Learning for exams

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Why & When

Well, when you have an exam coming up 😉 However, most of the ideas below are generally targeted at learning, be it in academic or non-academic settings.


  • Spend your learning time efficiently & effectively
  • Retain knowledge & understanding long-term
  • Enjoy learning

What to do

Learning for exams is a vast field. The following can thereby only be a fraction of possible insights on the topic and is not meant to be completely exhaustive or 100% scientific. It is however largely backed by scientific evidence and the personal experience of the author. If you think anything is inaccurate or missing, do feel free to contact us.

The following is structured into separate paragraphs, starting with a more general note on learning approaches before diving deeper into techniques which you may find helpful. Furthermore, a section on what is usually not effective when learning and some general tips are included. The body of reference is meant to give you the opportunity to dive deeper into selected topics, yet if you follow what is collected below, you should be very much good to go.

Planning & Consistency

The first thing to note is that exam success hardly depends on the few weeks before the exam itself, but rather on your whole semester. Starting to learn early and consistently will, in the long run, save you a lot of time and stress and will also improve your exam success.
Part of this is having a more or less clear overview on what is going to be covered or assessed and what it is you want to learn. This should also include a clear idea on what is not interesting or too important, either for yourself or the exam. Try to get an overview of topics and contents via the syllabus or ask the teacher / lecturer for it.
Another part is always being more or less up to date with lectures or seminars. It doesn't take more than 30 minutes after a lecture for you to forget most of what you just heard. If at all possible, take 10 to 15 minutes after each session to work with your notes, reformulate them and throw them into your knowledge base (whatever that is). A good idea is also to directly transfer them to a flashcard tool such as Anki (see below).


There are several learning techniques that have been scientifically proven to yield better results than what is commonly used by many students and learners. Try to stick to these as you learn!

One important concept is spaced repetition. This means that you should repeat content in increasingly longer intervals to ensure long-term retention. So, concretely, if you've just learned something, repeat it first on the next day, then after 3 days, after 7 days, after two weeks, and so on. Repetition intervals should depend on how well you were able to remember something on a given day (e.g. when you had lots of trouble after 7 days, maybe throw in another repetition 2 days later). The aforementioned overview of learning content can be combined with this, i.e. you can make a table with all the content for a given course and track when you repeated which topic to help you keep an overview.

Active Recall
Active Recall means recapitulating everything you know on a topic or question you are learning without checking your notes or sources. There is a significant learning edge to this over re-reading notes or trying to immediately fill in your gaps. Try to remember everything you know for as hard as possible until you are certain that you will not remember anything else. Only then should you check back with your notes to see if you have forgotten anything. This will then subsequently show you on which gaps you need to focus more.

Useful tools can be using MindMaps or SpiderDiagrams, but also writing down bullet points, full texts or talking to a friend about it. If you happen to have an interim outage of friends, it is absolutely fine to talk to your chair or any other attentive listener that can't escape.

Elaboration is the act of thoughtfully laying out a topic, talking about associations, explaining concepts, drawing connections to other knowledge and in general being very verbose about answering a question or talking about a topic. This can very much be combined with active recall (i.e. not using your notes for recapitulation).

Interleaving means to disperse the learning you're doing in a certain amount of time across several topics. It has been shown that this can lead to better learning outcomes than block or massed learning. As an example, you might be inclined to learn one whole week for one topic, another whole week for another topic and so on. Research indicates that interleaving those topics over two weeks can be more effective. Of course, you should not overdo it and switch topics every thirty minutes. Try to find some balance that works for you!

Probably the most important and undervalued in learning (and work in general)! Take. Breaks. A lot.

Your ability to understand and retain information will benefit from you being on top of your game, and you will likely be more on top of it if you take breaks. A good rule of thumb is to take a 5 minute break every 25 minutes when learning (as that has been shown to be the average time a student can fully concentrate). Of course, this will vary from person to person, but do remember that people are generally pretty bad at accurately assessing their concentration level and learning effectiveness at a given point in time. If in doubt, take the break.

