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Lesson 11: A Few Study Techniques for Exams

Gary North, Ph.D.
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Did you lecture to the wall about budgeting your time in an essay exam?.

Lesson 11


Studying for exams begins the day you walk into class the first day. Everything that you do in relation to that class is studying for exams, other than sleeping in class.

But you already knew this.

What you are probably looking for are some handy hints on how to cram for an exam when you procrastinated. After all, isn't this a real-world course?

It is, indeed. So, let an expert crammer cram some strategies into your head.

I have already told you about the biggie: lecture to the wall. If you're going to wait till the last day -- the night before The Big One -- do as much wall-lecturing as you can.

You may not believe me yet. But when it's panic time, you had better give it a try.

In cramming, spend more time on your lecture notes than you do on reviewing your textbook, unless you are an A-1 loser in note-taking. If you are, can you locate someone else who is a good note-taker who will help you?

If you really did locate a battered-up textbook, and if you have been reading it with a pen or yellow highlighter in hand, then review your underlining, highlighting, and notes in the margins.

Skim over everything that is in bold type or color.

If there are questions at the end of the chapter, get a piece of paper and jot down one-sentence answers.

If your mind goes blank in panic when you read these chapter-ending questions, then don't read them. Panic is what you are trying to avoid.

But you should still read those questions, beginning the evening after the exam is over. You must learn to deal with the kinds of questions that are in the back of every chapter. Those are the kinds of questions that you will be asked from now until you finally stop going to school -- and after that, never again.

The questions at the end of the chapter are like running wind sprints if you're an athlete. They are supposed to limber up your mind. They are to get you to think in a certain way. What way? To answer questions on tests.

What are the test questions for? To enable a teacher to give you a grade.

What are the grades for? To enable a college entrance committee to determine whether you will get in.

What will you do if you get accepted? Take more tests.

And so on, until you finally decide, "I've had enough schooling. I'd rather make some money."


True/False exams test very simple objective facts. Multiple-choice exams test somewhat more complex objective facts. T/F-MC questions will probably constitute 100% of a weekly quiz, 70% of a mid-term, and half of a final exam.

So, when you study, by which I mean cram, you should stuff all those dates, places, names, and assorted bits and pieces of bold-faced, colored sentences into your head. You won't recall most of it three days later, but you won't have to recall anything until the final exam.

I am not talking about math or chemistry. I'm talking about history, government, and English. Math and chemistry are cumulative. You must know the parts in order to understand the whole. Teachers may tell you that the same thing applies in your other classes, but you know better by now. Teachers ought to know that you know better. When it comes time to procrastinate, the risk goes up when you skip math or chemistry. If you haven't figured this out about math by the fifth grade, you're either a math genius or you have a serious learning disability problem.

Foreign language and biology are in between history and math, procrastination-wise.

If you get most of the objective facts correct, you won't get a D or an F. You don't have to panic. Cram. A lot of students won't cram. They will get the D's and F's.

If you freeze up with essay questions, spend less time in studying for them. Studying won't help. Freezing up has very little to do with what you know about the course. It has more to do with your priorities in life: fear of failure, fear of being exposed as an illiterate, fear of sounding like a doofus on paper. Cramming your head with facts won't help you with the essay questions. Thinking about what you're reading day by day might help calm your fears, but as we agreed earlier, this lesson is about cramming.

Can you make cramming for essay questions into a mental game? Instead of worrying, "How is he going to trip me up?" why not think, "I'm going to beat him at his own game. I'm going to figure out tonight what he's going to ask."

Try to psyche out your mental version of the exam- giver. Try to get inside his or her head. Play Sherlock Holmes.

If you make cramming for essay questions into a mental game, you may not panic the night before the exam. If you don't panic the night before the exam, you may not panic during the exam.


The mind is weird. Sometimes it chugs along while a person sleeps.

You may recall Arthur Robinson, whose son learned the lecture to the wall technique. Dr. Robinson's wife, who died young, was a computer programmer. She was an old-time computer programmer: mainframes. She programmed in machine language: 1's and 0's only. Not many programmers can do this any more.

Dr. Robinson says that when she would work on a coding problem because her program did not work properly, she would think about it just before going to sleep. The next morning, she would wake up and announce, "I got the one and the zero reversed five digits into line 76." And so she had.

The author of The Overnight Student says that when you study for an exam the next day, go to sleep on it. Don't do anything else between the time when you put the textbook on your desk, walk across the bedroom, turn out the bed stand light, and put your head on the pillow. Think about what you have been reading as you drift off to sleep.

It can't hurt.


Review the rote stuff on 3x5 cards. Play a mental game of "guess the essay question." Write down your guesses, so that you can compare your list with the actual question. Then, if you don't panic, write down a few facts that you would use to compose your essay.

There are breaks during the day. If the exam is later in the day, concentrate on it. Skip the review of class notes today. If the exam is after lunch, don't -- do NOT, NOT, NOT -- eat sugar or drink a sweetened drink. Sugar stimulates your system in a short burst of energy, but this could cause a slow-down an hour later. Avoid anything that tends to make you drowsy.


When you cram under pressure, you will probably miss things. They may not be important things. But they may be.

You are likely to bring this same mental attitude into class on the day of the exam. This attitude says, "half-way measures are good enough." Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't. But if you resort to them regularly, you will experience times when they let you down.

Paying attention to details is usually cost-effective. Getting into the habit of preparing well in advance for known problems is a good policy.

You may think you have taken care of all the details, but have you? Have you run this by someone whose judgment you trust? Has that person said, "You're probably prepared well enough"?

I know this sounds difficult. If you have bad habits, it is difficult. But bad habits can be broken.

If you want a second opinion on whether you have done what needs to be don, ask on-line. That's what this site is for.

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Spend more time on reviewing your lecture notes than the textbook.

Lecture to the wall: class note.

Review objective facts, especially if the textbook puts them in bold face or color.

Write down objective facts on note cards for review if you have not already done so.

Read the questions at the end of textbooks chapters, unless you panic.

Play a game: "What will the essay question be?" Write it down. Write down 3-4 facts you would use to answer it.

Study right up until lights-out.

Review cards and essay question guesses with your partner, either on the bus or at lunch.

Review the cards right up until the exam.

Avoid sugar at lunch (or breakfast, if the exam is given before lunch).


Lecture to the wall on the strategy of cramming.

Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page, one book.

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