The Ultimate Guide To Studying For Exams


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How NOT To Study for Exams

  1. Rereading The Futility of Rereading
  2. Highlighting Textbooks Aren't Colouring Books
  3. Bad Notetaking When Extra Work Doesn't Produce Better Results

When was the last time you were taught how to study? We have lessons on a whole a range of subjects but we rarely, if ever, see 'Studying' as a subject on our timetable. Yes, we might get snippets of advice from teachers about best practices but we're never formally taught. It's assumed that we'll pick up the random tips that we receive and develop our own strategies.

To some extent, this is rational. Revision is personal. How we revise, the techniques we use and the time we spend trying to study varies from person to person. However, despite these variations, we all drift towards certain common techniques that feel intuitively helpful and productive including strategies such as rereading, highlighting and summarising.

But we've got it all wrong.

Despite their popularity, studies have shown that these techniques don't consistently boost our performance. This paper from 2013 by Professor Dunlosky analysed hundreds of studies relating to revision technique and showed that these three popular techniques all have 'low utility' when compared to other approaches.

And so, it's only right that we begin this ultimate guide by explaining how NOT to study before moving on to the key steps necessary for efficient and effective studying practice.

1. Rereading

We all love re-reading. It feels super productive doesn't it?

Rereading is the most popular technique that students rely upon to revise. It's straightforward and gives us the sweet inner satisfaction that we're engaging in some form of study.

But rereading is passive.

Our brains are most effective at retaining information when it's being actively used.  and research suggests that rereading is neither a productive nor efficient form of studying.

Dunlosky and his colleagues concluded that rereading notes or textbooks has ‘low utility’. Whilst it can improve some very short-term retention, in comparison to other techniques it's far less effective as a long term strategy for retaining information.

In essence, despite the vast majority of us relying on rereading as a technique to enhance our revision, it's ineffective and inefficient when compared with other techniques.

2. Highlighting

A second popular technique is highlighting. Once again, evidence suggests that highlighting is a particularly popular revision strategy; it's active, feels productive and even allows our creative tendencies to (over)flow into making our notes look colourful.

But if we go back to the meta-study conducted by Professor Dunlosky, they rated highlighting as having low utility too; simply providing what Dunlosky called a “safety blanket”.

In fact, for higher-level tasks that require inference making, highlighting may actually hurt performance. This is especially important given that many subjects  at A-Level and university require some degree of making inferences. As such, highlighting could be hindering our performance at the latter stages of our education.

3. Summarising / Making Notes

Summarising and making notes has great appeal too as a means of making our revision feel more productive. Whilst evidence is more equivocal in this case and the quality of notes varies between students, Professor Dunlosky and his colleagues concluded that:

“On the basis of the available evidence, we rate summarization as low utility. It can be an effective learning strategy for learners who are already skilled at summarizing; however, many learners (including children, high school students, and even some undergraduates) will require extensive training, which makes this strategy less feasible”.

In essence, if you know how to effectively summarise and make notes it can be useful but we're rarely, if ever, taught or trained to make notes effectively. And even if you are particularly adept at note-taking, the technique still falls around the middle of the pack compared to other revision techniques.

The conclusion we should draw is that: Making notes is far less effective than we perhaps convince ourselves that it can be.

This isn't to say that making notes is a complete waste of time. It can sometimes make revision enjoyable if you like using colours or calligraphy. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that it's one of the more effective revision techniques; just because we're writing things down, doesn’t mean we're making the best use of our revision time.


How To Actually Study For Exams

If rereading, highlighting and summarising aren’t effective methods of revising, then what should we be doing? The two most effective methods are active recall and spaced repetition which, in combination, will help make your studies more efficient, effective and rewarding. I’ll cover both of them as part of this Ultimate Study Guide but please do check out the videos I made [here] and [here] which look at each in more depth. However, although they are the key components, there are plenty of other elements necessary for an effective, efficient and successful study routine and they can all be grouped into four key parts - Understand, Remember, Plan and Focus.


How To Actually Study For Exams - Understand

Active Recall Theory and Evidence

We often think that we can only start testing ourselves after having learnt all the information. Surely it’s counterintuitive to do anything else? In fact, this couldn't be further from the truth.

Active recall involves retrieving information from memory through, essentially, testing yourself at every stage of the revision process. This can be from the very first time you approach the information. The very act of retrieving information and data from our brains not only strengthens our ability to retain information but also improves connections in our brains between different concepts.

Research from 2013 which analysed hundreds of separate studies about effective revision techniques, concluded that testing, or active recall, is a technique that has ‘high utility’ and can be implemented effectively with minimal training.

These studies from 1939 and 2010 provide valuable verification of the effectiveness of active recall but it was a study from 2011 that I found particularly convincing. This study found that testing yourself just once is more effective than rereading a chapter four times.

