Timing is crucial. Nowhere is this more true than in the pursuit of low-stress test preparation. The question is common. You have a serious exam looming on your calendar: When should you start studying?
Here’s my short answer: one week in advance.
This scares students, and for good reason. When I say “study,” most undergrads conjure images of long sessions in the library. The thought of starting this brutality a full week in advance sounds like something only a pre-med would do. So allow me to clarify.
I don’t want you to really “study” at all. I never want you to spend more than 2 – 3 hours doing test perpetration on any single day leading up to the exam. I want you to transform studying from a tough task that happens the day before to harmless short blocks of work spread throughout your daily schedule. Let’s get specific:
Deconstructing Your Study Schedule
Assuming you subscribe to the Straight-A Method, here are the typical steps you need to perform to prepare for a medium to large-sized exam in a standard non-technical course:
- Construct quiz-and-recall study guides from your lecture notes and reading notes.
- Identify gaps in your knowledge. (e.g., gaps in your notes where you didn’t understand the idea being presented, missed lectures, missed reading assignments).
- Locate the necessary information to fill in these gaps. Update your study guides accordingly.
- Master the study guides using quiz-and-recall.
It’s Friday. Your exam is next Friday. When do you accomplish this work? The habit used by the least stressed straight-A students is to divide the study process into little chunks and drizzle these over the week preceding the exam. To guide this process, keep the following tips in mind:
5 Tips for Scheduling Your Studying
- Load the bigger chunks of work toward the front of the schedule.
- On the very first day of studying, however, use an ice-breaker: a task that takes only 30 minutes and is mindless, but, nevertheless, gets the ball rolling on the process.
- Never prepare (organize notes, track down missed assignments) on the same day that you study.
- Schedule any steps that involve filling in gaps in your knowledge early on in the process. This always takes more time than you expect.
- Do very little work on the day of the exam. Use it only to make confidence-building reviews of the toughest material from your study guides.
For our sample scenario, this approach might lead to the following schedule:
- Saturday: Create a folder on your computer for the exam. Copy in all of the files containing lecture or reading notes notes that are fair game for the exam. (half an hour)
- Sunday: Transform notes into study guides. If you took notes in the question/evidence/conclusion format, this should really only involve copying questions from your notes documents to your study guide document. Keep a running list of gaps in your knowledge that need to be filled. Print out your study guides. (2-3 hours)
- Monday: Gap day. Bother friends for missed notes or to help explain ideas you didn’t follow. Strategically skim missed readings. Assuming you actually attend class and do readings this shouldn’t take all day. (2 – 3 hours).
- Tuesday: Quiz-and-Recall. (2 hours)
- Wednesday: Quiz-and-Recall. (2 hours)
- Thursday: Final Quiz-and-Recall (1 – 2 hours)
- Friday (Morning): Do quiz-and-recall on a handful of the hardest ideas to boost confidence. (half hour).
If you do the work described above you will be prepared to kick your exam in the balls and take home a top-in-the-class grade. Think, however, about what would happen if you waited until the day before. There is no way you could accomplish everything listed above. Gaps would remain unfilled. Material uncovered. Confidence un-boosted. By drizzling the work over many days you are able to fit in more preparation (not because you spend more hours, but because the hours are separated, making them more focused and thus more productive). More importantly, you are able to avoid any painful cram sessions.
This is a whole different approach to academic preparation. By eliminating the dreaded long study session, you eliminate a lot of the stress and discomfort of the college experience.