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How to Study For (insert your course)

By Gaurav Talwar 2nd Year, Life Sciences Student


            Within two weeks, the official exam session will begin. This statement came to my mind a few days ago, when I started making a schedule for how I would approach my winter exams. As usual and expected, writing an exam can be fairly intimidating. However, what may be an even more daunting is trying to figure out how to begin studying.

             Approaching my fourth set of university final exams (being in my second year of the Life Sciences Program), I feel that I have learned a lot about my study strategies; including what works for me, what I can still improve on. In this blog, I would like to share one strategy which I feel over-arches the process of successfully studying for any exam:

 The strategy is to tailor your studying skills and practice activities towards the specific exam at hand. Believe it or not, but the quote, One size does NOT fit all”, was originally made to explain to university students that one standard studying approach is NOT usually suitable for all of their exams*. (*P.S. Please do not quote me on the historical facts of this quote, it’s just the way I interpret it).

             For example, my Microbiology exam requires a fair bit of memorization (names of viruses, their families, how they replicate…) and is an all multiple choice exam. This is very different from my Organic Chemistry exam, which will include some short answer questions and requires familiarity with how various groups of compounds interact with each other. Thus, I’ll probably need to use a lot of reciting, association and memorizing strategies for the first course, while I’ll need to spend much more time doing practice questions and recognizing patterns for the latter.

 In addition, each of these activities will require me to access a different “level of learning”. As Peer Learning Assistants, we often talk about recognizing the importance of these “levels of learning” and knowing in advance what levels your exam will most emphasize, so that you can allocate your TIME and EFFORTS accordingly. Also, similar to climbing up a ladder without slipping off, it is important that you build your way up the levels, because a strong foundation for each step below will make you more prepared for the more difficult questions. So with that, let’s get a summary for each level (from bottom to top):

  1. Memorization: All courses and exams involve some degree of memorization (but some emphasize this much more than others). Knowing facts, dates, names of people and theories is perhaps the most basic level of learning you need to master. Some strategies, including using flash cards, reciting terms, and making up mnemonics (e.g. “Super Man Helps Every One” for the order of the great lakes from west to east) are very helpful strategies to practice this skill.          
  1. Understand Connections: Many multiple choice questions tend to focus on your ability to make connections between the concepts taught in class. This is an effective way for the professor to check if you can demonstrate an understanding of the facts and terms you learned. For example, a biology question may ask, “which of the following options places the process of photosynthesis in the correct order?” The use of visual flow charts and mind maps really help out for this level, because they allow you to visually see and understand how the various concepts are linked together.
  1. Think conceptually; apply and analyze: This level is aimed to mark your critical thinking abilities. Often tested via multiple choice questions, you may be given a situation which looks different to what was taught in class, but follows similar principles. Hence, you may need to apply your knowledge to make an educated guess. For example, in Psychology, you may have learned a theory about why people behave the way they do (nature vs nurture). The question may then give you a situation with someone behaving in a particular manner, and your task may be to choose how a person practicing one of those specific theories would explain the individual’s actions. Using a note taking method such as the Cornell method (which requires you to write a summary in your own words) and making “home-made questions” to test your friends may be effective for this type of learning (as they will stimulate a discussion beyond the facts, and may force you to think through various perspectives).

      4/5. Evaluate and Create: These levels test your creative thinking. Often tested via essay questions, these questions may begin with words such as “design”, “propose”, “distinguish between” and “examine”. Your task here may be to take what was taught in class, and to apply it to a larger cause. In a literature course, this may involve comparing the actions of two characters in the texts you read, and to evaluate them in relation to a personality theory you learned. For a science course, this may involve extrapolating a chemical reaction you learned to one that you have never seen before. Although a little daunting, these questions really push your ability to think “outside the box” (and are useful in the long run, as you want to be able to apply what you are learning in class to the profession you embrace later). Studying for this level may involve practicing the “higher level thinking questions” in your textbooks and making another mind map which links the concepts taught to questions you could infer to see on the exam.

            To summarize, keeping in mind what level of thinking your exam will be testing can really help in finding a well suited strategy to study for your exam. Although there is no right or wrong way to study, there are some ways which are more effective than others. I really hope that you make the smart decision of sparing some time to think about your approach, because as always, you want to MAXIMIZE YOUR LEARNING, while MINIMIZING THE EXTRA TIME you need to spend.


More information:

To get specific tips on how to study for your exam type, check out Learning Strategies “Exam prep” resources be clicking here. Even better, if you are taking a first year course, then check out the “How to Study for …” course-specific workshops which Upper Year PLA’s will be presenting in the upcoming weeks!


Photo courtesy of Moyan Brenn under Flickr Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.