When studying is a waste of time: 5 worst ways to prepare for finals

Has this happened to you before as well? You've spent hours and hours studying, only to get to the exam wondering why the questions are so difficult or ending up receiving a bad mark on the exam anyway? What went wrong you wonder?

My high school Chemistry teacher used to tell us:

"Practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect."

And he is right; we can spend hours "studying" for an exam, highlighting and summarising notes, without being effective in absorbing information OR.. we can learn some effective study habits that will cut down on study time and leave us feeling refreshed and confident going into our final exams.

So put aside your highlighter and make the most of effective study habits by avoiding the following study traps:

1. Studying the things you're already good at

Trust me, this technique feels very satisfying, BUT.. unfortunately it won't get you very far! Practicing questions and topics you know you're already good at will be a nice confidence booster, but it is unlikely that you are already good at all the topics that will appear in the final exams.

It is critical to begin studying the topics that you are least confident at. This might sound unappealing and daunting, but getting on top the areas you have greatest difficulties with FIRST will allow you to have sufficient time to find the resources and support you need to get ahead. Plan your study timetable well in advance so that you have sufficient time to spend on weaknesses. If you're unsure how to tackle areas of difficulty, why not try the following:

- Use different learning resources to broaden the types of practice questions. You can borrow books from the library, find free resources online or purchase different workbooks to supplement your school textbook.

- Ask a friend who you know is good at this topic. Sometimes we might not quite understand the way our teachers explain a concept. Asking someone else to explain the concept to us might be just what we need to gain a new perspective. A tutor can also be of great assistance in this.

- Practice past papers. This way you have an idea of the style and types of questions you can expect and which areas require your greatest focus and study.

Applying this strategy will boost your confidence overall and you will feel less anxious and stressed as you get closer to the exam. You will have covered the difficult, most time-consuming aspects first, leaving sufficient time to revise the topics you understand well relatively quickly and with ease.

2. Studying the same things over and over

Similarly to the above strategy, studying the same things over and over will unlikely be beneficial when it comes to exam time. Why? Every year the exams are written in slightly different ways and the style of questions may be different than the ones in your school textbook. You want to be well prepared no matter what the exam contains, so studying with a range of resources will allow you to familiarise yourself with a broad range of exam questions.

The best way to prepare this is using as many different resources as you can! Personally, when studying for the final Mathematics exam I used several different textbooks: school textbook, several borrowed textbooks from the library, workbooks, past papers downloaded from the internet (freely available) covering the previous ten years and free online worksheets. I found studying the older materials particularly useful as the wording of questions was somewhat different, which was initially confusing. In using these materials well in advance of the exam I had plenty of time to get used to a broad range of questions styles, leaving me confident by the time the exams occurred.

For English based subjects requiring short and long responses I was also able to read the responses that A-grade students had given in past exams. This was particularly useful in understanding the kinds of responses expected from exam markers to get an A and compare these to my practice responses.

3. Highlighting and memorising notes

I am not a fan of highlighting as it is a passive activity and can essentially be done without really absorbing any of the material highlighted. Similarly to studying questions you're already good at, highlighting and summarising can be a "feel-good" way to study as it appears that you have achieved a lot, but did you actually retain any of the highlighted text? Here are some strategies that may work a bit better to actively engage yourself in the material on the page:

- Summarise the most important facts on flash cards. This way you can carry them with you for easy reference and study on the go. This can be particularly handy if you commute to school and can check facts as you're sitting on the bus or train. Trust me, I have written pages and pages of notes only to find I never look at them again because too much information on a page is daunting to look at. Quick notes on flash cards can thus be highly effective tools for continuous reference and revision.

- APPLY, APPLY, APPLY! When asked how their study was going, some of my Mathematics students used to say: "It's going well, I memorised all the formulas." I would respond with: "That is great, but do you understand what they mean and can you apply them to the problems?"

As I have told my students in the past (studying Mathematics and Science), it is all well and good if you can remember a formula, but if you have no idea what it means or how to apply it, then it isn't really very useful and you will have difficulties answering exam questions. Rather than just memorising formulas on exams, practice applying them to as many relevant questions as you can. Understand what they mean.

- Explain concepts to someone else. It is highly effective to improve your own understanding and memory of a concept if you can explain it to someone else. It doesn't have to be explained to someone who understands the topic either, it is simply useful to test yourself on how well you understand a topic. If you think that is silly, I used to explain my engineering course to my parents, who didn't know anything about engineering, but were always keen listeners (and learners!).

4. Studying at the same time of the day all the time

You may be an early bird or a night owl, but ultimately studying at the same time of the day all the time is ineffective. Why? Exams will occur at all times of the day from early morning to late afternoon and you need to make sure that you will be able to perform at your best regardless of the time of day. The best way to do this is to schedule your study routine at different times of day. Break it up throughout the week and set aside 'study blocks' at various times of the day.

5. No balance and too little sleep

We all need balance and so doing nothing but studying will not mean that you will ultimately be more effective. It is important to take regular study breaks, keeping your mind alert, eating fresh, healthy whole foods, drinking lots of water and getting an adequate amount of sleep. Breaking up your study routine with exercise is also an effective way to maintain focus and motivation. Plan exercise, rest and spending time with family and friends into your calendar and block out time for these activities.

In my personal experience I have found that if I block out time specifically to spend with friends and family or exercising I will be more effective at studying as I know I need to make the most of my limited ("designated") study time. Having all day without a personal "deadline" for myself caused me to be less effective as there was no reward to work towards.


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