Study Strategy

One question a math tutor – or any tutor – might be asked: “How do I prepare for an exam?”   We’ll examine a basic strategy.

Exam preparation is an important process.  Few people like doing it, so a lot less of it gets done than is really needed.  Naturally, people wonder if there’s a “right” way to do it.  Well, there is!

The secret to exam preparation – and the harder the material, the more advantage it affords – is to start early.  For instance, starting the day the course starts is not absurd.  The other point is that you should do it in small daily portions – maybe a half hour a day or less in most cases.  Usually, if you start long before the exam, you can afford to study only 15 – 30 minutes a day for it.

How should you structure these daily study rituals?

The answer is, be casual.  You can afford to be, since you’re starting so early.  Look over your notes.  Spend a few extra readings on the more difficult parts.  Perhaps you want to highlight some points you still don’t understand, so you can bring them up quickly at the next lecture.  (Instructors usually like being asked about earlier lectures:  it shows you’re paying attention.)  You might not bring all the questions up at once; rather, maybe ask one question today, then one next time.

You might check out the course schedule to discover the future content and leaf through the textbook to get a little familiar with it before it’s taught.  Maybe you only spend five minutes doing this each time, but the pre-emptive strikes on course content usually pay off big.  People learn much easier when they’ve already heard of something than when it’s totally new.

Enjoy these half-hour sessions.  Have a cup of tea while you leaf through your notes.  You don’t have to go through your notes in order; using a random “here, then there” selection often works just as well.  Don’t feel you need to cover all your notes each time; spend an honest 30 min, then stop.

If you’re studying for math, you’ll have to attempt questions from the sections you’re looking back on.  Spread it out:  do a couple from this section, then a couple from another one.  Do a few from long ago, then a couple of recent ones.  After an honest half an hour, stop.  You can afford to – as long as you start this habit long before exam time.  Of course, you can adjust your durations to your personal taste; this is only a rough guide.

I don’t recommend listening to music or watching TV while studying.  Real studying can be a lonely business – no doubt about it.  However, if you start early, and do it daily, it should be a lot easier.

I should offer some reasoning for why this method works (or, at least, why it’s better than cramming).  Think of any biological process – muscle development, for example.  Working out for eight hours today won’t help you develop stronger muscles; we all know that.  However, working out for tweny minutes a day, three days a week, for eight weeks (which totals eight hours), will definitely produce substantial results in most cases.

Biology takes time; you can’t rush it.  However, when you give it time, you often get better results than you would have imagined.  You know that your lawn won’t grow measurably today.  However, you know that if you let it grow for two weeks, you might barely be able to pass the mower through it.

Your daily attention to your studies – even if it is only a few minutes (as long as real effort is achieved during that time) reminds your brain that it needs to continue learning that material.  Your brain – similar to your body – only believes something is worth adapting to if it keeps coming up over and over again.  You have to convince it that what you’re studying is important and here to stay.  That’s what the daily study sessions do – even if they’re only 15 minutes to half an hour.

For those who are reading this a couple of days before the big exam:  well, I guess you’ll have to cram for now.  But you’ll know for next time.

Good luck with your midterms.

Jack of Oracle Tutoring by Jack and Diane, Campbell River, BC.

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