Looking for the perfect way to set yourself up for exam success? Then explore our 37 tips that are backed by studies and research to give you the edge to get top marks!
#1 Make as many connections as you can
The strength of a memory is based on the number of neurons and synapses AKA connections pointing to it. That’s why teachers tell you to read around the subject (not because they’re trying to punish you, even though it might feel like it), but reading around it gives you those “ah-ha!” moments when things seem to click, because your brain is forming more connections.
Raise your hands if you’ve ever been in an argument and couldn’t think of what to respond, only to repeat the argument in your head in the shower, and the perfect retorts spring to mind? Well, that’s because of alpha brainwaves, a state characterised as relaxed creativity. Being in water stimulates alpha brain waves, so have a shower or a bath regularly (I hope you already are for hygiene reasons) and maybe try swimming a couple of times a week? It will help those “ah-ha!” moments.
#3 Get emotional
Emotions enhance memory because they integrate other brain mechanisms and regions, such as the amygdala and frontal cortex1 (i.e. they make more connections – see point #1.
#4 Just write
People assume that the ideas come first and writing second. In fact, the opposite is true, it’s when you start writing that ideas come to you. So if you’re struggling with a topic, just start writing about it, don’t worry it doesn’t have to make sense, be grammatically correct, or a work of literary art, just write whatever comes to mind. Once you start, everything else will follow suit.
#5 Don’t multitask
It might seem like a good idea to do little bits of everything, after all, we rarely have just one exam to study for, but it, in fact, hinders our progress. Despite people’s claims to be great at multitasking, they won’t be, because the human brain finds it extremely hard to switch between tasks – taking 25 minutes to recover from interruptions2. Focus on one topic per day, or, if you really do have lots of exams to study for, focus on one task in the morning, have a leisurely lunch, and another topic in the afternoon.
#6 Look at your beliefs
A study found that students with rational academic beliefs (i.e. beliefs that were consistent with real life and lead to healthy outcomes) had a positive impact on achievement, mediated through procrastination and time preferences to study for exams3. Therefore, if you feel like you’re struggling to study, maybe look at your beliefs by talking to someone.
#7 Reward Yourself
There is a notion in psychology called ‘Operant Conditioning’ developed by B. F. Skinner. It states that one way we learn through reinforcement or punishment, making certain behaviours more likely to recur. Therefore, by rewarding yourself after you study, you’ll be more likely to do it again.
#8 Beat procrastination
No, I’m not going to tell you how to plan better, because procrastination isn’t what you think. The causes of procrastination actually lie more your thoughts, feelings and emotions4. Look at what is really causing you to procrastinate (i.e. is it fear that you’ll fail? Is it that you’re scared not as smart as your classmates?) and tell yourself a different story (i.e. “I won’t fail because I did a past paper yesterday and got 67%”; “everyone is scared that they’re not as smart as everyone else, therefore I’m not alone in this”).
#9 Do it first and last
The ‘Primacy and Recency Effect’ refers to the brain’s ability to better recall items that appear first and last in a list. However, you can do this while you’re studying: study first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. I can personally confirm that I remembered facts for my exams much better when I read them right before I fell asleep!
#10 Get some ZZZs
Sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation, subjects in a study performed better in tasks after a period of sleep vs subjects who spent an equivalent amount of time awake5. Therefore, if you want to remember the stuff you’re studying, go to sleep!
Mindfulness training was able to help students with their reading comprehension and working memory, as well as reducing their mind wandering6. Which would be of great help for you in the exam! Just get into the habit of doing mindfulness every day, start with 1-minute, then 2, then 5 and perhaps build up to 10. Or see if there are any classes in your area? Otherwise, there are plenty of apps and YouTube videos you can use to help.
#12 Eat your fish
A variety of vitamins and minerals are key in keeping your brain healthy, and since you’ll be using it to study and in your exams, it’s probably a good idea to make sure it’s in the best condition it can be. Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to positively correlate with grey matter volume in regions of the brain involved in memory (i.e. the hippocampus and amygdala), which may explain the effects of omega-3 on memory7. It can be found in abundance in oily fish, however, if that’s not your taste, you can easily find a supplement from the supermarket.
Not from the exam, but participate in any kind of exercise that gets you a little out of breath. Students who took part in an aerobic running programme for 6 weeks were found to have improved visuospatial memory compared to a group who didn’t partake in any exercise8.
#14 Enjoy it
I know, I know, how can you enjoy studying? Well, you could snack on something you really like while you study, listen to music*, buy some new stationary, light a scented candle etc… The important thing is that you learn to associate positive feelings with study – this is called ‘Classical Conditioning’ and was established by Ivan Pavlov. It’ll make studying that much easier.
#15 Don’t stress
The stress response causes glucocorticoid hormones to be released by the adrenal cortex, which improves memory consolidation but impairs memory retrieval. This occurs because it is important, at an evolutionary level, that we remember what events are potentially life-threatening (I know exams aren’t a life or death scenario, but our bodies don’t know that) while it isn’t as important to remember past events9. Therefore, if you stressed while you study or taking the exam, you’ll not remember the information but you will remember it as one big scary experience.
