Exam – it’s a stressful little word. Four letters of panic inducing, sweat rolling, and stomach churning fear. This may not be the case for everyone, I’m sure there are some people out there who thrive on the challenge of an exam. I, however, am not fortunate to be one of those fine, mentally balanced people.
Exams stress most people, and I found taking control and following a few simple tips can get you through it. Learning anything new can be easy if you have interest in a topic or are familiar within the field but this is not always the case and in the past I have often found myself in a situation where I’m required to learn something that I don’t find fascinating and… quickly (a.k.a inexcusable cramming). Having gone through this many, many times in my college years, I picked up a few tips that made the process go more smoothly each time. So if you have a big exam or certification looming or even if you’re just struggling to grasp the volume of a topic, maybe some of these can help.
1. Relax. Yes, I know it’s important and you’ve been learning this for ages, reading and listening, and researching and… OMG, you know nothing! Relax, really. First of all, you DO know more than you think but you are stressed and stress loves to feast on memory. Stress slows the brain’s ability to connect brain cells that form memories and how those memories are made for things such as decision making. Put stress on a diet and try to relax by getting away from your ‘learning space’, and if applicable, other learners as well. I often took an entire day to relax my brain in the days coming up to an exam. Taking a bath, having a glass of wine, or even going to see a movie can help – whatever you would normally do to relax on a day off. It also doesn’t hurt to admit that the worst case scenario of failing isn’t the end of the world. Have a backup or contingency plan in place – just in case. If you can see beyond a failure and visualise it barrelling onwards towards a future success, it can help to alleviate the pressure.
2. Get your style on! There are several different learning styles, and while you may not fit perfectly into just one, finding your most successful style will assist you to lay out a better learning plan.
- Visual learners – learn through seeing
- Auditory learners – learn through listening
- Tactile/Kinaesthetic Learners – learn through touching, doing, moving
Read about the different learning styles and take a quiz to see what might best suit you. I’m a kinaesthetic learner – I find it hard to sit and read learning material for long periods of time and drift easily in standard classroom trainings. I try to find ways to include ‘doing’ in my learning – something as simple as taking what I just read/listened to and drawing a picture that illustrates it can make a big difference. If you are a kinaesthetic learner and you face an instructor led training that is a little too auditory or visual for you, approach your instructor and see if they can work some practical examples into the course – or if they can simply provide you with some to complete on your own. Use the same approach if you have another learning style; find a way to affect how the content is delivered to meet your needs.
3. Plan it. Even if it’s last minute, cramming won’t get you anywhere fast if you don’t take time out to make a study plan. Manage your own expectations well, especially when faced with a short timeframe. Planning to learn an entire book on a topic in a few days isn’t going to get you anywhere but stressed out. If you are short on time try to identify the most important areas and work your plan around that. Give yourself deadlines or as I call them, cut-off points – an allotted time for a particular topic that you must stick to. Setting an alarm when the time is up for a topic can help keep you on track. This will ensure you don’t get bogged down on one topic and don’t eat into time set aside for another important one. The same applies if you have oodles of time – you must have a plan and stick to it!
4. Remove distractions. This one is the mother of all tips. And the one I tend to forget far too often. I love distractions; I absolutely adore them when I have to learn. I can even manage to find chores to do after I had removed every distraction I can find. Well, I can’t study in a room that isn’t spotless, right? If you look hard enough you’ll always find something and if you’re like me, have a plan, want to stick to it, and find distraction like others find air to breathe, be sure to write removing your distractions into your plan. Get your study space cleaned, send your other half away for the evening, turn off your phone, close Twitter, make sure all your pencils are sharpened – whatever it takes, remove as much as you can before you settle down to start, or you may never!
5. Understand it. By far the most difficult part of learning – really understanding what you’re taking in is more than half the battle. Writing something down over and over will only help you memorise text – and it sure doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about! I find repetitive writing is only helpful for basic procedural learning and even that doesn’t stay with you very long. You need to understand something to truly remember it. To help achieve this I usually take the topic at a high level and research related articles, papers, blogs, elearnings, videos, etc. on it. Tapping into Twitter can also give you a real world, real-time feel on the topic, different perspectives or definitions and may even put a spin on it that you would never have considered before. This stuff may not ‘be on the test’ but it just might be the gold dust that connects the dots and helps you understand, and understanding is a whole lot more valuable than regurgitation.
6. Practical application. Don’t just read – do! Take what’s on the page and apply it to a real life situation. Not only will this help you to remember what you learned but it can also improve your understanding and help you identify knowledge gaps you didn’t know existed. You may not be a kinaesthetic learner but no one ever became an expert by simply reading.
7. Test yourself – often. There’s no sure fire way to see if you really know something until you test yourself. Identify key things you should know and prepare a test for yourself – and no peeking at the material in between – sit on it if you have to. Try this out for each key area to ensure you are covering as much as possible. This one always revealed to me that even though I’d read something so many times that I knew the shades and patterns of the coffee stain beside it – I didn’t really know it.
8. Ask the expert. Ask a lot too. The more you ask the more of a foundation you’ll build for yourself around the topic. Many people shy away from this one for fear of looking stupid, especially in a classroom situation. Frankly, the only stupid thing you can do in this situation is NOT ask the question. You are there to learn, you are not expected to know these things before you go in – you’re the student, not the expert. You’re aim is to learn by getting questions answered!
9. Teach it. Find a guinea pig and try to teach them the topic. This is my personal favourite! When I find some unfortunate subject to inflict my newly found knowledge on I always find I try to teach them in Tara-speak! That is, I take what I know in my head and I put my own narrative on it when I’m explaining it to someone else. I’m not sure if Tara-speak makes any sense to my unsuspecting student but it works for me! And not to be selfish, but that’s the real objective here. I try to find a story to wrap around it that’s mine and ultimately helps make it more understandable and relatable. It also helps to identify what I don’t understand when I find my story with a hole, or a ‘student’s’ question I can’t answer – I know I need more revision there. Of course, if you are really teaching someone for their benefit and not yours – you should be more aware of their learning needs than moulding it around yours.
10. Take Notes. As you are learning – take notes where you can. Keep them short and simple and in your own words. Don’t try to write down that fancy quote the instructor cited, it probably won’t mean much to you when you look back but do try to flag thoughts or analogies that surface as you go along. Also, do your best to be neat – I can’t count how many times I only saw chicken scratches where I ‘made notes’. This can be difficult in a classroom situation depending on the pace and if you don’t have time during class, try to do it as soon afterwards as you can. You’ll be surprised what you remember reading over it even at the end of the day – or even what newly springs to mind as you revisit it.
One final tip: knowledge can be powerful but it’s completely worthless if you don’t use it!