Everyone is familiar with the sinking feeling that accompanies exam season. It has everyone questioning whether they've prepared enough, even if they've gone over the entire syllabus ten times. The day before the exam has students scrambling for grade thresholds, cramming the night before, or just cradling their textbook, waiting for diffusion to take place (it's not going to happen, just saying). Though one can never completely eliminate exam stress, it can be alleviated with thorough and effective studying.
Thorough studying is essential for any exam, whether it's an end-of-topic test or the big CIE. The most effective way to study is to start from the very first day of school.
Yes, we all make that first day of school resolution, saying things like "I'm going to stay on top of notes this year!", or, "I'm going to pay attention this year!", but the second the teacher starts talking, you fall back into your old ways. The key to studying effectively LONG TERM is to do bits and pieces consistently. Whatever you learn in class, go home and revise again. Allocate just 20 minutes for every subject to review what you covered in class when it's still fresh in your mind.
Another thing you can do in addition to studying after school is make pre-class notes so that in lesson time, you can focus on listening to the teacher and asking questions rather than wasting time on notes. Another advantage of this is that you already have everything the teacher is going to say, and all you have to do is touch it up by adding small details. It saves both time and effort on your part and just requires a small amount of commitment to waking up early. This method also allows you to engage in class more and build a bond with your teachers (which is useful even if you don't want a recommendation).
If you stick to consistent note-taking and studying, you may find that you're weaker in some areas, and find some topics harder than others. Since you've been keeping up with the material, you'll catch these weak points early on and be able to ask your teachers for help.
But, what if you haven't studied? You've left it all until the very last second and now you're panicking. In that case, the only thing you can do is cram, but how?
Pre-class notes: Go over the textbook chapter and make bullet points for each topic point. Add key concepts.
In class: Ask questions on things you're confused about and answer questions to gain some practice.
Afterschool notes: Consolidate. Do topical questions and if you wish, re-write your notes to include details.
A GUIDE TO CRAMMING
If you're like any other student and have ever left revision to the last possible day, you know how hard it is to collect yourself and get on with it. If you find yourself cramming, here are a few tips to help you get it together. Just keep in mind that these tips are not guarantees to a fantastic grade, just steps to help you feel better about the looming exam by suggesting quick study tips.
The first thing you need to do is narrow down your study list and single out the areas of critical importance. You can do this in two ways: by yourself or through others. To do this by yourself, you can use the traffic light method. Use red, orange, and green highlighters and highlight areas based on how well you think you know them. Use green for areas you're 100% confident in, orange for areas you know, but could use some practice with, and red for things you have no idea about. This method allows you to single out the things you need to focus on more, but sometimes, it can lead to your textbook being drowned out in red ink. If this is the case, resort to the second method, asking others. You can ask your teachers about which topics to focus on more, and ask your friends and people in the grade above as well. Narrowing down your study topics is essential so you don't waste time on topics you're comfortable with.
Another thing you must do is find a quiet space with no distractions so you can work continuously and productively and get the job done. The day before the exam is NOT the time to host "study sessions" or study in public spaces like cafes. Find a quiet spot in your house, like your room or an office, gather all the books you need, and keep things like water and snacks within reach so you don't get distracted and wander the house in search of food. Put your phone and any other digital distractions in a drawer, or ask a family member to hide it so you don't end up mindlessly scrolling through Instagram.
Once you've isolated yourself, and the topics of critical importance, you can start cramming. The most effective way to quickly learn information is through repeated exposure and flashcards. If you already have flashcards, use them. If not, make flashcards for the topics you struggle with the most. If you don't have the physical materials to make flashcards, these websites might be of some help:
Lastly, look at past papers and old questions. Not only will you gain practice, but you'll also see what patterns arise in a typical exam, and you'll have a rough idea of what to expect. On the day of the exam, quickly revise all the information and use your flashcards once more so that the information you learned in your frantic cram session is not entirely forgotten.
STUDY METHODS: NOTES AND REVISION
THE CORNELL METHOD
The Cornell note-making method was introduced and made popular by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University. It involves the use of 3 main sections which allows your brain to multitask and help you learn in a much more efficient way.
To make Cornell notes, divide your notes page into three sections: a margin labeled "Cues", the bulk of your page labeled "Notes", and the last four or five lines at the bottom of your page "Summary". In the "Cues" section, write down any questions that come to mind while you're listening to your teacher or questions that will help you remember the course content. In the "Notes" section, write down important points in the form of a bulleted list. Finally, in the "Summary" section, summarize the entire lesson in a couple of lines. This method allows you to take notes efficiently, while also helping you retain information.
