Students studying
Education, Social and behavioural

Some tips for exam season

Emma Young digests the research.

14 March 2023

By Emma Young

Exam season is fast approaching, so if you or a family member are currently studying you might be considering how best to prepare. Luckily, there’s a wealth of research out there on how best to cope before, during and after exams…

Start from a realistic position

How well do you think you’d do in the exam, based on what you know right now? Odds are that you’re probably overestimating your hypothetical performance. Studies have shown that students of all kinds of subjects, including chemistry, physics and psychology, have poor insight into just how well they understand and know the material, and so how well they are likely to do.

Clearly, if students don’t fully recognise their weaknesses, they won’t work to address them. So being realistic about what you do and don’t know is a critical starting point. Taking practice tests and using your scores to acknowledge weaknesses and design a study plan to address them is hardly a radical suggestion – but when Brock Casselman and Charles Atwood from the University of Utah made this a routine part of their chemistry students’ lives, they saw clear exam improvements.

Overall, the students who’d received this ‘metacognitive training’ saw a 4 per cent improvement in their final exam performance, compared with a control group – but the students who’d initially placed in the bottom quarter benefitted the most, showing a 10 per cent improvement, compared with a control group.

Use the hacks

Research over the years has revealed various ways to supercharge exam prep. Countless studies have found that ‘teaching’ someone else what you’ve learnt is helpful. A 2017 study, for instance, found that when young adults received information (in this case, from a movie clip) and then immediately told someone the details, their memory of it was still strong a week later. 

The team thinks this finding should extend to other types of learning. ‘Telling someone else about what you’ve learned is a really effective way for students to study instead of just re-reading the textbook or class notes,’ commented lead researcher Melanie Sekeres in a statement issued at the time.

If you don’t have anyone to ‘teach’, there are other, better ways to revise than just re-reading your notes. For example, research shows that coming up with your own questions and testing yourself leads to better scores.

Another helpful strategy was revealed in research on students at UCLA, published in 2021. Students who watched a lecture video twice at 2x speed did better on a subsequent test than those who’d watched it once at normal speed – but to gain this benefit, the second viewing had to happen immediately before the test.

Sleep

Sleep is known to be important for memory consolidation, so ensuring that you get enough sleep while you’re revising is certainly important. But can you also study in your sleep? Will playing lectures overnight, say, boost your test performance?

The short answer, according to a recent review of the evidence in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, is that it’s unlikely — and in fact, it might even make you perform worse. Simon Ruch and Katharina Henke concluded that learning while asleep is possible, but happens unconsciously. 

So if you were to play yourself a series of facts while you were asleep, you wouldn’t be aware of them the next day. Perhaps if you then went into a multiple-choice exam, then some implicit learning may give you a ‘gut feeling’ about the correct answers – at least, for facts that were played during certain phases of slow-wave non-REM sleep.

However, other findings suggest that if unconscious learning during non-REM sleep does happen, it can impair the later conscious learning of the same material. If this is correct, this means that sleep-learning could backfire.  So ––sleep, yes. ‘Sleep-study’ – probably best avoided.

Address exam anxiety early

While some students don’t really suffer from exam anxiety, or experience it only mildly (which may be beneficial), highly exam anxious students do worse than their peers. It used to be thought that anxiety during the exam itself was the biggest problem.

However, research published in 2022 concluded that test anxiety in the exam preparation period makes it harder to acquire knowledge in the first place. Overall, ‘the results of the present study suggest that the reasons for the negative association between anxiety and test performance are complex and begin well before the final test situation,’ the team concluded. This implies, of course, that strategies to reduce test anxiety need to start well before exams even begin. One such strategy is to make a clear revision plan.

Recognise feelings of not ‘belonging’

Research published last year, led by Joshua D. Edwards, found that when people feel that they don’t ‘belong’ on a STEM course (in this case, a first year chemistry course), they perform worse on exams. This can in turn intensify those anxious, undermining feelings.

Students may feel that they don’t really belong on a course if they don’t see other examples of people like them in their chosen field. For instance, although women accounted for half of journal paper authors in psychology in 2021, current trends suggest that the same won’t be true for chemistry until 2087 and physics until 2158.

Finding better ways to support female STEM students, and those from other under-represented groups, is clearly crucial. But in terms of what individual students can do to help alleviate this anxiety in themselves or in others, the team has this advice: share your worries with your fellow students, as you may find you benefit from talking them through. You will likely find that others feel the same way about themselves too.

Going into the exam….

Do whatever you can think of to go in feeling confident. Take in a ‘lucky’ object, consider using positive affirmations, or even take a placebo ‘anti-anxiety’ pill. One study even found that when people are told (falsely) that immediately after seeing each exam question they will be subliminally shown the answer, they perform better.

And if you do feel anxious as you go into an exam, try, if you can, to reappraise it as excitement. Work on various groups, including a study on lower-income high school students published in PNAS in 2019, has found that this strategy improves test results.

What if the exam goes badly?

Remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’. Try to picture yourself several years into the future – because this should help you to put even a disastrous exam result in context, as just a small part of your life. This is the advice of a team whose recent paper in Cognition and Emotion showed that adopting a ‘distant-future’ perspective helped teenagers deal with stressful situations. 

‘Our research suggests that telling young people to picture themselves far into the future, where a stressful situation like results day is long gone, is an effective way to help them cope,’ commented researcher Dr Catherine Sebastian at the time.

If you don’t do as well as you’d hoped, self-forgiveness is linked to less anxiety and depressive symptoms. Other research in this area has found that among a group of students who’d admitted procrastinating on their revision, those who were able to forgive themselves went on to work harder for future exams.

And, as Dr Victoria Lewis wrote in The Psychologist last year: ‘Remember you can always have another go, one’s success in life is rarely a straightforward trajectory’.