Perhaps the reason we don't like to use active recall is that it's more difficult and mentally taxing than rereading. But the key point is revision should be cognitively difficult. It’s useful to think about this in terms of going to the gym – if you’re lifting weights that are light, you’re not going to make much progress. But if you’re lifting weights that test your strength, you’re more likely to develop muscle faster. It’s the same with developing the ‘muscle’ of your brain - the harder we have to work to retrieve information, the more effective our brains will become in storing and recalling that information in the future.

Active Recall Strategies

So, how can we apply active recall in our own studies? Are there any strategies that are more effective? Well, first of all, almost anything we do that requires us to use cognitive effort and brain power to retrieve information is going to be helpful. However, more specifically, I used a number of strategies which utilised active recall and below are three approaches that I’ve found useful.

Closed Book

If you can’t quite break the habit of making notes, instead of copying directly out of the textbook, try to learn a topic before writing out how you would explain the key points and key concepts in your own words but with the book closed. Once you’ve written down as much as you can remember, open the book and add the parts you missed.

This may sound simplistic but it was particularly effective when I was preparing for my third year exams in psychology when I’d made essay plans and, in order to commit them to memory, I decided to draw spider diagrams of each plan with my book closed. I’d draw out as much as I could from memory and afterwards go back to my actual plan and fill in any information that was missing.

Alternative to Making Notes…Ask Questions

Despite evidence showing that note-taking isn’t an effective revision technique, it still feels intuitively productive to write things down, right? I didn’t want to completely stop making notes so I tried to adapt this desire to make notes and began to write questions for myself.

This strategy resembles the ‘Cornell Note-Taking’ method - the process of writing questions for yourself based upon the material in the syllabus. This produces a list of questions with the main idea being that instead of passively rereading or highlighting the information as we’re often tempted to do, we’re forced to actively engage in cognitive effort to retrieve the information to answer the questions which strengthens connections between information in our brains and improves our ability to recall that information in an exam.

Anki

Anki is a flashcard app that allows you to create online flashcards which you can use to test yourself in practice sessions. Apart from flashcards automatically being a form of active recall - where you need to try to remember the content, this app in particular also uses an algorithm built around active recall and spaced repetition and hence learns as you progress through your studies and revision.

I found Anki particularly useful for two key reasons:

  • Firstly, memorising particular facts – for example, as a medical student I used it a lot for pharmacology – learning the names of drugs and what they do.
  • Secondly, I also used it to help memorise particular paragraphs that I could slot into appropriate essays.

Check out the video for how I specifically used Anki to great effect in medical school.

Scoping the Subject

Feeling overwhelmed is common amongst students. When we're in the day to day study of school or university, It's easy to focus on the detail. We can get lost in individual lessons, compartmentalising what we're learning into discrete buckets and lose focus of the bigger picture. As the old saying goes, we end up losing the forest for the trees.

Scoping the subject is one of the simplest yet most effective techniques that I've come across to both combat this feeling AND an essential step to lay the foundations for an effective study routine.

The idea is that in order to understand something we need to understand where it fits into the wider picture. A subject can often seem daunting until it’s broken down into its constituent parts and this method of scoping your course is, in itself, a very valuable use of time.

Essentially, scoping the subject is about taking the time to go through our entire subject and conduct an extensive audit of all the different topics that we have to cover; what are they, how confident are we with each of them and where do we need to focus our time. It's about taking time to concentrate on the birds-eye view of what you are learning.

For example, in medicine many of the books are presented in alphabetical order which doesn't make any sense at all and so instead of going through the work from A to Z, it's about taking a step back and seeing what the subject is all about. Which topics can be grouped? How are these two topics linked and can I learn them simultaneously?

The overall idea behind scoping the subject is that it allows you to start off with the broad picture and then narrow down which is a much better way than starting with the detail and losing sight of the bigger picture. If we lose sight of the bigger picture, it's very easy to quickly become overwhelmed, lose motivation and lack any drive to study.

The Feynman Technique ✔️

There's a difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it. When we’re studying, it can be easy to think that we have a grasp of a subject, especially if we feel confident that we’ve learnt our notes and find the topic very familiar. However, how often have you stopped to try and explain a concept rather than simply convinced yourself that you’ve learnt it? This is where the Feynman Technique can help.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool” Richard Feynman

The method is based around the idea that one of the most effective techniques to enhance your understanding is to imagine that you are teaching the material to someone who has absolutely no idea about the topic such as a small child.

The method was named after Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was known for being able to explain complex scientific material in simplified terms and diagrams that people could understand, affording him the nickname ‘The Great Explainer’.

