How To Study For Exams - A Practical Guide Using Active Recall

Want to crush that exam or test you have coming up and get the best grades possible without pulling all nighters? I'm going to give you a practical plan and strategy that I used in medical school and when training as a surgeon to nail your exam preparation and study efficiently and effectively.

I sat a ton of exams during my time in medical school and then when I graduated I sat exams as part of my surgical training and for my masters in surgical sciences and degree in education. In fact I did at least one big exam each year up to the age of 28 and over the years I developed a pretty good system for preparing and studying for exams that helped me rank in the top for medicine and surgery despite there being loads to revise.

I'm going to share the system that I use to study for any exam or test and go into practical detail with ways that you can implement it yourself regardless of what you are studying for. Now this video focuses on practicalities and if you haven't yet watched the earlier videos in this evidence-based learning series I'd highly recommend starting with my video on the science behind active recall which dives into research to help you understand how to learn.

I'm going to break the system down into planning your study schedule and then look at how I study using some of the evidence-based methods covered in other videos in this series and I'll give you some note-taking tips and memory hacks at the end so be sure to stick around.

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Plan Your Exam Revision

So the first part of this video is going to focus on preparation. Now while this might sound obvious the way in which we prepare for exams or tests is critical to success. I'm going to take you through the system that I used to come top in medical school exams and also study effectively around my day job as a surgeon when sitting postgraduate surgical exams.

Start Early

Regardless of what you are studying for you'll likely know well in advance of when a test or exam is taking place. When I sat medical school exams they were usually at the end of an eight week block of lectures or clinical placements with larger end of year exams held in the summer. While precise timings will change I usually gave myself around 4-6 months to prepare for larger exams in terms of focused study time depending on the volume of information I needed to learn. Understanding when the exam is and how long others spent preparing is step one. This will give you realistic expectations of what is required in terms of study time and gives you time to plan your study schedule.

Review the Curriculum and Exam Format

Most subjects that you need to study for will have a curriculum outlining the scope of what is going to be tested and similar to the date of the exam you should understand the format of the exam itself. When I sat medical and surgical exams written exams were usually multiple choice question papers lasting several hours and clinical exams then tested your actual skills. While it can seem boring reading and understanding the course curriculum and exam information provided by whoever is setting the exam is critical. Usually the curriculum and topics tested will be listed online or in a course manual and the exam format and timing will be outlined in detail together with dates and exam rules such as whether you need to bring ID and where the exam will be held. I usually copied this information into my calendar or saved it to my Evernote so I could quickly find it to triple check details as the exam got nearer. One bad habit I had early in medical school was to think that some elements of the curriculum weren't important and I didn;t need to study for these. This was probably because I found them difficult or boring and I never did very well in these areas as I simply hadn't revised them which reinforced this mindset. As in my video on how to learn anything fast be sure to attack your weaknesses and remember that anything that is on the curriculum can be tested and might come up at the exam so be sure to learn everything.

Get Past Papers

While asking people and reading information about the exam or test is good the best way to understand the types or questions, format and difficulty level is to get hold of some actual past papers or breakdowns of the exam of test from previous years. For big exams like end of year exams these usually exist as actual past papers or unofficial past papers where past students have written down what questions they got. Some teachers will provide these as part of formal mocks, some exam board have them online but when you get to postgraduate exams you might have to do a bit of digging and ask your peers if they exist and if they can share them with you. I used to have a quick read-through past-papers before starting my exam preparation so I had an idea about the difficulty level and would then save them for nearer the end of my revision to test my knowledge against what was most similar to the real thing.

Decide on Your Tools

Decide how you are going to study. There are usually some recommended resources for most exams such as study books, lecture notes or websites which cover the curriculum and will help you to read around topics. For my medical finals I used a longer reference book together with a shorter notes book and the course elearning and lectures which covered the curriculum. You'll also want to decide on what electronic tools you're going to use. I use Evernote and Notion for planning my study schedule and for taking notes which integrate with my calendar to book out days and weeks to focus on key areas. As I'll look at more in the next section I also always use online question banks and learning tools to actively test my knowledge and automate spaced repetition. Whatever you are going to use, ask others and research recommended tools and then focus on the ones that work for you rather than trying to use too many.

