“Work smarter, not harder” is an adage you hear often in workplaces. A manager might hang it on a poster above their desk, or a colleague might mention it in passing as they see you struggle to finish a deadline. But the saying doesn’t solely apply to workplaces. It’s relevant to your studies, too.
Some people conflate tireless, long hours with effectiveness. However, overworking yourself is not the ideal way to see results. Instead, you want to aim for efficient, consistent and thoughtful practices.
We understand that it’s a tad early to be considering exam season. (You’re still getting over the transition back to school!). But crafting a long-term plan for your exam studies will ensure less hard work, less stress and – if all goes to plan – better results.
Below, we explore how to create an effective schedule when studying for an online exam. Sooner rather than later, use these exam study schedule tips to create a gentle yet comprehensive study plan.
Determine the Basic Exam Details
First thing first: You need to determine “the three W’s” of your upcoming exam:
- When is the exam?
- Where is the exam? (Or, more accurately for online students, how do you log into the examination).
- And what will the exam cover?
The first two questions should be relatively simple to determine, as we offer incoming students comprehensive information on exam protocols. Please note that, as you study for test and exams at OES, you will need to arrange a proctor for the exams (you can do this independently or have OES arrange it; learn more at the link to the left).
Answering the last question – what will the exam cover? – involves familiarizing yourself with the course units and overall curriculum expectations. To get a head start understanding what may pop up on a final exam, peruse the course outline; click on an individual course under the “Our Courses” tab above to find the relevant outline.
Understand What Not to Do: Ineffective Academic Habits
Before you actually craft your study schedule, it’s worthwhile taking a few moments to consider what not to do. Understanding the common pitfalls of ineffective study habits is the first step toward amending those habits.
If it helps, make a pledge to yourself. Write it on a sheet of paper or sticky note that you keep near your computer. “As I study for my final exam, I will try my hardest to avoid…”
- Cramming: Stuffing your entire exam study schedule into a single day or weekend might seem attractive, but studies show that this sprinting approach to learning doesn’t work well. Our brains need repetition and time to memorize things. Cutting out cramming is also one of the best ways to curb exam season anxiety.
- All-Night Studying: All-night studying is a particularly ineffective form of cramming. Not only does it share cramming’s problems, but it also leaves you groggy, unrested and unable to perform at your cognitive peak. For better results, get a good night’s rest before your exam!
- Passive Learning: Passive learning involves intaking information without meaningfully engaging with it or internalizing it on a deeper level. It’s better to practice “active learning” by taking a keen interest in your course materials. According to Johns Hopkins University, “Research shows that students with higher performance scores may not necessarily study longer than their counterparts (but) are instead likely to study differently by using active review and repetitive rehearsal for storing information in long-term memory.” Put in simpler terms: Active learning helps you remember things for longer.
- Procrastination: We’re all guilty of this one! Procrastination is a natural mental response to hard work, but don’t let it get in the way of effective studying. Below, we dedicate a section to procrastination-busting tips.
If you can avoid these common pitfalls, you’re already well on your way to an effective exam study schedule. Next, we set aside what not to do and focus on an acceptable guiding principle.
Leverage the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Principle and Spacing Effect
So, we know we don’t want to cram our exam study schedule into a short period. What’s the alternative? For an effective replacement, we turn to Hermann Ebbinghaus, a 19th-century German psychologist known for his pioneering study of human memory.
Hermann developed the “Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Principle” (quite the mouthful), which demonstrates a decline in memory retention over time. If you learn something once, he showed, then you are bound to forget most or all of it in six or seven days. His findings have since been influential in psychology and education. As the University of Waterloo points out, “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.”
What’s the solution? How do we flatten the forgetting curve as we take high school courses online?
If you continue to repeat your learning every day (or every other day) by revisiting and re-engaging with the material, you will retain the information much better. Essentially, our brains need repetition and recall to hold onto things.
This practice is known as “the Spacing Effect.” It involves breaking your exam study schedule into increments, ensuring that you revisit the same concepts and information on a regular basis. For instance, if you review your logarithmic functions on a Monday, then you should follow that up by reviewing them again on Wednesday and Friday, etc. Meanwhile, you’ve saved Tuesday and Thursday for reviewing trigonometric functions. Essentially, you’re creating a revolving door of repeating information!
Create a Timeline
Now that we have our ideal principle (the spacing effect), we can start creating an effective exam study schedule. There’s no one correct answer for how to make a study schedule. Instead, you are using the principles you learned above to create a long-term timeline that sufficiently revisits all the pertinent information in your course.
A sample study schedule might look something like this. You give yourself two months to study for the exam. (This might seem excessive, but remember, you aren’t studying for the exam all day, every day). This exam preparation will dovetail with your regular coursework, so you’ll need to fit in a small amount each day – roughly one hour per day should do the trick.
