Exams: how to better prepare for a test if you only have time to study at the last minute

Exams: how to better prepare for a test if you only have time to study at the last minute
Exams: how to better prepare for a test if you only have time to study at the last minute

Image source, Getty Images

Caption, Preparing for an exam can be a stressful experience.
Article information
  • Author, Jonathan Firth
  • Role, The Conversation*
  • 1 hour

If you’re in school or university and it’s time to prepare for exams, you may find yourself trying to memorize information that you learned a long time ago and have completely forgotten, or that you didn’t learn properly in the first place. effective.

Unfortunately, trying to absorb a lot of information in a short time is a very inefficient way to learn properly.

But sometimes it is necessary to pass an exam.

That’s why you can incorporate what we know about how learning works when you review, to make it more effective.

A lot of research evidence on how memory works over time shows that at first we forget new information very quickly, and then the forgetting process slows down.

In practice this means that highly compressed study times cause a catastrophic amount of forgetting.

A better option is space out the learning of a topic particularly more gradually and over a longer period. This is called the “spaced memory effect” or “spaced repetition” and causes skills and knowledge to be retained better and longer.

Research has found that we remember information better when we leave a gap of time between studying something for the first time and revisiting it, rather than doing so right away.

People in an exam

Image source, Getty Images

Caption, When it comes to retaining information, it is more efficient to space out learning and review.

This works even in short periods of time: a delay of a few seconds when trying to learn a small amount of information, like a couple of words, for example. And it also works when the delay between study sessions is much longer.

In the classroom, spacing out practice could mean review and practice the material the next dayor delay the assignment for a couple of weeks, instead of reviewing it as soon as possible.

As a general rule, psychologists have suggested that the best time to restudy material is when it is about to be forgotten: not before, but not after either.

But that’s not how you learn things during the school year. By the time students reach exam time, they have forgotten much of what they have studied before.

How to maximize your time

When it comes to truly learning – being able to remember information over the long term and apply it to new situations – trying to study a lot in the short term doesn’t work.

We can hardly call it “learning” if the information is forgotten a month later.

But if you need to pass an exam, studying in a short amount of time can lead to a temporary increase in performance.

What’s more, you can incorporate the spaced repetition effect into your preparation to make it more efficient.

Students with hands raised in classroom

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Caption, Some of the techniques can be applied during the time of learning in class.

It’s best to space out practicing knowledge of a topic over weeks, so if you have some time before a key exam, plan your review schedule to cover topics more than once.

Instead of allocating a two-hour block to a particular topic, study it for an hour this week and then another hour in a week or so.

If you don’t have as much time, it’s worth incorporating smaller intervals between practice sessions.

If your exam is tomorrow, practice the key topics today in the morning and then again in the evening.

Learning is also more effective if ryou actively retrieve information from your memoryinstead of rereading or underlining your notes.

A good way to do this, incorporating the spaced memory effect, is by doing practical tests. Review a topic from your notes or textbook, take a half-hour break, and then take a practice test without the help of your books.

An even simpler technique is called brain dump in English, which involves studying and taking a break, and then writing down everything you can remember about the topic on a blank sheet of paper without checking your notes.

Change the way we teach

A change in teaching practices may be necessary to prevent students from having to study material they only half remember before exams.

But my research suggests that teachers tend to agree with the idea that consolidating a topic should happen as early as possible, rather than spacing out practice in ways that are actually more effective.

Students look carefully

Image source, Getty Images

Caption, The changes that can be incorporated to facilitate learning are not radical.

Teachers are overloaded and make heroic efforts with the time they have. But incorporating the spaced memory effect into teaching does not necessarily require radical changes in the way teachers manage themselves.

Often, it is as simple as do the same thing at a different time.

Research has shown that the most effective way to combine practice testing and the spaced memory effect is to perform these tests in the initial class, followed by at least three practice opportunities at widely spaced intervals.

And this is very doable within the typical pattern of the school year.

For example, after the first class, additional practice could be done with an assignment after a few days, and then some type of test or mock exam after an additional time interval.

The review period before the exams would then be the third opportunity for consolidation.

Incorporate into education Effective self-assessment and delayed practice It would mean less stress and also having to study less material at the last minute, which is inefficient.

Exam time would be for consolidation, rather than relearning things that have been forgotten.

The result would be better retention of important knowledge and skills in the long term.

As an added bonus, students would also get a better understanding of how to study effectively.

*Jonathan Firth is Senior Lecturer in Education, University of Strathclyde, UK

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