Key planning tips
- Aim for a sustainable study schedule. It’s like training for a marathon; every day makes a difference.
- The two-hour breaks are essential. They allow your brain to consolidate the information you’ve been rehearsing, and allow you to relax, eat, and exercise.
- Try to schedule study blocks at the same time of day that the course’s exam is scheduled.
- Study for two or three courses in a day.
- Maximize your memory by distributing, for example, 15 hours of study over five or six days, rather than over two or three days.
- Study the hardest material during your peak learning times.
- Sleep supports memory. Aim to sleep 7-9 hours/night.
- Try not to study nine hours each day. It’s OK not to study every available minute!
See how to use three-hour study blocks to maximize your efficient use of each block of time.
Keep a positive attitude: “I’ll do my best, and that is good enough!”
How to organize your study schedule
Get organized: use organizing tools such as monthly and weekly calendars, “to-do” lists. Organizing tools can be found in our online module Managing Your Time At University.
Start studying EARLY. Decide how many days before the exam you need in order to gather and use information. Extend your study over as many days as you can manage. The longer you extend this period, the more time you have to review and self-test rather than cramming vast amounts of information into several long, exhausting days.
Let’s see how it works…
Imagine you have 12 hours to study for a particular exam.
With the cramming approach: you spend 2 days at 6 hours, for a total of 12 study hours. You have little time to review or self-test because you are busy just preparing the material. Even then, everything is in your short-term memory — easily dumped out of your brain!
With the non-cramming approach: you spread the 12 hours over 6 days at 2 hours per day. This allows for preparing, reviewing (gather and use), and sleeping on it! While you sleep, you are still thinking but at a different level of consciousness. You are now learning the materials versus temporarily housing them.
- Set aside study blocks of approximately 2.5 hours per subject area per day.
- Add regular, daily review and self-testing to the schedule. Ideally start with reviewing information covered the day before and end with a self-test.
- Include other requisite tasks: sleeping, eating, exercising, relaxing, self-care. Now more than ever, it is important for you to take very good care of your health. Getting a full night’s sleep, eating balanced meals and doing daily cardio activity will stimulate your brain and help you think and focus better.
- Make the schedule as routine as you can (e.g., go to bed at the same time every night, especially during exam study period).
Follow your schedule! Do not let time bandits (including your friends, in person and online!) sway you.
The study plan: Why, what, and how
Why should I start studying early?
Did you know that the human brain learns academic material faster and better if done in brief blocks of time spread over longer periods, rather than in a few lengthy sessions?
For example, you will perform better on an exam if you spend one hour studying each day for 20 days than if you spend 10 hours studying for two days before an exam. Which means that cramming is bad news!
What if I have to cram?
OK, so sometimes life gets crazy and we end up having to cram. Right? If you have to cram, try to focus on remembering the information you know already rather than trying to learn new information. And here’s the kicker: you will typically NOT remember what you tried to learn the night before the exam, so it’s best to make sure you really know some of the information well. If you do have a few days, try to spread the studying out so you are not doing it all in one day.
How should I plan my exam preparation?
The study plan
If you plan ahead, many students have found this study plan gets good results. However, five days is really the minimum; we recommend a much longer study plan, if possible. For example, if you have not read any of your BIOL 101 textbook and a multiple choice quiz of over 100 test questions is looming, five days will probably not suffice.
Components of the the study plan
- Space out your learning over a minimum of five study blocks.
- Divide your material into workable “chunks” (e.g., a chapter, a set of lecture notes).
- During each block, prepare a new chunk. Preparing might be reading and note-taking, amalgamating lecture and textbook information, reorganizing lecture notes.
- Review previous material.
- Use active learning strategies such as summarizing, questioning, reciting, cue cards, and study groups.
- Use self-testing techniques to monitor your learning.
How much time should I set aside to study?
You might need somewhere between 10 and 20 hours of studying to get a good mark on an exam. However, the time you need to spend really depends on many things such as:
- the difficulty of the course,
- to what extent you have kept up with the materials during the term, and
- how important this exam is to you.
The study plan: Step 1
Studying efficiently over five days is a great goal for many undergraduate exams.
A study plan reduces your stress because it helps you stay on track and prioritize healthy habits. The SASS study plan allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses and helps you distribute your review time among all of them. It includes:
- how to create an exam study schedule using three-hour study blocks
- how to use three-hour study blocks effectively.
Create an exam study schedule
This study schedule works best when you have a period of time with no classes, such as the study week before finals in December and April. Ideally, try to finish the term work of readings, assignments, quizzes, presentations, etc. by the last day of classes in Week 12, so you can then shift to “study mode.” For classes with unfinished term work, you will need to both finish the course requirements and study during the exam period.
- Find out your exam dates and how much each exam is worth.