The Process

So how do you use it? There are four steps to follow:

  • Choose a topic you have recently studied and/or a topic for which you’d like to test your knowledge and understanding.
  • Explain the concept using simple language. Pretend you are teaching and explaining it to a small child or someone who has never come across the topic before. The key here is simplicity – explain the concept using simple language. Don’t simply define the concept but, if it is a mathematical concept for instance, work through examples to show how the concept works in practice.
  • Identify the areas you found particularly problematic and/or the gaps in your explanation and return to your notes, lectures, textbook until your understanding of these areas has improved. Pinpoint the parts where you had to resort to using technical terms and challenge yourself to break down those terms into simpler terminology. The key is not only to identify complex areas of your own explanations but also to challenge and identify where you have made assumptions based on what you already understand intuitively.
  • Review and simplify further; ask yourself the question – could you explain this to a five-year old? If the answer is no, go back and repeat the process and your understanding so that you could.The technique enables you to quickly overview a concept, identify areas that are weaker and, critically, requires active learning as you are forced to move beyond passively rereading or highlighting and actively think about how you would explain a particular concept in simple terms. Explaining concepts in this way enables you to reconstruct the core ideas and topics in your own words which helps reinforce understanding and comprehension.

Notetaking (Mindmaps and Cornell Method) ✔️

We've already concluded that note-taking is, in general, a technique that should be avoided. However, that doesn't mean that note-taking is entirely futile. Here are some general guidelines for taking effective notes during a class/lecture and some useful methods for doing this.

General Key Points When Notetaking:

  1. Try to be brief and summarise the content in your own words, not the words of the teacher/lecturer. The main goal is to understand the content not simply to record exactly what is said.
  2. Pay close attention to the introduction and the summary of the class / lecture as this will give you a very good ideas as to how your notes should perhaps be structured as well as the key points of the class.
  3. Identify the key points and associate key questions which can be used later in your revision through active recall and spaced repetition.
  4. Taking notes during class should start before the class – this might sound counterintuitive but preparation is vital. A good level of pre-reading is just making a note of the chapter headings. It doesn’t really matter what you use, but it’s extremely helpful to pre-read the lecture to get an idea of what’s going to be converted. If you’ve got time - Other things you can do – review notes from the previous lecture if it's related OR if there is a reading list for the lecture, try to read a few sources just to gain some information before the class begins. Both these techniques should ensure that you are more prepared and alert when the lecture/class starts.
  5. If you can, try to stick to handwriting your notes. Research suggests that we think more intensely if we are making notes by hand rather than by laptop as it requires more cognitive concentration.
  6. If you’re insisting on using your laptop for whatever reason, the key point to emphasise is to avoid writing out verbatim what is being said by the lecturer. As the old cliché makes clear, quality over quantity!

Different Methods:

  1. Outline method / Linear Note Taking:
  2. Create main bullet points of the main topics of the lecture and add sub-points underneath that relate to each main topic area.
  3. Each time note down the key points as well as the key questions that arise from the topic and which you can use to test yourself through active recall later. Making the questions now will save you time in the future when you revisit your notes for revision purposes.
  4. Cornell Note Taking System
  5. This system is based on the value of writing questions for yourself. It's a system for taking and reviewing notes that was devised at Cornell University in the 1950s.
  6. Divide a piece of paper into three sections – Cues, Main Space, Summary - in accordance with the picture below [to be inserted]. The notes from the lecture go into the main space and the small margin on the left is for questions, keywords or comments that will then not only make the reviewing and exam preparation process easier but also more effective. The last section would contain the summary, in as few words as possible.
  7. Mind-Maps
  8. The mind mapping design enables you to easily sort through different details and identify relationships among these details. It can even help you discover new relationships among seemingly unrelated ideas and information.
  9. These relationships are easier to identify because mind mapping serves as a means of simplifying and distilling complex information into a pictorial representation which our brains find easier to compute.

The Feynman Technique

There's a difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it. When we’re studying, it can be easy to think that we have a grasp of a subject, especially if we feel confident that we’ve learnt our notes and find the topic very familiar. However, how often have you stopped to try and explain a concept rather than simply convinced yourself that you’ve learnt it? This is where the Feynman Technique can help.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool” Richard Feynman

The method is based around the idea that one of the most effective techniques to enhance your understanding is to imagine that you are teaching the material to someone who has absolutely no idea about the topic such as a small child.

The method was named after Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was known for being able to explain complex scientific material in simplified terms and diagrams that people could understand, affording him the nickname ‘The Great Explainer’.

The Process

So how do you use it? There are four steps to follow:

  • Choose a topic you have recently studied and/or a topic for which you’d like to test your knowledge and understanding.
  • Explain the concept using simple language. Pretend you are teaching and explaining it to a small child or someone who has never come across the topic before. The key here is simplicity – explain the concept using simple language. Don’t simply define the concept but, if it is a mathematical concept for instance, work through examples to show how the concept works in practice.
  • Identify the areas you found particularly problematic and/or the gaps in your explanation and return to your notes, lectures, textbook until your understanding of these areas has improved. Pinpoint the parts where you had to resort to using technical terms and challenge yourself to break down those terms into simpler terminology. The key is not only to identify complex areas of your own explanations but also to challenge and identify where you have made assumptions based on what you already understand intuitively.
  • Review and simplify further; ask yourself the question – could you explain this to a five-year old? If the answer is no, go back and repeat the process and your understanding so that you could.

