Five Scientific Steps to Ace Your Next Exam

Below, I’d like to outline a simple strategy you can use to ace any exam you might have coming up.

Although the specific strategy is my own, the approach is based on cognitive science. In particular, I’m going to look at five key ideas from cognitive science that are easy to miss, but extremely important if you want to study effectively.

The Strategy to Ace Exams

1. When to Study and How Much

The first question to answer is when you should study and how much.

The obvious answer to this question is that you’ll do better the more you study. If you spend hundreds of hours preparing, you’ll do a lot better than if you spend ten, and you’ll do even better than if you do nothing. This is pretty clear.

What’s less clear is exactly how you should allocate your limited studying time.

This brings us to our first cognitive science principle: spacing.

The robust literature on the spacing effect clearly shows that studying time is more efficient if it is spread out over multiple sessions than if it is compressed in one session. More exposures to information, separated in time, will result in better retention than if you cram them together in one burst.

Therefore, your studying schedule should take whatever time you have available and try to be as evenly spread as possible throughout your semester. It’s natural to study a little bit more right before the exam, but you should do this much less than is typical.

The next question is how much to study each piece of information. Jakub Jilek and I recommend that you aim for covering each piece of information (via questions or problems) at least five times, evenly spaced from the time you first encounter them until your eventual testing date. This approach is near-optimal for retaining information with the least amount of effort.

Advice: Keep your study schedule evenly spaced out, with only a slight bump right before the test (if at all). Try to practice each piece of info five times from when you first learn it, until your exam.

2. What to Study and How to Do It

Once you’ve figured out your schedule, it’s now time to look at what you’re actually doing when you study.

This is a place where there’s a vast gulf between what most students think is effective and what actually works best.

Consider one experiment by psychologists Jeffrey Karpicke and Janelle Blunt.[1] In it, they had students in four groups: single review, repeatedly reviewing the information, free recall of the information (meaning you try to remember as much as you can without looking), and creating a concept map (also called a mind map).

Which do you think best?

Before I answer that, let me tell you what the subjects themselves thought. Those who did a concept mapping and repeated review thought they’d do best, with those doing free recall expecting the worst.

What really happened? The exact opposite. Free recall did much better than the other groups, even though the students themselves expected to score the lowest grades.

This result is just one of many from a broad literature concerning the testing effect. This effect says that testing oneself, so you must retrieve the important information from memory, works better than re-reading notes or creating diagrams while referencing your textbook.

Advice: After your first time learning the material, the majority of subsequent studying should be in the form of retrieval practice—trying to reproduce the information, solve a problem or explain an idea—without looking at the source.

3. What Kinds of Practice to Do

There’s a strict hierarchy of what kinds of study materials will be most useful to you in preparing for your eventual exam:

  1. The most valuable are mock tests and exams which are intended to be identical in style and form to the test you’re actually going to take.
  2. Next are problems, given in homework assignments, textbook questions or quizzes, that are given for your class specifically.
  3. Finally, self-generated questions or writing prompts based on the material.

Problem sets from other classes often differ a lot in the scope and expectations, so I don’t recommend using them if your goal is to study for a particular exam.

The reason for this hierarchy of practice is known as transfer-appropriate processing. This basically means that the more your practice resembles the exam, the more your practice efforts will transfer into actual results.

If you don’t have access to high-quality problem sets (as is often the case in non-technical classes), a good solution is to do a writing prompt. Pick a concept, theme or big idea and then try to explain it succinctly and accurately without opening the book. Then re-read it to see if you got it right.

Advice: Always prioritize higher-quality problem sets. Mock exams are best, followed by in-class problems and then writing prompts from big ideas or concepts discussed.

4. Make Sure You Really Understand

Most academic classes are conceptual. This means that passing or failing inevitably rests on whether you understood some important ideas. Memorization matters, but it’s more often as a means to understanding rather than an end in itself.

