Advice on how to study for an approaching exam
August 20, 2014 7:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm a university student and I have a math exam in 10 days. I didn't really study much and only covered about 25% of the required material. In order to pass this exam (based on other people's experiences and my own evaluation) I would need to study about 10 hours per day for the next few days. But there's a problem - I've never done so much studying in such a short time frame.

There are also these other problems:
  • I procrastinate too much while at the computer, but I still need it to check results on Wolfram Alpha, so turning it off completely is not really an option
  • As the exam approaches, I get more and more discouraged, more pessimistic and less motivated to study. I always imagine that I will fail anyways, and so I get back to wasting time. Often, this proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Stuff like Adderall is not an option, since it's banned in my country.
  • I use a pomodoro app on my phone, but I only manage to study for about 4 hours like that. As soon as I make a longer break, it's really hard to make myself get back to studying
So, I need your help MeFites. Is there a reliable way of forcing myself to study for a long period? Tell me any tricks and advice you have.

posted by _Seeker_ to Education (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Self Control

Other than that, you just have to sit down and do it. 10 hours is manageable. Split it up with an hour's break. You can do this.
posted by mymbleth at 7:10 AM on August 20, 2014

Hi. I like television. During crunch times in college and law school I would ply myself with television episodes on DVD. Four hours of studying = one episode of 24. And so forth. Adjust timing and television selection as necessary. Obviously some amount of willpower will be necessary to get back to studying after you're done, but there's really no magic for that. The key, for me, was to have something enjoyable reasonably within reach to motivate myself to keep going.
posted by eugenen at 7:16 AM on August 20, 2014

As to your four points:

1. I'm sure there are utilities you can download that let you restrict your internet usage to specified domains. I think one for the Mac is called Self Control, no idea what its equivalent is on the PC.

2. You know that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you feel these feelings coming up, acknowledge them and give yourself permission to deal with them after the exam. And then, actually do deal with them after the exam -- there is a whole field of therapy around productivity and procrastination. You can get books or talk to a professional about your problems here.

3. You can do this without Adderall. Or maybe you can't; I don't know whether it's actually possible to learn a term's worth of math in 10 days, but it is possible to try your damnedest to learn it without Adderall. Don't make the absence of medication your excuse for not trying. You are in crunch mode here.

4. You always have a choice. I don't know what else to tell you. Make the choice you want to make. If that choice is to fail this exam, make it. If that choice is to try your best, make it. And make it easier for yourself -- if TV is a distraction, unplug the TV and put it in your closet. If games are a problem, delete them from your computer or put your XBox in the closet with the TV. If it's your phone, give the phone to a trusted friend. Be ruthless with your distractions.

But also, give yourself rewards that refresh you for the next session. Get up and take a five-minute walk with your five minutes pomodoro break. Stand in the sunshine. Breathe deeply. Do a sun salutation. Eat a healthy meal, light and full of protein to keep you fresh and not sluggish. For your longer break, take a run or a bike ride or something to get your blood going. Drink lots of water. Don't take your break in the same physical place and posture as your studying.

Good luck.
posted by gauche at 7:20 AM on August 20, 2014

A few tips:

First, lower the drama level. The absolute worst that will happen is that you will fail. You won't be the first, and you won't be the last. The consequences of failing are: having to take the class/exam again. The consequences of failing are not: losing your girlfriend/boyfriend, being ostracized by your peers, having a limb chopped off, being sentenced for an atrocious crime you didn't commit in a thrilling Hitchcock movie, bringing shame upon yourself or your family, triggering the ebola pandemic, etc.

Second, everyone's study needs are different. If your peers say "10 hours per day", that says absolutely nothing about how much studying you will actually need to do. It's probably less, but it could be more. You won't know until you actually do it. I do actuarial exams and many many people recommend over 300 hours of study time per exam. I got through most with less than 100 h, but my last one took over 400.

Third, you don't need wolfram alpha to check your answers. You seriously totally don't. Stop using wolfram alpha and learn to check your answers in a different way, ideally through logic. Why? Well, if you get used to wolfram alpha, once you're actually taking the exam you'll get that pang of doubt as to whether your answer is correct. Then you'll want to check wolfram alpha. Then you won't have wolfram alpha. Then you'll get extra anxiety for the rest of the questions on the exam.

