Exam Prep: How to best study

18 June 2021

Angelo Kornecki, technical director at Redmill Advance, describes some core techniques to try to improve memory and the psychology of effective studying.

Now that life is starting to open up again after a year of working from home, home-schooling and studying remotely (amongst everything else we’ve had to navigate around!), it’s a good time to take a deep breath and re-focus especially if you are studying for an upcoming exam.

Recently, we’ve been working with students to ensure they are equipped with the tools and understanding on how to study effectively, going deeper than the traditional study tips we are taught at school, college or university.

Improving memory
If you haven’t studied in a while or just have one of those ‘can’t retain information’ brains, I’m pleased to tell you – YOU CAN train your brain to remember your study material!

For some, cramming study in a few days before can work, however the science behind this method means you are more likely to have all the content you learned vanish from your brain a week after the exam! Learning new things changes the brains structure by creating new neural connections – this is known as neuroplasticity. To embed into your memory, the recommendation is to study in small chunks over a longer period of time whilst understanding other key techniques that work for YOU.

We have noted down our top techniques for you to try!

Mnemonics are memory tools that you can create yourself, to form associations with information that is otherwise difficult to recall. For example, in financial planning we can use the common mnemonic PIPSI to remember the priority and unique needs of a typical client. PIPSI = Protection, Income Protection, Pensions, Savings, Investment.

PIMPSI = add mortgages

Another technique often used is to create vivid mental pictures.

Making up stories to remember a sequence of information, or picturing facts as locations on a map. This technique uses your spatial memory to help learn sequences of information. Turn the individual chunks of information into vivid mental images, then connect the images in a story that unfolds throughout a location you know well.  For example, you could picture your first image by the front door of the house you grew up in; then imagine wandering into the kitchen and finding your next two images arguing in there, whilst the next three dance together in the living room…

Mind maps are a classic and good way of organising and simplifying information and seeing connections between the different aspects of a topic. They can be an effective memory trigger because, often, it is the actual act of drawing out a mind map that you recall in an exam.

Force yourself to condense your revision notes down to key words. Use colours and images to help make the information meaningful and memorable. Stick up your mind maps around your home and look at them throughout your revision and exam period. The reason this is a good method is that your subconscious will be taking it all in even when you aren’t sat down at your desk to study, so having mind maps or images related to your study will help absorb that into your brain. Neuroscience research by Soon et al. (2008) demonstrated that the brain is subconsciously aware of our decisions before we have consciously made those very decisions. In other words, we’ve already come up with a decision or an answer, before we realise, we have.

Trying a layering technique for remembering complex information can also help.
Try this…
Step one: First, learn the easiest and simplest facts or ideas about a subject, this creates the foundation.
Step two: Then start to gradually add more complex information, layer upon layer.

You should still be able to remember the foundation layer of the material if you get anxious in the exam. When you start making notes about that, your memory of the higher layers will flood back.

Write facts on index cards, in colour, and stick them in prominent places around your home, eg, next to the kettle or on the bathroom mirror. Look at them and say them to yourself every day. When you think you know them, put them on a pile of cards that you will later test yourself on, and put new facts in the prominent places.

Teaching others cements our understanding of a topic and therefore our memory of it. During breaks, you could try telling your family, friends or housemates about what you have just revised. Encourage them to ask questions.

Practise planning answers to exam questions. Planning will test your ability to remember concepts and connections. Jot down which areas of a topic you would draw on to answer a specific question, which approaches or research studies. Then test yourself on key facts or dates you would need for your answer.

Let’s talk about learning styles

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Let’s talk about learning styles

There are three main ones, Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic. Essentially meaning, learners that like to see, hear and move whilst learning. There is a lot of research and debate around learning styles and whether people can have one or more to make it a truly multi-sensory experience. Whatever the answer to that debate, there are clearly different ways we all learn. The key is test them out and find out which one(s) work for you!

If you know how you learn best, great. Replicate this.

However, I would encourage you to experiment with different approaches e.g., take a piece of A3 paper and create a mind map of the key elements of a topic. Then place this in a very visible place and start to learn the connections you have drawn as you say them aloud to yourself. Try to visualise the connections in your mind as you see them on paper.

As young children we are taught that traditionally we must sit (and sit still!) to learn. I am happy to report that you do not need to do this as adults! There is an argument to suggest we don’t need to do it as kids either.

Movement can actually help focus our attention. Think about this, for some people they need to move otherwise their attention and energy is spent on trying to keep still rather than the subject they are learning. If this is you… then move.

Test it out and see if it works for you. Take a tennis ball and as you are looking at your mind map bounce the ball or throw and catch it in your hand. Some people find it beneficial to do this throughout the study time or give themselves dedicated movement breaks to help reset their attention. For this, simply get up and move – short physical exercise, walking a couple of laps in the garden, etc. no more than 5-10 minutes.

Here’s some tips if you learn best through listening….

  • Record your learning materials or revision notes on a digital voice recorder (most mobile phones have them).
  • Speak your revision summaries aloud to yourself, it may seem strange at first, but you will get used to it in no time.
  • Ask yourself, or someone else, questions.
  • Record a series of questions and answers, leaving a gap for you to say the answer aloud before hearing it.
  • Read aloud to yourself or use text-to-speech software.
  • Using music as an aid:
  • Associate different tracks or albums with different topics, and always match them up. Remembering the music should help you remember the topic.
  • Create a rhythm so that you tap out the key points of the information as you are learning.
  • Make song lyrics out of your notes.
  • Make up a tune so that the low notes and high notes are associated with different things.

Reciting or reviewing out loud strengthens the links made to your brain.

And finally…Digest information easy!

Have you heard of the PQ4R method? By using this method people are said to digest the information much quicker – see if it works for you.

Preview: The art in this is SKIMMING the material, reading titles, headlines, and highlighted text.
Questions: Think through questions that pertain to the material.

Read: Try to find the answers to the questions as you read the material.

Reflect: Consider whether you have unanswered questions.

Recite: Speak out loud about what you just read.
Review: Look over once more.

Few people enjoy studying but that doesn’t mean it has to be boring or monotonous. By truly understanding YOU and how you learn best, breaking out of traditional study ways like highlighting paragraphs to try other techniques, making it as multi-sensory as possible can not only increase your chances of success but could also make it fun.

Good luck!




Professional Paraplanner