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Create a Study Timetable

Creating a study timetable may again seem simple but it's amazing how many people do this important piece of preparation incorrectly. A proper study timetable is not just about breaking down the curriculum into the days or weeks you are going to study. A study timetable should help you to build good study habits and stay healthy during revision time so you learn effectively. The best study timetables take into account what topics you are weakest at and puts them first and factors in spaced repetition to help you remember things for longer. Spaced repetition assumes self-testing and using active recall to learn effectively. As in my video on using spacing to study I've included a link to a study timetable in the description which has a spacing schedule built in for planning when you are going to study and test yourself on topics.

When I planned out my study schedule I would break down each day and ensure I blocked out time for exercise, rewards, food, socialising and sleep and I'll dive into this and why it's so important in my next video in this series so be sure to hit subscribe and keep watching after the end of this video. A good study schedule should plan around your life. When I had to study for surgical exams while working 70+ hours a week as a doctor and running a business it was critical that I managed my time effectively. As in my video on how to learn anything fast I routinely break down my study timetable into goals based on mastery of topics as I work through what will be assessed at the exam.

Set Goals

So how do you actually know that you know a topic or subject? I always found this tricky and when I was starting off with exams and at medical school I would usually set time-based goals such as reading x number of hours of a textbook a day. Now as we know from the studies like Karpicke et al in 2011 simply reading or highlighting is nowhere near as effective as testing yourself and retrieving information known as active recall or retrieval practise. For a deeper dive into how I used active recall to rank 1st at medical school and surgical exams be sure to check out the video.

Karpicke et al 2011 Results of Experiment. (A and B) show the proportions correct on verbatim and inference short answer questions, respectively. (C) shows the proportion of information subjects predicted they would recall on the final test (their metacognitive judgments of learning). On the final short-answer test, retrieval practice enhanced long-term learning above and beyond elaborative study with concept mapping by one and a half standard deviations (d = 1.50), yet students were largely unable to predict this benefit.

So rather than setting goals and assigning time to simply reading chapters of books set goals that are based on the number of questions you are completing and preferably when you have got all the question correct using spaced repetition and mastered them. I would usually work out how long it took me to do practice questions and then map time in my study timetable to complete a certain amount each day at a similar time to build habits and make learning into a game. I would then allocate time to read around topics to ensure I understood facts and could apply concepts. I'll dive into how I do this in the next part of the video when we look at how I use active recall.

Create a Study Group

My final tip when preparing for an exam or test is to form a study group of people who are also sitting the exam or test. This will help you to stay motivated and a good study group should hold you accountable on days when you just don't feel like studying. Study groups can also make learning more fun by asking each other questions as we'll look at shortly and by explaining topics to others you'll develop a better understanding of the concept. You can also share ways to learn with your study group like this video so that you all follow the same study timetable and use the same tools.

How To Use Active Recall To Study Effectively For Exams

Okay so now you're prepared let's look at how you can practically use active recall and some of the concepts covered in this evidence-based learning series to crush any exam. I'm going to assume that you're watched through this evidence-based learning series and have switched your mindset away from ready and highlighting to jumping in and testing yourself with a growth mindset so let's look at the fastest and most efficient ways to do just that.

Use Existing Questions With Explanations To Test Yourself

The most time-efficient way to get started using active recall is to use test questions which already exist. To be helpful these questions should be set at the appropriate difficulty and test your application of knowledge as well as recollection of facts. As in my video on using game design for learning to help you get into a flow state these should be challenging but not so difficult that you want to give up and questions should get progressively more difficult as your knowledge increases. So let's look at where you can get existing questions from in practical terms.

Past Papers are best for application of knowledge and most realistic to the standard of questions which will appear in the final test or exam. As mentioned in the preparation section these might exist already or you might need to do some detective work to get them. The website for the exam board, mock exams scheduled by your teacher or course or questions noted down by successful students from previous years are usually the best places to locate these. The main disadvantage is that these don't always have full explanations with them so some reading around is needed and like me you might want to save these for nearer the end of your revision.

Online question banks exist for most subjects and exams. The best ones employ students who have passed the exam to write down questions that they got and write out explanations when the knowledge is fresh in their brain. This near-to-peer question creation is really useful and most questions and answers are also fact-checked by experts. I should know as I built a successful test-prep company which passively generated a few million in recurring revenue. When choosing a question bank be sure to look at reviews and ask around for word-of-mouth reviews to see what is most like the real exam. Online learning systems like Shiken which I've invested in allow you to buy question sets for a range of exams and have lots of cool features including automated spaced repetition, mindful learning to keep you relaxed and multiplayer challenges so you can study with your friends.

