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Mid-Year Exam Study Tips

As exam period looms ahead of us, keep these study tips in mind as you prepare for your mid year tests.

Step #1: Make a study schedule

You’ve probably heard this before, but I will emphasize it because it is critical: do not cram,and space out your study blocks. By spacing out your studying, you’ll reduce anxiety and maximize long-term retention (which is the whole point of learning, right?). What’s worked for me in the past is a week or two in advance, I’d create a list of subjects I intended on studying for. Then, I’d make a sub-list of what I intended on doing for each subject to prepare. Finally, I’d look through PowerSchool and sort out each unit based on what I received on that unit’s assessment, and focus on the unit with the lowest score first.

After prioritizing my studying, based on my weaknesses and the exam date, I’d work backwards, planning out my time until that day. Keep in mind that there are only 24-hours in a day, and if you over-plan, you will fall behind and not study everything you need to. Therefore, I’d advise creating a buffer day before the exam in case you fall behind for last-minute review. For an example, below is the study schedule I made my junior year. Keep in mind, it’s not perfect, and based on my experience last year, I’ve found flaws and plan on incorporating the lessons I’ve learned last year when making a new study schedule (the need for a buffer-day was the lesson I learned last year).

Last Year’s Study Schedule, click to see a clearer image.

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In terms of day-to-day schedules, your study schedule largely depends on your learning style (which will be discussed in more depth in Step #2). If you can focus for long periods of time, regardless of the subject, go ahead and schedule long study blocks (60 – 90 minutes). If you do not have a long attention span, try scheduling 30-60 minute study blocks. If you’re like me, and your attention span largely depends on your interest level in the subject, block out large chunks for subjects you’re interested in, and short ones for subjects you’re not interested in. Aim for 5-10 minute long breaks for short study sessions, and 10-15 minute long breaks for long study sessions.

Step #2: Realize that learning is individual

As most of you probably already know, everyone has their own methods for learning and synthesizing new information (you can read more about how people learn differently by reading one of our earlier articles on the Psychology of Learning). What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. If you aren’t aware of what type of learner you are, find out now. (Naviance provides a comprehensive learning type test, depending on what grade you’re in you may have already completed it. To check, log-in, click “About Me”, under “My assessments” click “Learning Style Inventory.” ) Using this profile, tailor your studying to you. If you strongly prefer learning alone, don’t participate in study groups. If you prefer evening studying, schedule your study blocks later in the day. Some people need music to study, others need absolute silence. Experiment to find what works best for you. Do this to maximize the benefits reaped from studying.

Furthermore, realize that each subject warrants its own type of study method. For some qualitative classes and vocabulary-intensive classes, like history, some aspects of chemistry, or government, flashcards are a good method to review. Sites like Quizlet are an excellent tool for this. For quantitative, process-intensive classes like math, physics, or economics, repetition is key. This can be accomplished by re-doing problems, either from the textbook or past worksheets. However, make sure you understand why you do each step, as many classes will include trick questions to assess whether you understand why, not just how. One method I found particularly useful for math is a blend of the above methods: taking a sample problem from each type of problem, solving it but verbally explaining how to do each step.

Step #3: Take a pretest to hone in on what you need to review

Apart from discovering weaknesses by looking at old test scores, I’d advise taking a pre-test (no notes, ideally before any studying) to see which information you’ve retained the best. If it’s an AP class, that class’ corresponding AP site has several practice tests (all previous FRQs and some released MC exams). If your teacher provides a review sheet, filling it out from memory could be a good method to see what you remember. After scoring the practice test, prioritize the information you’ve forgotten, then work your way backwards to the information you remember the best. This way, you maximize the benefits of studying, and waste little time reviewing information you already know.

Step #4: Take Practice Tests

A handful of scientific studies found that practice-testing and repetition is the best way to optimize study time. According to the 2013 study, “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques,” methods such as “…underlining, re-reading material, and using mnemonic devices were found to be of surprisingly low utility.” Such methods are good for refreshing your memory, however, they’re not effective after that. The report concluded that learning techniques such as “…taking practice tests and spreading out study sessions out over time — known as distributed practice — were found to be of high utility.” For quantitative aspects of your classes, practice problems, which can be found online, in your textbook, or on past worksheets and tests, are the ideal method for studying. For the qualitative aspects of your classes, practice essays or flashcards are the way to go.