- Create a calendar starting with the week or two before exams begin, and divide the day into three time slots (morning, afternoon, evening), or download our template.
- Fill in your exam schedule, using the appropriate time slot. For example: 9 a.m. exams would go in the morning slot, 2 p.m. in the afternoon slot and 7 p.m. in the evening slot. Include each exam’s percentage of the final course mark. Colour-code the different exams, or highlight all exam times, for easy identification.
- Add any other fixed commitments, and be realistic.
- Assign specific hours to three daily blocks of time during which you will totally commit to studying. The blocks should be about 3 hours each, and the study blocks must be separated by 2 hours, to allow for memory consolidation and down time. Enter those times on the right-hand side of the calendar (e.g., 9 a.m.-12 p.m.; 2-5 p.m.; 7-10 p.m.).
- Use the “hours needed” table on the Exam Study Schedule template: for every exam, estimate the number of hours you need to catch up on incomplete term work that won’t be finished by the last day of classes. Then estimate the number of hours you want to spend studying (making review sheets, drilling, and self-testing). Consider your goals, the difficulty of the course, and how much the exam is worth as you estimate these hours; many students study for 10-20 hours for each exam, once they have finished all their term work.
- Add up the total number of hours you estimated to catch up and study. Divide this number by three to calculate the number of three-hour blocks you’ll need to find in your schedule. See if you have this many blocks available. If there aren’t enough blocks, consider reducing fixed commitments or reducing catch-up or study time for some or all courses.
- Starting with your most difficult course, work backwards from the exam date and assign three-hour study blocks to available time slots in your schedule. Use a pencil as this part is very flexible and you’ll probably change it a couple of times. Count the number of study sessions or hours; does the number reach your target?
- Repeat the “working backwards” method for each course. There is no perfect plan: just try to distribute the study sessions for each course across several days, and reach your targeted number of study hours.
- Stick to your plan! Typical obstacles include:
- losing motivation or energy. Try studying with a friend, doing something fun at the end of your day, exercising during your breaks, and remembering your goals.
- feeling overwhelmed and tired. Try looking at your calendar and seeing when exams are over; take heart, and get some sleep.
- miscalculating how much studying is needed for a course. Try redistributing your study sessions, filling in some of the blank periods on your calendar with added study sessions, or reducing your grade expectations.
The study plan: Step 2
How to use three-hour study blocks
After you’ve made an exam study schedule, your next challenge is to balance the time you have available with the volume of material you have to study, to make a great study plan.
For each course:
- Count the number of blocks of study time that you estimated for the schedule (not including any catch-up blocks you needed).
- Divide your course material into chunks, so that the number of chunks equals one less than the number of blocks (e.g., 5 blocks and 4 chunks, 7 blocks and 6 chunks). Chunks can be divided into topics or units, or number of pages, or importance of the material within the whole course, or chapters, or in any other meaningful way.
If each chunk cannot realistically be covered in 2 or 2.5 hours, you may need to rethink your exam study schedule to re-allocate the study time you have available, or alter your expectations of your preparedness for the exam.
- In each three-hour block of time, spend about 10-20 minutes reviewing recently studied material, about 2.5 hours studying fresh material, and about 15 minutes testing yourself on the fresh material. Find practical study strategies and tips at https://sass.queensu.ca/exam-prep/.
- Take breaks over the three-hour block of time, to allow information to be consolidated in your memory (e.g., 50 minutes on and 10 minute break, every hour for three hours).
- Enjoy non-intellectual activities for two hours between study blocks to further support your memory. Stretch, go for a walk, eat, relax, and check your phone. Set a timer if you need to end your break on time.
See the example on the next page for a sample plan. Five study days, producing 15 efficient study hours, is just an example—your courses may need more or a bit less.
Your plan will reflect your own needs. Many students study between 10-20 hours for each exam.
Staying on top of academic demands is a skill that can be developed with coaching and practice. Learning Strategies resources and services can help you build skills in maintaining motivation, managing time, taking good notes over the term, and more.
What does it mean to study? Summarize using an organized structure (e.g., mind map, table, concept summary, Cornell notes) to see relationships and connections between ideas, and drill, drill, drill.
What does it mean to self-test? Answer practice questions from your text, assignments, or Exam Bank, or ones you have created based on the course learning objectives or tips from your prof about what is most important.
What does it mean to review? A more general refreshing of your memory, focusing on what you did not know during your self-test of that content.
What is a comprehensive mini-exam? A practice exam, written under “real exam” conditions (e.g., times, formula sheet, open book).
Studying for multiple exams
Frequently, several exams are scheduled in a short period of time, and it is very helpful to develop a study plan that allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses, distribute your review time, and ensure that all courses get some attention. A study plan reduces your stress, as it helps you keep on track over the short but intense period of exams, and places a priority on health-balancing activities.