The technique enables you to quickly overview a concept, identify areas that are weaker and, critically, requires active learning as you are forced to move beyond passively rereading or highlighting and actively think about how you would explain a particular concept in simple terms. Explaining concepts in this way enables you to reconstruct the core ideas and topics in your own words which helps reinforce understanding and comprehension.

Notetaking

We've already concluded that note-taking is, in general, a technique that should be avoided. However, that doesn't mean that note-taking is entirely futile. Here are some general guidelines for taking effective notes during a class/lecture and some useful methods for doing this.

How to Take Notes Effectively

Try to be brief and summarise the content in your own words, not the words of the teacher/lecturer. The main goal is to understand the content not simply to record exactly what is said.

  1. Pay close attention to the introduction and the summary of the class / lecture as this will give you a very good ideas as to how your notes should perhaps be structured as well as the key points of the class.
  2. Identify the key points and associate key questions which can be used later in your revision through active recall and spaced repetition.
  3. Taking notes during class should start before the class – this might sound counterintuitive but preparation is vital.A good level of pre-reading is just making a note of the chapter headings. It doesn’t really matter what you use, but it’s extremely helpful to pre-read the lecture to get an idea of what’s going to be converted. If you’ve got time - Other things you can do – review notes from the previous lecture if it's related OR if there is a reading list for the lecture, try to read a few sources just to gain some information before the class begins. Both these techniques should ensure that you are more prepared and alert when the lecture/class starts.
  4. If you can, try to stick to handwriting your notes. Research suggests that we think more intensely if we are making notes by hand rather than by laptop as it requires more cognitive concentration.
  5. If you’re insisting on using your laptop for whatever reason, the key point to emphasise is to avoid writing out verbatim what is being said by the lecturer. As the old cliché makes clear, quality over quantity!

Other effective Note-taking Techniques

  1. Outline method / Linear Note Taking:
  2. Create main bullet points of the main topics of the lecture and add sub-points underneath that relate to each main topic area.
  3. Each time note down the key points as well as the key questions that arise from the topic and which you can use to test yourself through active recall later. Making the questions now will save you time in the future when you revisit your notes for revision purposes.
  4. Cornell Note Taking System
  5. This system is based on the value of writing questions for yourself. It's a system for taking and reviewing notes that was devised at Cornell University in the 1950s.
  6. Divide a piece of paper into three sections – Cues, Main Space, Summary - in accordance with the picture below [to be inserted]. The notes from the lecture go into the main space and the small margin on the left is for questions, keywords or comments that will then not only make the reviewing and exam preparation process easier but also more effective. The last section would contain the summary, in as few words as possible.
  7. Mind-Maps
  8. The mind mapping design enables you to easily sort through different details and identify relationships among these details. It can even help you discover new relationships among seemingly unrelated ideas and information.
  9. These relationships are easier to identify because mind mapping serves as a means of simplifying and distilling complex information into a pictorial representation which our brains find easier to compute.

How To Actually Study For Exams - Remember

Spaced Repetition

The amount of time we spend revising is always a controversial issue. The fact is we’re all different in how much time we spend studying but if active recall is an effective technique, the next question I want to address is how we should be using it to enhance our performance. This is where spaced repetition comes in.

Spaced Repetition vs Cramming – The Theory and Evidence

As the name suggests, spaced repetition involves spacing your revision and reviewing topics at specific intervals over a period of time.

It can be explained by the ‘forgetting curve’. The forgetting curve is the idea that over time we forget things at an exponential rate – akin to the half-life of radioactive substances if you want a scientific analogy.

The way we can take advantage of the forgetting curve is through breaking the cycle by reviewing material at spaced intervals. The more that we practice and the more spaced this repetition becomes, the more likely we are to encode this information into our long-term memory.

In essence, the idea behind spaced repetition is that you allow your brain to forget some of the information to ensure that the active recall process is mentally taxing. The psychology literature suggests that the harder that your brain has to work to retrieve information, the more likely that that information will be encoded.

https://aliabdaal.com/content/images/2020/02/learning-v1-1.png

Applying Spaced Repetition

In practical terms, applying active recall and spaced repetition could be as simple as taking a pen and paper at the end of the day and answering your active recall questions, or constructing a spider diagram of what you’ve learnt.

This active recall-spaced repetition combination can easily be adapted into our studying. For instance, let’s say you studied Topic 1 and Topic 2 one morning and planned to move to Topic 3 and Topic 4 in the afternoon. The results from this study demonstrate that you should go back to Topic 1 and write down – through active recall – what you can remember before moving onto Topic 3. You would then repeat this for Topic 2 after having studied Topic 3 and so forth.