#16 Method of Loci
This involves attributing information to certain locations in your mind. For example, you might ‘drop off’ bits of information around your campus; then when it’s time to remember them, retrace your route and ‘pick them up’10. This was a method made very popular by the TV Sherlock series with his ‘mind palace’.
#17 Anxiety and attention
Attentional control theory suggests that anxiety impairs cognitive performance as it affects one’s ability to shift from one-task to another and the ability to inhibit unwanted responses, as well as threat-related stimuli being more distracting11. Therefore, take steps to reduce your anxiety and try different techniques to improve your attention.
#18 It’s OK to get distracted
A study found that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving”12. So if you’re stuck while you’re studying, do something different that doesn’t require a lot of effort, and come back to it. That little break for distraction might prove helpful!
#19 A picture is worth a thousand words
Studies have found that making mental images improves memory recall13, so try this and it’ll help you during your exam.
#20 Manage your time effectively
A study showed that students who planned their time in the short-term (i.e. their day or week) and who had a positive attitude to the way they were spending their time, were correlated with higher grades in college14. So focus more on planning your day or week, rather than the term or year.
#21 Autonomous motivation
Another reason you read fictional books much faster than non-fiction books is that you’ve chosen to read this book; even certain non-fiction books are easier to read because you have an interest in what they’re teaching you – this is known as intrinsic (or autonomous) motivation15. So, try and make what you’re studying relevant to you somehow.
#22 Look to the future
Studies have found that people who are focused on the task because it relates to a future goal (especially if they’re intrinsically motivated by that goal), perform better than those who are just doing it because it is their present reality15. Therefore, instead of studying for the exam, study because it’ll help you in your personal life in the future.
#23 Go deep
Countless studies have shown that deep processing is directly related to exam performance16. So, don’t try and remember the information, try to really understand it. See points 26, 27 & 28 for examples of deep processing strategies…
#24 Relating and structuring processing strategies
“Relating elements of the subject matter to each other and to prior knowledge; structuring these elements into a whole” was associted with better academic performance in this study17.
#25 Make it simple
Einstein said “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself”; so in order to fully grasp a topic, write down a summary on a flash card and test yourself, or use it to explain it to someone else.
Adopting a yoga practice will help to reduce anxiety and exam-related stress, so you’ll be better able to study and perform in the exam18. See points 17 & 19…
A study found that concentration was predictive of exam performance, therefore try to improve your concentration by breaking up the material into smaller chunks19.
#28 Eat breakfast
Both concentration and attention affect exam performance, but by regularly eating breakfast, participants were found to have better attention-concentration and memory, than those who skipped breakfast20.
A study showed that participants who visualised something calming right before a difficult math test performed better than those who didn’t visualise – “Untense those muscles. Breathe deeply and exhale slowly 3 or 4 times. Let your body relax, put your arms to your sides, close your eyes, and let your mind go blank. Now, sitting comfortably, and breathing deeply, close your eyes. Think of a safe place for you – beach, mountains, golf course – wherever you feel relaxed. Continue breathing and paint a picture in your mind of this safe place. Feel a cool breeze against your skin, the sun’s warmth, the sound of birds. You are the artist here, create an environment that is calming for you. Feel the quiet..”22
Breathing exercises are found to reduce performance anxiety and reduce the physiological symptoms of stress23, and it is therefore recommended to practice them as you study, but also right before your exam.
#31 Active learning
Active learning means that you’re much more likely to remember more of the information you learn; strategies include: the one-minute paper (summarising everything you’ve learnt in one minute), daily or weekly journaling, and the muddiest point (having one minute to write down the point that you’re most struggling with so you can ask the teacher)24.
#32 Peer support
A study found that students in cooperative learning classes performed better than those in traditional classes, and also enjoyed the experience more25. What you can take from this is that by a group of you working together, you’ll have a better chance at performing and feeling better about the exam. You could try jigsaw group projects (i.e. each person in the group takes a portion of the revision and becomes ‘specialised’ in it, they are then able to teach it to the rest of the group)24.
#33 Make a story
Memories are stored as meaning rather than whether they were an auditory (listening to an explanation), visual (diagram) or kinesthetic (handling items) stimuli 26,27. Therefore, even if it seems like there’s so much to remember, make a story out of it and you’ll get the gist which’ll help to answer questions in the exam.
#34 Make mistakes
A study showed that participants who got an answer wrong but were shown the correct answer afterwards performed better the second time around, and improved retention by 494% when they were tested a week later28. So test yourself and get feedback, and don’t worry about what you get wrong, because it means you’ll remember it next time.
#35 Quiz yourself
Students taught using the PUREMEM technique performed significantly better in this part of the exam, compared to the part of the course that was not taught using this technique. PUREMEM is a technique whereby participants were asked to answer 2-6 open-ended questions about what they had just learnt during the lecture, without using any of their notes29. So in the last 5 minutes of your revision session, put all your notes away and answer a few questions about what you’ve just revised.