Also, several shorter breaks are way more effective than fewer long breaks. Studying for two and a halve hours and taking a thirty minute break will typically be much worse than doing six 25/5 blocks - especially if you plan to continue after the initial three hours.

If you're interested, see e.g. Ariga & LLeras (2011)

Supportive Tools

A really good tool for active recall and spaced repetition! A small app available for Computers, Macs, iPhones and Android Smartphones, giving you all the things you would want from a flashcard app and having a really good spaced repetition algorithm. Alternatives can be analogue flashcard boxes or quizlet. The huge benefit of Anki is that you'll have it with you all the time. Waiting for the bus? Answer a few cards. Bored before going to sleep? Answer a few cards!

(Libre) Office
Going hand in hand with the planning section above, it can be very useful to pour your learning plan into a table or worksheet, e.g. in Excel or Word. Any other software such as Libre Office or Google Docs will do just as well!

Try to write down the topics you have to learn in a MECE way (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) so you have everything neatly in front of you. You can now, at every point in time, write down an assessment of your perceived learning strength per topic, keep an overview of when you learned which topic last or when you'll learn it next (see "Spaced Repetition" above) and so on. If you're lucky, your lecturer will provide you with something that you can use as a solid base for this - asking for it also doesn't hurt!

All of this can of course also be done on paper or in a notebook - it might just get messy if you're not very disciplined.

Further remarks

Notes on group work

Group work is great, but can also be largely ineffective. If you gather 5 people who know next to nothing about a topic, there is very little chance you'll create insight from nothing just by being together. Try to have a clear idea on what you want out of your group work and assign or rotate roles accordingly. One idea is to, each week, have one person in the group explain a recent topic to everyone else (see also "Elaboration" and "Active Recall"). You can also have sessions within which one person tries to actively recall and elaborate on a topic, and the other(s) ask questions regarding gaps they might be seeing or remark inaccuracies. This combines active recall, elaboration and having an incredible amount of fun together! 🥳

Restructuring your environment

It can be a good idea to make use of your environment. Build in cues into your rooms, have different stations for different topics, and so on. Maybe hang a mindmap of your learning topics next to your bathroom mirror so you can recap 1 or 2 topics while brushing your teeth. Throw up sticky notes with central questions around your house.

Also, it can be very useful to have a dedicated place for your learning activities. Don't learn in your bed, don't learn at your dining room table. If both happen to be the same thing, try to have something around that you can alter when you start learning and switch back as you stop learning. The easiest way to do this is getting a Learning Lamp that you only turn on while learning!

Smartphone use

Smartphones can be useful for learning (see Anki), but they are also distracting. It has been shown that only keeping a smartphone in the same room without direct eye contact messes with your concentration level (cf. Ward et al., 2017). So, when learning, shut it off and get it as far away from you as possible!

A note on "learning types"

There's a persistent belief that people have different learning types, e.g. being a Visual, Aural, Read/Write or Kinesthetic (VARK) learner. As of today, we know of no research that supports this thesis (cf. Husmann et al., 2018 / Knoll et al., 2017). What is true however is that using multiple types of media and modes supports understanding and retention. So don't stick to only watching videos because "you're a visual learner", but do switch it up - it's also more fun!

What NOT to do

These are several techniques that are widely used by learners that are pretty ineffective. Typically, you'll want to avoid these.

There's almost no learning effect when summarizing slides, syllabi or textbooks while having them openly available next to you. Of course, if you're doing it with Active Recall, you're good to go! It might nevertheless be helpful to reformulate concepts in your own words to improve understanding.

Underlining & Highlighting
Typical study technique - next to no effect. As long as you just use it to underline/highlight important passages without recapitulating them later by memory, you can stop doing this.

Re-Reading is probably the opposite of active recall. Don't do it, it will only make you feel as if you get things better (because you get better at recognizing the content), yet will do next to no good in terms of application and recall in exams.

This goes hand in hand with taking breaks and interleaving. Don't spend massive amounts of time without taking breaks or looking into other topics every once in a while!

Links & Further reading





The author of this entry is Matteo Ramin.