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5 proven strategies for exam success

By Tyler 12 May 2019
Female student writes on exam paper in assessment hall.

So, you have an exam in your course, but it’s at the end of the semester so you can worry about it later … right? After all, you’re given a revision week before exam block which is obviously when you’re meant to revise … isn’t it?

Exams aren’t easy for any student, but they’re most difficult if you’re unprepared. If you answered yes to the above questions, then it’s possible you don’t properly understand why we do exams at university and maybe aren’t aware of effective preparation strategies.

Why do we do exams?

Exams are one of several pieces of assessment you will likely do in a course. Each assessment piece is designed to assess a different portion of your skills and knowledge. For example, presentations assess your oral communication skills, while exams test the breadth of your factual knowledge to ensure you have a comprehensive understanding of the material covered in your course. Without assessing the extent of your understanding, the examiners can’t be sure if you have the required knowledge for your field of study. For example, it’s important that a graduate paramedic knows about the entire human body, not just the toes!

Exams are a great tool to help you practice remembering key pieces of information and applying them to different scenarios. When you leave university and start your career you will need to do this all the time. So, if you are a budding lawyer, accountant, teacher or nurse, exams are great training for your future career. You can’t apply knowledge if you can’t remember it, and exams are a more effective way of exercising your memory than passive reading and repetition.

How should you prepare?

To put it simply, prepare early and use a strategy that fits you. Here are five ways to revise that can set you up for exam success!

1. Spaced Practice

So, you think revision week is the best time to revise? Think again! Spaced Practice is the opposite of last-minute cramming and requires you to spread your revision across a long period of time (like a whole semester). This means you need to plan your time to review your notes and course content regularly. Think of it as breaking your study into bite-sized chunks. You will retain more information because you are taking the time to remember it, rather than cramming and forgetting it all the minute you leave the exam room! Plus, you’ll have fewer sleepless nights in the lead up to exam block.

2. Retrieval Practice

Retrieval Practice works like it sounds … you practice retrieving information after you have learnt it. The important thing to remember is that you need to give your brain a little bit of time to forget the material first. It’s at that point you can practice retrieving or remembering. There are many ways to do this, such as making your own practice tests, flashcards, concept maps etc. You can also use this technique with Spaced Practice.

3. Interleaving

Rather than study the key concepts of your course one after the other, Interleaving requires you to switch between related topics during your study session. By creating links between the ideas you’re trying to remember, you build a web of knowledge that helps your memory and can make your study sessions more interesting. Be careful though, switching topics too often can have a negative impact on your recall, so spend a good amount of time (at least 10-15 minutes) on each idea before swapping to another.

4. Elaboration and Dual Coding

How do you approach ideas that just won’t stick? Sometimes you need to associate knowledge with your existing ideas, which is called Elaboration. Alternatively, presenting information in multiple different forms (such as pictures and words) can also be an effective study strategy and is known as Dual Coding. To practice Elaboration you need to ask the questions of how ideas work and why, then make links between these concepts and your own prior knowledge and experiences. Dual Coding works in a similar manner, but involves developing both visual and word-based study materials, to give yourself multiple ways of learning and remembering. Both of these methods are handy to help visualize concepts when you are having a mental blank!

5. Concrete Examples.

The last strategy you might want to try is using Concrete Examples. It’s likely you do this already, using real world examples of ideas to help you associate information and therefore improve memory. This is a useful learning strategy because if you get stressed in the exam and can’t remember an abstract concept, you might be able to recall a related example instead. If you pair this with a visual source and a personal memory, you are combining this strategy with Elaboration and Dual Coding, a trifecta!

Want more study tips?

Hopefully you will be able to use at least one, if not more, of these strategies when you are preparing for your next exam. For more advice on how to prepare for exams and more detailed information on how to use these strategies, check out the free USQ Beyond the Books Online Series webinar, ‘How to study smarter, not harder for exams’. If you are a current USQ student, you can also attend a one-on-one or group consultation with a Learning Advisor. Contact or visit the library website for more information.