Revising exam study strategies

Experts say most common study tactics are the least effective

Photo: 
A concept map of effective study strategies.
A concept map of effective study strategies.
Credit: 
Illustration by Michaella Fortune

Many students focus on rote memorization and cramming to prepare for exams — but these strategies are rarely the most helpful, according to education professor John Kirby.

As the December exam period approaches, learning experts say students should prioritize more effective study strategies to better understand the material they learn in class.

Students tend to focus on test-taking strategies without actually learning and processing the material given to them, Kirby said, rather than engaging in critical analysis.

“[It’s] essentially ‘how can I beat this test? I don’t want to learn anything I don’t have to learn, but I do want to get an A’,” he said.

Kirby, a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Education, said students often get stuck on particular study tactics without knowing their purpose. Learning strategies can be divided into techniques that are deep and relational which connect important concepts together, and those that are superficial and rote-memory based, he said.

Both types of strategies are important when studying, he added — but if the goal is to achieve higher learning, relational strategies are superior.

“The evidence from around the world is that the deeper strategies are associated with higher-level achievement, and with what most universities claim to be about,” he said. “Queen’s doesn’t advertise that if you send your children here, we will teach them how to do multiple-choice questions.”

Summarization is one example of an effective relational study strategy, Kirby said, where students read through their textbook or class notes and rephrase them in their own words.

Students often reread course material without any pause to self-test, he said, so independent summarization shows students whether they’re truly processing and understanding the information.

“Concept-mapping” is another relational strategy. Students should create a visual concept map by breaking down the content of a course or a reading into small parts, and then connecting concepts to each other.

“People who study learning know that most knowledge is relational. Everything is integrated into a network structure,” Kirby said.

“This sort of concept mapping makes you do an overview, a plan in a sense, and that plan then gives you a structure for remembering what you’ve got.”

Superficial strategies, such as rote memorization, may work in some courses, Kirby said.

“They’re better than nothing, because the fundamental part of a study strategy is to figure out what it is you’re trying to learn. You have to figure out what’s important.”

Studying in groups, meanwhile, is only effective when done correctly, according to Kirby, as students can often end up being distracted by their peers, rather than learning from them.

“At least in early years in the university, there’s not a lot of evidence that studying in groups is a good thing. Some people even said it’s negatively associated with learning,” he said.

Despite this, Kirby said study groups that include members with different academic strengths can improve learning and reduce stress.

“If you can get a study group together, especially one that has mixed abilities, so one guy has a strength in one thing and one woman has a strength in something else. Not only is that exactly like the workplace people want to move into, but it’s also a great way of teaching,” he said.

Students faced with large amounts of weekly readings must prioritize them based on the professor’s focus when studying for exams, Kirby said.

“Take a look at the professor and try to figure out what the professor and the course’s main points are.”

Elizabeth Parsons, a learning strategist from Student Academic Success Services (SASS) — which helps students with writing, presentations and exam preparation — said students can prioritize information by thinking about what parts of readings will help them prepare for an exam.

“For example, if I’m reading a biology textbook, I need to get the bolded definitions and understand the concepts,” Parsons said. “However, if I’m reading a sociology text, I need to know some of the definitions, but I also need to know some of the big-picture concepts and how things relate and what the themes are.”

For content-heavy courses that involve a large amount of memorization, Parsons said students should spread out their study time — ideally over three to five days — to allow them to process and store information.

“If you feel like you need to study for 12 hours for an exam, rather than cramming that 12 hours into the day before the exam or the day of the exam, spread that out, say, for three hours or four days prior to that,” she said.

According to Parsons, commonly used study techniques may not be as beneficial as some students think — especially cramming, where students spend several hours studying in the day prior to the exam, without taking breaks.

“What we actually encourage is to take a short five- or 10-minute break every hour of studying, and then every three hours of studying, take a much longer break of about an hour or two,” she said.

“It gives your body and your brain a break, so that when you come back to studying you can be that much more efficient, focused, and retain and remember what you’re learning.”

Parsons said common methods of studying — such as writing summary notes or doing practice problems — should be combined. Even if an exam largely contains quantitative problem-solving questions, she said, it’s important to focus on the processes behind solving the problems, rather than the rote steps.

“Practice problems are really important, but it’s also really important to do summary notes so that you’re thinking big picture about ‘why am I doing these steps that I’m doing?’,” she said.

Parsons said sacrificing sleep isn’t an acceptable way to study for an exam, even if the student only has a limited amount of time to study. According to Parsons, research shows that students’ cognitive abilities after 19 hours without sleep are equal to their abilities if they had a blood-alcohol level of 0.1 per cent.

‘You want to make sure in the process of studying, you’re not burning yourself out to the point where you’re actually unable to perform on the exam,” she said.

“You might feel like you’re learning the content, but it really does affect your cognitive ability the following day.”

Rida Sakina, ArtSci ’16, said she uses the study techniques outlined by Kirby and Parsons, adding that she finds it particularly useful to summarize material after reading it.

“I feel like that way, you know what you took away from it, and you know what the important themes and concepts are, as opposed to trying to wrap your head around everything,” Sakina said.

Sakina added that she spreads out her studying time, but not excessively.

“I do tend to study well under pressure, so a lot of my studying will be spread out over the two weeks before an exam, as opposed to a month,” she said. “I feel like I get more done when there’s a little bit more heat.”

Owen Berringer, Nurs ’16, sometimes finds himself cramming for exams, which he said usually works for him.

Berringer said students should focus on the fundamental elements of a course to study effectively in a limited period of time.

“Follow the primary course objectives from each week’s reading, making sure you know those really well,” he said.

Maxine Gravelle, Sci ’17, told the Journal via email that she thinks students should partake in self-care during exam periods.

“During exam periods I make sure I get at least eight hours of sleep and that I take time to do something I enjoy at least once a day,” she said.

“It is important to focus on your own mental health during exams because the best results stem from a healthy mind.”

— With files from Sebastian Leck

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