Three-step plan for exams

I had this insanely elaborate blog entry planned out before my finals season started. However, before I got around to posting it, I ran out of time, and I had to prioritize what was most important (which coincidentally is a running theme in this entry). So here’s that very same entry – originally intended as a guide to final preparations for either GCSEs or SATs or whatever else you have coming up at the end of the semester.

In my case, I had to prepare for both an oral exam and all my written university exams. In addition to this, I had to write even more essays (this has really been the year of the essay for me, which I guess was to be expected when studying literature).

So here’s a guide to how to prepare for both oral and written exams, and getting through all of the course material leading up to your finals:

 V16 ØVING

Simplify your daily choices – avoid decision fatigue:

This is a technique I have applied for many years, and I’ve included this year’s work plan above this passage. It is in Norwegian, but the basic gist of it is that it’s sort of a rough outline for what I have to get done every day leading up to the exams to stay on track.

Through this, I avoid having work pile up through procrastination, and I don’t lose 20-30 mins each morning, trying to figure out where I’m at, and what I need to get done.

This also helps with the terrible feeling one can get before an exam, where you feel as if the amount of work you have ahead of you is insurmountable.

  • So in this step – figure out exactly what you have to know before the exam in these easy steps:

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  1. Go through old exams, and make a document where you include all the old exam questions.
  2. Match this up with notes from the lectures and classes you have attended. What has the professor/teacher focused on the most in each of the modules?
  3. Create categories for all the questions, either by chapter or by theme (I have provided an example from my geology course, which again, is in Norwegian, but you see what I’m getting at.)
  4. Repeat for all your upcoming exams.

 

Portion out your work – trim the fat!

Which leads us to the next part of my three-step-plan to a stress-free exam period, which is portioning things out. In this part, you are going to have to trim the fat. What I do is that I combine all the questions that are similar, and create one more comprehensive and detailed question for each of the themes sub-questions. I try to dedicate equal time to the entire syllabus, because you never know when your professor is going to throw a curveball at you. So here’s my approach to portioning out your work:

  1. Count the days leading up to all of your exams, and create a document that has all of the dates in it.
    • Now this part is important – DO NOT use your regular planner. This is you declaring Martial Law over your work habits, and a planner you have to search through to get to what you need to get done will only add to the inevitable decision fatigue you’ll feel throughout the exam season. Have it on one very visible page, print it out, and hang it somewhere you cannot avoid seeing it.
  2. Figure out your fudge ratio, and be honest with yourself – how much can you sustainably manage to do in a day?
    • NOT how much can you force yourself to do, but how much will you do without passing out at the end of each day. If you are already strapped for time, try to use the days leading up to the exam to get an overview of everything, instead of aiming at the world champion title in statistics or chemistry or whatever subject you are struggling with.
  3. Leave the final day before every exam open so you can figure out where the gaps in your knowledge are, and close them.

 

Give yourself a break, literally.

I have blogged about this so many times, but take many short breaks, preferably by doing something active, like going for a walk or a run, or some other exercise that you like. Sitting and working all day will only make you sluggish and tired. My best tips for how not to spend your breaks:

  1. Turn off all your social media alerts. Deal with it before bed.
    • You do not need to deal with all that femo, and agonize over how you are not able to go to every party or go out into the sun. And if you spend all your time snapchatting how much it sucks having to revise for your exams it’ll only suck even more when you get back to work.
  2. Do not sit down to watch TV.
    • If I had one dollar for every time I lost track of my five-minute break time by sitting down and watching whatever crappy sitcom was on TV while I was having my break this exam season…

Just a few closing words (and a little shameless self-promotion):

I did a few extra things to keep myself on track, which might not apply to everyone. However, if you are the kind of person that is always coming up with new ideas about things to do, whether it is creative projects or practical things that need to get done, I highly recommend carrying a book with you, to write in whenever you feel a pang of inspiration.

