Preparing for exams

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Taking an exam is never an entirely stress-free moment, but a few simple techniques based on current cognitive research about learning will help you prepare for your exams with confidence.

What’s the secret?

The secret is to reduce demands on your short-term working memory during your exam. This will reduce your mental load and feelings of stress. You will feel calmer and more confident during your exam, and you will perform better.

How do I reduce stress on my working memory?

You need to “overlearn” the course material on which you will tested. This means you revise and practice the material so much, that your recall of the material from your long-term memory to your short-term working becomes “automatic”. This “automaticity” reduces the mental effort you need to recall the knowledge and apply it during an exam.

What strategies will help me to overlearn?

Space out your revision sessions over several weeks. Revising the same material several times at weekly intervals increases the strength of your recall.

Mix up the topics that you revise. Your power of recall will be strengthened if you revise different courses in the same sessions, rather than concentrating on one course or class and then another one. By revising different topics together, you will start to make links between seeming disparate knowledge, your learning will be better integrated and more robust.

Replicate: revise by doing the same type of task or activity that you will be asked to do in the exam. This replication of exam conditions will prepare your mind and memory to function effectively during your assessment. Learning a teacher’s PowerPoint presentations or highlighting text is not an efficient way to prepare for an exam.


Regular revision sessions, revision by applying the knowledge you need to learn (use the knowledge to do something, do not simply try to memorize it) and mixing up the topics as you revise are all proven techniques to prepare for exams. Learning is hard work, but it is worth the investment of time and effort!