How to Setup a Killer Pre-Exam Warm Up Ritual

In my recent book, Learn More, Study Less, I make the claim that you can learn better with less studying by learning holistically. Holistic learning, for those who haven’t read my introduction to the topic, is about linking ideas together instead of relying on rote memorization.

The assumption with holistic learning has been that you are linking ideas throughout the course, so the marathon all-night study sessions typical to most students, aren’t necessary. However, even if you fully understand the material, I’ve found it useful to develop a warm-up ritual before going into tests.

Warm-up rituals do three things:

  1. They prime you with the basics of the course material. This puts you in “math” mode before a math exam and “history” mode before a history test.
  2. They reveal the hidden pits in your knowledge. A warm-up test can help you pinpoint anything you might have missed throughout the course.
  3. They give you a strategy for handling the exam. A multiple-choice based exam is completely different than writing an essay. Knowing the format will help you organize what you already know it a way best suited for the testing situation.

What’s more important, however, is what a warm-up ritual won’t do. It’s important to distinguish between a warm-up ritual that takes a few hours and cramming. So here’s what you shouldn’t expect:

  1. To learn large chunks of the material.
  2. To build skills that needed practice.
  3. To memorize core material.

Keys to Developing a Killer Warm-Up Ritual

The best way to start a warm-up ritual is if you have access to past exams, do those. Past exams give you the best insight into the actual challenges you’ll be facing. The second-best alternative is to try textbook questions assigned by your instructor. These are often similar to the types of questions you’ll tackle in an exam.

Beyond the basics of going over an old exam or questions, there are a few more keys you can use for making a killer warm-up ritual:

  1. Do a Concept Review. Grab a blank piece of paper and start mapping out all the core concepts of the course. The easier it is for you to draw out connections between different parts of the course, the better you’ve learned the material. This approach won’t catch errors, but it is a good exercise for priming yourself before a test.
  2. Relink Tricky Ideas. Some ideas just don’t seem to stick. These are the ideas you might be likely to misremember on a test, causing you problems. My suggestion is to find multiple ways to link these tricky ideas, which will make them more likely to stick. When I did a warm-up ritual for a recent statistics course, I found several images and metaphors to keep myself from mixing up Type I and Type II errors.
  3. Write Out Your Exam Heuristics. A heuristic is a simple algorithm or rule to get a solution. Exam heuristics are the little rules you use when writing a test to avoid common mistakes. If you know, based on past exams or the textbook questions, the common errors you make, you can write out simple rules to avoid these in the future. The 80/20 Rule applies here, so 20% of your heuristics will prevent 80% of your mistakes on an exam.

The only danger is if you turn a warm-up ritual into a crash-course on the subject. As long as you aren’t trying to learn large sections the night before, a warm-up ritual can make you reasonably comfortable going into an exam.

  • David

    By “mapping” out the main ideas of the course, do you mean making a mind map or a concept map of the whole course? This seems to go along with your idea of notes compression. It seems to me that mapping out your connections is essentially the same as taking a snapshot of your holistic learning at the moment (provided it all comes to mind when you’re writing your thoughts down). On paper that could be very very messy? Any ideas?

    Also, while I have your attention, I been pondering the question of how to map out your holistic learning connections while studying. Personally, seeing my thoughts on paper provides feedback as to how well I know the subject and tells me where my gaps are. Do you have any efficient ways for doing this?

  • Scott Young


    You can’t take a full snapshot of your entire construct. The idea with doing a concept map of major ideas is to give you a vague idea whether you have all of the ideas linked together.

    Writing out connections on paper can be helpful. I tend to do a lot of that during my classes with flow-based notetaking. But, it does take more time than simply making a mental picture. I suppose it ultimately comes down to whether you feel the connection is really important and worth recording.


  • Lenny

    Hey man, my problem has always been prying myself to get down and start studying, just to start doing it. When I’ve begun and have engaged in the act of doing it, everything is cool, they only hard part is making myself to start building interest as to why i want to do it.

    What do you do to get over this feeling of laziness or slump? How do you motivate yourself to do all this?, and does it consistently work in helping you get school work or any other type of work done on a daily basis?


  • Scott Young


    If you’re looking for some procrastination nuking tips, I suggest doing a search of this website. There are probably at least a dozen articles about the topic, and another dozen on finding motivation.

    I don’t think there is an instant cure, but there are tricks that can help.


  • Study Skills Tips

    I certainly agree with you, especially on how you stress the difference between holistic learning and rote memorization. I find it a little sad that educators are more aware of this concept on holistic learning. Educators are already made aware of this principle: that every learning activity must help develop a student’s cognitive, psychomotor, affective and social domains. Why some–and I stress on the word some since there are still other people like you who pay serious attention to eal learning–educators fail to reach that simple goal I cannot understand.

    I also like how you incorporated the warm-up concept in learning–this really comes as a revelation for me. Warm up exercises are helpful for performers and athletes before they plunge to their BIG events, so I see why it can’t be used in taking exams as well. It also helps students avoid the scary “mental block” they mostly encounter when they begin cramming.

    Thank you for further explaining your concepts into an understandable, step-by-step way. I myself feel that studying with an A+ in mind isn’t so hard by reading this entry. If I also learn how to maintain focus and keep motivated all throughout my study session, acing a test will be more than a breeze.

    Study Skills Tips