Student-generated questions also exist on platforms like Quizlet and Anki in the form of flashcards. Unlike past-papers and online question banks these may not be in the same question format as the exam itself and are unlikely to have been checked by experts but they often provide a great way to quickly get through more questions but again make sure you check and use question sets that others have used to successfully pass the exam.

When I studied for surgical exams there were online question banks and past papers which came recommended by those who had passed the exam in previous sittings. The recommendation was typically just complete all the questions in the question bank and past papers and you'll do fine. To give you an idea, for a single 2hr30 written exam paper with around 100 single best answer questions this meant competing around 2500 practise questions. To get the best score possible I would combine this with reading around topics, understanding concepts and ensuring that I mastered all these questions and past papers by setting a daily and weekly question goal to hit.

Create Your Own Questions and Test Yourself and Others

Now not every test or exam will have existing questions you can jump right into and not every explanation will help you to fully understand concepts. In fact as we've previously learned in this evidence-based learning series you can test yourself simply by trying to recall key facts in your head. While practising using existing questions is very efficient I usually incorporate some of the following methods into my revision to help me come top in exams and tests:

The closed book technique is the best way to test yourself and use active recall when reading through a textbook. As mentioned in the preparation section I usually choose a structured text book and a shorter notes book which breakdown concepts into sections which I can then test myself on by closing the book. For subjects like medicine where learning facts like the signs and symptoms of diseases is needed I might cover the signs and symptoms section of a book and then test myself before revealing the answer.

Drawing a spider diagram from a central concept is another great way to do this as you are actively linking concepts and representing them in a visual way. I would add a concept or topic at the center and then draw out the associated facts around it without looking at a book. I would then go back over and analyse what I had missed.

Study groups are another great example of this where your study buddies will test you from a book and ask questions in a social and supportive environment. Saying things out loud or explaining a topic to someone else helps you to test your own understanding and put the concept into your own words in simple terms.

How Notes, Mnemonics and The Method of Loci Help Me Ace Exams

To help you come first in any exam you're going to need some extra learning hacks that use active recall and some other evidence-based learning techniques.

So in this final section I'm going to jump into

Take notes from lectures, books and notes correctly to be as efficient as possible with your learning. Like in my video on how to remember everything you read I will usually skim to the end of a book chapter relevant to what I am testing myself on and then look at end of chapter summaries and the key learning points. I'll skim though to find diagrams, key concepts and how topics are organised. I'll read and note down into my notes system in Evernote or Notion or into a physical notes book. I'll then close the book and try to recall key facts or concepts. When I'm taking notes I'll actually write down questions which the notes answer and colour the answers in red. This means that when I come to test myself later I can quickly run through my notes and I can also share these with others to give back to the student-generated questions outlined in part two of this video.

Mnemonics help to aid retrieval practise and the term comes from the Greek for "relating to memory". They work by associating the original information with a more accessible memory that is easier to remember. In medicine and surgery I used mnemonics all the time for remembering long lists like causes of diseases such as the I GET SMASHED acronym for the causes of pancreatitis which I can still remember:

  • I: idiopathic
  • G: gallstones
  • E: ethanol (alcohol)
  • T: trauma
  • S: steroids
  • M: mumps (and other infections)/malignancy
  • A: autoimmune
  • S: scorpion stings/spider bites
  • H: hyperlipidaemia/hypercalcaemia/hyperparathyroidism (metabolic disorders)
  • E: ERCP
  • D: drugs (tetracyclines, furosemide, azathioprine, thiazides and many others)

The first four here are the most common causes. This is an example of an acronym-based mnemonic that forms a memorable phrase. Other types of mnemonics include rhymes or phrases like "Richard of York gave battle in vain" for the colours of the rainbow.

The method of loci (no not that Loki) is a form of visual mnemonic that maps things we are learning to locations or objects in our spatial memory. This is also known as memory palaces and is the system used by competitors in memory competitions to recall long lists of information. When I study I will often practise re-drawing diagrams and as surgery is very visual I will link facts to anatomical areas and visualise what patients look like in terms of their signs and symptoms mapped to a location that I know or in a doctor's waiting room. If you're studying something non-medical you might want to visualise facts as objects that relate to those facts and place them in a room.

I'll cover the method of loci and memory palaces for learning in detail in another article so be sure to subscribe to the blog to hear about it first.

Learn How To Learn
Learn How To Learn helps your get top grades. While saving hours of studying every week.