#36 Avoid the Western diet
A study showed that Western-style high-fat and sugar diets were linked with poorer memory performance30. So try to avoid eating copious amounts of high-fat and high-sugar foods in the run up to your exam.
#37 Be happy
Happiness has been shown to improve productivity by 12% without compromising on quality, they also found that having a bad life event within the last 2 years reduced performance by approximately 10%31. Therefore, maybe taking one or two days off to spend time with good friends might actually be better for your revision than forcing yourself to revise solidly.
- Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1454.
- Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis, (20), 105-110.
- Balkis, M., Duru, E., & Bulus, M. (2013). Analysis of the relation between academic procrastination, academic rational/irrational beliefs, time preferences to study for exams, and academic achievement: a structural model. European journal of psychology of education, 28(3), 825-839.
- Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1984). Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioural correlates. Journal of counselling psychology, 31(4), 503.
- Stickgold, R. (2005). Sleep-dependent memory consolidation. Nature, 437(7063), 1272.
- Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological science, 24(5), 776-781.
- Conklin, S. M., Gianaros, P. J., Brown, S. M., Yao, J. K., Hariri, A. R., Manuck, S. B., & Muldoon, M. F. (2007). Long-chain omega-3 fatty acid intake is associated positively with corticolimbic grey matter volume in healthy adults. Neuroscience Letters, 421(3), 209-212.
- Stroth, S., Hille, K., Spitzer, M., & Reinhardt, R. (2009). Aerobic endurance exercise benefits memory and effects in young adults. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 19(2), 223-243.
- Roozendaal, B. (2002). Stress and memory: opposing effects of glucocorticoids on memory consolidation and memory retrieval. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 78(3), 578-595.
- McCabe, J. A. (2015). Location, location, location! Demonstrating the mnemonic benefit of the method of loci. Teaching of Psychology, 42(2), 169-173.
- Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336.
- Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M. D., Kam, J. W., Franklin, M. S., & Schooler, J. W. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological science, 23(10), 1117-1122.
- Collyer, S. C., Jonides, J., & Bevan, W. (1972). Images as memory aids: Is bizarreness helpful?. The American Journal of Psychology, 31-38.
- Britton, B. K., & Tesser, A. (1991). Effects of time-management practices on college grades. Journal of educational psychology, 83(3), 405.
- Simons, J., Dewitte, S., & Lens, W. (2004). The role of different types of instrumentality in motivation, study strategies, and performance: Know why you learn, so you’ll know what you learn!. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(3), 343-360.
- Phan, H. P. (2009). Relations between goals, self‐efficacy, critical thinking and deep processing strategies: a path analysis. Educational Psychology, 29(7), 777-799.
- Vermunt, J. D. (2005). Relations between student learning patterns and personal and contextual factors and academic performance. Higher education, 49(3), 205.
- Malathi, A., & Damodaran, A. (1999). Stress due to exams in medical students-a role of Yoga. Indian journal of physiology and pharmacology, 43, 218-224.
- West, C., Kurz, T., Smith, S., & Graham, L. (2014). Are study strategies related to medical licensing exam performance?. International journal of medical education, 5, 199.
- Gajre, N. S., Fernandez, S., Balakrishna, N., & Vazir, S. (2008). Breakfast eating habit and its influence on attention-concentration, immediate memory and school achievement. Indian Pediatrics, 45(10), 824.
- Faust, J. L., & Paulson, D. R. (1998). Active learning in the college classroom. Journal on excellence in college teaching, 9(2), 3-24.
- Shobe, E., Brewin, A., & Carmack, S. (2005). A Simple Visualization Exercise for Reducing Test Anxiety and Improving Performance on Difficult Math Tests. Journal of Worry & Affective Experience, 1(1).
- Egilmez, H. O. (2012). Music education students’ views related to the piano examination anxieties and suggestions for coping with students’ performance anxiety. Procedia-Social and behavioral sciences, 46, 2088-2093.
- Faust, J. L., & Paulson, D. R. (1998). Active learning in the college classroom. Journal on excellence in college teaching, 9(2), 3-24.
- Anderson, W. L., Mitchell, S. M., & Osgood, M. P. (2005). Comparison of student performance in cooperative learning and traditional lecture‐based biochemistry classes. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 33(6), 387-393.
- Willingham, D. T. (2005). Ask the Cognitive Scientist Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?. American Educator, 29(2), 31.
- Bransford, J. D., & Franks, J. J. (1971). The abstraction of linguistic ideas. Cognitive psychology, 2(4), 331-350.
- Pashler, H., Cepeda, N. J., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2005). When does feedback facilitate learning of words?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31(1), 3.
- Lyle, K. B., & Crawford, N. A. (2011). Retrieving essential material at the end of lectures improves performance on statistics exams. Teaching of Psychology, 38(2), 94-97.
- Yeomans, M. R. (2017). Adverse effects of consuming high fat–sugar diets on cognition: implications for understanding obesity. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 76(4), 455-465.
- Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., & Sgroi, D. (2015). Happiness and productivity. Journal of Labor Economics, 33(4), 789-822.