Exams are unusual things. There are actually very few circumstances in your adult life where you will be required to memorise a large amount of information and then answer questions without being allowed access to it. Having said that, exams are an efficient way of ensuring the work you produce is validly your own. Exams are also here to stay for the foreseeable future, so you need to be able to effectively handle them, by effectively preparing for them.
Our middle school exam block is only one and a half weeks away, so you need to be working towards success now. Being well prepared for examinations is the best way to increase confidence and reduce anxiety, however, research also shows value in giving students time to practise the skills you have learned. When practice is spaced out over time, Researcher John Hattie found that students improved their results by 26% (Killian 2015). That can be the difference between a C and an A.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, many students try to learn the facts, concepts, skills or procedures needed for an examination the night before. Many argue that cramming keeps the information fresh and that studying the night before is actually more effective. Whilst this may appear to be the case in the short term, over the longer term it will not facilitate the desired levels of success because a single study session, no matter how long it goes for, does not support long term learning.
Importantly for our girls in middle school, crammed examination preparation will not prepare you for the types of assessment contained within the senior system you will soon enter. In the senior school QCE system, external examinations in some subject areas will assess content covered over a full year of learning. Cramming the night before, or even a couple of days before, will not allow you to retain the amount of understandings or practise the variety of skills developed over the learning period.
Research shows that spaced practice can assist in improving students’ memory for essential facts and concepts and prior knowledge facilitates subsequent learning and comprehension. Long term retention of foundational knowledge and quick access to information from memory are often prerequisites for higher order learning and reasoning. For example, remembering times tables is crucial to mathematical skill learning, and being able to retrieve an answer from memory enables efficient problem solving and more complex learning. Retention of information also allows you to transfer and utilise what you have learned (Kang 2016).
Spacing out study and practice is a good habit to build for academic success. However, you should also remember to seek feedback from your teachers and double check your understandings. Timely feedback on practice remediates misunderstandings and prevents you from learning and repeating mistakes. Write down the exams you have and the days on which they are scheduled. Organise your study accordingly. You may want or need to give some exams more study time than others so determine what you need for each subject. Get rid of all distractions when studying and choose a spot where you are able to focus as much as possible. Start your study by writing down everything you know about a topic. You can highlight where the gaps lie and use your class notes or research to fill them. This also provides an opportunity to liaise with teachers and correct misconceptions or clarify understandings. Use visual aids or diagrams to represent information. Educational expert Robert Marzano found that deeper levels of understanding can be attained by using graphic organisers to show how different ideas are related to each other. If available, make use of revision sheets, past papers and practice questions. These help to commit the content to memory but, importantly, they also allow you to practise the skills that will be assessed.
Maintain healthy habits including taking lots of breaks, exercising, drinking plenty of water, getting lots of sleep and eating well. These things are vital for brain function and assessment success.
Exam periods can be stressful but spacing out study and practice, seeking feedback and clarification from teachers and implementing effective study tips can all help to reduce anxiety and build success.
Dr John Fry
Deputy Principal - Studies
Kang, Sean H. K. (2016) “Spaced Repetition Promotes Efficient and Effective Learning: Policy Implications for Instruction”, Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Vol. 3(1) 12–19
Killian, Shaun (2015) “8 Strategies Robert Marzano & John Hattie Agree On” in The Australian Society for evidence based teaching.