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.