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Winter Exam Woes

By: Meredith Knauer, MS

It's that time of year when the world falls in love; every song you hear seems to say, "Midterms are coming up, and I'm freaking out!" That's right, exam week is coming up for students all around the United States, and boy is it coming up fast. So what is there to do? How do I study? When should I start? How do I know when I've studied enough? How do I prevent burnout? What if I fail or blank at the exam? All are great questions, and only you have the real answer that will work for you. In the meantime, though, here are some tips and tricks to help you study more effectively, manage your stress, and do your best on your exams.


  1. How Do I Study?

Studying is something that seems simple, but it can be hard to study effectively, especially when you've never had to before. Don't be discouraged. We all come to the point eventually where we need to learn how to study properly, and for some, that moment comes earlier than others. Here are some different tips for how to study past simply re-reading your notes:

  • Organize Your Notes - When you take the time to organize your notes, you end up taking time to read what you have written, re-write it, and put them together in a way that makes sense to you. You may even find connections that you hadn't before.

  • Use a Study Guide - Not every teacher will give out a study guide, but when they do, it is invaluable. Take time to write down your answers to all of the study guide questions or practice each type of problem. In doing so, you're already studying!

  • Make Flashcards - Quizlet is truly a student's best friend. Flashcards are an easy and simple way to test yourself on definitions and concepts. Simply write the word, concept, or question on one side of the card, and on the other put the definition, a short explanation, or the answer to the question. Some people may find that handwriting flashcards help the contents stick better in their brains.

  • Play Review Games - There are a plethora of educational games strewn across the internet for all kinds of subjects. Dig around to see what you can find. Making studying more fun by making a game out of it will make studying more pleasant and even enjoyable.

  • Find Youtube Videos on the Subject - Just as there are so many educational games, there is also no shortage of educational videos. Some of my favorite channels for reviewing common school topics are Crash Course and Kahn Academy. The visual aides in addition to the auditory explanations make videos a friendly option for all types of learners.

  • Re-take Old Exams - Access to old exams can be so beneficial for studying for exams. Often teachers will reuse questions from old exams, and previous exams are a good place to start finding what topics to study when you don't have a study guide.

  • Explain the Topic to Someone Else - In order to be able to explain a topic, you must be able to understand it. While you may not get it right at first, being able to put a concept into your own words reinforces your understanding of it. If you get it incorrect, now you know where to focus.

  • Create Tips and Tricks for Yourself - Having trouble with a particular topic or concept? Make a song. Songs are stored in a different part of our brain than regular speech. Take advantage of that and hum a little tune to help you remember. Find similarities in words or concepts. Make mental images of vocabulary words. Take the vocabulary word "morose" for example. Morose means "sullen and ill-tempered," calling to mind the image of a droopy, sad rose. Use acronyms and mnemonics, such as HOMES for the great lakes or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally for the order of operations.

2. When Should I Start?

Now! There is no better time than the present. Psychology studies have shown that information is more easily retained when given in little chunks over a longer period of time. Imagine only studying math for 10-20 minutes every day for 14 days rather than trying to cram for hours the day before the exam. Not only is the former less stressful and more manageable, but it also helps you better retain the information.


3. How Do I Know When I've Studied Enough?

If you think about it, I'm sure you will find the answer. For convenience sake, though, here are some answers that I have received from my students. When you get the answer right several times in a row, you know you're done with that question. Another way to know when you're done studying is if you are able to correctly explain the concept you are focusing on to someone else.

4. How Do I Prevent Burnout?

The most important thing you can do this exam season is to take care of yourself. In order for your brain to perform its best, it needs a few key things: rest, nutrients, and hydration. As tempting as it may seem to pull an all-nighter, you will perform better on your exam if you cut the studying short and get a full night's sleep than if you were to stay up until 3 AM cramming. When you sleep, your brain has the opportunity to take the things that you've done throughout the day and store them in long-term memory.

  • Eat a good breakfast the day of your exam. Something full of protein and fats will be perfect to keep your brain going. I prefer bacon and eggs, but there are so many other wonderful foods to feed your brain. Staying nourished during study sessions is essential, too. Snack on something healthy to keep you feeling good and focused.

  • Hydration is so important. Even small amounts of dehydration (1%) can impair brain functioning. You will feel better and more alert if your body has all of the things it needs to fully function. Your brain and grades will thank you.

  • Take breaks! Studying for hours on end with no break can frustrate even the most studious of us all. Setting breaks for yourself can keep your stress levels down and your spirits up. If you are unsure of how to set up breaks, an easy method is the Pomodoro Technique. First, you set your objective or tasks, and then you set a timer for 25 minutes of work followed by a 5 minute break. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

5. What If I Fail or Blank On My Exam?

Stop. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Slowly breathe out through your mouth. You will survive. You know what you have studied, and you are capable of completing the exam to the best of your ability. If you are not sure where to start, write down what you do know in the margins. Or even better, if there is a particular concept/formula that you tend to forget, refresh yourself right before the test and make a note of it first thing. Find the easiest questions and answer those first to build steam. Cross out the options that you know for a fact are wrong. Look at other questions on the exam to see if you can find hints about the answer you are looking for. Even if you can't find the answer, something might spark a memory that will lead you down the path to the best educated guess you can make.


Remember: you can do this. Set yourself up for success by taking care of yourself, creating tricks to help you remember, and pacing yourself. Winter break is almost here. With the finish line in sight, now is not the time to slow down, but rather to sprint to victory.


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