In essence, spaced repetition over days and weeks as well as reviewing content on the same day, can both be extremely helpful for improving exam performance.

But I know that different techniques work better for some people compared to others. The following strategies are the ones that worked effectively for me - if you’re struggling with your studying, then perhaps give these a try.

My 'Magic' Spaced Repetition Spreadsheet System

As you may have seen in past videos, one of the key techniques that I’ve found particularly effective is a spreadsheet system that I adapted using Google Sheets. (NB: I preferred using Google Sheets specifically as it gives you access across devices and allows you to update your spreadsheet wherever you are).

The approach involves making a sheet for each subject and then in the first column of each spreadsheet, you list all the topics for that subject. To do this, it is essential to ‘scope’ your subject. This might sound simple and obvious but in offering advice to students over recent years, it’s been quite astounding how few students know their course inside out or know exactly what topics they have in their subject. So, even if it takes a whole day to compile using your syllabus and/or past exam papers, scoping your subject is essential in order to produce a list of all the topics that you need which will make revision far more straightforward.

Once you’ve done this, the actual spreadsheet system is very simple but extremely effective. In essence, every time you study a topic and actively recall information from that topic, then you write the current date in the column along in the spreadsheet. Marking a date is not just when you have read a chapter in the textbook, that's too passive, you can only mark a date when you have actively recalled information, facts, quotes or essay plans. After having studied other topics and repeated this exercise, you build up a list of repetitions as well as a table which enables you to keep track not only of when you last studied that topic but, by colour coding each topic based on your comprehension, you can also start to rank how confident you are on each particular topic.

Below is an example of a spreadsheet that I used in my Third Year when I was studying psychology.

https://aliabdaal.com/content/images/2020/02/Screenshot-2020-02-11-at-18.52.49.png

Flashcards

Flashcards can be one of the most powerful and versatile learning tools you can use when it comes to studying for exams. They not only promote active recall which, as we have discussed, is one of the most useful techniques that you can use, but using flashcard apps can also automate spaced repetition for you.

I’m not a fan of using flashcards for general broad concepts, I think other techniques such as the Feynman technique are more effective there but they can certainly be useful tools for learning key bits of information.

The key with flashcards is to avoid illusions of competence – when our brains confuse recognition with recall.

So, what is the best way to use them?

  • If you are trying to learn a complex topic – break it down so that it easier to understand.
  • Although people often don’t like using flashcards because of the time it takes to make them, it's important that you do make them yourself because one of the most important aspects of learning is making notes in your own words. This helps to build stronger neural pathways which are unique to you.
  • Most effective to have a question or key term on one side and the answer or definition on the other. We often fall into the trap of simply writing out notes onto flashcards and end up with a catalogue of summarised notes. Flashcards are most effective when they force you to work your memory to retrieve information. If they are just another page of notes, no retrieval will be possible.
  • As with highlighting – less is more when making flashcards.

This paper examined the effectiveness of a common strategy of students to set aside (or drop) items we think we know. They found that dropping flashcards had small but consistently negative effects on learning - in other words, we should continue to recall information on topics even if we think we have a firm understanding of the content. (https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Optimising-self-regulated-study%3A-the-benefits-and-Kornell-Bjork/3b000dec1a3881660c30c5e87f9a404521d6c738)

I use Anki which is a flashcard app that allows you to create online flashcards. It uses an algorithm built around active recall and spaced repetition and learns as you progress through your studies and revision.

Once again though, flashcards are not the silver bullet – they should be used in combination with the other techniques I have discussed here.

Memory Techniques

It's definitely not advisable to rely on memory techniques as your sole strategy for studying. There are multiple techniques that you can use to help improve memory but, as we emphasised earlier in this post, understanding is key to success in our studies and our exams. That being said, supplementing our studying tool kit with some memory based techniques doesn't hurt.

One of the popular techniques is to use mnemonics. A mnemonic system is a technique for remembering information and works through association to enhance your memory by creating a ‘filing cabinet’ in your mind.

The Peg system is one of the most effective mnemonic techniques. A ‘peg’ is a mental hook on which you ‘hang’ information and the peg system functions through pre-memorising a list of words that you can easily associate with numbers they represent (1 to 10, 1-100, 1-1000, etc.). Those objects then form the "pegs" of the system.

In other words, it works by using a list that you already know (for instance, the numbers 1 to 10, or the alphabet) and associating new facts or information with each number or letter. For example, you end up associating a particular fact to the number ‘5’ or perhaps a quote to number ‘8’.

Consequently, you construct this cognitive filing system.

A common misconception is that the pegs can only be used once – in fact, the lists can be used multiple times for different material. Our brains are capable of distinguishing between the same numerical list (or the same pegs) being used multiple times for different information. One study on memory systems showed that normal people were able to memorise 6 different lists at the same time using the same pegs.

