Start early and avoid stress
Exams can be a time of high stress for students. The best way to avoid stress is by starting preparation early in the semester. The section on time management, showed you how to make time to pre-read, attend lectures and revise on a weekly basis. If you can manage to do this throughout the semester, you will find that your capacity to remember will improve enormously and thus exam time will be less stressful.
Some facts about memory
You probably realise that we have two types of memory: short term and long term. Basically these two memories are designed for different purposes. Short term memory is designed for thinking and problem solving while long term memory is designed for storage. Short term memory has limited space (capacity) to store memories, whereas long term memory has enormous capacity to store memories. When we cram close to exam time, the memories are stored in short term memory which, because it is so small, becomes cluttered and leaves limited capacity for working and problem solving in the exam.
Based on the fact that short term memory is small and long term memory is large, we need to use long term memory to store information because it is bigger and is designed for storage. Long term memory can hold a near infinite number of memories and it is easy to retrieve memories from long term memory even when we feel stressed, which is often the case during exams. Short term memory does not handle stress well and it is often difficult to retrieve memories from short term memory when we are under pressure. Typically students who have crammed either have trouble recalling information under the stress of exams or they manage to recall the facts, but have difficulty applying the facts to the problem solving questions. Often, once the stress of the exam is over (going home afterwards for example), it is easy to remember some of the facts that they could not recall during the exam. These problems are typical of students who use short term memory to cram before exams.
Repetition is key to improving memory
In order to overcome the problems associated with cramming and to ensure that information is well stored in long term memory, we need to repeat the information to be remembered at least three to five times, with periods of time between repetitions. So, we have a much better chance of remembering information if we have repeated the material over say five days, rather than five repetitions all in one day in close succession. This improvement with spaces between the repetitions happens because when we take time away from the information that we are trying to learn, our brain subconsciously “thinks” about the material without us even being aware, so that when we come back to the material, we understand it better because the brain has been working on it without our conscious awareness. If we do not have time away from the material, the brain does not have the opportunity to work on the information, so we miss the chance to come to it a second time with a better understanding.
There is much that we can do to ensure that we repeat material a number of times with spaces between repetitions. Most importantly, we need to be sure that we understand the material to be learnt. When we understand, we naturally link ideas to concepts that we already understand and this makes them easier to store in memory. Buzan (1996) likens repetition to cutting and walking a path through a forest. To explain and extend his analogy, pre-reading helps to prepare the brain for the information that is going to be learned (something like deciding that a path needs to be cut through a forest). This is the first time you encounter the material you are going to learn. Having pre-read, you are able to go to class with a brain ready to receive information and because you have some idea of what the class is about, you expect to understand it or expect to have some of your questions answered. Attending the class is your second encounter with the material and it is like flying over the dense bush, and with the lecturer’s help, realising exactly where the path needs to be cut.
Your third encounter with the material is when you go home and make (organise for yourself) revision notes. This is where the hardest work is done. This is where you “cut the path” and really think about the material and try to make sense of it for yourself. This is the hardest and most important work of all. This is a surprise to many students who think that the most challenging part of tertiary study is actually attending the lectures! After you have made your own notes (I thoroughly recommend concept mapping), you can regularly look over your notes and remind yourself of the material that you have covered, or using Buzan’s analogy, you “walk the path”. This walking the path simply requires you to look over the notes. At this stage you don’t necessarily need to try to actively commit them to memory (or learn them). So, walking sessions can be lots of “quick looks” at your summary notes over the semester. Of course, if you have time to learn the material at this stage, you will have less to do later, but many students find it sufficient, just to keep the ideas and the understanding of them fresh in their minds by quickly looking over weekly summaries regularly throughout the semester. The more often that you walk the path, the clearer the path will become and the stronger your memories will be. This will make it easier to really learn the material close to exams.
Make time to revise weekly
A good way to build this revisiting of your notes into your program is to look through your summaries or concept maps each week before you make your new map or summary notes to help you understand the topic for that week. Close to exam or test time, you need to employ some different strategies. At this stage, you need to deliberately commit the information to memory or actively learn it. It is very important that the information is clearly organised before you start committing it to memory. This is why concept mapping is so important, because it enables you to see the main ideas and how the ideas link together. It is very important that you gain that overview of the information and how it is organised before you start to seriously “learn” it.