Management & Leadership

How to study for exams: Essential tips for mastering matric

Oct 12, 2018
How to Study Better

In order to make a significant change in their marks, most students don’t need to study harder, just smarter. This means making better use of your study time – spending the same two, three or four hours, but accomplishing twice, thrice or four times as much.

In the run-up to matric exams, here are five easy-to-use but powerful time-management and studying strategies to ensure you max out those swat sessions.

How to Study Better

1. Start smart

Make a detailed study schedule and write it down, thus committing your purpose to paper. You will be more likely to follow through with your study plan if it is clearly marked on your calendar, and setting a schedule and sticking to it will allow you to develop a routine that eventually becomes second nature. Keep in mind that, while you should spend an appropriate amount of time studying, going overboard is counterproductive.

Long study sessions inevitably become boring and, when your mind starts to wander, this study time is wasted. Instead, schedule “power sessions” of anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour where you focus all your attention on the subject at hand without interruptions of any kind. Then take a break, with a complete change in scenery, so that when you come back to the books your brain feels refreshed and ready for the next challenge you throw at it.

2. Think like a teacher

Trying to figure out the kinds of questions you’ll be asked is not simply an age-old exam hack, it’s actually a way of biasing your brain towards absorbing information. Questions are to learning what the ignition is to a car: they jump-start your brain, making it search for an answer and, in the process, releasing chemicals that facilitate learning. Remember, the examiner is not expecting you to memorise every single detail, just the important ones.

By applying yourself to the job of discerning what’s important and what’s not, you engage in a process of active (and more efficient) learning. You also avoid being that student who turns a stack of notes into a highlighter colouring book.

3. Take a test

While the continual rereading and the single-minded rapid-fire repetition of work you’re trying to burn into your memory (in other words, the kind of studying you do when you’re cramming) is the preferred study strategy of most learners, it is also one of the least productive. According to cognitive scientists, when it comes to mastery and durability, parrot-fashion learning has been shown to be largely a waste of time. Far more effective is what they term “retrieval practice”, when facts, concepts or events are retrieved from memory as opposed to simply being stored in it.

A simple quiz after reading your notes produces better learning and remembering than rereading, underlining and highlighting those same notes, say the experts. At a cognitive level, they claim, testing is more beneficial than repetition studying because it requires a form of active learning that strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. The key to such active learning lies in the old Chinese proverb: “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”

4. Join the dots

Sharpen your ability to retain information by connecting the new ideas you learn to what you already know. So say Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel in the bestselling Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. According to the authors, two of whom are are psychology professors at Washington University in the US, “elaboration”, or the process of putting a new idea into your own words, significantly assists knowledge retention.

“The more you can explain about the way your new learning relates to prior knowledge, the stronger your grasp of the new learning will be, and the more connections you create that will help you remember it later,” they say. So, for example, if you’re studying science and trying to understand the process of heat transfer, tie the concept to your real-life experience by imagining, say, how a warm cup of coffee disperses heat into your hands.

5. Take a break

One way to ensure you follow through with your study timetable is to plan time for other activities. By achieving a balanced schedule, your mind will be more receptive during time devoted to studying. If you plan several long days in a row of studying, you will get discouraged and will be tempted to give up. It is acceptable, and even recommended, that you fit in time for non-academic activities, such as exercise, hobbies, even socialising with other students, in order to combat exam stress, stay motivated and achieve a healthy sense of both equilibrium and purpose.

Given any thought as to what you want to do after school? SACAP offers courses that can help prepare you for a career in psychology, such as the Bpsych degree, or the Bachelor of Applied Social Science. To find out more, enquire now.

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