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All too common feelings when you’re about to embark on exam study.

And when you’re feeling like this, your motivation can go right out the window, because it just seems all too hard.

We’ve all been there!

To combat these all too common problems, the technique discussed below will help you get stuck in to your study in a way that is focused and purposeful, and — thankfully — makes studying a whole lot more interesting.

It will also make sure that you’re studying in a way that is in tune with the questions you’re going to get asked in the exam or assessment.

Okay. Let’s get right to the substance of it all.

But first, where do you start when you don’t know where to start?

Feeling stuck like this before you’ve even starting studying is super demoralizing.

I remember this feeling well. It was a frequent visitor at the beginning of exam study.

The thing to do, is to pick a topic that you are almost certain is likely to come up in the exam (for instance, photosynthesis in Science, quadratic equations for Algebra, an essay for English — the big ticket items) and launch into it.

This means that you’re using your time efficiently because you’re studying a topic that’s almost guaranteed to come up in the test or exam, as opposed to a more peripheral topic. AND, sinking your teeth into something fairly substantial early on in your study will help you feel like you’re making real inroads with your study, which is a great motivation booster.

It reminds me of when you need to clean the house when you’ve neglected to do so for a couple of weeks… The thing to do is to just pick a room, and get stuck in. By the time you’ve done one room you’re on a bit of a roll, you’re mighty chuffed with yourself that you’re finally tackling the mess, and you feel motivated to get the rest of the house spick and span.

Now, how do you make sure your study is actually effective?

Now that you’ve started studying, your focus should be on making sure that you’re studying in a way that results in you actually understanding what you’re studying as you go.

Otherwise, you might end up just reading about something or watching a video on something, with all of the information going in one ear or eye and out the other. This is a waste of your time and energy, and will leave you feeling frustrated and demoralized.

Studying in this way is also likely to end up with you being bored much faster than you would have otherwise. This is because you’re not engaged with what you’re learning about. You’re not invested in it. You’re just going through the motions.

So, to avoid falling into this time-wasting mind-numbing cycle of inefficiency and boredom, when you’re studying, make sure that you’re thinking about how the topic you’re studying is going to be assessed.

An English exam example

If, in your English exam, you know you’ll have to write an essay on a novel you have read, you will die of boredom and frustration — and most importantly — study ineffectively, if you just read the novel without thinking about what you’re going to be asked about it in the exam.

For instance, for an essay about a novel, it’s quite likely that you might get asked to discuss one of the main characters. To study in a way that would best prepare me for writing an essay on a main character, I would think about the character’s interesting traits (personality, background, behavior, etc), and jot down a few points and examples about each of these things.

Doing an exercise like this will make sure that you have critically thought about the novel (or whatever text you’ve studied) BEFORE the exam. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT, because that’s what the exam is going to test you on — whether you have actually thought about the novel — and not just whether you have read it.

A Chemistry exam example

As another example, if you were studying for your Chemistry exam, you might find yourself needing to study electron shells and their relationship with reactivity (i.e. how the number of electrons an atom has in its outer shell affects its reactivity with other atoms and molecules).

As a starting point, you would probably need to wrap your head around the basics of atoms and electron shells.

But I wouldn’t stop there.

A common Chemistry question on atoms and reactivity would be something like, ”Explain the differences in reactivity between Neon and Calcium.”

To best prepare me for writing an answer on a question like this, I would do something like make a table in my study notes that arranged a few different types of atoms in order of their atomic number in one column, then had the number of electrons in their outer electron shells in the next column, and then I’d include a few notes in a third column about the atom’s reactivity.

For example:


Atomic number

Electrons in outer shell


Neon108Full outer shell therefore an inert gas.
Calcium202Only 2 electrons in outer shell — easily lost — very reactive.

This is the type of critical thinking that will set you up to be incredibly well prepared for your exams and other assessments.

You will have actually thought about what you are studying, while you are doing it. This means you are going to understand your subjects so much more thoroughly.

And what’s more, by studying in this way, you will be prepared to answer exam questions BEFORE the actual exam, because you will have done more than just read or write or listen — you will have made the types of connections and done the critical thinking that the exam will expect of you (in this example, the relationship between outer electron shells and reactivity).

It’s also MUCH more interesting to study like this, because you’re not just reading or writing or listening, you’re doing something active that engages you with what you’re studying.

It might not come naturally to you to study like this initially, but stick at it and you will soon find yourself in the habit of doing it! And the results will follow!


Photo credit: Faris Algosaibi



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