How to create an effective study strategy for your exams

Preparing for exams or finals doesn’t have to feel overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. Whether you’re pursuing the Bachelor of Applied Arts and Sciences, a certificate, or select courses at Penn LPS Online, there are proven study strategies you can use to remove the stress and have a successful test day. Although creating a study plan may seem tedious, it will be more than worth it in the long run—especially for STEM courses like neuroscience or mathematics, which may have more exams scheduled over the course of the semester. Along the way, it’s helpful to keep your motivation for enhancing your education—whether that’s to advance your career, refresh your skill set, or explore your intellectual passions—as you employ these nine effective study strategies.

1. Start early

If you are an adult learner juggling multiple work, family, and personal responsibilities, one of the best things you can do is start your preparation early. A great way to get ahead of things is to perform a quick weekly review session of your course materials, including creating summary notes, to ensure that you’re retaining key points. If you make a habit of this as soon you start your online courses, you’ll save yourself time and set yourself up for the next strategy below.

According to the forgetting curve principle, the brain experiences a steep memory decline within the first 24 hours of learning. However, you can combat this problem by practicing spaced repetition (for example, scheduling multiple review sessions) and active recall (such as taking practice tests) to better retain new information. Not only are these methods more effective, they are infinitely less stressful than cramming the week (or night) before finals.

2. Create a personalized study guide

Another important step in preparing for your finals is creating a study guide that outlines key concepts and is attuned to the way that you learn best. For example, if you’re a visual learner, you can include color coding, maps, or diagrams to help you organize information. Another proven learning tactic is to incorporate flashcards, whether digital or hard copy, for difficult definitions and concepts. Not only do flashcards promote active recall, but when you design your own, you are also learning as you create them.

A creative way to include additional memory retention work into your study guide is to use mnemonic devices, such as words, rhymes, songs, or images, to build long-term associations for key concepts, making them easier to retain and retrieve. The more that you can make the material you’re trying to learn relevant to yourself and your personal experiences, the more likely it is that your brain will be able to effectively recall it when it really counts.

3. Set up virtual meetings with your instructors

Once you’ve created your study guide, you will have a good understanding of the topics that you need clarification on. Instructors at Penn LPS Online have posted office hours and are available to help if you have questions about your course materials. Do not hesitate to reach out, and if possible, schedule your meeting early in advance of your exam to ensure that you get the answers you need in a timely fashion.

You can also take advantage of free live tutoring and writing support services at Penn LPS Online with Brainfuse via your Canvas course sites. Tutoring is currently offered for the following subject areas:

  • Computers and tech: Excel, Word, Windows, and PowerPoint
  • English: College-level reading and writing
  • Math: Pre-calculus, calculus, pre-algebra, college algebra, geometry, liberal arts, math, statistics, and trigonometry
  • Science: Anatomy and physiology, physics, chemistry, organic chemistry, and biology

4. Create a study schedule and stick to it

Creating a study schedule is the most useful way to make certain you use your time effectively. Whether you prefer to use an app on your smartphone, an Excel spreadsheet, or an actual calendar, the important thing is to organize your materials into smaller sections that you can divide and conquer. Whether you’re enrolled in a full or partial course load, it’s a good practice to switch up subjects during your weekly study sessions rather than scheduling consecutive blocks that only focus on one topic.

If you think that certain exams are going to be more challenging, give yourself leeway for additional prep time. Be sure to schedule more frequent, shorter study sessions rather than lengthy ones. This makes it easier to fit everything in and maintain your concentration. You may need to get resourceful with your time management skills, including planning study time in the morning before work, during your lunch breaks, or in the evenings, depending on your personal and professional obligations.

5. Create your own unique quizzes

Rather than focusing on reading your notes over and over, it is more helpful to create and use your own practice tests. During the process of active recall, your brain organizes and retrieves information, which multiple studies have shown can help reduce forgetfulness, improve comprehension, and boost long-term retention. When you build your own quizzes, you can enhance the memory rehearsal process that creates connections between new and pre-existing information in your brain.

If the exam you’re preparing for is multiple-choice, you can focus on creating short questions that involve major definitions and theories. Or, if you’re studying for an essay or case-based exam, you can create long-form questions to make connections between important concepts in greater detail. By actively taking part in the process of generating and answering questions, you can become more comfortable with the materials, as well as the general testing process, to further prepare yourself for success on the day of your exam.

6. Review with and teach others

Another benefit to creating your own practice tests is that you can use them in virtual reviews with your classmates. That’s because one of the most effective ways to encode memories of important information and promote recall is to be actively involved in teaching others. By quizzing or explaining models to your study group, not only can you reinforce your own understanding of the materials, but you’ll also have a chance to help those who are struggling to process them. And if you have your own questions, your peers can help you to gain a better grasp of the content as well.

If you can’t fit in time to meet with your classmates due to other commitments, you can improvise. Pick a friend, family member, or co-worker and offer to “teach” them key takeaways from one or more of your courses. That way, they can learn something new and potentially have a laugh while you study in a way that is both interactive and effective.

7. Take care of yourself

Your brain processes new information and forms memories when you sleep, so if you aren’t getting adequate rest, your ability to learn and retain material may be compromised. To that end, is especially important that you sleep well the night before your exam. Some strategies you can try to promote better rest include keeping a consistent sleep schedule; avoiding food or exercise within three hours of bedtime; and abstaining from using your TV, phone, or computer in the bedroom.

Taking care of yourself involves eating healthy, staying physically active, and getting enough sleep. Try to choose well-balanced meals with plenty of fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats. The last thing you want to do is load up on sugar and caffeine and then crash hard in the middle of studying … or taking your final. When it comes to physical activity, you don’t need to put in hours at the gym. Something as simple as a 10-minute walk around the block, a quick bike ride, or a gentle yoga practice can help improve your concentration, relieve stress, and provide a mental reset.

8. Make time for relaxation

As important as it is to schedule and follow through with your study time, it’s just as critical to give yourself the space to relax. Cramming doesn’t work; it just leads to burnout. Taking study breaks wherein you can do something you enjoy is essential to efficacious exam preparation. That may mean grabbing coffee with a friend, getting lunch with your spouse, or watching your favorite TV show. The point is to step away so you can recharge before you return to your studies.

If you haven’t already, you may also want to consider adding a meditation practice to your routine. As few as five minutes a day can help rest your mind and reduce your stress levels. Meditation and deep breathing can also be particularly helpful in restoring your calm on the day of your finals.

9. Have confidence in yourself

If you reached this final step, congratulations! This means that you’ve exercised the necessary strategies to fully prepare yourself to be successful in your exams. Now you can enjoy the confidence and satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re ready to showcase the skills and knowledge you’ve obtained throughout the semester. And once you complete your finals, you’ll be one step closer to achieving your academic and personal goals, whatever they entail.

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