The Ultimate Study Guide

Like it or not, sooner or later we will all probably have to take an exam. In fact, IB seniors have two such exams this week. Teachers, parents and other well-meaning people often like to say, “Don’t stress!” to their young scholars, without elaborating on how this might be done. One way to feel less stressed is to feel prepared for the exam, and the only way you can be prepared for an exam is to study. Studying effectively can be quite difficult however and this article is composed of study tips which seek to make the monumental task of studying for exams less daunting.

Types of learning:

Learning falls into two main categories: memorisation of facts, and understanding of concepts. In order to do well on an exam, you have to be good at both.


Educators often dismiss memorisation as an ineffective learning method, as it tends to be far less permanent than the understanding of concepts. Memorisation has its place however. It’s important to understand the political reasons World War One began, but if you can’t remember the date that it started, then those reasons aren’t a lot of use.* Additionally, understanding of concepts tends to can come from lots of memorisation, that is memorisation followed by practice!  Here are some tips on memorisation techniques.

Flash Cards:

Flash cards are useful, but only when practiced properly. Though they work for all sorts of subjects (dates for history, organelles for biology, etc.), the most common way in which flashcards are used is to study languages. When reviewing words on flashcards, read the words aloud. Make sure you don’t take more than a second or two to recall the word or phrase you are looking for, and make sure you can pronounce it. If you can’t pronounce the word you are studying, you cannot remember it. If you do have trouble pronouncing the word, or it takes more than a couple of seconds to remember it, look at the answer and read it aloud before moving on. If flashcards are reviewed in a rapid manner, three or four rounds of revision can vastly improve recall of the knowledge on them.

Method of the Loci (Or Sherlock’s Mind Palace):

The Method of the Loci does not involve gazing lovingly into the eyes of your Tom Hiddleston poster and praying for a good grade. Its roots are much older than that. Legend has it that 2,500 years ago in classical Greece there was a banquet. One man at the banquet was named Simonides. Simonides left the banquet hall for a moment, possibly to use the loo, and on his return discovered that the roof of the hall had caved in and killed all the guests, mangling many bodies beyond recognition. Macabre maybe, but this allowed Simonides to show to the world his interesting method of memorisation. Simonides found that by visualising the banquet hall he had been in before the collapse, he could “see” where people had been sitting. This allowed him to help identify the mangled bodies, based on their location around the crushed table. This technique was developed further and became known as Method of the Loci (loci = places – singular; locus).

Though this method has fallen out of fashion in recent years, it is beginning to make a comeback, in no small thanks due to Sherlock’s Mind Palace. As it turns out, we can employ this method for you own use. To learn it, close your eyes and picture a door. Make it the most familiar door in the world: your front door. Open the door and step into your house. In your mind’s eye, walk into your living room. There is a picture on the wall. Examining it you notice it is a diagram, in big, clear labels, showing the interphase of mitosis. You walk into your kitchen and see another diagram, this time of prophase. Walking through your house you see all of the phases of mitosis clearly labelled in picture frames on various walls. They’re there now, in the locus of your mind, your mental house, making things easier to remember. You can places anything you need in your locus, whether it’s slowed down light with the wavelength clearly marked, or a leprechaun saying “Ich bin ein Kobold”. These objects will stay there until you decide to remove them and can be a very effective memory tool. Don’t worry about running out of space, as you practice the technique, you can expand to larger places, such as the school.


The Protégé Effect:

Teaching someone else the information you are required to learn is often a fantastic study technique. Students who tutor their peers (officially or unofficially) tend to work harder to understand the material, are able to recall the material more easily and correctly, and are able to apply the knowledge more effectively. If there is no one studying the same material as you, even an explanation of your study material at the dinner table (or, in a pinch, talking to the dog) can help the knowledge to slot into place in your own mind.

