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How to prepare for an exam

4 min read
  • Study skills & exam prep

Exams are just around the corner. They may not be life defining, but they are certainly life changing. Up and down the country, many students are doing their final preparations. But what are the right things for them to be doing? How can students best use their last few weeks, days, hours and minutes up until their exam?

Two weeks to go

The key here is to plan your revision effectively. There isn’t much time left, but there is still enough to make a significant difference. Research suggests that two of the most effective ways to do this is called ‘spacing’ and ‘interleaving’. Spacing is the opposite of cramming. So revising 1 hour a day for 14 days is far more effective than 14 hours in one day. 

Depending on which study you read, the difference between spacing and cramming can be between 10-30% in the final exam. Evidence suggests that there isn’t one optimum length of time to space out your study sessions, but that it is linked to how long you want to remember the information for. The gap between revision sessions should be 10-20% of the total time you want to retain the information for – so if the test is in two weeks, you would want to review the content every 1-3 days.

Closely linked to ‘Spacing’ is the concept of ‘Interleaving’. Whereas spacing is about how long you leave between revision sessions, interleaving is about what you do with your time. When students dedicate a whole day to one subject (i.e. ‘On Monday I will do Chemistry and on Tuesday I will do French’) this is known as Blocking. Interleaving is when you mix these up and do a bit of both on each day. 

Studies have shown that students who had previously blocked their revision did better if the test was immediately after, though once the test was more than one day away then the interleaved students performed over three times better.

One week to go

Do lots of past papers and quizzes. This is known as the ‘testing effect’ and is one of the most effective revision techniques possible. This technique is worth doing even before this stage, as it helps improve memory, reduce nerves and boosts confidence. To read more about this revision strategy, check out our blog ‘The Power of the Testing Effect’.

Other effective techniques include teaching the material to someone else and seeking any last minute advice, guidance and feedback from people who could help you (though be sure to avoid making any of the 6 Most Common Mistakes When Asking For Feedback).

The night before

Pack your bag for the next day. This is far less stressful than having to do it the morning of the exam. Do a full equipment check and double check you have everything you will need. Don’t be tempted to stay up all night cramming at the expense of getting a good night’s sleep. How well you sleep is linked to how much you remember, how well you feel the next day and your ability to cope with stressful situations. This why what you think about the night before an exam is so important.

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The morning of

How you wake up in the morning has a big impact on how you feel over the course of the day. One easy win is to make sure you eat breakfast. Eating breakfast gives you fuel for the first few hours and has been found to make a significant impact on student attention and memory (key skills needed in an exam).

An hour before

Get to school early. Everything is always more stressful if you are running late. Once you are at school, be sure to spend time with people who relax you and make you feel good about yourself. Where possible, avoid people who make you stressed and anxious as they won’t help you feel better leading up to the exam.

One minute before

There is not much time left now. All that is left to do is take a few deep breaths to calm yourself down, gather your thoughts and remind yourself of your exam strategy.

An hour after

Do a quick reflection and debrief on the exam. Don’t dwell on it too much as you can’t go back and change your answers. In fact, the more you probably think about it, the lower you think your exam mark will be and the more stressed you will become. Try to do something that will help you unwind and if you have another exam looming, move on and refocus on to that.

For more help preparing for exams have a look at our page Best Ways to Revise – where you’ll also find links to great blogs with tips on doing your best in exams.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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