to, the more efficiently you'll be able to tackled the ones presented on the test. Spend 1-2 days going over any previous year's materials.
- Pack your bag with whatever you need for the test the night before: calculator, pencils, extra lead, two erasers, ruler, protractor, compass, etc.

Schoolwork/ Assignments
- Get an agenda and write EVERY due date /test date/ presentation/ social event down. It's extremely helpful to have a monthly calendar in your agenda, or a separate one. This will give you the big picture, and help you keep track of events weeks in advance. Hence, you can organize your time, and break up your tasks accordingly.
- Keep up with your readings every week. You'll be grateful when midterms and finals come around. By then, I just take notes on what I highlighted, and the conclusion.
- As I said before. Write out your notes by hand and re-type them on the same day [or else you'll forget some of the short-cuts you used, and a good chunk of your notes will be incomprehensible in a month]. Here are the Top 5 note-taking skills I frequently follow.
- Try not to skip class. I have a hard time with this, especially when it comes to certain science courses. (I prefer to listen to the audio version, and add notes to .pdf files). Find out what works best for you, for each subject. Example: I would NEVER miss art history classes. They're not recorded, and I need to see the professor pointing out certain details on buildings/paintings/objects.
- Make your personal work area visually appealing- sometimes it makes studying more fun & exciting. ^-^
- Don't bring headphones to the library if you are easily distracted- You'll end up watching youtube videos, or catching up on TV shows. DO BRING THEM if you need to drown out noise, and use music to focus.
- When writing an essay, compile all your research notes into one word document, and have the proper page numbers indicated (to avoid rummaging for hours through books & online articles, just to get your bibliography and footnotes completed). Print out your notes, read through them, and with a pen start making connections between your sources. I usually do all my research before I hammer out a thesis; it involves a lot more work, but it's worth it.
- Turn off your wireless/ Airport. You'll be surprised by how much work you can complete when you're clear of online distractions. [Note: this sometimes works against me, and I fall asleep instead. Hence, I do this at the library, because napping there makes you look like a lazy douche.]
- If you like background music, do it up. I can't listen to music while studying (only house/dubstep during breaks to keep me awake!), so I play this: sounds of a flowing stream.
- Another beautiful nugget for all the humanities students, writers, poets, etc. out there: Ommwriter. This program plays light background sounds as you work, plus the beautiful writing board takes up your entire screen so you're removed from distractions (and unaware of the time, which I like).

I hope these tips helped!
Good Luck 

images: first unknown, bottom two photographed by Alain Richard and styled by Anne Rabeux for Elle belgique Nov 2010.


  1. Great post! Thanks for the tips!

  2. HAHA what an appropriate post for me to read :)

    Hope we both get out of our school funk in one piece! Best of luck and happy studying beautiful! x

  3. wow wow wow wow wow!!!

    Thank you so much for this, it's perfect timing for me. Just returning to studies after a year of being deferred and this is such valuable information. Thank you so much.

    I really adore your blog, it's so original and fresh!

  4. Definitely could use this!
    Bio Exam this afternoon :)


  5. Well I have to say this is a great post. It is very relevant and has some great points. Great stuff! :-)


    + + + + + + + + + +

  6. how amazing is this!:) I really like how you put so much effort into it. thanks for writing it:) and liking the first picture a lot!

  7. Thanks everyone! It was a pleasure writing it.

  8. This is so helpful, thanks!

  9. I love your blog, and these tips are awesome! As a graduating senior (eek) it's tough to find the motivation to study, but this advice makes it easier :)

  10. Whoa... jjinga (Korean for seriously, lol, cause I'm weird like that). That was the most helpful and useful information I've ever received in probably the better portion of my educational career. I'm an now a follower.. um, any advice for online courses?

  11. Love this post!!!
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. I don't have any advice for online courses, but I might be taking one in English this summer for fun, so I'll keep you posted!!

  13. Hi, nice blog.

    These tips inspire me to do better in my time management skills... I usually end up getting one old midterm finished, or 3 practice problems - then all of a sudden it's the exam.

    Next year... next year I'm either going to study well, or fail something. I don't think that's an exaggeration either - 3rd year is hard.


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