The March exam session ended not long ago, and with an aftertaste still in their minds, students carry on with the second part of the semester. The post-exam period is a moment of reflection for students before the next session, and that is why we share with you a few experiences, evidence-based effective study techniques, and ways to cope with stress.
Not much time has passed since the end of the March exam session and with an aftertaste still in their minds students are carrying on with the second part of the semester. The current post-exam period is a moment of reflection for students before the next session begins and that is why we share with you some opinions on the March exam session, evidence-based effective study techniques, and ways to cope with stress.
We asked Luigi Lorenzoni and Jeet Ratadia, both first year BESS students, as well as Michele Usher and Kutay Uysaler, first year BEMACS students, to share their experiences of the most recent exam session. Even if students eventually become used to testing, each session has some unique aspects to it. For Jeett and Kutay this session was particularly stressful because they disliked the way the exams were scheduled. The lessons finished shortly before and the exams themselves came one after another, leaving little time to revise. Yet, Jeett says he works well under pressure and benefits from the “deadline effect” even if it causes him to be more stressed. Michele was satisfied with the exams and the way they were conducted but noted a few organizational issues, such as technical issues during the Computer Science exam.
Every student has specific study techniques that they prefer the most. For example, Jeett’s favorite way to study is rewriting notes as many times as possible until the material is completely clear. As a personal goal, he wants to try spacing out the study sessions before exams to conquer the “Instant Gratification Monkey” and avoid the intense stress. This issue is common for university students. In fact, Jeett’s classmate Luigi Lorenzoni also had the same issue. Luigi found it hard to adequately prepare for four classes at the same time, since there were just a few days left to review once lectures were over. His preferred study method is doing practice exercises with friends in university classrooms. Michele also shared with us his usual way of studying: “I first read everything, underlining the important parts, then I create summaries and then review my summaries until I feel ready – simple but efficient.”
If one is unsatisfied with their performance in the latest exam session, it may be worth considering changing study techniques to be better prepared for the upcoming partial or general exams. According to Ali Abdaal, a Youtuber with nearly three million followers whose content focuses on productivity and studying, to ace the exams one needs to master two skills: understanding the new material and remembering it.
In one of Ali’s videos called “Study Tips – How to learn new content” which references a book called “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger, III, and Mark A. McDaniel, Ali recommends to constantly check that you truly grasped information encountered when reading notes or listening to a professor during the lecture. For example, after reading a couple of paragraphs it is useful to look away and ask oneself: “What have I just read?”, “What are the key ideas?”, “Can I rephrase this in my own words?”
When it comes to revising the information learned some of the most effective methods are active recall and spaced repetition. Active recall involves retrieving pieces of information from one’s memory while spaced repetition means revising material at increasing intervals up to a point when it is stored in long-term memory. Defying popular, yet passive learning methods such as highlighting notes and rereading, active recall and spaced repetition proved to be empirically effective. For example, in 2013 Jeffrey D. Kapricke and Janell R. Blunt divided 80 undergraduate students into four groups. One of them was referred to as the “study-once” group, meaning students could read the text only once, while those in the “repeated-study” one could study the text four times. Two other groups were “elaborative concept mapping” students of which could read the text once and then create a concept map while viewing the text, and “retrieval practice” one that included students who could read the text once, recall as much information as they could, and read the text again. In a test carried out a week after reading the text under the designated conditions, retrieval practice produced the best learning outcomes according to the results the authors shared in their “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping” article.
Meanwhile, the study by a research team at Villanova University, USA, called “The Effect of Spacing Repetitions on the Recognition Memory of Young Children and Adults” showed that while the repeated exposure to the information generally improves its recall, it is the spacing (i.e., having breaks or taking up other activities) between the repetitions that makes the cut. Furthermore, the method proved to be effective for elementary school and college students, eliminating age as a factor of the technique’s effectiveness.
There are many ways you can implement the active recall and the spaced repetition in your study routine. For example, you could create flashcards with pieces of paper or in applications such as Anki and Quizlet with a question on one side and an answer to it on another. It is important to revise them or any other content within specific periods: shorter ones (every day) when familiarizing with the new information or having difficulties understanding it and longer ones (every other day or once a week) when the material is well understood. Other useful tricks are to imagine that you are a professor and explain the concept to your friend or yourself and especially when it comes to mathematics and science classes, solve problems without looking at the answers.
In the end, whatever study methods students use the exam season is a stressful period. In small doses, however, stress can be quite beneficial. In fact, on a purely biological level, stress is a response of the body to threats and allows one to be more prepared to face them. It is a response that we inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but while it was particularly useful to fend off wild dinosaurs, stress can be less adequate in our frenzied modern world, where threats like those no longer exist.
Fortunately, many evidence-based techniques can be used to mitigate stress. Some are very easy to use and entail not doing something: for example, students should avoid nicotine and excessive amounts of coffee during exam periods, even if they may be tempting. Similarly, they should keep hydrated and exercise multiple times a week. It is not necessary to exercise vigorously – even a walk in the park can help. Moreover, students may want to try somewhat more demanding but often more rewarding ways of coping with stress: mindfulness meditation seems to be able to boost mood and relieve stress when practiced with consistency even for short periods. Similarly, yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong have positive effects on body and mind.
From the four students interviewed it seems that most concerns are similar across students of different courses and years. For what regards studying, spaced practice would certainly help to feel more prepared during the exam sessions with little left to review. Similarly, implementing regular exercise and relaxation practices can help avoid falling into damaging habits and developing chronic stress symptoms. Overall, if students can balance effective study methods with stress relief future exam sessions can become less troubling and yield even better results.