The Cornell method can be used when taking notes in class, listening to lectures, or using online resources.
Pareto’s Principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) is a demonstration of the skewed nature of cause and effect. It states that 80% of the effects come from just 20% of the causes. An example would be that you wear 20% of the clothes in your wardrobe 80% of the time. Concerning studying, just 20% of the studying you’re doing is leading to 80% of the results you’re getting. Additionally, 20% of the course content you study makes up 80% of what comes in the exam.
Now, I can tell you’re going “Oh! So I only need to learn 20% of the content and I’ll get an A!”. No. When applying it to academics, the 80-20 rule is a way of numerically visualizing the concept of narrowing down and prioritizing. The 20% of material in the exam is always the core concepts and key terms, so the 80-20 rule is a way for you to single out the topics of critical importance and focus on those the most. The rest of the material should be read and revised, but not be the main focus of your study time.
But how are you supposed to figure out which 20% of the course is the important part? To find the areas of most importance, you can:
Pay attention to what’s covered in class. If a topic isn’t touched upon in the lesson, it is highly unlikely it will appear on the test. If you have a questionable teacher, you can go through past papers to see whether that topic does show up even if your teacher didn’t mention it in class.
Take note of how long the teacher talks about a topic in class. If they’re spending more time talking about it chances are that it will come on the test. Furthermore, if your teacher tells you “This could be a potential exam question”, listen! They’re probably right!
Understand instead of memorize. Rote learning will get you nowhere if you stumble upon a question you didn’t commit to memory. Understanding a few key concepts (like the formulas in physics or the reasoning behind reactions in chemistry) can help you apply your learning to questions you’ve never seen before. For example, you’ve memorized every color change and substance test before your Chemistry Paper 3 practical, but they throw a question at you that you didn’t revise for. If you understand why a change occurs during a reaction, or why a specific color change occurs with a specific reagent, you can apply this knowledge to the question rather than freaking out and throwing random chemicals in a test tube. Understanding a few concepts is always better than memorizing the entire textbook.
Pareto’s Principle is useful both when studying long term, and when cramming before a test.
THE FEYNMAN TECHNIQUE
CHOOSE THE TOPIC
EXPLAIN THE TOPIC
ORGANIZE & REVIEW
The Feynman Technique was proposed by Richard Feynman and is widely used by students across the globe. It is a highly effective way of learning and retaining information, and consists of 4 steps:
Choosing the topic
Reflect, Refine, Simplify
Organization & Review
The first step of the Feynman technique is choosing the topic. Let’s say you’re revising the topic of DNA replication for a topical exam coming up. Take a blank sheet of paper and write down everything you know about DNA replication in bullet points, without looking at your notes or the textbook. Then, once you’ve written down everything, open your textbook, take a different colored pen, and add in things you missed. Repeat the process until you have all the details on a single sheet of paper. Using a different colored pen not only highlights things you should pay more attention to but also serves as a visual for you to see how your learning grows.
Once you’ve completed the first step, the next order of business is to explain it. Take all the information you have and pretend that you’re teaching it to a 12-year-old. Say everything out loud as if you’re teaching an actual person. Simplify the language you’re using and address any questions that come to mind when you’re explaining it.
Next, review your notes and simplify them so that you get rid of any useless information. The best way to do this would be to put all of your notes into shorter bullet points. Another way to simplify is to read everything out loud again. If something sounds a bit too much like a direct quote from the textbook, or if something sounds too complicated for a child, go over it and simplify it as much as you can without omitting any important information. Repeat this process until you have the simplest version of your notes.
Once your notes are complete, run them by someone else, perhaps someone who doesn’t know a thing about your topic. What did they get confused about? Do you need to simplify it a bit further? What questions did they ask? Can you incorporate their inquiry into your notes? Once you’re done, put your page of notes and simplified bullet points into a binder. If you use the Feynman technique for all of the topics, you can come back and refer to this binder every time before a test, and be greeted by simple, easy-to-read notes.
Parkinson’s Law simply states that work expands to fill the time you’ve allotted for that task. If you have an assignment due in 3 weeks it will take you 3 weeks to get it done. If you assign 5 days to complete the same task, it will be done in 5 days. Parkinson’s Law is also an explanation for why you miss assignments and procrastinate. If you have 3 weeks to complete a task that could be done in 5 days, you may put the project off and complete other, more urgent, tasks until the day comes when you have a barely started assignment due in 6 hours.
