3 Most Effective Learning Techniques for Exams

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Reviewed by Linda Weems I got started researching colleges and universities about 10 years ago while exploring a second career. While my second career ended up being exactly what I’m doing now, and I didn’t end up going to college, I try to put myself in your shoes every step of the way as I build out College Cliffs as a user-friendly resource for prospective students.

Updated: March 26, 2024, Reading time: 8 minutes

We all have that moment in college where we cram for next-day quizzes and exams. Pulling an all-nighter and stuffing our memory boxes with all the information that we can shove in, hoping that on the next day, it will not disappear into thin air.

But as much as you wish that it would not happen, some of the important information you memorized will be forgotten. Your time spent studying the previous night is now wasted, and expect to get a low score unless you’re lucky.

Mental fatigue is a condition reflected by mental exhaustion due to excessive cognitive activity. According to a test study, fatigue occurs after 2 hours straight of doing cognitively demanding tasks. It doesn’t only affect your decision-making ability, but it also has an impact on your health.

So imagine your life as a college student; you will spend most of your time in school doing all cognitive-related activities and spend the night reviewing all you learned that day for a quiz the next day.

Dreading it, right? If you haven’t experienced mental exhaustion in college, you may be a rarity.

Preparing for Optimum Conditions Before You Begin

learning techniques

Before jumping to the techniques, you must establish the conditions—both inside your body and in your external environment—for optimal learning and retention.

Get a good night’s sleep!

A good association exists between students’ grades and the amount of sleep they get. This, however, does not just imply obtaining a total of 8 hours of sleep before a test. Even more important is that you obtain enough sleep for many nights before doing most of your studies.

Change your study environment

Changing your study environment might help you improve your recall performance. Instead of studying at home every day, consider visiting a different coffee shop or visiting your local library once a week. A change of location might help you boost your memory and attention.

However, you can’t go to a coffee shop or a café while social distance regulations are still in effect. It would be reckless to do so. It might get you in hot water with local law police. But it doesn’t mean you can’t leave the house.

When staring at the walls of your bedroom drives you back to Netflix or Xbox, it’s time for a change of scenery. Find a quiet spot to study with your laptop or printed notes.

Getting out of the home and enjoying a change of environment is one of our top study skills for college students.

Many educational institutions and companies now provide free Wi-Fi to students who want or need to study away from home. Your car interior may not be as cozy as a table at the library, but it’s an excellent way to catch up on reading and get out of the house.

Listen to calming music

You may listen to whatever music you choose, although many believe that classical, instrumental, and lo-fi rhythms are lovely background music for studying and can help you focus. Lyrics in songs may be distracting.

Eliminate distractions

Distract yourself by turning off your phone and any distracting background noises, such as the TV or radio. Make a deal with yourself not to check social media until your study period is finished.

Choose to eat healthy snacks

Coffee and chocolates will give you a momentary lift, but soon, your blood sugar will plummet. Try healthy snacks like edamame, apples, or almonds for more focused and sustained energy.

3 Best Learning Techniques

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique was introduced by Francesco Cirillo during the 1980s. It is a time management technique that aims to help users maximize their focus and creativity by manipulating their time to do projects faster with less mental stress.

It was named “pomodoro,” an Italian term for tomato, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used during his university days as a student. As I mentioned, prolonged cognitive activities can cause mental fatigue. To avoid that, Cirillo developed this wonderful technique where you get to rest your brain during short breaks.

How it works:

  1. Lay out the task you need to be done.
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes. (Note: If you don’t have a kitchen timer, don’t freak out, there are a lot of apps or software you can use that follows these techniques or you can manually monitor your time using your alarm clock)
  3. Work on the task (Note: Try to focus on doing the task for 25 straight minutes without interruption)
  4. Stop your work when the timer rings.
  5. Set a timer for a 5-minute break to allow your brain to rest. After the short break, go back to steps number 2 & 3. (Note: Within the short breaks, I normally do menial tasks or quick household chores to exercise my muscles from too much sitting or engage myself in a 5-minute plank exercise to keep me awake)
  6. After four pomodoros (four 25-minute focused studies), take a long break for 20 minutes. Then, after the long break, you can start again back to step number 1 until you finish your task.

This learning technique helps in finishing each assignment and task not only in college but also with work and personal activities. Ultimately, this technique has been widely used even with relevant personalities which proves that the technique can be effective.

If you haven’t tried this one, you might want to give it a go and test the effectiveness yourself. If not, you might want to try the next learning techniques.

Lecturing the Wall Technique

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.” – Old Chinese Proverb

This learning technique is very similar to that quote. In order to understand important things, you need to get involved and experience them first-hand.

But how will you apply it to textbooks? Lecture the wall. Some of you may have a vision of what it means. After reading a lesson in a textbook, try to summarize what you understand and say it out loud like you are teaching it to someone.

As Seneca the Younger says, “While we teach, we learn.” Pretending to be lecturing from your professor’s perspective, you have the tendency to understand which points are important in the lesson.

Understanding your lessons is way much better rather than just rereading and memorizing them. It will stay longer in your memory than simply memorizing the keywords.

The “Test Yourself” Technique

We may hate the term “test” but believe it or not, this learning technique is actually a good way to check if you really understand and remember the keywords in your lesson. Think of it as a trial test to help you review what you studied.

Make a questionnaire and answer it. If you don’t like writing questions then test yourself in your head by asking questions and answering them. Pretend that it is a real test and answer the problems without looking at your notes.

After answering the dummy questionnaire, check it and see for yourself the number of mistakes you committed. The beauty of this learning technique is it doesn’t have to have a timer. You can do this in a slow phase or with a timer either way, you hold the time. You can always do a retest until you get the perfect score.

By practicing this learning technique, your ability to mentally organize your knowledge or the information you acquired will improve. This will help you become more efficient and feel less time-constrained during the actual quiz or exam.

This has become a practice since then, and it remained effective until now. The best way to prepare yourself for almost anything is to anticipate. You can then prepare a response to any expected happenings.

Subconsciously, you are giving yourself a head start on what’s going to happen and what you should do or shouldn’t. It has the same effect with this learning technique; you anticipate the possible questions to be asked during the quiz, and if you did a practice testing beforehand, then there’s a high chance that you will get a higher score.

“The Power Trio” Bottom Line

You can combine these three techniques whenever you’re studying and you can fondly call them “The Power Trio”. However, just like any other learning technique, these techniques might not be effective to you or to some. It will always depend on a person’s preference when it comes to effective learning.

Again, different techniques apply to different people. Nonetheless, if you’re someone who’s frustrated about the mentally draining activities in school but is also a determined student who wants to pass, then you can check these learning techniques and see for yourself which one works best for you. Happy studying!

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