Crash Course for Exam Survival

By Alex Creece

An exam is like a creepy-looking bug: it’s a lot more afraid of you than you are of it.

Okay, maybe not exactly. Exams aren’t sentient, after all. But the point stands that they are much more of a psychological hurdle than anything else. For the most part, their power to strike fear in our hearts is imposed by our pesky, anxious minds – in reality, professors and tutors legitimately want students to pass their exams, and will try to design exam papers which allow students to prove that they’ve engaged with their learning outcomes to a sufficient extent. It is much more an opportunity to demonstrate what you’ve learned, rather than an attempt by your professor to trip you up.

A room of students undertaking an exam
Nonetheless, exams are scary.

And after a long semester of stress-eating and furious essay-typing, it’s easy to feel defeated before exams even begin.

Come exam time in the semester, I find that each unit of study feels like a spouse of twenty years that I’ve grown weary of, but with whom I am desperately trying to keep the remaining love alive. We’ve been through ups and downs (ie. finishing all of my Week 1 readings and making tidy, concise notes, but then flailing through the next eleven weeks) and now I’m ready to emotionally check out of the relationship. But unfortunately, I’m wed to it until the last hurdle – the final exam. Only then can I unshackle myself from my unit reader and emerge into the world as free human (for about a month, until the next semester starts).

The analogy of this aged, decaying relationship also shapes how I try to approach my exam study – like I’m trying to spice up a marriage that’s in danger of monotony. Bear with me; I know that spicing up study probably sounds like an oxymoron. But once the semester ends and you’ve suddenly got a long-awaited surplus of free time, yet you’re expected to use it for exam revision (thanks, SWOTVAC), sitting in the same place and reading the same notes is not only impossibly boring but also becomes ineffective.

For exam revision, I’ve found that I need to keep it as stimulating and varied (and spiced up!) as possible.

Effective studying strategies can be highly diverse in what works for each person. It’s useful to follow the cookie-cutter exam advice that’s always floating about—like revisiting the unit guide, paying close attention to any suggested revision materials or sample questions from your tutor, and even promoting good sleep hygiene—but this should be complemented by a more individualised approach too. This is also why I feel it’s valuable to try a variety of techniques and develop an understanding of what is most helpful for you.

Personally, motivation and focus are my biggest challenges in trying to study, so my strategies are based around how to best navigate these particular areas. It’s worth exploring your own strengths and weaknesses with studying, so you can know what attributes you can use in your favour, and how to avoid your most common pitfalls.

To keep my exam revision spicy, I try to incentivise as much as possible. Essentially, any positive-reinforcement techniques that help with teaching my dog a new trick, I use for myself too (but without the Scooby Snacks). This generally means setting small, specific goals, and giving regular rewards when I complete each goal. I try to make sure the rewards are proportional to the amount of time or effort taken in completing the goal. That way, I avoid giving myself a three-day break from study just for choosing an essay topic, or eating eleven family-sized chocolate bars as congratulations for looking at a blank Word document once. I also try to change up the rewards so that I’m not just eating my way into a pit of despair. With this technique, keep in mind that it’s about positive reinforcement – on some days, if you’re not as productive as you hoped in completing goals, be careful not to get so frustrated that you become unreasonable with yourself, saying things like, “if I write 500 words I will finally let myself go to bed as a reward” or “I’ll let myself eat dinner once I finish my revision notes”. At that point, you’re actually using it as a punishment system rather than an incentive by holding necessary things ransom to coerce yourself into studying harder. Remember, regular breaks from study are important, regardless of perceived productivity. You wouldn’t tell your dog that they’re not allowed to sleep until they can perfectly run an obstacle course, and dogs are amazing creatures, so don’t hold yourself to that sort of standard either.

Sign requesting ‘Silence Please. Exams in Progress’
Brains are temperamental, and they don’t always behave how we want or expect.

Try not to punish yourself for not being a poster-child of perfect study habits, because neither are your teachers, friends or parents.

I’ve noticed that after a few days into SWOTVAC, sitting at the same desk and trying to psych myself into studying becomes increasingly difficult, and I become increasingly vulnerable to any and all distractions. It’s important to have days off from studying where you get out of the house, stay away from your desk, and break out of that dreadful monotonous feeling. However, sometimes—like if you’ve also got assignments due, there is an imminent deadline that you need to meet, or you’ve already wasted a number of days struggling to focus—we don’t always have the luxury of having a day to spare.

In these cases, I do my best to break the monotony anyway by packing up my laptop and taking it to a library, a quiet café, or another calm place that feels conducive to productivity. The longer I’m left at home trying to take responsibility for my exam revision, the laxer I become – I start taking longer breaks than I should, I stay in bed with my laptop open to some exam notes but my television in the background continuously playing episodes of Parks and Rec, and I am constantly battling the urge to deconstruct and reconstruct all of my Lego sets. When I get out of the house and take my work with me, it acts as a reset function on my brain. By adding the slight social margins of sitting in a quiet café, I get back a sense of responsibility and social acceptability – it’s not that the other patrons or the staff care if I get work done, but I know that’s my purpose in being there, and I no longer have the freedom to put my feet up on everything, open up a video game, or bury my face in a bowl of popcorn like a grazing horse.

If you are similarly sensitive to your environment, then this is a directly controllable way to reset your mental patterns and trick your brain into refocusing.

Lastly, perhaps the most obvious way to keep your study stimulating is with the revision methods that you use.

I won’t cover that too much, since this information is pretty well-circulated, but nonetheless – reading alone is not the most effective means of consolidating knowledge for most people, and it’s much more helpful if you create summaries in your own words of each weekly topic and its main concepts. Experiment with different revision methods, like making cue cards, studying in groups, writing your own questions and answers, and try to get a feel of what best helps you retain knowledge. It’ll hopefully be more fun and engaging than just staring at a textbook, and you are so much more receptive to learning and remembering when you’re not bored.

But most importantly – while exams serve a purpose, nothing is worth the power to wreak complete and utter havoc on your wellbeing. Everyone has to take exams, and no one likes them, ever. They’re an uncomfortable but necessary procedure, like a job interview or a blood test. If you do, however, feel that you are experiencing severe, disproportionate stress from the prospect of exams, let someone know; let someone help you. Exams shouldn’t feel like an apocalypse.

Alex Creece is a current student in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Ambassador in the Arts PAL Program and a talented writer