Studying for Exams

There are times when being bright is a handicap. Most of the bright high school students I meet and work with do not have useable study habits because they never really had to study. Memory recall and reasoning constituted the bulk of their exam-taking prowess. Last night a freshman, formerly-successful-high-school-student, asked me, “how do you study for exams?” Good question, especially if you’ve never really done it before.

First, there is a difference between studying for exams and learning the material.

Learning the material is something a student does day in, day out, week in, week out. If I am learning the material the night before the exam, then I am not studying. I am cramming.

Second, proceeding from the assumption that I understand the material, these are the three sources I use to study for exams: homework, in-class notes and work, and end of chapter concept problems. A fourth possible source for study are prior exams. Tread carefully with this one as some professors consider their prior exams proprietary and grounds for cheating.

How to attack studying for exams in order of “biggest bang for your buck”:

  1. Homework – if you are in a time crunch this is the most efficient place to review for your exam. Professors like to use homework problems for exam problems because a) they are already written (and it is easy to swap different variables in and out) and b) it means students can’t come back and say, “we never covered this!”
  2. In-class notes and work – if the professor saw fit to cover it in class, you can bet that it is fair play for an exam. Grab a fellow student and take turns teaching your way through the slides. Working in-class problems will reinforce material that your professor zipped through, but still considers vital for understanding.
  3. Concept problems – regardless of discipline, math, science and engineering professors all have required texts and give reading assignments. Nearly every text book I’ve used has concept problems at the end of the chapter or end of the book. Last year I took a 600 level course on Global Tectonics and (you guessed it) there were problems for me to work at the end of the book.
  4. Prior exams – again, make sure you read the syllabus and know if the professor is ok with you having prior exams in your possession. If so, then there are good reasons to review exams. DO NOT STUDY FROM EXAMS. Study from the source material. The benefit of seeing prior exams is that you know how the professor asks questions, the number of problems you will need to get through to finish the test and the level of difficulty compared to homework problems.

As for the amount of time needed, this depends on the student’s comfort level with the material. The more a student focuses in class, the less time out of class is needed to study for exams.

Go forth, study hard, then go play.


  1. Wow – you really have this study stuff down to a science – but I must confess here that I took the opposite approach. I played very hard – and studied at the very last minute – and only because I had to. My homework assignments were usually never done – or – copied from friends who then got upset with me when I beat them on exams. I think that I might have done better academically if I actually followed your outline. But I did learn quite a lot on the road that I took – most of which will never be formally taught in any class room – and so I can honestly say that whatever approach is taken to get through – it is always a learning experience. It’s just that some ways are definitely more fun – and also more painful than others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are absolutely correct 🙂 but I do think that students who need to study still need study skills. It is fun to look back and see what one did well, and what could have been done (ahem) a little bit better. I wrote on that in today’s post, BTW!


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