Top Tips on Tackling Exams

How to survive your university exams by explaining what NOT TO DO and WHAT TO DO for effective learning and exam performance.

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Exams have always created stress amongst students, and too much stress can actually cause students to experience physical and psychological impairment that consequently impacts upon performance (Misra & Mckean, 2000, Rana & Mahmood, 2010, Hindustan Times, 2011). In addition, for many students this will be the first time some or all of your exams are on-line with 24 hrs to complete (please remember you are not expected to take 24 hrs to complete one exam it is just accommodating for global time differences). It is good to know that research has found there to be no difference in exam performance when conducted online at home as opposed to in a classroom (Hollistor & Berenson, 2009). As such, the key focus for this article is to provide you with top-tips on how to survive your university exams by explaining what NOT TO DO and WHAT TO DO for effective learning and exam performance:


STOP merely re-reading and highlighting. According to Dunlosky et al (2013) extensive findings on effective learning techniques, although re-reading and highlighting is one of the most common techniques students use for revision, these techniques are also the least effective to exam performance.


START Active Recall/Retrieval through Practice Testing! Merely re-reading material and notes is seen as a passive way to try to learn information and uses small amounts of neuron connections in your brain. Karpicke & Blunt (2011) found that retrieval practice improved learning by 20% compared to re-reading information 4 times. So what does active recall mean in practice? Here are some examples:

  1. Answer as many exam essays or exam Q’s, even whole papers as possible. This will require research, reading, making notes, putting information into structures and critically thinking, which leads to higher levels of connection neuro-networks and strengthens understanding and memory. Dunlosky et al (2013) found that doing this activity increases performance by at least 10%.
  2. Create flash cards to memorise facts, concepts, studies. These can be handwritten or online (ANKI has been said to be a very useful online app as it enables you to test yourself and bases this on your own performance. It is also free! There are others but this has been suggested as the best from online media)
  3. Read a page/chapter/book or even one of your essays you created in example A, then close it and write down what you can remember (using bullet points or a spider diagram) using one colour ink e.g., black. Then look at the page/chapter/book or essay and using a different colour pen e.g. red write down all the bits that you missed. This will highlight to you what areas you need to focus on and consider how these points link to previous information you know (Brown et al, 2014).
  4. Re-listen to lectures and ask yourself questions e.g. what examples/case studies/research are there to illustrate the points made? How do the key concepts link to the previous lecture? What theories support these points? What criticisms are there? Then actively search for these answers to strengthen the connections between previous knowledge and new knowledge. Do this for one hour a day, even if it is just to break up your revision activities.
  5. Practice exam questions/papers as much as possible under timed conditions. Not only will this build confidence for the actual exam but is said to produce superior transfer of learning relative to repeated studying (Butler, 2010). 



Brown,P.C. Roediger,H.L. & McDaniel, M.A. (2014) Make it stick : the science of successful learning. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Butler,A.C. (2010) Repeated Testing Produces Superior Transfer of Learning Relative to Repeated Studying. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 36(5):1118–1133.

Dunlosky, J. Rawson, K.A. Marsh, E.J. Nathan, M.J. & Willingham, D.T. Improving Students Learning with Effective Learning Techniques.

Hindustan Times (2011) Too much of stress affects performance. Hindustan Times (New Delhi, India): Na.

Hollistor, K. & Berenson, M (2009) Proctored Versus Unproctored Online Exams: Studying the Impact of Exam Environment on Student Performance. Decision Science Journal of Innovative Education. 7(1)

Karpicke J.D. and Blunt J.R. (2011) Response to Comment on ‘retrieval Practice Produces More Learning Than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science, 334(6055):453.

Misra, R & McKean, M. (2000) College students’ academic stress and its relation to their anxiety, time management and leisure satisfaction. American Journal of Health Studies. 16(1): 41-51.

Rana, R.A. & Mahmood, N. (2010) The relationship between test anxiety and academic achievement. Bulletin of Education and Research. 32: 63-74.


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