You can even combine peg systems with other memory techniques such as the loci system (or memory palace) which I'll discuss next.

As with all these memory techniques, they require practice to hone your skills, you cannot expect the system to work perfectly straightaway but with a bit of practice it can certainly become an effective weapon to add to your study armoury.

The second popular and powerful memory technique is the memory palace. The technique is based around the idea that our brains are well-adapted to remembering specific places – memory palace just acts as a fancy metaphor. Think Sherlock Holmes. This technique is famously one that is used in memory competitions and allows people to be able to memorise whole decks of cards in a few seconds for example (incredible).

There are a number of steps: this can't be followed - think we need an example here

  • Firstly, choose a place that you are familiar with and that you can easily visualise. Decide upon a specific route through this place as well – static imagery is not as effective. Examples could include your home, local streets, place of work, school…
  • Secondly, follow the ‘route’ that you will take and mentally note the specific features which could serve as ‘memory slots’.
  • Relatedly, the next step is to imprint the memory palace into your mind – this is perhaps the most important of these first few steps. An excellent knowledge of your location will drastically enhance the effectiveness of this technique.
  • Finally, use association to peg information to the various memory slots you identified earlier. Ensure that the visualisations and associations are striking – boring associations will be harder to remember so make the links as innovative as possible.

As with all the peg system, this technique does require practice. It is not as easy as it may first appear, and it does take a lot of time to understand and set up but with a bit of practice it can certainly become one of the most powerful memory techniques to help with your studies.

Also as before, do not rely on memory techniques for studying. They are useful little tools to help your studying but should be used to supplement your understanding rather than simply to memorise content.


How To Actually Study For Exams - Plan

It’s quite easy when planning a revision timetable to commit certain subjects to a few solid days then move on to the next. This is known as ‘blocking’ and it comes easily to us because it's how we're always taught through textbooks.

Interleaving is a process whereby you aim to mix up subjects and topics and, unlike ‘blocking’ which holds information in your short-term memory, interleaving can help to strengthen your memory associations over a longer period of time.

There's evidence that has shown that if you interleave different concepts together, i.e by following a question on one topic with a question on a different topic which requires a different technique to answer it, this can produce better test scores.

In essence, with traditional blocked practice, we don’t often need to identify the strategy because every problem can be solved in the same way with the same strategy. Interleaving changes this by forcing us to consider and choose the appropriate strategy for different questions.

Consequently, interleaving can feel more difficult. But, as we have already discussed, it's when we are finding studying difficult that our time is being spent most productively. Learning should be mentally taxing and interleaving introduces variety which produces difficulty as well as forces your brain to adapt, work with different techniques and make connections which will make your studying more effective and efficient.

Research into the effectiveness of interleaving from 2010 found that although “interleaving practice impaired practice session performance" [i.e it made the actual study session more difficult] "it doubled scores on a test given one day later" [i.e it improved exam performance in the long term].

It turns out that variety is not just the spice of life but the spice of studying too.

Prospective Revision Timetable

Revision timetables are often praised as the best way to structure your time in a coherent, logical manner. It’s certainly true that they can have some benefits and I know that revision timetables can work for some people – that’s absolutely fine. But are we using them in the correct way? Is the standard 'prospective' timetable really the most effective technique?

The Standard “Prospective” Timetable

Prospective means “looking forward” — we plan out our schedule by writing our dates in advance along with the topics we want to cover. However, over the years, I've found three main problems with this approach:

  1. This standard method requires us to look into the future and work out what topics we think we’re going to have issues with. For some, this might be crystal clear but, for most of us, it’s pretty unrealistic. Laying out topics beforehand may lead to either needlessly repeating subjects, or not covering our weakest topics enough. Also, occasionally life just gets in the way. We can’t help that. A friend’s birthday or unexpected emergencies can interrupt our entire schedule and render our neatly organised timetable useless.
  2. Prospective timetables encourage us to think of revision as a function of time rather than topics. It doesn’t really matter how we fill our time. What matters is understanding the content. Rather than thinking “each day I need to get three topics done”, I find it helpful to think "what topics do I need to work to improve".
  3. Actually creating the timetable. Personally, I used to view this as an exercise in procrastination — we’re putting off studying by working on a neatly organised timetable and playing with highlighters to create a schedule that 9 times out of 10 we won’t even follow. Sounds a little absurd to me. Friends of mine even managed to put off studying for weeks by rationalising that a timetable needed to be created first. The lack of activation energy engaged them in a damaging cycle of procrastination that does nobody any good when exams are fast approaching.

So, if the common prospective timetable is unhelpful, what should we be doing? Enter retrospective timetabling.

Retrospective Revision Timetable

Retrospective revision timetables reverse the conventional method. Rather than starting with a timeline of dates, we start with a list of subjects and topics that we have compiled through scoping our subject.