Steps in building the study schedule:
- Read about the 5-Day Study Plan. (In the Preparing for Tests and Taking Tests sections of the Exam Prep module.)
- Create a calendar starting with 1-2 weeks before class ends. Use 8.5 x 11 inch paper.
- Starting with the first free day after classes are over, draw yep horizontal lines within each day on the blank study calendar. These spaces will become three study times (e.g., morning, afternoon, and evening or whatever fits your best learning times).
- Write in your exam schedule, using the appropriate time slot. For example: 9 a.m. exams would go in the first third of the day, 2 p.m. in the middle slot, and 7 p.m. in the last slot. Include the value or percentage of the final mark for each exam. Consider colour-coding the different exams, or highlight all exam times, for easy identification.
- Assign times to the three blocks of time during which you will totally commit to studying. The blocks should be about 3 hours each, and not longer than four hours. The study blocks must be separated by two hours, to allow for memory consolidation and downtime. Enter those times on the right-hand side of the calendar (e.g., 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; 3-6 p.m.; 8-11 p.m.).
- Look realistically at the amount of work due during the last weeks of term. An ideal goal is to have all term work (readings, assignments) completed by the end of classes. Start exam studying as soon as you can.
**If you are behind in term work (which is not unusual, so don’t get distressed!) try to stay in pace and current with the lectures, and catch up later. This suggestion is less useful for sequentially taught courses, however, like physics and math.
- Consider how many hours of study you may need for each exam. This will depend on many factors, such as:
- Value of the exam and your goals for the course,
- Difficulty of the material and how up-to-date you are, or
- Significance of the course (e.g., a core course or required mark for Honours).
- Starting with your most difficult course, work backwards from the exam date and assign study sessions. Use a pencil as this part is very flexible and you‘ll probably change it a couple of times. Your memory for the material will be greatly improved if you distribute 15 hours of study over five sessions covering four or five days, rather than doing a blitz of two 8-hour days. Count the number of study sessions or hours… does this reach your target?
- Assign study periods that coincide with the time of each exam, so that your mind is able to function well under the exam conditions (e.g., study in the morning for 9 a.m. exams). Also, schedule your peak learning time for your most challenging studying.
- Repeat the “backwards planning” method for each course. There is no perfect plan: just try to distribute the study sessions for each course across several days, and reach your targeted number of study hours.
- Be efficient in your studying during each session: work 50 min. with a 10 minute break; be strategic in focusing on key content (refer to the course’s learning objectives); focus on what you do not know; make summary sheets of major concepts and their applications; repeat to move information into your long-term memory. Studying focuses on accuracy + speed of accessing your memory or performing calculations.
- Use the 2-hour breaks to allow your brain to relax, consolidate information, and get food or exercise. Exams are like a marathon – you need a balanced training schedule!
- A good schedule lets you study two or three courses in a day. It has the targeted amount of time for each course, or close to it. It contains unscheduled or empty study sessions. Exams are stressful, so take advantage of the more unstructured part of term and see a movie, hang out with friends, cook tasty and nutritious food, gets lots of exercise and SLEEP. It allows for a whole day off, unless your exams are too compressed. And it can be sustained over the entire course of your exams.
- Stick to your plan! Typical problems include:
- losing motivation. Try studying with a friend, doing something FUN at the end of your day, exercising during breaks, and remembering your goals.
- feeling overwhelmed/tired. Try: seeing when exams end…take heart! and get some SLEEP.
- miscalculating how much studying is needed for a course. Try: redistributing study sessions, filling in some blank periods on your calendar with added study sessions, or reducing expectations. Keep a positive attitude: “I CAN DO THIS!”
But what if I have to cram?
Even with good planning, there are times when you have to cram. Here are some helpful hints.
Pick out the most important points and learn them really well. Use 75% of your cramming time to drill key points and 25% on the rest.
Make a plan
Time is short. Choose what you want to study; determine how much time you have; and set strict timelines.
Use mind map review sheets and cue cards
Condense the material you have chosen to learn into mind maps. Practice by redrawing the mind maps. Put each separate key point from your mind map onto cue cards and drill yourself regularly.
Recite, recite, recite
No time to move information into long term storage so repetitive recitation is the order of the day! Recitation will burn the facts into your brain. One way to do this is to tape-record yourself and then play back the tape before you sleep and again when you awake.
When you cram, you are not learning the information well. Therefore, if you experience anxiety during the exam, you may forget what you have studied. Use relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety.
Don’t “should” yourself
If you start your cramming session beating yourself up with statements like, “I should have studied earlier,” by the time you get to studying you might feel too guilty and depressed to continue. Instead, accept the truth: you would be in a better position if you had started earlier. Then, tell yourself you will do so next time! Remind yourself that you are human and will learn from your mistakes.
Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 185