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Preparing for your exams doesn't necessarily mean locking yourself in a room with a stack of textbooks for hours on end. Maintaining a good balance between study and downtime is an important part of making sure you feel ready to give exam week your best shot.1
We spoke to Career Avenues' Principal Psychologist, Dr Marian Kratzing and UTS Careers Consultant, Nicole Papworth about the best ways to study smarter and face exam time with a clear head.
Find the right study technique
Unfortunately, there isn't one magic study technique that works for everyone. Although your first instinct might be to grab a highlighter and find keywords in a block of text, there might be a better way to transfer the information from your textbook into your head. Marian recommends turning headings into questions that you can answer as you read through your textbook. For example, if the heading is 'Audit responsibilities and objectives'2, you could change it to 'What are the responsibilities and objectives of an audit?' and work from there.
"Your reading becomes an active search for an answer, rather than a kind of mindless ploughing through a lot of material," Marian explains.
As you are setting your priorities each semester, Nicole suggests looking at the weighting for each task rather than the due date to help you determine how long you should spend working on each assignment or exam. Manage your time so that you are spending the most time working on the tasks with a larger weighting rather than the ones that are due first.
"It's backwards planning rather than going, 'Oh, look the essay is due soon, I'll start working on it', and then you're spending 20 hours on a 20% essay, but you only spend five hours studying for a 50% exam," Nicole explains.
It's about having those moments so that your brain and your body can actually relax and so you can re-energise to study again later.
Customise your study environment
Research shows that too much clutter can distract the brain due to the presence of multiple visual stimuli competing for attention3, so you might want to clean your desk before your next study session if it's covered in books, papers and empty coffee mugs.
Set yourself up in a comfortable space that's appropriate for uninterrupted periods of productivity with an ergonomic chair, a large desk, adequate lighting and good ventilation. What is going to work for you depends on your personal study preferences, which you can discover through trialing different approaches to figure out what you do and don’t find helpful.
"Some people need absolute silence to study, while other people need music and some need background noise - give each approach a go and see which one works best for you," Nicole recommends.
"It might not be true for every personality type, but generally I think organisation can help to ensure that you've got all the necessary material covered and you don't suddenly find there's a bit that you didn't cover. Reorganise your study materials so you can digest them most effectively,” Marian says.
Have a bit of organised fun in your next study session and get out your set of sticky notes to colour code your revision notes, or write key points on different coloured flash cards. Colour coding can help you to better memorise information.4
Don’t forget about downtime
You can't study efficiently without a few breaks here and there. It's important to have some downtime in your calendar to spend hanging out with friends, working on a hobby or even watching a few funny YouTube videos. Block out some time in your daily schedule between study sessions to recharge by doing something you enjoy.
"It's about having those moments so that your brain and your body can actually relax and so you can re-energise to study again later," Nicole says. "You can't stay in that high momentum of study all the way through. It's just not sustainable and you will burn out."
Taking the time to do some physical activity is also important as it can help to improve your memory and overall mood, help you sleep better and reduce stress and anxiety5. Marian says it can be something as simple as going for a walk around your neighbourhood on your study break to help you re-focus.
"Getting your heart beating faster increases blood flow to the brain. It can help to make you more alert and focused on your study activity. When you sit back down to study again you're thinking: 'Where am I up to? What have I covered this morning so far? What do I need to do next?'. Breaks that involve physical activity give you a chance to review what you've done but are also psychologically stimulating and continue to have an effect even after you sit down to study again."
A positive mindset and self-awareness are key
Thinking positively will help to maintain your confidence and keep your nerves under control, which is why Marian suggests using visualisation techniques. Try imagining yourself sitting calmly in the exam and nailing each answer as you go through the questions - the power of positive thinking is your friend.
She also suggests taking a moment to be aware of the way you are sitting in your chair while studying. You might notice that your posture isn’t quite right and that ache in your neck is the result of strained muscles. Follow this up with a simple listening exercise to take in what is happening around you and note any tension you may be feeling due to your surroundings.
"If you're not quite understanding something properly, often that will make you feel a bit stressed. So be sure to recognise that - you don't need to do anything about it, you just need to pay attention to it," Marian explains
"Then go back and look for what it is you don't quite understand, go through the material again to see if you can find the answer, and then come back to how your body is feeling."
Support is all around
The final thing to remember is that there’s always support available, even when it doesn’t feel like it. Don't be afraid to ask your teachers, tutors or lecturers for help if you are struggling. Your school or university might also have counsellors available to talk through the stress and nerves that exam time can create and share coping mechanisms to keep you calm and in control.
"Support systems help you realise that you do mean something to other people and that's important," Marian says. "It helps you build self-confidence and if there are any issues that you're having in the process of studying, they'll often help resolve them. They'll also help you to understand that you're not the only one and that others know what you're going through."
Nicole and Marian both encourage everyone to support their friends and classmates during busy exam periods by checking in with them regularly.
"Remind them about the importance of spending time away from study, and if someone seems really stressed or really nervous, just check that they’re okay and still on track," Nicole says.