My Spaced Repetition Spreadsheet System, which you can read about here, is an example of a retrospective timetable in action. The approach involves making a sheet for each subject and, in the first column of each spreadsheet, you list all the topics for that subject.

Once you’ve done this, the spreadsheet system is very simple. In essence, every time you study a topic and, crucially, test yourself through active recall, then you write the current date in the column corresponding to that topic in the spreadsheet.

After repeating this exercise, you build up a list of repetitions as well as a table which enables you to keep track of not only when you last studied that topic but, by colour coding each topic based on your comprehension, you can start to rank how confident you are for each area of the course.

https://aliabdaal.com/content/images/2020/02/Screenshot-2020-02-13-at-09.59.45.png

By inputting dates into my spreadsheet as well as colour coding my understanding, each morning I can look through my lists, identify which topics have a red mark by them and/or haven’t been covered for a few days, and then work on those topics for that day.

Over time, we develop a deeper understanding of all of our topics and, by working on our weakest areas each day, we’re tackling the content that we find most difficult which is therefore more cognitively demanding and hence more effective at improving our long-term memory.

The first thing to do is start with what you DON’T know. We often gravitate towards topics that we feel comfortable studying because we know the basic principles and it feels easier. But for your revision to be effective, you have to keep reminding yourself to study topics that you are least comfortable with.

The more effort it takes you to learn a topic and the more effort it takes you to actively recall information – the stronger that information is going to get encoded in your long-term memory.

To summarise, the main reasons why I prefer a retrospective approach to timetable over the classic prospective timetables are:

  1. We don’t have to look into the future.
  2. We can see an overview of our topics as well as our confidence with each topic.
  3. It encourages us to think of our studying in terms of topics, instead of time.
  4. It’s infintely more easy and fast to construct one of these spreadsheets that it spares us the cognitive effort of having to look weeks into the future.
  5. It accounts for unpredictable events that could offset our entire calendar.

I understand that everyone is different and timetables do work for some people but if you’re finding that your standard ‘prospective’ timetable doesn’t really work then perhaps try the retrospective spreadsheet system.


How To Actually Study For Exams - Focus

Reducing Distractions

One of the most difficult aspects of revising is maintaining concentration without having your attention pulled away – breaking your focus and interrupting your studies.

Digital devices are the primary culprits of this attention-theft in the modern society yet we know that they are equally essential to optimising our studying.

BUT there are a number of things that you can do to prevent being distracted by your phone – some more obvious than others - with all focused on increasing the friction for everyday actions such that you don't resort to relying upon your subconscious.

  • Perhaps the most obvious is turning your phone off - phones take time to power on.
  • If you can’t turn off your phone completely, then at least turn it to airplane mode and turn off bluetooth and Wifi networks so that you cannot receive any messages from any social media channels.
  • Physically place it face down on the desk – without the screen lighting up, you are less likely to want to pick it up at all.
  • BUT even better is simply to leave it in a completely different room or give it to a friend or family member.
  • Constant connectivity is not as essential as we have convinced ourselves that it is in modern society.

3 Actionable Things you can do on your phone RIGHT NOW:

1. Rearrange apps on your home screen

This might sound like a really simple and pointless thing to do but it is very effective but it disrupts your muscle memory. We get so used to using the same apps every single day that pressing on certain apps has become subconscious. You'll be surprised how effective this simple change can be in just making you stop and think about what you are pressing on and, if it's something that will distract you, whether you want to press on it!

2. Bury Social Media Apps In Folders

What I mean by this is make one large folder for as many apps as you can and put your social media apps on the very last page of that folder.

By doing this you are introducing friction into the process of accessing these apps as you’ll have to take time and thought in order to access them. The idea is that this will give your conscious brain enough time to process what you are doing and hence give you time to think “is this really helpful?”

3. Turn Your Phone Grey

This might seem like a slightly strange suggestion but it can be immensely powerful – not just when you are revising but also in general if you want to try to use your phone as much.

Icons on smartphones are designed to grab your attention – red is used for notifications because it is a colour that our brains are wired to associate with immediacy and importance.

Hence by draining all icons of colour the appeal of the screen is diminished and we feel less inclined to scroll aimlessly through a bland screen of text.

My friend’s weekly usage of his phone dropped by almost 50% just through doing this.

Without colour, your brain is not attracted to colours of particularly familiar apps and the attention-demanding red notifications lose all potency and cannot grapple for your attention.

Certainly Instagram or Snapchat are less appealing in black and white!

If you have iPhone, this can be done by going into Settings > Accessibility > Display and Text Size > Colour Filters > Toggle filter on.

3 Actionable Things you can do on your computer RIGHT NOW:

1. Log out of all social media accounts and change your passwords to something difficult to remember - a random series of letters and numbers for instance.

2. Download Chrome extensions to:

3. Customise Facebook so you can remove all ads or completely hide the news feed - F.B. Purity

Should You Study With Music?

