(taken from MITs Centre for Academic Excellence, accessible here!)
Creating a realistic and effective plan to prepare for a test includes key steps:
- Begin preparing when you receive the subject syllabus. The syllabus is the road map of the class. Be sure to enter all test dates in your personal calendar or planner.
- Clearly identify the various “tasks” that you will have to do while you study. Use key words like “read”, “write”, “create outline”, “memorize”, “rewrite”, etc.
- Look at your schedule and work backward to set some deadlines like “review lecture notes” or “skim textbook chapters”. Revisit these deadlines as the term progresses.
- Seek help in a timely fashion for those areas you find difficult and challenging.
Survey the Available Time
- Once you’ve constructed your balanced schedule for the term, look for blank spaces that can be used for extra study in exam weeks.
- Be sure that these will be times when you’re rested.
- A week or so before the test, take a few minutes to fill in those blanks on a copy of your weekly schedule. For example, for a test on Friday you might see:
- Make the most of the time you have. One-hour blocks between classes can be great times to review notes, practice problems, or organize yourself before speaking with your TA. If you discount these smaller pockets of time, you could waste 4-8 hours of potential study time.
- Make your study sessions reasonable in length, working no longer than 2 hours without a break. If you plan to spend 5 hours on Thursday studying, you should plan to take a 30-minute break in the middle to recuperate. Your mind needs time to assimilate and process the new information. Most importantly, taking breaks will make it easier to approach difficult material without becoming distracted and discouraged.
- Sunday: 6 hours
- Monday: 2 one-hour blocks
- Tuesday: 2 two-hour blocks
- Wednesday: 2 one-hour blocks
- Thursday: 5 hours.
- Figure out areas in which you’re confident and others in which you need intensive review. Quiz and pset scores may tell you this directly. If it isn’t clear, try the following technique.
- From your syllabus, enter each topic on one line of our Test Study Checklist. Fill in reading assignments, homework, and handouts or other material that will be tested. Leave the lecture column blank for now, since you will review all lecture notes. You may have some other blank boxes: not every topic has reading or written assignments to review.
- Highlight the areas in which you are least confident.
- Make note of the areas most emphasized in lecture, recitation, or psets. Information that your instructor spent extra time teaching and correcting will likely receive special attention on the exam.
- Note on your checklist any areas in which your lecture or book notes are vague, incomplete, or misleading. Plan to compare notes with a friend in these areas.
- If you work well in study groups, plan to cover your weaker areas (and share your strengths) in group. TAs and tutors can also help you fill in gaps.
- Schedule review meetings early and keep the appointment, so that you don’t fall behind in your preparation.
Choose a Study Style
Break down your studies in one of two ways: Study the most critical material first or Study the material in the chronological sequence that you learned it.
- Most critical first: Study the highest priority material first, then the secondary material, which happens to have been taught earlier, etc. As you master one level, move down to the next. This method works well if the concepts you are learning in class are not closely interrelated.
- Chronological sequence. If the material is interrelated and continually builds on previous knowledge, then it makes more sense to take a chronological approach. Begin your studies with the material from the first class and move forward in chronological order, spending only small amounts of time in low priority areas and more time in higher priority areas. This review will give you a stronger basis from which to master the more important material when you get to it. If you choose to study in chronological order, be careful to pace yourself so that you do not leave a critical block to do the night before the exam simply because it occurs last on your checklist.
- For both styles, spend the most time on your highest priority work, a medium-amount of time on your second-priority work, and the least time on your lowest priority work (usually by skimming it).
Before moving on, the question of whether or not to memorize often comes up when preparing for tests. MIT students learn early that they aren’t supposed to rely on their memories when they approach their coursework. While this information can help students to break habits learned in high school, it is not good to apply an all or nothing approach to this subject.
It can be helpful to memorize in the following two instances. First, commit to memory information that comes up all of the time (formulas, equations, common ways of solving problems, etc.) so that there is no chance that time will be wasted on repetitive tasks. Second, organize material that you need to recall on a test into lists that can be mentally accessed via acronyms, etc.
Stick to Your Plan
Here are some techniques to make certain your thoughtful planning stays on track.
- Choose a good time and location to study.
- Bring your checklist and stay on task. If you get stuck on a concept or problem, make a note on your checklist to speak with your TA, then move along. If you do fall behind, try to schedule an extra hour to catch up. But don’t panic: your study plan is a guideline, not an absolute.
- Practice. Rework psets and sample problems from the textbook, noting how and why techniques are implemented. If you can’t explain the reasoning behind a process, you don’t understand it enough to get full credit on a test.
- Note similarities and differences among problems. This helps to cultivate the skill of thinking flexibly. How and why does a solution work? How else could a problem be solved? How does the knowledge you are acquiring relate with other concepts?
- Keep a list of formulae and major concepts. As you study, jot down items that you need to memorize. Review this material when you are caught standing in line or with time to spare between classes.
- Selectively review your texts. Do not reread your textbook; you have already done it once and to do so again would overload you. Review only sections you have highlighted, any notes you made in the margins, formulae, definitions, and chapter summaries. You should be refreshing your memory and clarifying information, not assimilating it in extreme detail.
- Don’t over-prepare. Is your study plan too ambitious and unrealistic? Trying to gain a “perfect” understanding of all the material can overwhelm and paralyze you. While it’s true that MIT exam questions often challenge you to apply concepts creatively, there is no way to anticipate every possible application of what you are learning. Thinking flexibly is a skill you will develop with practice, not by extreme studying. Construct and follow a reasonable study plan, and remember that instructors are testing what you can be reasonably be expected to know—a finite and manageable amount of work.
- Too little time? Do you not have enough time to cover everything on your moderate and realistic list? Unfortunately, you will have to choose which things to study, and plan not to cover the rest. Only you will be able to judge which information is most critical to you, but remember that some studying is always better than no studying. Don’t give up because it’s impossible to learn everything. Incremental progress is still progress, so cover what you can well. Quality, not quantity, is the key.