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Exam study strategies for success

So, this post was originally going to be called ‘Exam hacks for success’. After all, who doesn’t love a hack? They save time, effort and make you feel clever. When it comes to studying, it can be especially tempting to try and find the easiest route. Strategies like highlighting and re-reading are common among students and they feel easy. However, while writing this blog it became clear very quickly that promoting hacks for studying would be doing our readers a disservice. This is because, when it comes to good study strategies, research overwhelmingly suggests that the most effective study methods require conscious effort.

Essentially, the more active you can be with your studying, the better.

Yes, yes, we know, that’s not really what you want to hear. However, it’s not all bad news! While effective learning requires a short-term energy investment, it pays off in the long term. Not only will you remember more for longer, but you can have confidence going into your exam session that you have taken the right steps to succeed.

In this blog post, we’re going to go over 6 study strategies that you can use to learn better. While these strategies are great for any situation where you need to remember things, the examples we will use are specifically for exams. Not only will they help improve your understanding and memory, but they are based on evidence, so you can be confident all your efforts are not going to waste! We’ll also include some tips for helping implement these strategies. If something doesn’t resonate, feel free to try things out and see what works best for you. After all everyone is different.

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Retrieval practice

Many students assume that the most important part of learning is getting the information into your head in the first place, or to use a fancy memory term, encoding. However, effective learning is also based on how well this information can be recalled, also called retrieval. But as the little girl from Old El Paso espouses, why not have both? Retrieval practice is a study strategy that takes encoding and retrieval and combines into a superpower learning strategy. Essentially, it involves testing yourself (yes, we know, that’s why you don’t like exams in the first place). However, retrieval practice is one of the most effective learning strategies around, in some cases researchers have shown it to be twice as effective as ‘typical’ study.

Ways of using retrieval practice:
  • Read-Write-Review – Some may know this method as the ‘look-cover-write-check’ method. Essentially it involves reading some material, then writing it out on your own without reference and checking how well you do. Rinse and repeat until you can write out everything without errors!
  • Flashcards – You can either make your own by hand or use online flashcard programs like Quizlet or Anki. Just remember, flashcards work best when you go beyond just memorizing the definition, but also try to link ideas together.
  • Quizzing peers – Get your peers together in a small study group (3-4 people works well) and make up some practice questions. Then, go round the group and ask each other the questions. This is a good method because it also incorporates elaboration (see below) and you can use your peers to fact check if you have gotten the answers correct.

Protip: Find out what kind of exam you have (multiple choice, short answer, essay etc.) and tailor your retrieval practice to what you will have to do in the exam. It is not as helpful to practice multiple choice questions if your exam is going to ask you to complete 3 short answer questions.

Spaced practice

Many students are time-poor and sometimes it is tempting to let procrastination get the better of us. Often this translates into cramming before exams. However, evidence has shown that Spaced Practice is one of the most effective ways to improve long-term recall. Essentially, spaced practice involves spacing out study periods over two or more periods in time. How this looks in practical terms varies. Longer gaps (several weeks or months) are typically better for longer memory, whereas shorter periods (days or weeks) may be appropriate for information that need not be remembered for long. If you are time poor or have left your studying until the last minute, choose what is best for you.

Ways to implement spaced practice:
  • Planning your time – We know, we know, we love to go on about time management, but it really is that useful! Implementing spaced practice only works if you actually plan out when you are going to study. Take your calendar and mark in study blocks at intervals when you know you will study for specific topics. Remember, rather than spend a 5 hour block in one day to study for one topic, space it out over 5 days.
  • Using your time well – There’s no use in planning out when you will study if you then go and not use that time wisely. There are many methods for improving your focus when studying, the Pomodoro method is one example. Pomodoro involves studying hard for 25 minute blocks and then taking a quick 5 minute break. Rinse and repeat four times and then you get a longer break.