Fourth, if when in the presence of a computer with internet access you inevitably end up on reddit or metafilter or any of the other glorious joys of the internet, study somewhere where there are no computers. The great thing about math is that it's about the only sphere of human activity that can be completely divined a priori. So go to a nice quiet library, don't bring your laptop, get a fat stack of scrap paper and your textbook, and do some problems. Do this alone. Other people are a distraction and rarely talk about math, so they're definitely extraneous to your studying. You seriously do not have time to start re-evaluating your time management faculties, the direction your life is taking or how much you procrastinate on the internet. Just go to a library and do problems.

Finally, your time should be devoted 100% to doing problems. Is there a sample exam? Where there homework assignments? Does your textbook have an answer key or a solutions manual? Here's what you do:
  • Get an answer key/solutions manual for your textbook/sample exam/whatever.
  • Take each chapter of the textbook you're supposed to know for the exam, and do all odd-numbered problems (or even-numbered if that's how you roll)
  • Do one problem without looking at the answer. Go through the textbook if necessary. There's usually an example in the main text that's a blueprint of the exam problem you're trying to solve. Whatever happens, get an answer.
  • Check your answer. If it's right, awesome, do the next odd-numbered problem and stop thinking about the one you just did. You solved it so it is now useless to you.
  • If your answer is wrong, understand why you got it wrong. Spend 30 minutes maximum. If you still don't understand what went wrong, write it down for later, and go to the next even numbered problem. Why? Well, you've got trouble with that particular concept, so you need to do more problems :)
What I'm trying to get at is that your life is now entirely geared towards passing this exam. Eating and hygiene are secondary. Do your problems and you will pass. Everyone struggles with math at some point. Just do the problems.


You got 99 problems.
posted by Mons Veneris at 7:30 AM on August 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

Disclaimer: this is what works for me and my not-chemically treated but formally diagnosed ADHD brain, which likes writing and listening but not reading as a form of studying. I successfully passed a licensing exam with this strategy, done over 5 days. I plan on using it next spring or summer for a month before the MCAT.

Pomodoro is good. Leechblocking everything except Wolfram Alpha is good. Physically removing yourself from sources of procrastination is good, whether they are the TV, your dog, your kitchen chores, your Amazon wishlist, whatever.

Study for 3/4 of the time you are actually able to do, then spend the remaining fourth of that block doing something physical. Sounds like for your 4-hour limit, maybe 3 hours of Pomodoro-ing, then forty-five minutes to an hour or so of a walk or light bike ride. Then get right back into studying. Set multiple guilt tripping "get the hell back to work" alarms every minute for the last 10 minutes of your long break if you must, but don't break the schedule. If listening to recorded lectures or Khan Academy (etc) videos of the course topics would help during the walk, do that. If your brain needs to completely unpack in order to focus again, listen to a podcast or some energizing music instead. But the physical activity part is really key at least for me.

Other things that really help me are explaining topics to someone after the day is done. So after you work your allotted 9-10 hours of studying (3 blocks of the above protocol) make a list of the critical topics you have covered. Then, preferably while you are eating or lounging by a fire pit or something equally decompressing, find a friend who understands all the material that is prerequisite for this course, but has not taken the course, and teach them how to do each step of an example problem for each important topic, and show how the formulas are derived. Shouldn't take more than an hour or so, but make sure they call you on it if your explanation is unclear or jumps around or ignores important background. If you cannot explain the topic well, start with a review of that tomorrow.

Make an organized list of every necessary concept from your syllabus and check off boxes for each topic you review and each one you successfully teach, so you have a "sticker chart" for your progress on each topic. If there are critical equations that you will need to memorize, note them next to that row of the sticker chart and give a brief explanation of what each term does, or what bigger formula this one is derived from. This is especially useful if you get to bring your own formula sheet to the exam.

Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Make sure you are eating healthy food. Lots of fruit and veg and protein, prepared in advance in the morning so you don't ruin your blocks of scheduled studying. Make sure you are drinking enough water. Make sure your surroundings are conducive to focusing, whether that's silence or café noise or an unfamiliar new library or a picnic table at a park, whatever works for you. That is now your work space. Don't work in a social/distracting space like your bedroom or the coffee place where you chat with friends, even if your friends are not there. Make sure you stretch your body and your eyes at each Pomodoro break.

This is totally doable. Don't bog down in guilt, just keep looking forward.
posted by skyl1n3 at 7:30 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just finished my first year of medical school, and every exam feels like this. I don't know how relevant my experience will be, but here are a few things I learned.

