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Exam study tips: preparing for final exams starts at the first lesson

If you too dread the prospect of having to revise school material; prepare well for it in advance. Although revision is a stressful and arduous process, I advise making this process as fun as possible; this will require a lot of effort throughout the year but gives fantastic results. My revision process is split up into 4 parts; 1) write down notes during the lesson and make sure that everything makes sense, 2) make flashcards on the topic, 3) practice your flashcards during revision season, and finally 4) do tons of practice exams to know what the test is going to be like.

This training regime is intense, I will admit it, but at the end of the day, the best way to prepare for a challenge is to train harder and make the exam feel easy in comparison. This is as true in sports as it is in studying; so the question is, are you willing to accept the challenge?

Understanding the material and leaving no detail unanswered

Your exam questions are going to be based on the content of your course and consequently making sure that you understand the concepts taught in each lesson is critical to having good exam results. Personally, I try to listen attentively during the lesson and jot down as many useful notes as I can during the lesson; I assume that in a few months' time, things won’t make sense to me anymore and hence I try to describe each main concept in my own words. After the lesson, spend some time at home rereading your note, making sure they make sense (which is not often the case for me) and reformulate them if needed. Finding your own style of note-taking is critical in making the lesson make sense. Some prefer mind maps which are an incredible way of making connections between things; another animal aspiration writer talked about her experience with mind maps here. Personally, I write down notes next to images or diagrams to clarify what I am talking about. Regardless of your own note-taking style, make sure that everything does make sense to you. Lessons tend to build one upon the other and making sure that the previous lessons make sense is the first step in understanding future lessons. My advice is, do not leave concepts poorly understood; either speak to your teacher after class to clarify things or simply take work into your own hands and find the answer yourself. Don’t assume that the exam won’t talk about something because it was explained poorly, be prepared for the eventuality of it coming up. I will admit, this may take some extra time but think of it like an investment; it will reap its reward in the future, both in future lessons and ultimately at the exam!

A typical look into my notes. Although it may look messy, I am comfortable navigating them and it will make sense to me in the future. Make sure the same applies to you, it is your notes at the end of the day!

Turning lessons into questions

Now that you have understood the content of your lesson well, it's time to make something productive out of that. You have all the ingredients needed to make a powerful tool, flashcards. I personally use Anki to make my flash cards. Although it looks grey and uninteresting, it is an incredibly useful tool and should become one of your closest allies. Anki allows you to create flashcards and gives you a practice schedule. If you prefer something physical, buying paper flashcard cards is worth it. Try to do the flashcards in the same week as the lesson as this will help you keep up with the flashcard-making while also helping you consolidate your learning of the lesson content. I personally start from the beginning of the lesson, writing questions about concepts or important details of something, and work my way down the lesson until the end. This should help to make flashcards about everything that was covered in the lesson. Flash cards have been my savior in vet school where thousands of details need to be memorised. I also advise you to experiment with your flashcard making, have some asking about a wide concept while other more precise detail such as the name of an organ. I recommend covering parts of a diagram/picture and having to say what is covered in the picture. Flashcards should make the revision process more fun for yourself and above all, a lot more effective. You are not leaving any detail unlearned and hence will not be able to caught by surprise in the exam.

A look into my Anki flashcard deck for the second year of veterinary medicine. I used this a lot to study during exam revision to quiz myself and test the extent of my knowledge. Make as many or as few flashcards as you think are necessary and experiment with how you make them.

Using flashcards to learn

You have now worked very hard during the year to prepare for this moment, exam revision time. If you have found time throughout the year to practice your flashcard already, you are already halfway to getting top marks. If not, it is okay, your time is now dedicated to doing so. It is now time to use your flashcards to memorise your subjects. My advice is to quickly reread the lesson before doing the flashcards. Write down, in a phrase or two, each main concept or important detail of the lesson but you should NOT rewrite your notes. Now that you have refreshed your memory, it is time to go start going through your flashcard. Pick up a flashcard and do it. Try to give the most detailed answer possible before checking the answer. Be truthful to yourself, it may be frustrating to pick up the same flashcard over and over again if you struggle to remember the answer but try not to sweep that flashcard under the carpet. The more you see a flashcard, the higher your chance of memorising its content. There is no wrong way of memorising content either; make strange rhymes or unique connections between words. These help me immensely in remembering all the content I need to learn. In my opinion, doing your flashcard with a peer can really help make this process more fun. You can bounce off ideas from each other and make this process more convivial.

An example of one of my flashcards. This one is related to the nerves found in the brain. One of the annotations (the vestibulocochlear nerve) is hidden in the diagram and it is up to me to remember what is hidden. It tests my knowledge by seeing if I can remember its name and placement in the brain. A format of flashcards that I highly recommend.

Testing your knowledge with practice question

Now that you have learned and memorised the content you wanted, it is time to put it into practice. The higher-scoring student all have one thing in common, they do a lot of practice tests. This is the best part of revising, you get to see your hard work pay off while you blitz through the questions easily. I recommend asking your teachers for practice tests directly. Practice exams help you consolidate the content you have just revised, help you get prepared for the exam environment (especially if you do the practice exams under time constraints), and also shows you if you have forgotten to revise something. I always recommend checking your answers against the mark scheme after you have completed a practice exam to spot ‘if’ and ‘where’ you need to do a bit more revision.

Now that you have prepared well for your exams, nothing can stop you from acing them. Reap the rewards of your hard labour! There is no greater regret than reading an exam paper and realising that you could have prepared more for it; so don’t subject yourself to that. If you work hard and are consistent, you will be met with the best grades. Remember, slow and steady wins the race, don’t feel bad for spending more time on certain subjects compared to your peers, at the end of the day, you are only competing against yourself. To motivate yourself, think about why you are working so hard; what is it that you are working for? If, like me, that answer wasn’t so clear, work as hard as you can to prevent putting roadblocks in your career path once it is chosen. It is also important to have a good balance between studying and having time for yourself, do not burn yourself out. Give yourself time to spend some time with your friends during your study time or go do some exercise. This is important to stay focused when you study and give yourself more motivation.

I hope that some of my advice will be useful in your path toward acing your exam. Try to adapt this training regime to suit your tastes and experiment! It is important to believe in yourself because if you work hard towards something, there is no reason for it not to work!

Written by: Guillaume Remezy

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