Effective Studying

It’s final exam time at McGill, which means that it’s time for another exam studying post. The further I get into my education, the more I learn about how I study, and how studying works in general. And when you start university, you realize that the days of having two to three weeks of time to study for your exams are over. There is so much work to do during the semester that you really have to compress your study time into a few days, which means that the shotgun studying strategy (studying all the material you can get your hands on,) is no longer effective. If you start at the beginning of the book and do as many problems as possible, you’ll certainly be prepared. But are you really going to get through the whole book? There are some people who can. I am not one of those people.

I don’t have the stomach for studying that many people do. Fortunately, I seem to need less of it to understand and apply the material. But the fact that I don’t study well will a very limited amount of time means that I really have to concentrate on studying well. Here’s what I consider before I even start studying:

  • What material is on the exam? – A bit of a no brainer, but it’s a good place to start.
  • What material will be emphasized on the exam? What material are you sure is going to be on the exam? – For example, if you’re in Cal 1, you’d better believe that limits and derivatives are going to be a big part of the exam. In Cal 2? Let’s just say that it’s called the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus for a reason.
  • What material do I understand? What material don’t I understand? What material do I need to practice? – I usually use a breadth-first strategy in my exam studying; that is, I try to make sure that I understand all the topics before diving deeper. That way I’ll be able to at least put something down for every question. This is a strategy I’m not going be able to rely on as much in university, as correct answers get more points than work, at least in engineering.

It’s not always possible to decide what material is going to be more or less important on an exam, but sometimes it is, and when you don’t have a lot of time, it’s sometimes it’s better to spend more time on one area of the subject than another. When your prof tells you that there are 10 questions on the exam, and has mentioned during the class that this or that problem will certainly be on the exam, you’re can begin to figure out what the exam will look like. If, for example, you know the topics for half the questions on the exam, then if you study those topics well you’re guaranteed around 50% on the exam before you even take a crack at the rest of the material.

Also think about how the exam will combine things. For example, in Cal 3 we talked about series, and later moved to Taylor Series. It would be worthless for the examiners to waste a question on Series and another on Taylor Series when they could just test us on Taylor Series and add a subquestion that tests us our knowledge of series. Also, there are so many topics that use partial derivatives that it would be stupid to simple test us on partial derivatives. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have to study those topics as much, but the more information you have about how the exam will be structured, the better you’ll feel, and the better you’ll be prepared.

Some of these things are helpful and some are not, but the more you know about the exam, the better you can prepare yourself, and the more comfortable you will feel. Comfort isn’t something to scoff at when you’re talking about an exam. The more comfortable you are, the more likely you are to be able to recall something you never thought you’d remember, or figure something out that you wouldn’t have figured out otherwise.

Finally, take a break now and then. Get up and go for a walk. I find that nothing helps me sleep like a walk in the snow when I’m finished studying. Physical exercise is a good thing; it clears your head and makes you less frustrated. At least it does for me.

School is a game of statistics. If you learn to maximize those statistics in your favor, you’ll do well with minimum time wasted (a post about “effort” is coming up next Monday.)


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