Sometimes the content you have to learn just doesn’t resonate with you. This can make it harder to remember what you do have to. Well, we don’t have a magic pill to suddenly make everything seem more interesting, but using this next strategy can get you a little bit closer. Elaboration involves explaining and describing the ideas you are studying with as many details as possible. This could involve asking questions about the content while you are studying; why does this work in this situation but not this situation? It could involve connecting the ideas you learn in class to your everyday life, your past experiences and memories. By forcing yourself to engage more with the content, you can trick yourself into remembering it better (and maybe enjoying it more). Elaboration also works really well when you combine it with methods like retrieval practice.

Ways to implement elaboration:
  • Explain ideas to classmates – Get your peers together and explain key ideas from your class to each other. Make it as detailed as possible (without making erroneous connections!). This method can be great because you can fact check each other to make sure you’re not getting things wrong.
  • Explain ideas to newbies – Grab you mum and explain to her behaviourism, positive psychology, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, whatever it is you need to remember. This method is great because it forces you to understand the concepts well enough to explain them to someone who had no idea what they are.
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There are obviously many different ways to study. Some people like to focus on a single idea for an extended session and that’s fine, it’s better to study than not to study. However, evidence does show that switching ideas while you study, or Interleaving, is better for retention. Essentially, you want to switch between ideas within a single session. Full disclosure; it will feel hard to study this way, especially if you are used to studying one topic over a longer period. However, this feeling of difficulty is actually helpful for your learning. Remember what we said at the start; “the most effective study methods require conscious effort”.

Ways to implement Interleaving:
  • Set time limits for ideas – If you use the Pomodoro method, a great way to incorporate this is by using one Pomodoro for each idea.Then, when you go back to the ideas in a later session, switch up the order.
  • Make sure you don’t rush – While interleaving is very effective, make sure you actually understand the idea before moving on to the next one. It’s totally okay if you need more time to grasp a particularly difficult topic!

Concrete examples

Sometimes you will be asked to remember and understand a concept that is frustratingly abstract. In this case, it may not be useful to make flashcards or try to explain a massive concept to your peers. Instead, consider using Concrete Examples. Using concrete examples involves using specific examples to help you understand abstract ideas. These examples could be ones that your lecturer has provided in class, ones from readings, or even ones you find yourself (these are the best kind!). Take the examples and link them to the concept you are trying to learn. Not only will examples help you understand difficult concepts better, but it will provide you with a concrete reference point for recalling information.

Ways to implement concrete examples:
  • Research your own – as mentioned, the best examples are the ones you find yourself. This is because you are forcing yourself to really think about the idea in order to find an example for it (hello elaboration!) Just be careful that the examples you find are actually appropriate. Check with your teacher if you are unsure.
  • Grab your peers and share – Once you’ve found some good examples, grab your friends and share what you’ve found. At this stage you also probably understand the idea well enough to try to elaborate about it using the examples you’ve found. Not only will this help you remember better, but sharing your examples will help others.

Dual coding

Often when studying, we can become stuck just looking at walls of text or writing out walls of text or trying to memorize walls of text…you get the idea. While written information is obviously crucial, combining words with visuals, or Dual Coding, can be great for building connections and memorizing concepts. Dual Coding can take many forms. A good place to start is going through the course materials and looking for visuals that your lecturer has given you. Compare these visuals to the words and try to understand why it is there and explain what it means. Another great way to use dual coding is to take the information you are given and try to translate it into a visual.

This could take the form of:

  • An infographic – great for simplifying complex concepts
  • A cartoon – great for memorizing examples and study procedures
  • A diagram – great for understanding more concrete concepts
  • A timeline – great for remembering dates or events
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Ultimately, try to get yourself to the point where you can recreate the visual from memory.

While studying well can kind of suck (it takes lot more work), the outcome is worth the investment. Fortunately, the strategies we have talked about in this article have a good deal of evidence behind them, meaning you can be confident that your time and effort will not be wasted. We hope that you can take control of your learning using what we’ve spoken about and wish you all the best for your upcoming exams!

Acknowledgement – Much of the information regarding these learning strategies has come from The Learning Scientists. Check them out here!

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