A Theory of Exams
There's a good chance you prepare for exams poorly.
I say this because most students don't learn how to learn. They default to what feels natural, to what their peers are doing, or to what their teachers tell them to do.
But it's possible to do so much better.
Imagine being able to spend only two hours each day on your academics to attain flawless results. Imagine having the rest of the day to pursue deep interests or to just relax. With appropriate methods, you can achieve this ideal. Start "exam-ing" right.
A theory is a system of ideas intended to explain something. In physics, there's string theory. In economics, there's game theory. And in mathematics, my evergreen fancy is group theory.
In this post, I'll build the foundations of "exam theory." In its construction, the claims I present will not be my own. Their genesis is the growing body of research in cognitive science. Using this research as a robust base, I'll spotlight the most effective study techniques. Then, I provide measures to wield them well.
Over the next few minutes, you'll become a much more deliberate learner. You'll realize that there are "rights" and "wrongs" in the art of getting perfect grades. Most of all, you'll understand that no one is a natural test-taker. There are only students who internalize good study habits and students who don't.
Without further ado, here's my theory of exams.
The best way to learn how to ski is by skiing. The best way to learn how to type is by typing. And the best way to learn how to do exams is by... reading? That can't be right.
The book Make It Stick shows that 80% of students use rereading textbooks as their primary learning activity. But as the numbers show, these techniques are inefficient and just plain bad. The same goes for other passive learning remedies like mnemonics, mind-maps, and highlighting. Avoid them all like the plague.
As someone who succumbed to these evils before, I get why they're so pervasive. Passive learning brings about a feeling of progress. And this is a nice, warm sensation that instills a sense of comfort in our subconscious.
That's the big trap.
By embracing inner relief, your brain isn't exposed to enough cognitive dissonance. This then impedes memory and retention. So if you needed to reread your notes dozens of times to recall the details inside, now you know why.
Another myth is the concept of learning styles. Empirical evidence doesn't support it at all. But even without experimentation, it's not hard to see why auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners don't exist.
Nobody learns how to drive by listening to their instructors. You'd need actual time behind the wheel. No one masters the piano by playing around with the keys. You get nowhere until you listen.
Learning styles are made up. There's a correct way to learn backed by science, and it's made better with a mix of all "styles."
One final misconception. Many students try to evaluate the quality of their learning. This is pointless — effective learning is counterintuitive, exhausting, and doubt-inducing. Don't let emotions guide your study sessions. Rely on cold, hard logic instead.
With pitfalls out of the way, I'll now cover the approaches that have the most impact. These methods, and the questions they answer, are as follows:
- Active Recall — How do you actually retain information?
- Spaced Repetition — How do you revise that information?
- Interleaved Practice — How do you juggle different subjects?
- Testing Immersion — How do you combat testing anxiety?
According to cognitive science, active recall is king.
Active recall means testing yourself instead of absorbing facts. It's the mental equivalent to lifting heavy weights. And it's how you remember obscure facts during tests.
Studies demonstrate that you can test yourself right away — there's no need to have studied the material before. This was how I tackled history. The texts were too boring to even justify a first look, so I skipped straight to the workbook.
I got an A+.
Do practice questions and nothing else. You don't need to read your textbook even once, so make every second studying active. This is hard, and your mind will push back. But returning to the passive techniques you used before is akin to indulging in junk food. Persist, and you'll be rewarded on results day.
Still, not all practice questions are created equal. Scott Young details a hierarchy for practice questions. Past papers are better than class-related exercises, which are then better than self-made problems.
This ranking is based on transfer-appropriate processing. Young remarks that "The more your practice resembles the exam, the more your practice efforts will transfer into actual results."
Some other active recall skills deserve mention. For one, there's the topic vomit. Pick a title and write everything you know about it without referring to external sources. Only then, refer to a reliable text to discover any gaps or inaccuracies.
Or try out the Feynman technique. Teach something you know to someone with no prior familiarity. If you can't answer their follow-up questions, you don't know the subject well enough.
By this point, you know that active recall is the best way to learn and revise. However, its efficacy is influenced by timing.
If you have seven hours to prepare and a week left until the exam, should you use all seven hours to test yourself the day before the test? Or is it better to prepare an hour each day?
When cognitive scientists probed further, they found out that the second approach fared much better. As you can guess — cramming is never a good idea, not even if you're doing it with active recall.
The crux of the problem is how fast memory decays. Active recall prolongs retention, but it alone is not enough. There's an established relationship between retention and time. The resulting curve, well-known as the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, is negative exponential in shape. Memories disappear the same way radioactive substances decay.
Spaced repetition shocks the forgetting curve. When you relearn something, your retention resets to full. And even better, it decays slower the next time.
As Make It Stick puts it, "When you space out practice at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, the effort produces longer lasting learning and enables more versatile applications in later settings."
In the domain of tools for spacing, flashcards are the golden standard. You insert a question on one face and an answer on the other. There's nothing with a simpler anatomy.
Even in technical fields like mathematics, flashcards work wonders. They make recalling key theorems and formulas instant. As a result, you're not distracted from your main task: problem solving.
