Navya is dejected when she sees her exam results. Tears well up as she stares at her mark sheet. As her friends cheerfully post their marks on Facebook and Whatsapp, Navya’s hurt only intensifies. Even peers, whom she had helped on homework assignments and projects, have done better than her. Given the fact that she worked really hard this semester and had toiled before the exams, her results do not seem justified to her. Navya is sure she had understood concepts as well as, or, perhaps, better than some of her friends. Yet, they had all performed more impressively. What could Navya have done differently for a more favourable outcome in the exam?
Performing well in exams is not just a reflection of how much you study, but also how you study. Simply clocking your study hours is not necessarily going to result in a desirable outcome. In his book, How We Learn, author Benedict Carey surveys the psychological literature to provide tips and strategies that have been scientifically studied.
Even if you have understood your concepts, performing well in an exam requires committing information to memory. Be it facts, definitions, formulae or specialised vocabulary, you need to remember information to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding. One strategy to promote optimal recall is to space out your studying. Instead of studying and reviewing your Chemistry lessons for three hours at a stretch, you may do three one-hour sessions on different days, where you study the content on one day and then review it a day later and then possibly after a week. While the total time you spend studying chemistry will be the same, your ability to recall information will be better if you space your sessions apart. Of course, for you to spread out your study sessions in such a manner, you have to prepare ahead of time. If you pull an all-nighter and cram just before the exam, you may be able to tackle the test paper the next day; however, it is unlikely you will remember the information a month or a year later. In contrast, spaced learning helps you retain the content better over the long-term. In terms of reaping investment from the time you put into studying, spaced sessions win hands down.
Another factor that may enhance your performance involves the location of where you choose to study. In order to avoid distraction, you may lock yourself in your room. However, Carey cites a study conducted by psychologists which shows that changing the environmental context of your studying can promote your recall of information. So, once in a while, study in the living room when it is not too noisy or crowded. The next time you revise the same material, try studying in the dining room or the balcony or a friend’s house. You may also find that a change of place improves your attention.
When students prepare for exams, they typically progress chapter by chapter. After finishing a topic, do you test yourself by answering questions based on the chapter you just studied? In a previous article for this column, I had extolled the virtues of self-testing. Not only does testing provide a gauge of your learning, it also deepens your understanding. However, there is a more effective way to test yourself than simply quizzing yourself at the end of a chapter. The technique, called interleaving by psychologists, involves mixing up questions and problems from different chapters.
In fact, Carey quotes a high school math teacher, Doug Rohrer, who says, “One of the things you see that’s so baffling, when you’re a new teacher, is that kids who do great in unit tests — the weekly, or biweekly reviews — often do terribly in cumulative exams on the same material.” If you are one of those students, then you need to introduce more interleaving into your study routine by asking yourself questions across different chapters. Many a time, students also spend hours cracking a difficult theorem in maths or tackling a knotty physics problem. While it is essential to persist on complex topics, you must also realise that taking a break may actually help you figure out the solution. Often, when tough problems plague us, especially ones that require creative solutions, it might be worthwhile to switch gears and do something else or even simply relax. Be open to the idea that a solution to the problem may strike you at an unlikely moment or when you approach it at a different time.
In order to make up for lost time, students often end up pulling all-nighters right before an exam. They burn the proverbial midnight oil poring over their books, hoping to maximise their performance the next day. However, staying up late can be counterproductive as sleep actually promotes our recall and understanding of information. Studies show that people who sleep between learning and testing do better than those who stay awake. Furthermore, some evidence suggests that even short naps of an hour or so may be beneficial to learning. The next time your eyelids droop as you plod through your physics textbook, taking a nap may be wiser than forcing yourself to stay awake.