This is sort of an adapted version of Tim Ferriss’ morning pages, where he tries to put his “monkey-mind” away before getting to work. My monkey mind never seems to let up throughout the day, so taking five minutes perhaps two or three times a day to sort through whatever creative plans you have for the evening or projects you want to get done over the summer helps me not derail from my work plan.

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As far as the shameless plug goes, here are the links to some of my most read blog entries, which I think can be of use whether you are in an exam season, or if you just want to get your study habits sorted out in time for the next semester.

How to get organized for the new semester!

Finding YOUR best way to study!

Gamification of habits

Pomodoro

Have a great summer

  • Benedicte
Three-step plan for exams

X-Effect Weeks 4 & 5 – This actually works!

Writing for (almost) fifty days straight can feel a little discouraging after a while, with days where you feel like you hardly get any work done. However, some days you manage to write five pages in one sitting and you feel like this generations Stephen King. I mentioned in my last post the cumulative effects of just “showing up” and doing the work. And while I was almost dreading writing this post, because I felt as if I hadn’t met my goals, when I handed in the first drafts of my four geology essays this Wednesday I realized had managed to write almost 25 pages(!). By just writing every day, some days for as little as five minutes, I had churned out so much more than I’d expected.

If you’re a completionist like I am, this will work for you. I’m the sort of person who hates breaking a good chain, and loves making a game out of everything. Take exercise for instance. Each time I exercise, meaning properly going to the gym, or going for a strenuous hike or run outside, I put a sticker in my calendar. Right now, I’m working on beating last year’s total exercise time. I also use the app Nextrack, which gives you badges for creative workouts, continuity and even the time of day or working out on special holidays. Gamifying studying seems to be a good motivator for me, so tell me if you come across any good methods of incorporating the addictiveness of an mmorpg or perhaps the positive feedback loop of a mobile game. Perhaps I can create my own method. If I do, you’ll be the first to know!

Excuse my game/exercise digression; I’m on a four-hour train ride, wishing I’d brought my 3DS. Either way, this is my takeaway from weeks 4 and 5:

What worked:

  • If you have a few spear minutes where you’re not doing anything productive, write! It may not be the best quality work you’ve ever written, but you’d be surprised by all the good ideas you come up with if you just sit in front of your computer for five minutes, writing down keywords, or thoughts you’d like to research more later when you have more time for “deep work”.
  • Not all your daily writing has to happen in one interval of time. You can space out your work, if you feel like you don’t have time for a one-hour session. Some days I wrote for 5 minutes in the morning, and then picked up my work again in the afternoon. Often those five morning minutes made me have ideas while on the subway going to university, and made the work easier to pick up later in the day, as I knew what I was going to work with.

Needs more work:

  • I should get back into planning my daily writing sessions, and what I want out of them. I used to be better at using my notebook system, which I wrote about in my Cal Newport entry. For these next couple of weeks, I’ll try to make a habit of waking up five minutes earlier and writing what I want out of my academic work for that day.

I’m posting this a few days early as I’m going home for Easter break. You’ll notice that I missed the day before I posted this, but that was intentional. I figured if I’m going to write every day throughout my holiday, I deserved one day off. Here’s a picture of my dog to make up for it!

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X-Effect Weeks 4 & 5 – This actually works!

Setbacks and Successes – Week 2 & 3 of the X-Effect

Decided to make the updates a biweekly thing, as eight entries on the same topic might become a little stale after a while. As implied in the header, there have been a few bumps in the road in these past couple of weeks, but I feel like I was able to get back into a good workflow in week three.

For full disclosure, I did not reach my goals these past couple of weeks. I ended up having to change my essay topic, and therefore I lost a lot of progress I’d already made on the first essay I’d started writing. Nevertheless, I think it was for the better, because I’m far more happy with the new essay that I’ve finished, and handed in today.

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As you see from the template above, I did miss two days in week two. It sucked messing up my stats so soon in the project, but it taught me two important lessons that I needed to learn.

