What's the best way to study for an exam?

13 June 2017

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Question

What’s the best way to study for exams?

Answer

Chris asks Duncan Astle to help Charmaine with some exam preparation.

Duncan - Three tips I can bring to mind. Number one is sleep. Make sure you get plenty of sleep. When we’re sleeping, when we're offline during non-dreaming sleep (non-REM sleep) you undergo a really important process of consolidation where you integrate new information with your existing body of information, and that results in durable, solid memories. So get plenty of good-quality sleep.

Number two. There’s this really famous effect in psychology called “space versus mass practice,” which is that if you break the learning up over multiple sessions rather than bunching it all together, you get an added benefit. That's because each time you revisit the information the very process of retrieving the information again strengths it’s tracing results in more durable memories.

Chris - Are you saying that basically I should make myself a revision timetable, identify what I want to learn, and then start each lesson by revisiting the things I’ve learned before? Or are you saying that just by breaking up and not trying to do too much at once you give yourself some mental rest if you like?

Duncan - When you put your revision timetable together, rather than planning an entire day on one particular topic, space that topic out across multiple days and that’s a better way of structuring the learning.

The third thing is to test yourself regularly. We know from cognitive psychology that much as it’s unpopular, testing for learning is a really beneficial thing.

Chris - Isn’t that what the exam is for?

Duncan - That’s like a one-off thing right! If you can incorporate testing, not for the purpose of necessarily seeing how good you are, but you actually learn very well when you incorporate testing with the revision.

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