This means that deeply understanding the core concepts behind any exam you study for should be a top priority.

Practice problems already help with this, since to solve a problem you usually need to understand it.

However, shallow understandings masquerading as deep ones is very common. Psychologists even have a name for this: the illusion of explanatory depth.[2] The reason is that while it’s easy to self-check factual knowledge (you either know it or you don’t), understanding proceeds in degrees, so it’s easy to convince yourself you know something deeply you don’t.

As a result, I recommend the Feynman Technique as a tool for deepening your understanding of core concepts covered in the class. You’ll know something best when you can teach it.

Advice: Identify the core concepts and make sure you can explain them without looking at the material. If you really don’t get something, go back and forth between the explanation in the textbook and your own understanding until you do.

5. Beat Anxiety by Simulating the Exam First

Big exams come with big anxiety.

Anxiety is one-two punch for your studying ability. It’s both harder to concentrate and the stress makes it harder to remember things, even if you could.

The solution is to make at least some of your studying sessions a full-blown simulation of the exam. If you have a few mock exams, I would save these for doing a full simulation of the test—same seating posture, materials and, most importantly, the same time constraints.

There’s three benefits to doing full simulations:

  • You increase your temporary anxiety while studying, which makes it easier to recall the information due to state-dependent memory effects.
  • By exposing yourself to the exam situation you’ll be less anxious when the eventual test comes.
  • You’ll actually know what your performance is likely to be on the test!

Advice: Simulate your exam by doing mock exams (or if you lack those, with other problems) under the same time constraints and conditions of the actual exam.

Learning Better—Beyond Just Exams

I’m going to be reopening a new session of my popular course Rapid Learner. This course goes beyond just learning to pass exams, but how to master skills and knowledge for your whole life.

Stay tuned, and I’ll be providing more lessons drawn from Rapid Learner. After those lessons are done, you’ll get a chance to join in for the full course and get the benefits of learning better your whole life.

[1] – Karpicke, Jeffrey D., and Janell R. Blunt. “Retrieval practice produces more learning than elaborative studying with concept mapping.” Science 331, no. 6018 (2011): 772-775.
[2] – Lawson, Rebecca. “The science of cycology: Failures to understand how everyday objects work.” Memory & cognition 34, no. 8 (2006): 1667-1675.

How to Know When to Give Up

There are plenty of great stories of persistence.

J.K. Rowling living on welfare, while writing Harry Potter.

Thomas Edison and his team, attempting thousands of different materials, before eventually settling on tungsten filaments for the lightbulbs that created an industrial empire.

Albert Einstein, failing to find work in physics, dreaming up his revolutionary ideas for physics in the Swiss patent office.

What we rarely hear are the stories whose moral is that the person should have just given up.

But these stories also exist. They’re just not as celebrated, although, perhaps they should be.

Famous Figures Who Should Have Given Up

Consider Isaac Newton. Famous for discovering the law of gravity that unites apples falling and the planets orbits. Yet, he spent years trying to decipher strange numerological codes hidden in the Bible that he thought could give him the recipe for turning lead into gold.

Or what about Elizabeth Holmes and her bogus blood-testing company, Theranos? She had ambition and persistence in abundance. But had she paused to reconsider earlier, she might have readjusted that drive into a product that wasn’t a sham, defrauding investors of billions.

Even Alexander the Great died at an early age because he pushed his empire too wide and thin, rather than stopping while he was ahead.

The Problem with Persistence

Every decision you make to keep going faces a trade-off. On the one hand, by quitting too early and too often, you never get past the hard parts and into the areas where your effort may pay off.

The easy spaces in life, with guaranteed wins for little effort, are crowded. It’s only once you venture past this, where you need persistence, vision and drive, do you start seeing rewards. When things are easy, everyone is doing them, so you want to go where things are hard enough to make it worth your time.