  1. I have stopped putting the daily writing off until the evening. Those two nights I missed my targets, the reason why I missed them was that I didn’t prioritize my writing, and I didn’t view it as equally important to my other daily tasks. Since then I’ve started writing earlier in the day, and I’m churning out far more pages than before.
  2. It’s all about getting back on the horse. This is sort of like when you are dieting. So what if you mess up and eat 10 cupcakes in one sitting? The important thing is the cumulative effect of doing the things that are good for you, and not giving up after one setback. After a while you’ll see pretty much the same effects as if you hadn’t messed up. And perhaps you learned something from your missteps? In my case, messing up, and having to publicize it on my blog prompted me to rethink my approach to the project, and start taking it more seriously. In the end, the only one I’m cheating by not doing my daily workload is myself.

 

What worked:

  • My use of resources has improved, and my citations are better.
  • I don’t know why, but just putting in earbuds has become sort of a catalyst for getting to work. Sometimes I don’t even have to put on any music or ambient sound for it to work.
  • Giving away my phone before working, and putting it in “quarantine” until I’m done with my daily writing session. I have had success with just putting it in airplane mode, but sometimes the extra incentive of wanting your phone back can help speed up your work.

Needs more work:

  • This goes for all my coursework, but getting to work faster. I need to find some sort of way to get into “work-mode” faster. There is too much time wastage at the beginning of each writing session.

 

Results from weeks 2 & 3: Finished my English Literature essay, started one of my four geology essays.

Goals for weeks 4 & 5: Finish all four geology essays. (This is a huge goal, and I’m happy if I finish three of them in that timespan as well)

Setbacks and Successes – Week 2 & 3 of the X-Effect

The X-Effect

Bringing back the project based theme of the blog this week with a new experiment. It’s called the X-effect. I stumbled across this subreddit a few weeks ago, and have been meaning to apply this to my study technique in some form. The gist of it is that you have a grid with 7×7 squares, each representing one of 49 consecutive days. If you see the template provided by this redditor, the header simply says “New habit”. I’ve chosen “write for five minutes” as my habit, as I currently have 6 essays due by the end of March, on top of all my other coursework.

I think lowering the bar to only five minutes per session will be a key factor in getting started each day. If attaining a cross in your grid is a monumental task, like “write at least a thousand words” per day, you’ll end up dreading the task. For me this is all about the habit building.

Some tips for lowering the bar for starting your own project:

  1. Create a pleasant study area. I usually make a cup of tea, light some candles and put on one of the ambient soundboards mentioned in my last blogpost.IMG_0070
  2. Try to recreate the same study environment each study session. Regardless of the type of work you will be doing, having a dedicated study area triggers something in your mind. Try to eliminate all distractions.
  3. IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT! Just try! So what if you don’t know the answer to the equation you are trying to solve, or if you’re stuck trying to decipher what one of the ancient Greek philosophers meant by x y and z. Way too many of my friends have analysis paralysis these days, and it’s one of the reasons why I’m challenging myself to do this. If I have to write every day, some of the things I write are bound to suck. That is what second drafts are for, and you cannot have a second draft until you’ve written the first.

What I like about this is the versatility of it. While I’m using it as a study tool, one of my closest friends is using it for fitness purposes. And from what I have gathered, reading what other redditors have written, it can be used for anything from quitting smoking to flossing every night.

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I’ll try to write an update post each week! At least I’ll post an image of my X-effect grid. That way, I’ll have even more of an incentive to write each day.

(Curious about the time table hanging on my fridge? Here’s a link to the blogpost explaning the Autopilot schedule in the background)

  • Benedicte
The X-Effect

Marketing to the procrastinator

The other day when I was at a café with my friend, she said something that made me have an idea for a blog entry. “Back in high school it was so much easier to get started on your homework. Especially maths, because you had these concrete tasks you could cross off your task sheet, and feel like you’d accomplished something each time you made a cross.” We continued our conversation, agreeing that being presented with these huge tasks at the university, such as “read chapter 2, 3 and 4”, or “Write an essay on subject A, B and C” can sometimes seem as an insurmountable task, and oftentimes you can end up not doing them, because they seem so intimidating.