Past Papers:

Studying past exam papers is one of the most valuable exercises you can undertake, especially by placing yourself in an exam setting (doing the paper for a set amount of time). Not only does it help you to learn exactly the information likely to be on the exam, but it also helps you to understand the structure of the questions, and how best to work through them, without the pressure. It is also not unusual that questions on exams are repeated, with only minor variations in the details. Familiarising yourself with past exams also eliminates much of the fear involved with taking an unknown type of test.

Good Study Practice:

Putting effort into studying doesn’t mean very much without the proper know-how. In fact, it often creates a counterproductive effect. Doing a hundred maths problems isn’t going to be very effective if you have to check the answer to each problem and work backwards; you’re not likely to retain anything at all, and it will only make you bitter towards the subject you’re attempting to master.


Study Area:

A distraction free study area is important. It’s even better to have an area dedicated only to study, such as the library or an office. This helps only because it allows you to get into the mind-set of studying. There are other things you can do which help you to get into the mind-set of studying on the occasions when you can’t make it to the library. One such method (silly though it may sound, it is actually quite effective) is to put a new lamp on your desk. Only switch this lamp on when you are working hard. The moment you take a break, switch it off. This helps create the psychological association of the lamp being switched on with work. This means that when the lamp is switched on, you are in a working mind-set, making you less susceptible to distractions


Multi-tasking is a bad idea. In fact, it is actually impossible to focus on two things at the same time. If you are SnapTwitInstaBooking while a text book is open on your lap, you probably aren’t learning very much. If you find your mind wandering, have a look at the Pomodoro Method below.

Pomodoro Method:

The Pomodoro method is the best technique for study I have come across. Developed in the 1990s by Francesco Cirillo, this technique allows you to work in short, productive “sprints” rather than meandering through a piece of work for hours on end without accomplishing very much. The technique is simple and is best expressed as a checklist:

  1. Choose the task you wish to work on (stick to one piece of work!).
  2. Take a timer and set it to 25 minutes.
  3. Work until the timer goes off. (This work period is called a Pomodoro, after the “Pomodoro” kitchen timer originally used by Cirillo).
  4. Once the timer goes off, immediately stop working and take a five minute break.
  5. For every four Pomodoros, take a longer (15-30 minute) break.

This method eliminates burnout from work, helps prevent procrastination, and allows us to work with the clock instead of against it.

It is important to note the times listed here vary slightly from person to person. You will have to experiment a little bit. Perhaps a 30 minute Pomodoro with a 10 minute break works better for you, or a 20 minute Pomodoro and a seven minute break.

Occasionally, people may attempt to interrupt your work session. Pomodoros don’t really work when divided so you either need to end your Pomodoro with the interruption and begin a new one later, or attempt to tell the distracting person to buzz off (politely!) until your work session is complete.


This is a controversial topic. Many students like nothing more than to listen to music whilst hitting the books. Unfortunately, according to this study from the University of Wales, this could actually be detrimental to your studying abilities. This and other studies have shown that listening to music whilst studying, whether the music is liked by the listener or disliked, is detrimental to our ability to perform serial-recall tasks, which are important for doing mathematics, learning languages, and remembering those precious facts we mentioned earlier. This being said, there is evidence to suggest that listening to music before you being to study can improve your concentration skills.

(It is not my job to provide anecdotal information, however I personally find that listening to quiet, calm, instrumental music, tends to be preferable to distracting background noises when studying, as it helps drown-out other people’s chatter)

Don’t Study Too Hard!

Studying is important, but it is also important to remain healthy and get plenty of sleep. The healthier your body is, the more efficiently you can absorb and retain information. Exercising and eating a healthy diet can improve your ability to do well on tests. Adolescents especially need quite a lot of sleep (a commonly touted figure is eight hours, but actually as long as you feel like you are getting enough sleep, you probably are). Staying up all night to cram for your exams will probably see you doing more poorly than if you had gotten a full night’s sleep. So hit the books, but make sure you also put aside some time to have a run around, chow down on an apple, and get a full forty winks.

*3rd August 1914 for those interested.

Further Reading:





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