Australia’s leading international student news website

How to study more effectively

Steven Tannason

Tue May 31 2011


PREPARING for exams and wondering how to retain all that information? Understanding how your brain works will help you study more effectively, says Melbourne University’s developmental and educational psychology expert Associate Professor Mary Ainley.

It’s SWOTVAC (Read: Exams are coming)!

How do you prepare for exams? I know some students swear by mind maps while others use mnemonics to help them memorise. Some find mornings the best time to study while others would rather pull an all-nighter.

So what works and what doesn’t?

Associate Professor Mary Ainley from Melbourne University’s Psychological Sciences department says the best ways to study depends on the nature of the subject students are undertaking.

“It’s important to work out what’s required for the subject you’re doing,” she says.

“For example, in one of the subjects I teach in, there are multiple choice questions and short essay questions. While you could probably get through the MCQ by memorising the material, you’re going to need to do more than that if you’re going to answer essay questions. Probably you should think of doing more than that for MCQ as well.

“For example, after last week’s lecture, one of my students said to me, ‘To study for the exam, I’m going to re-read my notes’.

“My response to that is – that’s not the best way to go about it. You have to actually transform the material in some ways to make it meaningful to yourself.”

Mind maps not only help you organise your thoughts, they also help you retain information and aid with memory recall afterwards. Photo: Wan Shing Lang

That’s one reason why mind maps are useful in helping students grasp concepts and learnings, says Prof Ainley.

You’re more likely to retain what you’ve studied if your brain has processed the information and transformed it in some way.

“If you’ve got the mind maps and you go to your exams and see a question, you can read off the maps in your head the parts that are going to be relevant to the question,” she says.

Regarding best practices for studying, there is no one right way, says Prof Ainley.

The means can be different, but the end point is the same, and that is to make sure you engage in deeper thinking about the topics and subjects you are studying.

When it comes to the big day itself, Prof Ainley recommends students have a good sleep the night before.

“Be organised. If you tend to get anxious in exams, find some ways to reduce your anxiety,” she says.

“One of the things I used to use to monitor my time and keep in pace of what’s happening: I used to take in a packet of barley sugar and I would allow myself to have one at the end of each hour. It would allow you to pace your time, act as a reward and enable you to have some ways to relax.”

So remember:

  • Understand what is required for the subjects you are studying to determine the best method to study.
  • You are more likely to retain what you’ve studied if your brain has processed the information in some way. Mind maps, flow charts can really help.
  • Engage meaningfully with the topics and subjects you are studying. You are only skimming the surface if you are only reading your notes over and over again. Look further than your exams and approach your studies as a future engineer/doctor/scientist/accountant/psychologist/marketing guru/whatever field you are preparing to enter into.