To refresh your memory, I’d recommend Khan Academy for math, science, economics, and some history; Get A Five has excellent free review videos for calculus, U.S. History, world history, and biology; Crash Course has history, economics, science, government, and psychology videos.

Step #5: Don’t Stress Out

It’s important to relax when preparing for and taking your exams. From personal experience, my exams tended to be much broader than unit tests, as they’re testing to see whether you understand the big picture; don’t get bogged down with the small details. Furthermore, this year, the midterm will only be 5% of your grade if you’re enrolled in a year long-class, and 10% of your grade if you’re enrolled in a semester class; if you don’t do as well as you expected, it’s not the end of the world. Stress is detrimental to your brain, health, and will result in you underperforming.

Step #6: Understand the tradeoff between sleep and studying

You’ve probably heard of the “get 8 hours of sleep” heuristic before, and while it may have some merit, it isn’t entirely accurate or practical. It shouldn’t come as a surprise by now that different people need a different amount of sleep each night. According to the National Sleep Foundation, it’s “recommended “that teenagers (ages 14-17) get 8-10 hours of sleep a night, and it “may be appropriate” to get 7-11 hours of sleep (for the few of you that are adults, the “recommended” range is 7-9 hours and the “may be appropriate” range is 6-11 hours). While it’s ideal to fall within this range, for some people, it’s not practical. It’s important to understand that when you go below this range, response speed slows down, higher-level cognitive abilities such as perception, memory, and executive functions are impaired, and you lose out on critical REM sleep, which is imperative to memory consolidation.

In a perfect world, I’d recommend getting 8-10 hours of sleep, but this isn’t a perfect world, and sometimes it’s necessary to trade one or two hours of shuteye to finish studying. My final recommendation is this: understand that when you get less than seven or six hours of sleep a night, it will be at the cost of your cognitive ability the next day. Ask yourself this question: is reviewing this concept more valuable than getting this hour of sleep? However, there is one rule that I’d strongly recommend everyone follow: do not pull an all-nighter, as it’s very likely that any benefit you may accumulate from studying all night will be outweighed by the cost of mental sluggishness while taking the exam. By following the above advice, ideally you wouldn’t find yourself in this predicament, as you’d theoretically only be doing a final review the night before or wrapping things up.

How do you study for exams?

I interviewed several upperclassmen to see how they studied for mid-terms, and these were their responses. As you can see, everyone has their own study methods, and there truly is no “one-size fits all” approach to studying for cumulative exams.

“For the most part [mid-terms] are generally about core concepts which I should already know. I skim through old tests and quizzes for maths and sciences…Midterms are meant as an assessment of what we’ve learned.” Eric Joy, Senior.

“This year, [my friends and I] are getting together to study for chemistry. I look over my past test and quizzes, and I mean a lot of my teachers are giving us study guides so I’m just going to do them. But really getting together with friends or even a teacher is the best way.” Katelyn Gray, Junior.

“I take out all my worksheets and pull out the main ideas, reviewing material in the book I have the most trouble with. Most important is to review old tests and quizzes. Spend as much time as you need but don’t over-do it.” Shelby Bernard, Senior.

“I make my own study guide if no one else has one. It helps a lot just making the study guide, sometimes I don’t even review them after I make them. “ Parker Armstrong, Senior.

“Do the packets the teachers give you. DO THEM. Also review over past worksheets. Usually I take a subject and break it down. I’ll focus on one major topic at a time (say, trigonometry) and jot down all the formulas and notes for it. Then I’ll go back to past worksheets and make sure I know how to do all the problems. Study guides are useful to make too, just so you have all the important formulas and key facts in one place. Rewriting and re-doing problems helps me remember how to do things.” Anna Sang, Senior.

“The key is to go through old tests and re-take some of the questions to understand the information. Then make a ‘cheat sheet’ with some of the most important equations and vocab terms from the semester.” Tyler Work, Senior.

“I’d say studying a little every night before bed and focusing only on stuff you’re not sure about. Writing notes but hand instead of typing them because it stimulates a different part of the brain. Studying in different places. Keep your phone on airplane mode. Studying by helping others study.” Caroline Duhamel, Junior

“If I study, it’s by looking over the textbook (if there is one) and taking some practice tests.” Ryan Meehan, Junior

“I construct study guides and I also usually make flashcards. I also usually re-read all the chapters.” Mallory Cannon, Senior.

Best of luck, and ace your exams Blue Hawks.

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