On the other hand, failing to quit is a failure to learn. Sometimes your ideas and vision don’t match reality. What you’re trying to do isn’t going to work, staying stubbornly in the same direction can cost you much more than just pride.

How to Decide Whether or Not to Give Up

I’ve been in a position multiple times in my life where things seem to not be working out, and I have to consider whether I should keep going or give up.

One of the biggest decisions for me was whether to keep writing almost a decade ago. I had been trying to work my way into a sustainable income for myself for several years working part time, and it hadn’t worked out yet. After a particularly bad failure with a project I had worked on, I considered giving up altogether, trying out something new.

In the end, however, I decided to keep going. The twist was that this was only a few months before I finally found the business model that would allow me to earn a full-time income, and I have ever since.

In other cases however, persistence didn’t win out. I started a book club nearly two years ago, but after fourteen months, I wasn’t happy with how the format was working out, so I gave up so I could have time to work on other projects instead.

Between these, there’s been a ton of moments where I’ve had to make judgement calls about whether or not to keep going, and the choice is rarely clear cut. Below, I’d like to outline the decision process I use for making the tough call to keep going or quit:

1. Do You Have an Obviously Better Opportunity?

Decisions aren’t made in isolation. You’re always comparing doing something to doing something else. Even “do nothing” is something, since you’ll fill your time with watching television or hanging out with friends.

A good question, therefore, when you’re weighing whether or not to continue is if you have a clear idea of what you’d do instead. Sometimes a project is hitting a rough patch, but it’s still the best idea you have of how you’ll reach your goals—you just need to push through.

This was my reasoning when I decided to keep writing. I couldn’t see anything else that was a better opportunity at the time, even though I was getting discouraged.

2. What Did You Commit To?

One mental tool I use a lot to stick to hard things is to predefine my commitment before starting. That way, I don’t depend on momentary frustrations to make big decisions to quit or continue, but a different rule of thumb.

This was my reasoning behind giving up the book club. I had started it with a specific commitment to go for one year. After that yearlong effort, I felt it wasn’t what I wanted. The amount of work required to make each one was relatively high (compared to blog articles), the amounts of views for each episode were lower than I’d like, and it was more like a book review than a book club, as most months didn’t have many people other than me reading along with the book.

In this case, however, I was fine with giving it up because I had tried it out for the period I was committed to. If I had been feeling this way at the six month mark, I probably would have pushed forward because six months didn’t feel like enough time.

3. Would Your Future Self Feel Regret or Relief?

This is a hard question, since it depends on imagining your future emotions in a way that isn’t always possible. However, I do like this approach to evaluating big decisions because it makes use of your intuition (as opposed to just your rational mind, which may be inadequate) as well as force you to see above momentary hiccups and focus on the big picture.

If I feel like future-me would regret the decision, I usually commit to a bit more. Pick a spot out, either in time (say 6 months more work) or a certain milestone (after graduation) and push to that spot and reevaluate.

In contrast, if I imagine future-me would feel like it’s a relief, that with more emotional distance I’d recognize that I was in a bad relationship, project, obsession or mindset, that’s probably a good reason to believe that giving up is good. Sometimes we get overly attached to our current plans and fear giving them up for the unknown. But if you expect future-you to feel relief about it, then you’re probably wise to give it up now.

Do You Need to Give Up? Or Just Take a Break?

Fatigue, anxiety and frustration can all put you in emotional states that make it hard to keep going. However, sometimes the problem is just that—a momentary emotion.

If whatever you’re considering giving up is important, and you’ve invested a lot of time already, I strongly suggest starting with a brief break. A semester off school. A leave of absence at work. A vacation to clear your head.

Once you get back to a more neutral mindset, you can reexamine your feelings and see if they want you to get back up and continue the old path, or if the distance reinforces your decision to give it all up.

Whatever you do, recognize that there’s no perfect solution to these problems in life. You’ll always make decisions under uncertainty. The choice is yours to make.

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