The first thing that was helpful for me was the realization that I can't learn everything no matter how hard I tried. This seems backwards, but stick with me. This acceptance lessens the anxiety when I realize that I have a limited amount of time and a seemingly unlimited amount of information. It also means you have to focus on what is really important which leads me to...

The second thing I learned was that it pays to identify areas which you know you can learn, and those you don't feel comfortable with. That is, don't let yourself waste time on something you know to be particularly difficult if it means you're sacrificing time you could be dedicating to something a little friendlier or likely to score you a point or two on the exam.

Walk around the neighborhood once ever two or three hours. Often times I found that I would get stuck on something particularly difficult and before long I had burned an entire afternoon. Getting up and going for a walk prevents you from getting into a rut, and helps you move on.

The last piece of advice is to seek out somebody who has taken the class before and ask what was most important for the exam. Often previous classes either have old exams (which are incredible resources for studying because teachers frequently just tweak and reuse questions) or a really good idea of what will likely end up on the final and thus can guide your studying.

The phrase that gets tossed around in medical school is"high yield" and while it can feel a bit distasteful to study for an exam instead of learning for learning's sake at the end of the day you still have to pass the class.
posted by ghostpony at 7:59 AM on August 20, 2014

Spend one day going over the whole course/exam content. Identify 2 things you know (congratulations!), 2 things that are a total black box to you (just scratch these off the list. You'll flunk that section of the exam, but at least you won't waste any time on it), and 2 things that you kind of understand. Spend the next day working the 2 things you kind of understand up to an acceptable level of competency. The following day, do another practice exam, or go over over the whole syllabus again - you're reviewing the things you "have", and identifying 2 more things that your new skills have made a bit more accessible than they were last time. Focus on those for a day. Repeat. If you run into problems and there's more than a couple of things you feel like you'll never get, call in a friend to help explain things to you, but try to only have 10% of the exam topics be in that no-knowledge category.
posted by aimedwander at 8:12 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I studied for math exams without Wolfram Alpha. Buy yourself a guide for that kind of math (whichever it is, I used Schaum's outlines regularly) -- it will give you just piles of problems with worked out solutions. Do all the problems, compare solutions, you will be fine.
posted by jeather at 8:14 AM on August 20, 2014

Look, to do the best you can on the exam you will have to study smarter, not harder.

Step 0 is to figure out what could be on the test. If you are lucky, you can find this info on the syllabus or on a study guide. If you are less lucky (and you should do this anyways), you will have to go back through your class notes (you have those... right?), assigned homework problems, and textbook to figure this out.

Step 1 is to organize the concepts. I like to use a table. For instance a calculus 101 class might have the following column headings: Functions, Limits, Derivatives, Integrals. Under the derivatives column, there might be subtopics like "the chain rule" and the "product & quotient rules" (etc.)

Step 2 is to add to your table the major theorems/ formulas, etc.

Step 3 is to go through your notes and homework to find key examples for each of the subtopics. This step is important, because on the exam you will have to read the problem, identify what "type" of problem it is, and then find the answer.

Step 4 is to make a game plan/ study schedule. Use your table to analyze what you do and do not know in context of what will be on the exam. Prioritize accordingly.

As you've discovered, using Wolfram Alpha sets you up for failure. Use problems you already have the answer to (text book examples, examples from class notes, completed & corrected homework assignments). If necessary, go to the campus library and check out another dead tree book for problems.

If you get stuck, as your instructor for help, or see if the department can recommend a tutor.
posted by oceano at 12:56 PM on August 20, 2014

Response by poster: Wow, this thread is super helpful! Thank you, everyone!
posted by _Seeker_ at 10:32 PM on August 20, 2014

So in my long summers of exams in my undegraduate days, I had this pretty down. I would usually have several different subjects I needed to revise for, and less time than you have here. I would schedule myself, not super strictly, but basically something along the lines of

9am: get up, have breakfast. Get study stuff ready
9:30: Revise
10:15: Revise
12:Lunch, then go for a long walk. I lived in Bath at the time, so went off on sojourns into the countryside.

And so forth. I would probably fail to meet that schedule, but by having it I would be aware of where I wanted to be. I would also look at how much I needed to learn, and try to set myself progress goals for the day, so that I would know if I could finish early or needed to keep on pushing myself.

Everyone learns differently. I cannot imagine revising for 10 hours, I simply don't think you can be mentally effective for that time. I would guess that I would get in about 4/5 hours of revision a day.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:16 AM on August 21, 2014

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