But paper flashcards are primitive and unrefined. Good luck managing the "spaced" aspect of spaced repetition manually. What's more, physical flashcards are fragile, troublesome to make, and finite.
Use the Anki app instead.
Anki is great because it's on your phone, and you bring your phone everywhere. When you're waiting for the bus? Anki. When you're standing in line at the store? Anki. When you're taking a massive dump? There's no better time for Anki.
Anki's superpowers originate in its spaced repetition algorithm. After you enter your initial questions and answers, all that's left to do is test yourself when Anki prompts you to.
Hence, make flashcards to document any mistakes or misunderstandings when you do your daily dose of active recall. This way, you fix careless errors, learn about mark scheme conventions, and build a database of standard questions. All on top of remembering things better.
The process of getting perfect scores doesn't start in the exam hall. It starts months earlier with a regular dose of Anki flashcards every day until the day you're tested.
You're all set if you only have to study one subject, but it's probable that you have many. How do you deal with all of them at once?
A classic answer is: study one subject at a time. As reported in the Scientific American, "Learning researchers call this blocking, and because it is commonsensical and easy to schedule, blocking is dominant in schools, training programs, and other settings."
But it's better to do the exact opposite.
Spread out your time for each subject. Instead of working on one subject a day, study that subject for an hour each day. Or disperse study sessions even further and learn many subjects in an hour. More mixing leads to better consolidation.
This is known as interleaved practice. It's just as effective as spaced repetition for all the same reasons. Learning is made harder, boosting retention and adaptability with information.
And if you've ever confused a fact for a similar one in the same subject, the facts you recalled were domain dependent. When you study two events at once, it's often the case that you can't remember one without remembering the other. With interleaving, you gain independence.
The Scientific American claims that "Interleaving improves the brain's ability to tell apart, or discriminate, between concepts." When you use blocking, your thinking stops when you find the answer. When you interleave, each task is novel, so routine memorization doesn't work.
So use one big deck in Anki for all subjects. This way, you get a question about the equations of special relativity followed by a query about Napoleon's Battle of Waterloo. Switching fields frequently is tough, but tough is what your sophisticated brain needs to learn well.
Interleaved practice is another reason why mock tests are so potent. By doing one, you expose yourself to all the topics that will be tested, often in different orders. Much better than drilling topic by topic.
And in the spirit of interleaving, don't do more than one past paper per subject each day. If the past paper in question is lengthy, split it into parts and complete just a single part each session. The upfront task of managing interleaved practice is arduous, but the long term gain justifies this difficulty.
From now on, if you have subjects A, B, and C, resist the temptation for "AAABBBCCC." Try "ABCABCABC" instead.
Important examinations are stressful. Visualize yourself entering an exam hall. Prep started months ago, but your entire fate depends on your performance the next few hours. Scary, isn't it?
For some students, this proves too much to bear. Their body initiates the fight-or-flight response, and a tsunami of adrenaline floods the brain. Facts start becoming impossible to recall, and all capacity for rational thought vanishes along with their chances at a good grade.
This "choking" phenomenon happens way too often. It's truly a shame that your natural systems have such a remarkable ability to render hard work useless and ruin dreams. Is there an antidote to this self-induced mental paralysis? And if so, what is it?
Familiarity is the answer. Skydivers don't hesitate to jump once they've done it dozens of times before, and the same goes for stunt performers. And you know the comfort of what's familiar as well. If I asked you to do an assessment on walking, no gimmicks involved, would you shrink into a ball of fear?
Thus, immerse yourself with tests. Allocate some of your time to carry out a full-scale simulation of the exam. Do actual past papers under timed conditions. Bonus points if you do them in the actual testing room with invigilators and fellow test takers.
Because with simulations, you augment temporary anxiety. And due to state-dependent memory effects, your nerves on testing day are dampened.
There's also a side benefit to simulations: you'll know your expected result. Intensify your workload if you're not quite there yet. Or shift your focus to another subject if getting things perfect is way too easy.
Here's the parable of the pottery class as told in the book Art & Fear:
A class was split into two groups. The teacher remarked that the first group would be graded on the quantity of their work, and the second on its quality. Upon grading, a curious fact emerged: the best pots were all produced by the first group. While the "quantity" group was churning out pot after pot — and learning from their mistakes — the "quality" group only theorized about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
In short, there's no such thing as the perfect study routine. If I knew of one, it would already be in your hands. Stop searching for the ultimate study hack, and start working with the ones presented here.
The best time to start was years ago when your student journey began. The second best time is now.
Here's an easy first challenge: learn the content in this article with the correct methods. Use Anki to make important points into flashcards or the Feynman technique to teach someone else. It doesn't matter — use the approach that most tickles your fancy.
Because at the end of the day, bear in mind that preparing for exams is a skill. It's one that you'll use for years, or even decades, as a student, so nurture it well. Aim to be the test-taking whiz that breezes through classes without dropping a sweat. Aim to learn well, both in school and for the rest of your adult life.
What are you waiting for? It's time to study.