An exam is a little like stormy weather: It’s inevitable, its particulars are shrouded in mystery until the day it arrives, and the best way to deal with it is through preparation. However, while preparing for inclement weather requires little more than breaking out a rain jacket or unfurling an umbrella, preparing for an exam is a touch more complex.
The central goal in studying for any exam is to have all the info you might need at the ready, easily accessible in the foreground of your brain. But that kind of rock-solid retention requires pre-planning, hard work, determination, and a few tricks tucked up your sleeve.
Studying for an online exam is largely similar, with the caveat that you mainly study for online exams in solitude, working from an at-home or remote space.
In this blog post, we want to offer an evergreen guide for studying for online exams. Here, we’ve drawn inspiration from our articles on effective study habits and online learning tips during the pandemic, tweaking and expanding our advice specifically to tackle exam preparation.
Hopefully, you’re visiting this article with plenty of lead time before exam day. But if you’ve found yourself here with days to spare, you can still find actionable advice to guide your remaining study days.
Understand the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Principle
In the late 1800s, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a five-year study into the decline of memory retention over time. What does this relatively obscure German psychologist have to do with studying for an exam, you might ask? Quite a lot, actually!
Ebbinghaus developed what’s known as the “Forgetting Curve,” a graph that demonstrates how humans forget newly learned materials in just a few days if they don’t review the material periodically. According to research cited by the University of Waterloo, “By day 2, if you have done nothing with the information you learned in (a) lecture, didn’t think about it again, read it again, etc. you will have lost 50%-80% of what you learned.”
The lesson here: Revisit your lessons, notes and texts. Revisit them early and often. And please, follow the next piece of advice…
Avoid Cramming with Some Pre-Planning
For the vast majority of students, “cramming” isn’t the ideal way to prepare for an exam. A 2009 study from the UCLA found that just 6% of students learned more by cramming than conventional “spacing” techniques (distributing your learning over time).
Certainly, Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve is a factor in this disparity. When you cram, you slam your brain with new information, usually without taking time to revisit that information multiple times. As Ebbinghaus illustrated, that’s a recipe for forgetfulness.
Instead, create a study schedule for yourself a month or more in advance. Allot time over multiple weeks to revisit and re-revisit material from different units. Here’s a quick sample guide for creating an exam study schedule over four weeks, using ENG4U as an example:
- Week One: Review notes and materials on “Critical Thinking Skills” and “MLA Citations and Essay Writing” units.
- Week Two: Review notes and materials on the “Literary Theories” unit. End your week by re-reviewing the units from week one.
- Week Three: Review notes and materials for the three principal course texts: Animal Farm, Hamlet and Medicine Walk.
- Week Four: Re-review all units, with a special emphasis on continuing to revisit the three texts and Literary Theory unit.
Bear in mind, this is an example only. You should create a schedule based on your personal timeline, as well as guidance from your instructor.
Use Physical or Digital Flashcards
Flashcards have been a staple in the studier’s arsenal for over a century. They are simple, streamlined tools that break up information into easily digestible pieces, and studies show they aid in the memorization process. You can use standard physical flashcards (available at any art supply, office supply or dollar store). Or choose from several flashcard apps to localize the information on your phone or computer.
You can also tailor the nature of your flashcards to what type of learner you are. For example, if you are a visual learner, create eye-catching flashcards with pops of colour or drawings. If you’re a reading/writing learner, maybe you make your flashcards text-heavy. And if you are an auditory learner primarily, perhaps you forego conventional flashcards entirely, opting instead to make voice notes on your phone. To learn more about the types of learners, read our article on the subject.
“Chunking” isn’t the latest viral dance move; it’s a method for studying that involves breaking down complex concepts, texts and materials into manageable pieces. If you want, think about it like eating a pancake: Rather than forcing the whole disc down in a single bite, it’s better (for everyone at the table) if you cut your meal into bite-sized pieces.
As regards studying, this means isolating small facets of material at a time, focusing on them individually, and then reviewing how they work together in chorus. (Refer to the tip directly above for an easy way to facilitate chunking).
This article offers an easy-to-understand primer in how to practice “chunking” in your daily life, which you can readily apply to your study tactics.
Take Practice Exams
If you can get your hands on past exams for your course, take them. Practicing for an exam by going through the motions of a similar exam helps you in two ways. First, it likely covers similar (or the same) concepts as you’ll encounter on your upcoming exam, which offers you a chance to test your strong suits and blind spots.
Secondly – importantly – it gets you used to taking an exam. For some students, it is the anxiety surrounding the test, rather than their knowledge of the materials therein, that gives them trouble. Therefore, practice exams can act as a form of immersion therapy, psychologically preparing you for facing the big, scary exam.