Therefore, I thought, why not make your own task sheet, and trick your brain into thinking the task is much smaller than it actually is? I know this is a very basic idea; break tasks into smaller entities, and I have mentioned this before, but I have not mentioned to what degree.

To give you an example, these last few weeks have been this year’s midterms at my university. As a part of these midterms, I had to write one essay, take one qualification exam and do one obligatory assignment. Although these tasks are hardly the most difficult midterm evaluations one could imagine, they did require some work, and they definitely required some willpower. My goal was to hand them in at least three days before they were due, therefore I could not rely on that last-minute panic that sets in just before the hand-in folder closes.

As I had a bit of a backlog to deal with in the subject I had the qualification exam in, I felt quite overwhelmed by the curriculum. I decided to face the backlog head on, and make new study habits for this class, as a lot of the required coursework is reading, and not task based. I think this is the case for many university courses, which is why I think this example is the most applicable for you guys.

So instead of telling myself “read 5 chapters”, I wrote this in my planner:

  1. Write down key words from chapter 3
  2. Explain the key words you found in chapter 3
  3. Give examples of the key words you found in chapter 3

I repeated this for all five chapters, and ended up with five word documents that looked like this:

Eksempel fra exfac

In the end, I had done all the required reading, albeit not in the chronological order, and I had managed to take comprehensive notes on every chapter we were being tested on. How you perceive the difficulty of the task lies in the presentation. I do not mind sifting through the text, jumping back and forth trying to find out what is the essence of the chapter. I do however mind sitting for hours and hours without jotting down a few words, trying to gather my thoughts. The idea here is to present the task to yourself in the way you know will be most “palatable” for you, and will make it easier to start the task. If you are a perfectionist, as I’ve been called many times, you know the feeling of not wanting to start, because you do not want to hand in something that is less that “perfect”. As my father always says, sometimes good is good enough, everything does not need to be perfect in order for you to have accomplished something.

That is why I like this method so much. Not only do I think it makes the “barrier of entry” easier for most procrastinators, I think dissecting tasks in this way also makes you find your preferred way of learning. If you’re enjoying yourself while learning, I think you retain so much more of what you’ve read, so make the most of your study sessions. Make it fun, and remember to enjoy yourself! Hopefully, you were the one who chose the program you are currently enrolled in, so try to appreciate the chance you’ve been given!

In the end, I’ll just add a little “morsel of wisdom” for my fellow procrastinators out there;

Do not wait until the clock turns a round number, or until the next hour starts, just DO IT NOW. make your dreams come true If only the planning stage of the task, you’ll feel so much better if you do just five minutes of work. Or you could always do it next week, eh?

Have a good weekend!

– Benedicte

Marketing to the procrastinator

How to get organized for the new semester!

Hi guys!

Just a quick blog entry on my next project. I’ve read up on new types of study-habit structuring, and have come across a project I really liked called “4 weeks to a 4.0”. It’s a “four-part series to help you transform into an efficient student,” where each week tackles a typical problem area for students, such as time management, note taking, organization etc.

I’ll link to each weeks article at the beginning of the related paragraph, and I highly recommend visiting Cal Newport’s site, as it’s been a huge inspiration for me. I also recommend his book “How to Become a Straight-A Student”, where he explains many of the concepts from the articles in further detail.

For week one I found it hard to create an autopilot schedule at first, not knowing whether I’d have recurring tasks. Therefore, for this tip I recommend attending class for a week without scheduling any work when the new semester starts, and looking at your lecture schedule to map out which tasks repeat week after week. After I’d mapped out what tasks needed to get done on a regular basis, I created this activity planner, which I just hung on the fridge. That way, I knew I’d see it every day.