Break the course down into components by reviewing the course outline and unit structure. Then, allocate those components to a day of the week, cycling through them over the next two months. Here’s what that might look like for an ENG4U course:
- Monday: Review critical thinking, MLA citations and essay writing units
- Tuesday: Review Hamlet
- Wednesday: Review literary theories and Animal Farm
- Thursday: Review critical thinking, MLA citations, essay writing and Hamlet
- Friday: Review literary theory, Animal Farm and Medicine Walk.
Repeat this week (which, in total, constitutes around seven hours of study time) for the next two months. By applying the Spacing Effect to your ENG4U exam studies, you should be able to retain all of the information ahead of the big test!
Schedule Breaks and Rest Periods
As you develop your exam study schedule, spare a thought for your mental well-being. Remember, we’re studying smart, not hard. If you’re the type of person who gets “carried away” with a study session, forgetting to resurface for air occasionally, consider scheduling your breaks and rest periods.
As we’ve mentioned previously on this blog, we’re fans of the Pomodoro technique. Following this method, you interlace 25-minute work sessions with five-minute breaks, observing a longer break every three or four cycles. The technique serves two critical purposes: it adds structure to your study sessions (thereby reducing procrastination) and gives your brain a much-needed rest to absorb information.
Following a lengthy study day, remember to get a good night’s sleep as well. A well-rested brain is a sharp, focused brain!
Consider an Online Schedule Maker
At this point, you might be thinking “All this talk about how to create a study schedule is fine on paper, but it sounds too difficult in practice.”
We hear you. Creating and managing your schedule will take time and effort, but you don’t have to shoulder the entire burden. If you’re not exactly the organized type, consider creating an effective study schedule with a scheduling app.
Google Calendar is a perfectly acceptable tool for the job. However, for a more turnkey experience, consider student-focused apps like My Student Life, myHomework, or Shovel Study Planner.
Review a Few Procrastination-Busting Tips
With your newly minted exam study schedule, you’re nearly off to the races. There’s only one thing that can hold you back now: procrastination.
Let’s get one crucial thing out of the way to start – procrastination is natural. It isn’t a failure of character or an indication of laziness. It’s simply our brain’s way of protecting us from negative outcomes. We might worry about our incapability, dread the prospect of failure, balk at the idea of being bored, or resent the fact that we have to work so hard. We know procrastination is bad for us, but we do it anyway, sparking an irrational cycle of inaction and guilt.
You can cut through that cycle by enacting a few straightforward strategies. Here are a few of our favourite procrastination-busting tips:
- The countdown clock: Allow yourself to procrastinate, but only for a small, set time period. Put yourself on a timer and say, “After these 30 seconds elapse, I’ll start studying.” You’d be surprised the power of a countdown!
- Block distractions at the source: For many students, the go-to distraction is social media, which makes it easy to procrastinate (most social media apps are specifically engineered to hold and keep your attention). Consider blocking them at the source with a distraction-blocking app like Freedom or Cold Turkey Blocker.
- Start small: Begin with a “softball” task, something that you know you’re good at. For instance, if you’re studying for a Biology 11 exam, review a few of the embedded videos to start. Afterward, you can work up to those complex diagrams, charts and tables.
- Give yourself a pep talk: Negative self-talk won’t work; you can’t bully yourself into completing a task. Instead, try a positive pep talk before you start studying for an online exam. Remind yourself of all your great qualities, your fierce determination and endless capabilities.
By employing these tips – either independently or together – you can hopefully hit the books without much heel-dragging, allowing you to stick to your effective study schedule.
Create a Dedicated Study Space
Whether you’re taking grade 9 courses at a brick-and-mortar institution or studying for grade 12 courses online, you need a dedicated study space. Dedicated study spaces are imperative for focus and productivity; they remove distractions, signal to our brains that it’s time to work, and keep us comfortable enough to sit for long hours.
Brick-and-mortar school students have the advantage of walking into a ready-made study space – the classroom. Meanwhile, online students have to make their study space from scratch.
We recommend beginning with a quiet room, removed from diverting screens and squabbling siblings. Many students choose their own room, converting one corner with a desk and chair. But you’re free to set up shop wherever you’re most comfortable.
Next, we suggest establishing everything you need for the day in advance. Papers, notebooks, computer chargers, water, healthy snacks – these should form a tidy collection on your desk. If you have the means, we also recommend investing in ergonomic equipment like a good office chair and/or wrist rest for your keyboard.
Lastly, you’ll want to sweep the space for distractions. Put your phone away; neatly tuck that PS5 in its TV stand; and throw on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to block any off-putting noises from breaking your concentration.
And there you have it. You’ve armed yourself with an effective exam study schedule. You’ve kicked aside ineffective academic practices and developed strategies for procrastination. You’ve scheduled rest periods to give your brain frequent breaks. And you have housed the entire operation in a dedicated study space. Give yourself a deserved pat on the back: You’re ready to ace this exam!