This blog is co-authored by our guest blogger Dylan Ermacora. Dylan is currently pursuing his MSc in epidemiology at Queen’s University and has an academic background in both psychology and social work from the University of British Columbia. Dylan is an expert at dissecting, understanding, and disseminating complex topics such as statistics. He is the go-to person in our cohort when seeking out study help, especially with the nightmare inducing course Biostatistics, as he knows how to make monotonous material much more fun, engaging and simple to learn. His background in psychology enriches this post with some solid psychological explanations and references to compliment several of his effective study strategies below, which may be critical during those high-stress exam periods. We also included some funny pictures to help ease exam anxiety 🙂
Focus on the Main Ideas
When the amount of material we need to cover for an exam seems overwhelming, it is important to become skilled at extracting the main takeaways from every line and chapter that we read, and weeding out the jargon. It is important to maintain a goal of building upon those main ideas and creating a mental story of the material as you go.. The simpler and more concise you can be in your thought process, the more likely you are to be able to retain and apply the concept in a variety of more applied contexts. Moreover, if you are able to create a personal narrative of the main points in your head you are much more likely to internalize and memorize the critical facts.
Spread it Out
Spread out your studying periods in order to maximize your retention and for a less stressful study experience. For example, commit to studying for 10 hours spread over 10 days rather than 10 hour cramming session right before the exam. Personally, after 10 days or so of low-stress studying, we can often visualize the pages themselves, including where the concept was on the page and which other concepts it linked up with. Low stress, repetitive studying of the important materials is the best way to gain temporary photographic memory. Use this to your advantage!
Indulge in knowledge exchange for better retention and understanding, even if you’re just chatting about the material with your mom. She misses you. You should call her.
Create a Study Guide
Dylan finds that the most efficient and effective study strategy is to create a study guide (with both questions and answers) or at least a short PowerPoint. Using it doesn’t really matter. The act of predicting which concepts are important is a powerful way to strength important connections. Practice writing down anticipated exam questions and your answers to them. This will allow you to formulate concrete ideas about the concepts you need to know (the answer) and why does it matter (the question).
More effective than re-reading – makes memory retrieval easier, driving analogy, practice until it becomes second nature/automatic – also helps clear up concepts. Reduces novelty and stress on the exam day.
Review before bedtime! Helps with long-term memory encoding because we aren’t forming many conflicting memories while we sleep. There is less information competing with the study material for space. This makes it easier to access the key study material memories.
Change it Up!
Studying material from different angles gives the brain different pathways which can be used to access the information. Switch from studying diagrams to reading or listening to the material. Or change from reading your study guide or slides from front to back, into back to front.
Study Surroundings Matter!
We recall better in an environment and in conditions similar to our study space! Students who try to imagine that they are in the setting where they learned the material tend to do better. This is especially relevant for final exams which may not be written in the classroom. If you’re taking the exam in an unfamiliar place, you can always visit the room in advance and review your material there.
This phenomenon is referred to as state-dependent learning. Students (and other research participants) do better on exams if they are in the same state during the exam as they were in while they were studying. This effect has been observed for those studying under the influence of alcohol and for caffeine. Dylan shared that the joke in memory psych classes is that if you studied drunk, you should show up to the exam drunk. But sober in both setting is clearly the ideal.
Making the Best of it with Less Exciting Material
If the material really does not feel relevant to you and you unfortunately have to use more shallow memory encoding strategies, you can make things easier by:
- Creating opportunities to casually interact with the material over and over, e.g. by making it your desktop wallpaper, pinning it to your bedroom door, or as Dylan suggests, naming your Pokemon after each symptom you need to learn!
- Sometimes you might notice that every important point starts with the same letter or can be changed up a bit to do so. For example, the five “A” negative symptoms of schizophrenia: affect (blunted), anhedonia, alogia, avolition, asociality
Overall, Dylan has shared several helpful study habits above to assist us through the final push of exams. These tips and habits are only helpful if applied consistently and with focus. Apply these strategies to your daily academic practice and you will reap the rewards of your effective study habits! The more you practice, the more innate these habits will become, and the easier you will find it to study and excel. Good luck!