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I’ve also added in volunteer work and work-outs, as these are also recurring on my calendar. Really, anything you want to do on a regular basis, whether it’s learning how to play the guitar, or practise jiu jitsu, or even setting aside some time for relaxation or meditation, put it on the calendar. That way, you know you’ll have time for it.

I also have a system for mapping out my week which I’ve created myself. I use these three books:

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The pink is for mapping out the entire week; what’s the required reading? Which assignments will take up most of my time? This book is all about the finer details that the autopilot schedule does not mention.

The black moleskine is my day planner. I bring this with me to university every day, in case the professor says something about the work that is not mentioned in the lecture notes or schedule, or if I get an idea for an assignment (or a blog post). That way I can write it down as soon as I get the idea or message, and not have to struggle with remembering it all day.

The gold notebook I usually only use on very busy days, or when I’m in an exam period. I use it to plan individual days, hour by hour. It makes the workload seem more manageable, as I get to rip out the page or cross off things on the list when I’m done.

Week two is all about taking smarter notes. This I’m just going to link to Cal Newport’s blog post on, and again, I highly recommend just clicking through the links he’s included, such as “Why Most Students Don’t Understand the Real Goal of Note-Taking”.

Week three builds on week two in its mastery of assignments. One tip I’ll add for reading assignments, is that if the professor has added some questions about the text, read these before doing the reading assignment. I usually keep the questions next to me while reading, and try to answer them as I progress through the text. Remember, you can always alter or edit your answer later, if something you’ve written contradicts what is mention later in the text.

Week four is something that I’ve prepared for, but have yet to utilise, namely “The Project Folder Method”. I have purchased four project folders, as I’m taking three university courses on English grammar and literature, and one math subject which I’m reading independently. My plan is to use the entire folder for both the coursework and the essays and assignments. I’ve marked the outside of the folders with important dates, such as the exam dates and when important obligatory assignments are due. I’m planning on using plastic sleeves or other inserts for essays, and marking the front of these “sub-folders” in the same way, with important dates and plans for research and writing.

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I think this is a cool project, and I hope it will inspire some of you to try something similar! I may write a follow-up after a few weeks, letting you know whether the system has worked for me or not, but as of today, it seems like a clever way of structuring your work.

I hope your semester is off to a great start!

– Benedicte

How to get organized for the new semester!

Finding YOUR best way to study!

I’ve had this entry in the works for a long time, so I’m really happy about finally being able to write it. I felt like I had to have some sort of proof of my learning technique hypothesis’, that figuring out how you retain information best, is the best way to achieving your grade goals. This year, I feel like I finally cracked some sort of code, learning-wise. I did not have to cram until the night before the exam, I could allow myself to take breaks without feeling guilty about not studying, and I still reached all my academic goals for 2015 on my impossible list.

The way I did this was mapping out under what conditions, and with what tools I work best. This is a very individual process, which I personally think everyone ought to go through to learn about themselves. You can save yourself so much hassle if you figure out your “path of least resistance” to the grade you want. I started out by taking a couple of tests, helping me get a general idea about what kind of learner I am. The results I got most often were read-and-write learner and visual learner. Even though most of the results pointed to those learning techniques, I still wanted to be open to the possibility that my answers were coloured by my experience with the Norwegian school system, where read-and-write learning is heavily favoured, therefore I could be missing out on some really good kinaesthetic learning tips for example.

Auditory learning:

Pros: Made me focus more during lectures, made me ask more questions, made me better at explaining what I’d learned to other people, works really well in social sciences.

Cons: While I remembered the broader strokes, I forgot the details. Although it worked in biology, it did not work as well in physics and maths.

Tips for testing yourself: Listen to podcasts, listen to taped lectures, try to teach someone what you’ve learned using only words, discuss at a colloquium.