The question of whether listening to music is helpful for studying is quite a controversial topic. Some people believe it can enhance focus and concentration whilst others find it's only a source of distraction.

Evidence suggests that listening to music can help to improve your mood which could then have knock-on effects on your ability to study. For instance, listening to music can trigger the release of dopamine which is a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of happiness and excitement. Listening to music has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels which helps reduce stress and anxiety, thus leading to more efficient study.

In 1993, a researcher called Dr Gordon Shaw suggested that listening to Mozart could help improve cognitive function and performance which became known as the Mozart effect. The Mozart Effect has since been found to be misleading but that's not to say that listening to classical music isn't helpful at all; it's certainly likely to be more effective than loud or distracting pop/rock.

Indeed, some evidence suggests that although listening to classical music won't increase intelligence, it could help us study better. A French study, found that students who listened to a lecture with classical music playing in the background performed better on a test compared to those who had the lecture without music.

Take a look at my 'Study With Me' playlist on Spotify for more music that I have found helpful during my studies.

Studying With Friends

Much like listening to music, studying with other people is very much a personal choice. It changed the game by making studying more enjoyable for me but I know that others find working alone to be far more productive. There are a couple of general guidelines that I followed which might help you find a group dynamic that works for you and a group of friends too.

Firstly you want to find the right group of people who are motivated to study at a similar level. You want to have a group of friends who are all similarly motivated.

Secondly, you need to have someone in the group to take charge of the session. When I was at university, we would gather in one of the libraries and use the Pomodoro technique with someone assigned to be the Pomodoro master, keeping time for the whole group.

Thirdly, if we were all studying the same topic or collectively answering a bank of questions for instance, we would make a point of giving everyone in the group a chance to think about the answer and this required imposing moments of silence. This prevents anyone from dominating and giving answers before others have had a chance to think and makes the overall experience of collective studying more inclusive.

How To Make The Most Of Your Time

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is perhaps the simplest (and one of the best known) productivity and time-management strategy which we can use.

The technique was ‘invented’ in the early 1990s by developer, entrepreneur, and author Francesco Cirillo. Cirillo noticed that when faced with large tasks or a series of assignments, we’re able to be most effective if we break the work down into short, timed intervals (called “Pomodoros”) which are spaced out by short breaks.

Interesting Side Note: Cirillo named the system “Pomodoro” after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student.

In essence, it's a cyclical system based around working in short bursts of 25 minutes with intermittent breaks, of 5 minutes, which can help to improve motivation, creativity and efficiency.

Theory

This theory has been supported by scientific literature too. This study upends the intuitive theory about the nature of attention by demonstrating that short breaks from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus for prolonged periods. The researchers concluded that, when faced with long tasks, it’s best to impose brief breaks on yourself which will actually help you stay focused on your task.

Practice

With that evidence in mind, the Pomodoro technique takes on even more importance. So how does the Pomodoro technique work in practice? Well, the method can broadly be described as follows:

  1. Choose a task that you'd like to get done – personally, it was writing this blog post.
  2. Set the timer (Pomodoro) for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.
  4. Take a short break for 5 minutes before repeating the process again.
  5. Every 4 ‘Pomodoros’ take a longer break of 15/20 minutes before starting again with the “25 minutes on / 5 minutes off” cycle.

The evidence shows it can improve results and performance but it can also help manage distractions, improve focus and concentration and, hence, productivity and efficiency.

It can also help to break down larger tasks into manageable periods of time enabling you to feel less daunted by the size of one large assignment. Breaking it down can help you to manage expectations and more accurately keep track of how long you have spent on the task.

It’s important to recognise that the 20/25 minutes shouldn’t be seen as a completely rigid structure that you absolutely HAVE TO stick to. If you're focussed and feel like you need an extra 5/10 minutes to finish the work that you are doing then do that and then take a break.

The absolutely critical takeaway from this method is that regular breaks are critical to your productivity.

Parkinson's Law

This concept was written by Cyril Parkinson in 1955 based on his experience in the British Civil Service. The main theory being that "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion" / "Work expands to fill the time that we allocate to it".

Parkinson found that as the length of time allocated to a task became shorter, the task became simpler and easier to solve. Whereas even simple tasks increased in complexity to fill up the time allocated to them.

This means that if you know that you've got 5 days to complete a task, the likelihood is that you'll take all 5 days to get over the finish line, even if in reality you probably could've completed the task far sooner.

The more time we give ourselves to do something the more time the thing will take. We've probably all experienced this at some point - for example, if we're under pressure from having to complete an essay due the next day, then we'll find a way to get it done but if we knew it was due the following month, we'd probably procrastinate and do more research than is necessary.

By assigning the right amount of time to a task, we can gain back more time and the task will reduce in complexity - making us more productive and protecting our mental health.


Resources

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