Find an Interlocutor
An “interlocutor” is just a fancy term for someone with whom you have a conversation. (It’s the kind of term, incidentally, that might show up on an English exam). Your interlocutor could be anyone – your parents, a friend, a sibling, or even a particularly attentive pet!
Whomever you choose, try to explain to them what you’ve learned for the upcoming exam. Explaining tough concepts to others forces us to paraphrase, contextualize and revisit those ideas. In other words, you make the ideas your own. Too often, we bottle our learning up and keep it inside. Give it some fresh air – you might be surprised what that does for your retention.
Reach Out for Help
As we have stressed several times on this blog, you don’t have to go it alone. At OES, we want to ensure that you feel supported throughout your time here. That said, please take advantage of the systems of support we offer as you study for an upcoming exam.
Students who take our e learning online courses have access to passionate, knowledgeable instructors as well as 24/7 on-demand tutoring. If you’re stuck on something, you’ll find the resources you need to get back on track by contacting one of the above sources.
Mind Your Physical Surroundings
Have you optimized your study space for learning? In general, it’s good practice to create a productive learning space for your online courses that’s tranquil and focus-facilitating. But the practice takes on special resonance as you prepare for an exam, when sustained concentration is a constant demand.
Find a quiet place to get started. Remove any distractions that could deter you from studying, like your phone, the TV, video games or non-school-related reading materials (these fun items will be waiting for you after your study session’s finished). Keep a couple of snacks and some hydration handy in case you get hungry or thirsty. If possible, allow plenty of natural light in by positioning yourself near an unobstructed window. Lay out all the materials you need to complete the day’s studies. And get comfortable.
Put on Your Thinking Cap with an App
It’s perfectly fine to outsource some of our planning and executing to apps. Consider a few different types of apps that are ideal for exam studies:
- Time Management Apps: Apps like Brain Focus Productivity Timer, Focus Booster, Evernote, and myHomework Student Planner help you create a study schedule and stick to it with alerts, time-tracking features and Pomodoro-style timers.
- Task Management Apps: Trello, Wunderlist, and Remember the Milk are fantastic options for organizing, prioritizing and visualizing upcoming tasks. Use them to create a study schedule (see the “Avoid Cramming” section above).
- Distraction-Limiting Apps: If you want to tune out certain time-wasting websites as you study, try Rescue Time, Cold Turkey Blocker, or Freedom. These apps temporarily limit your access to certain websites (chosen by you), so you can focus better on exam studies.
These apps can’t do the work for you, but they can help organize, guide and improve your exam studies.
Create Your Own Mnemonic Devices
Did you know that the word “laser” is actually an acronym? It stands for “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation.” So, why do we use the term “laser”? Well, it’s because the acronym is a helpful shorthand for remembering the concept.
This is known as a mnemonic device, usually an abbreviation, acronym or rhyme that serves as a placeholder for longer strings of information.
For instance, for your upcoming biology exam, you might memorize the phrase “Didn’t Know Popeyes Chicken Offered Free Gizzard Strips” as shorthand for the taxonomic system (DKPCOFGS: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species). Create your own mnemonic device around something that interests you!
Consider Your Physiological Needs Too
In centuries past, thinkers adhered to a “mind/body divide theory” that holds that the mind and body are separate and independent entities. It’s only recently that researchers have reversed this assumption with robust investigations into the connections between the human brain and body.
Your mind and body share an inextricable bond – some experts even go so far as to say they are one and the same. Therefore, as your exam approaches, take a holistic approach to preparing for an exam by considering your physiological needs.
Specifically, consider rest and sustenance. Studies show that inadequate sleep can negatively affect our ability to retain and recall information, make decisions, and focus our attention on tasks. While it’s tempting to stay up late the night before an exam to cram every last bit of studying into your available time, the research indicates that a healthier strategy would be to get some shut-eye instead! This advice is also pertinent to our mature students taking online high school courses for adults, since research shows that one in three adults don’t get enough sleep.
The same goes for sustenance. Eat brain-healthy foods like fruits, leafy greens and fish rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Remember to eat a healthy breakfast on the day of your exam, too; research shows that feeling hungry can cloud our ability to stay focused.
Stay Hydrated Throughout Your Exam
Here’s one last thought on taking care of your physiological needs: Stay hydrated.
According to a 447-person study conducted by the University of East London, students who entered the exam hall with a bottle of water scored an average of 5% higher than those without H20. In other studies, adequate hydration has been linked to better cognitive performance, so the researchers at East London felt comfortable drawing the inference among the students studied.
No one’s saying that drinking water throughout your exam will definitely net you a 5% higher grade, but it can’t hurt to have a glass of water next to your computer as you complete your online exam.
With proper planning, strategizing, determination and self-care, your exams should go smoothly this semester. Remember: If you ever find yourself struggling with your studies, please reach out to one of our expert instructors or fabulous on-demand tutors. We want to see you succeed, to achieve your academic goals. We’re all in this together!