I started out by doing something I usually never do – not taking any notes in class. Don’t get me wrong, I did pay attention. Instead of writing down almost everything the professor said, having to sift through what is actually relevant later, I tried listening intently. In addition to this, I also raised my hand a lot more than usual, asking clarifying questions. My theory was that by asking questions, I’d remember the discussion later, therefore solidifying the learning experience. However, what I noticed was that while I could remember the broader strokes, perhaps even better than usual, I’d lost most of the detail. For me this was problematic, as it’s the details, in my opinion, that makes for the most interesting exam answers or essay subjects.

Kinaesthetic learning:

Pros: Works really well in courses where lab-work is required, is great for understanding physics. Is a great tool for motivating students, and spurring further curiosity.

Cons: I did not feel like I understood technical details at a micro-level as well by just observing and having concepts explained to me, as I would have by reading about them.

Tips for testing yourself: attend a lab-class, draw or build a model of what you are learning about

While trying to create some sort of hybrid between my usual note taking and keywords, inspired by my auditory learning experience, I also tried to incorporate some kinaesthetic work into the process. This included going to the lab, trying out different experiments, and “thinking aloud” with my lab partner. Things like handling a microscope properly, or doing experiments with lights and lasers were really motivating, and helped spark a desire to work more when I got home, trying to figure out precisely what I saw through the microscope, or why some sort of physical phenomenon occurred. However, if it hadn’t been for the consecutive work I put in after I got home, I wouldn’t have learned as much as if I had just gone to the lab and looked at, or touched things. It did help me familiarize myself with the lab, making me more comfortable doing things on my own, and in an exam setting.

Visual learning:

Pros: You can learn at your own pace, you can comply your notes into small diagrams, making larger concepts easier to remember.

Cons: Some might get easily distracted by using tools such as YouTube for learning, it can be difficult to find reliable and complete resources.

Tips for testing yourself: Watch videos, draw mind maps or diagrams, and make overview-posters to revise

This might have been my absolute favourite way of studying, and I will definitely blog about some aspects of this learning technique in further detail another time. I think the reason I liked this technique so much is that it combined so well with the read-and-write learning style I was previously familiar with. I modelled my visual learning experience after the “flipped classroom” concept, watching videos on YouTube (mostly CrashCourse and SciShow videos, and some Norwegian resources), and Khan Academy. After teaching myself the main concepts, I went to my lecturers’ office hours and asked them about topics that needed additional explanation, such as exam-specific topics, or what I should focus more or less on. I highly recommend checking out these links and infographics on flipped classroom learning, as they made it easier for me to learn at my own pace, which I know is a problem for many students. Either the teacher could be going on about the same topic for far too long or jumping ahead way to fast to get through the curriculum in the allotted time.

Read-and-write learning:

Pros: Writing down what you’ve read can help you retain more of the information, easy to go back in your notes to revise what you might have forgot.

Cons: Some might write too much, therefore confusing themselves as to what is actually important.

Tips for testing yourself: rewrite notes, create lists and make analogies to explain difficult concepts, write synopses

I think this is the learning style most students are familiar with, as was the case in my experience. My best tips for this technique is after taking notes in class, set aside some time afterwards to rewrite your notes, using new words and sentences. This is not an original idea at all, as it has been recommended by many other “study-bloggers”, (if I can call myself that). However, one thing I will add, that I haven’t heard anywhere else, is that when studying STEM-sciences, try to use words to explain equations and rules. By forcing yourself to create an explanation using only words and analogies, for a concept explained best with numbers or other figures, you learn the concept so well, you can apply it to a number of different problems, as well as giving yourself another way to remember it.

Before I end this post, I want to add that these are my pros and cons, therefore they are not as objective as they should be. You should try this learning experiment out for yourself! Learning how to learn is one of the most valuable tools in life, as one continues learning throughout all of it. How you retain or use the information you pick up along the way is entirely up to you.

Good luck with the next semester, (and remember to check out the links)!

– Benedicte

Finding YOUR best way to study!