Prep for exams like a pro – with advice from our PLAs

Good exam preparation habits are essential if you want to be your best on the day. But how can you make the most of your time in the lead-up to exams?

Our Peer Learning Advisors (PLAs) are experienced exam-takers who know how to get great marks and maintain a healthy work-life balance in the process. So we asked them to answer all your exam prep questions!

When should I start preparing for my final exams?

Clayton Rowbotham: Ideally, you should be consistently preparing for your final exams and assessments to make it easier for when they are due. Making sure you are keeping on track with weekly work and creating summary notes each week will help out in the end.

Hannah Schofield: As soon as you know you have an exam and you know what content will be included,  start to prep. Leaving exam preparation to the last minute only adds stress on top of an already high-pressure situation.

I feel overwhelmed by everything I need to do to prepare. How can I break it down step-by-step?

Nick Dosser: Think about the structure of your semester and how each subject has been broken down. Was there a new topic each week? Or was it organised into a few larger areas? Once you understand how this structure looks, separate the topics and start to break down them down into smaller parts.

 If you’ve got a study group or some friends studying the same subject, try to organise sharing the topics between you so that you can get through them quicker.  

What’s the best way to memorise information?  

Nick Dosser: 

  • Firstly, write out what you need to memorise (by hand with a pen and paper), and break it down into a list, flowchart, or diagram.  
  • Secondly, read over it in your head or out loud to yourself, whatever works for you.  
  • Thirdly, cover up your list/flowchart/diagram, and then rewrite or recite it until you can do it without looking.  
  • Finally, have a friend or family member test you by asking questions about what you’ve learned, preferably at random. Diagrams and flow charts are great for this if you’re more of a visual learner, but the key is repetition and challenging yourself to recall what you’ve remembered without looking. 

Hammad Shahin: The strategies of “active recall” and “spaced repetition” are your best friends. I highly recommend watching this video from my favourite productivity YouTuber, Ali Abdaal. Active recall and spaced repetition strategies maximise the ease and effectiveness of memorisation and are backed up by many studies. Ali Ab daal breaks this all down.

Procrastination is a big problem for me. How can I overcome this?  

Hannah Schofield: Develop a study plan. Set aside some time each day for study planning (30 minutes to an hour, it doesn’t have to be a lot). Write out exactly what you want to achieve in each session. Make these small achievable goals, for example reading and annotating a set number of pages from a text. Don’t overload yourself!

I study in a separate room from any distractions. I like to put on headphones and play videos of ambient study music from YouTube that keeps my mind focused and doesn’t allow it to wonder to other places.

Kate Cumming: I am very good at procrastinating and I’ve learnt a couple of things. Firstly, try and have a clean, clear and positive workspace. I feel this helps me focus when I start my study or assignments.

Secondly, try and get free of distractions. I turn my TV off, put my phone on silent and put it in a drawer, preferably in another room. This helps me to not scroll for ages after just getting one notification.

Finally, try and take regular breaks. It is not always sustainable to work for hours on end. You can try the Pomodoro method, where you work for 25 to 30 minutes and then take a five-minute break.

How can I plan an achievable study schedule around work, kids and life? Any tips for staying on track?

Kate Cumming: Achieving a work, life and study balance is something we consistently work on and there is no perfect formula for all people. I like to use a yearly and weekly planner to visually represent my key dates and colour code according to what type of task it is (either work, social or study).

Ticking things off on a weekly planner and yearly planner can be very satisfying and keep you motivated by seeing all the progress you’ve made.

If you feel you are really not coping and  feel overwhelmed, always reach out for help. You can make an appointment with one of La Trobe University’s Counselling Services.

How do I avoid fatigue and burnout during my study sessions?

Hannah Schofield: In the words of the musical Hamilton: “Take a break”!  For every hour of study, take half an hour of rest to do something that doesn’t use mental strength. I sometimes take this opportunity to do laundry or dishes. I try to avoid watching TV or using my phone in these times  because I am one to personally get stuck at procrastination station.

Sometimes going for a quick walk around the block is the best thing to relax your mind. Do some mindfulness walking and focus on the sounds, smells and sights of nature. It can truly reset your mind and body back to a place of focus and strength to continue working.

I find exams stressful. How can I prepare myself so that nerves don’t get the best of me on the day?

Hannah Schofield: Practice taking the exam under exam conditions. Try to get your hands on some practice exams or  just make them up yourself. The important thing is to replicate the exam situation as best you can. Set a timer, sit alone, even go to the place you will be doing the exam. Do this often!

Nick Dosser: Make sure everything is set out the day before. Know how to access the exam link online, and even organise what you’ll wear and what you’ll eat for breakfast or lunch! Try to eliminate anything that might need organising on the day so that you know you can wake up and be on autopilot in terms of preparation.

Otherwise the best way to avoid being overrun by nerves is to put time and effort into studying beforehand. As simple as that sounds, if you know that you’ve put in the time to study, then you can better reassure yourself that nothing you walk into is going to be too overwhelming – exams aren’t designed to trick you, they’re just designed to confirm that you understand the content that you’ve already seen throughout the semester. 

Chances are that if you’ve put in enough time, then you’ll probably know more than you realise on the day.

Want more exam prep advice?

Join the Learning Hub’s exam strategies workshop on Monday 12 October at 4.00pm Melbourne time. Our facilitator Paul Brosche will be joined by two PLAs, Samantha Lane and Srishti Chatterji. There will be plenty of time for you to ask questions throughout the session! (This workshop is a repeat of the Exam Strategies workshop on Tuesday 6 October.)

For one-to-one advice from a PLA, visit the Learning Hub LMS to see the drop-in times and access the Zoom link.