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Exams: what to do in the final 24 hours before

A person sitting in front of a computer screen

In Jan 2021 we delivered a CIMA webinar on what learners can do the day before an exam. Here’s a summary of some of the points raised.

The webinar was delivered by Kaplan’s Head of Learning, Stuart Pedley Smith, and CIMA’s Director of Relationship Programmes, Mark Foley.

Student feedback

The sessions began with a review of the feedback we had received from many students.

Responses were prompted by the question - “Which activities do you prioritise before an exam?”.

In descending order, with the most popular at the top, these were the most common responses:

Question practice

Re-reading tuition and revision notes

Reviewing memory joggers to aid recall

Covering topics I don’t understand

Relaxing rather than studying

Other

Stuart then outlined some ways students can boost the effectiveness of their study time in the final 24 hours before an exam.

Getting information into long term memory

He explained that ‘learning’ is effectively a process of transferring knowledge into long term memory. But simply re-reading textbooks is a passive process, and with any passive activity it is very difficult for the brain to embed new information.

In the run up to the exam, to help make ‘re reading’ more effective, it would be beneficial to accompany this activity with an action such as underlining or highlighting.

This will help focus attention on a particular word or topic which is important if you are to remember it again later. Also avoid highlighting paragraphs which requires little effort, and as a result is a far less effective learning strategy.

Manage the time well

One question we invited students to ask themselves is ‘What are you trying to achieve with the time you have left?’.

Time is at a premium as you get closer to the exam and rather than tackling the conceptual and bigger topics that you might have struggled to understand, you should be realistic as to what can be achieved. Focus more on getting information into your head using memory techniques such as acronyms and simple repetition.

Spaced practice and interleaving

Stuart recommended these two study techniques, where you revise many smaller and digestible bits of varied information. It’s a process of ‘switching things up’ and learning in different formats.

Although learning different topics in different ways can be more challenging, it keeps you engaged and on your toes.

For more information on this concept read our blog "Top six proven study techniques (Part 1)".

Relax

To perform well in an exam you need to be in the right frame of mind, and a good night’s sleep is key to this. Stuart argued that sleep is very important from a learning point of view.

You need a good night's sleep before an exam as it resets the brain for the next day. Sleep effectively helps to embed and consolidate learning.

So how do we get a good night’s sleep? Avoid stimulants before bed, and don't study right up to bedtime. Ideally do something relaxing to wind down such as: watch TV or read a book, preferably not one about accountancy!

Final thoughts

In the final 24 hours the best we can hope for is to maximise your chance of exam success based on what you already know, rather than having a eureka moment with regards to a topic that you didn't understand.

Here’s a summary of what you can do, plus some final quick tips...

Planning/structure - think about the 24 period, and break it down. Stuart recommends breaking it into 6 good study sessions. 4 in the day, 1 in the morning and 1 early evening, depending on when your exam is. Preferably in 1 and a half hours or 2 hours sessions.

Learning/study - with study sessions students should be going over much of what they already know but might forget: formulas, mind maps etc. And don't forget exam questions but keep them short, you need to cover a lot of content. Also, repetition is important.

Sleep - try your best to switch off. Distract yourself with something that helps you relax. Allow the brain to relax. Do something that requires low cognitive effort.

Exercise and breaks - you need little breaks in between study sessions, just 15 minutes. Exercise in your breaks is very good to get the endorphins going and helps you to relax. But don’t over exert yourself.

Diet - hydrate yourself, have lots and lots of water. Avoid stimulants from mid-afternoon onwards (for sleep, later). Avoid alcohol, as it does not give you a better quality of sleep. You want to be in the best possible position physically and mentally.

Remember, your success is tied to all of these things. There’s no point having a good night's sleep if you haven’t put the effort into studying, or if you haven’t planned. So try to commit to all of them.

Wishing you all the best for your exams!

Watch the full webinar launch, which also includes a 15 minute Q&A.

*https://www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/memory-and-sleep launch