So, how do you overcome it?
Not a single person is impervious to Parkinson’s Law, and everyone has experienced it to some extent. To overcome it and optimize your productivity you can:
Plan your day strategically: make a detailed to-do list with every task, and assess how long each task should take (e.g. emailing a teacher would take a maximum of 5 minutes while completing a Psychology past paper would take at least an hour).
Set deadlines: yes your teacher may have given you a few weeks to complete your homework, but if you know you can finish it before dinner, do it. Self-imposed deadlines allow you not only to apply your strategic to-do list but also help you to increase productivity and maximize efficiency for that task
Similarly, you can try time-boxing: as stated previously, sending an email and doing a past paper require different lengths of time to complete them to the best of your ability. Time-boxing is when you allocate different lengths of time to different tasks, and then strive to complete them before time runs out. For example, restrict yourself to 5 minutes when sending an email to your teacher (don’t waste hours on formatting and drafting, they couldn’t care less), while for a past paper, perhaps look at how long you get in the exam and complete the paper within that time frame.
Try the Pomodoro Technique
THE POMODORO TECHNIQUE
Developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is a way for students to effectively learn by eliminating fatigue and other distractions. It’s also an example of gamified studying.
The Pomodoro Technique reduces time to a single unit: a tomato. One Pomodoro (“tomato” in Italian) consists of 25 minutes of completely focused work time. Once you finish 1 Pomodoro, take a 5-minute break. A complete set is comprised of 4 Pomodoros with 5-minute breaks. Once you’ve completed 4 pomodoros, take a longer, more refreshing, 20-30 minute break. Repeat as many complete sets of pomodoros as you need during the day to finish the task.
The Pomodoro technique sounds almost stupid in its simplicity. How can something this simple be so effective? Firstly, the Pomodoro technique makes it easy to get started. By splitting your workload into smaller chunks, the task seems less intimidating and so easier to get started. Furthermore, by telling yourself “I’ll just study for 10 minutes” you get started, and by the time the 10 minutes are up, you’re already in the zone and don’t feel the need to stop.
This technique also helps you manage where your time goes and also helps you single out which tasks would take the most amount of your time. This helps you single out the tasks of the most importance.
Some tips to help you effectively implement this technique:
Plan your Pomodoros in advance - take 15 minutes out of the start of your day (or end) to plan out what you’re going to do. Remember that tasks longer than 5 Pomodoros should be broken down into smaller, more manageable, tasks.
Make “overflow” Pomodoro - these could be for the tasks that take longer than you anticipated. They can be at the end of the tasks you feel may overflow, or concentrated at the end of the day for you to finish up.
Don’t hesitate to change it up - sometimes you may feel that 25 minutes is too short for the task you’re trying to complete. You can always increase the length of your Pomodoros to a time that suits you.
Use the Pomodoro app - the Pomodoro app can help you visualize your Pomodoros and keep remove the distraction from your phone.
THE LEITNER SYSTEM
The Leitner System is based on the knowledge of retention and long-term memory. It uses the basis of spaced repetition and the idea that our brains will be able to retain more information if we continually revisit it over lengths of time.
To apply the Leitner system to your studying, you can make a set of flashcards for one topic and go through them every other day, or every three days to keep the information fresh. To effectively space out the time between subjects, you first need to single out the subjects of utmost importance. Once you have flashcards for everything, make three boxes and place them on your desk. In the first box, put flashcards you will repeat once a week. In this box, put the flashcards for the subjects you’re extremely confident about and only need to revisit a few times. In the second box, put the flashcard you will repeat every other day. This box is for the subjects you know, but are not confident with yet. In the third box put the flashcards for the subjects you struggle with the most and will revisit every day.
To use this system more effectively, you could also make five boxes and move the flashcards every time you get them wrong or right. Correctly answered flashcards will move up the boxes (so be practiced less frequently), while incorrectly answered flashcards move down the boxes (so they will be practiced more frequently). This technique helps you adapt your learning by making you practice the topics you struggle with the most.
The Leitner system allows you to effectively revise all the subjects without overworking yourself by using rehearsal to move information to your long-term memory.
We hope these productivity tips will help you make the most of your study time. As students ourselves, we know how hard it is to balance home life with the crushing weight of schoolwork, so the most important thing to remember is that it is OK to take days off to recover from the seemingly never-ending cycle of studying. A rested mind is a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is the best thing when studying.
A variety of subjects from the Cambridge International system
Detailed notes and revision sheets for each of the subjects we offer
Feedback from teachers and tips from straight-A students