How to study effectively for your exams

Nervous about an upcoming exam? Here are 12 of our best study tips to help you prepare for the big day.

Desks setup for exam OUA logo

Exams are almost here, which means it’s time to revisit your old lecture notes and find out just how much you’ve learnt over the last few months.

It’s completely normal to feel overwhelmed right now, especially if you’re juggling your exam prep with other responsibilities like full-time work and childcare.

To reduce your stress, we’ve put together some valuable advice from past students, which should help you study smarter and not harder in the lead up to exams.

What to do two weeks before your exam

1. Come up with a study plan

Planning out a study calendar in advance will help you feel more organised and in control about your exam prep, especially if you have multiple exams. Here are a few tips to help you start:

  • Map out your week and figure out exactly when you’re available to study and when you’re not available because of meals, work, family commitments and downtime.
  • Allocate an hour or two per day to exam prep. Anything more than this and your attention starts to wander.
  • When writing down your plan, be specific about what you’d like to study each day so that you have a clear goal to accomplish. Instead of saying ‘study for psychology exam’, put something like ‘write five practice answers that focus on psychological assessment and measurement.’
  • Schedule in some rewards, which will motivate you to push through tough study slogs. Bribe yourself with TV time or an Uber Eats meal if you make it through two uninterrupted hours of study. If you’re working full-time, try not to spend your whole weekend studying—tee up something fun to look forward to as well, even if it’s only a FaceTime catch up with a mate.

2. Rewrite your notes by hand

While re-reading your old lecture notes is a good place to start your exam prep, the details won’t stick in your brain for long. It’s important to give yourself a task to do at the same time so you’re actively engaging with the material. You could create a mind map or rewrite your notes by hand, which will force you to reflect on the information, and, hopefully, retain it.

3. Record yourself talking through the lecture notes

This study trick might sound cringeworthy because no one likes listening to the sound of their own voice, but it really does help. Grab your phone and record yourself explaining the study concepts out loud as if you’re the lecturer. Then listen back later when you’re cooking dinner or in the car. It’s much easier to learn and remember material if you can hear yourself chatting about it in your own words.

4. Create flashcards  

Flashcards are a great way to test your knowledge and memorise concepts through repetition, provided you write them properly. Leave them in different places around the house, so you can surprise yourself with random pop quizzes. Don’t be afraid to put them in weird spots, like on the back of the toilet door or in the shower—anywhere you have a bit of thinking time!

5. Get someone to quiz you

You could also ask a friend, partner or family member to quiz you with your flashcards. Nothing will trip you up faster than having to explain the material out loud to another person. You’ll quickly find out where you’re nailing it, and where you need to improve.

6. Take regular breaks

Solid study prep will only get you so far—it’s also important to take care of yourself during your exam period so you’re not working non-stop.

Step away from your screen every hour or so by making a snack, doing some yoga stretches or putting on a load of laundry, and take longer breaks after your two-hour sessions, preferably outdoors. A quick half-hour walk around the block can do wonders for your mood. The short, sharp exercise will also boost your creativity and focus, so you’ll be even more productive when you’re back at your desk.

What to do the night before your exam

7. Prepare your exam space

As an online student, it’s very likely you’ll take your exam from home, which means you have total control over your exam location. This is great news, because you can choose a space in your home where you feel most relaxed and comfortable.

Here are a few things to think about when picking a place:

  • Make sure it’s a quiet, private spot where you’re not going to be interrupted by housemates or family members.
  • If possible, make it the same place you normally study, because familiar surroundings can trigger memories. Looking at the pen cup on your desk could be all you need to do to remember an important lecture or conversation.
  • Think about the time of day your exam takes place, and whether that’s going to affect where you sit. If it's in the morning, is the sun going to hit your computer at an annoying angle? Will you need to shut the blinds? These small things can make a big difference on the day.

8. Organise your equipment

If your exam is supervised over a webcam, then you won't be able to leave the room once things kick off unless you need to use the toilet, so it’s a good idea to set everything up ahead of time. Do it the night before when you won’t forget something out of anxiety or stress.

Check your university’s LMS for specific guidelines on what you can and can’t have on your desk.

For most online exams you’ll need:

  • a PC or laptop with a working internet connection and web camera
  • your student ID
  • any authorised notes or textbooks
  • pens, pencils and blank A4 paper (if there’s a written component)
  • a water bottle and snacks
  • tissues

Make sure your computer has installed its latest updates so that it won't reboot during your exam, and that your wireless mouse and keyboard are fully charged.

9. Get a good night’s sleep

As tempting as it can be to pull an all-nighter before your exam, resist the urge. You might cram your head full of knowledge, but you’ll be too tired to remember it. If you don't get a solid seven-to-nine hours of rest before your exam, you’ll lose about 40% of your learning ability.

For help dosing off, take a warm bath or shower and avoid screen time at least 30 minutes before going to bed (because this overstimulates your mind, making it harder to wind down). It's also best not to study in bed, or otherwise you’ll associate your comfy mattress with work.

What to do the day of your exam

10. Eat a hearty breakfast

You don’t want to be distracted by a rumbly stomach mid-way through your exam.

Experts recommend eating a brekkie full of carbs like porridge, eggs on toast or muesli so you feel full for longer. Fibre-rich fruits like apples, raspberries and bananas are also a good choice, because they digest slowly and give you energy throughout the day.

But skip the energy drinks with their high sugar content. They’ll make you crash when you least expect it; the last thing you want during an exam.

11. Stop studying

Your instincts will probably tell you that you need to cram until the last possible minute before your exam starts, but we’re here to tell you this will only stress you out. At this point, you’ve covered everything you’re going to learn and it’s too late to memorise something new. It’s much better to go into your exam with a clear head and a calm composure.

Spend the hour before you need to sit at your workstation doing something relaxing, like listening to music, and avoid discussion forums or social media where your classmates will be talking (and probably panicking) about the exam.

12. Keep it all in perspective

Finally, remember that while exams are a great chance to prove yourself and test your knowledge, they’re not going to have a dramatic impact on your life. Focus on achieving what will make you feel accomplished and satisfied, instead of comparing yourself against others, or pinning too much of your self-worth on the results.

Good luck! You've got this!