How to Effectively Study for an Exam (7 Secret Ingredients)

Examinations, or standardised tests, are an integral part of a meritocratic society’s education system.

Whew. That’s a mouthful.

But it’s true. Whichever school your child is in, exams play a big role in determining where he or she will go to next. We put so much emphasis on tests that they might as well be the boogeyman for our kids.

“If you don’t study hard, you’ll fail your exam!”

“If you fail your exam, don’t even think about coming home!”

Naturally, this attitude creates a lot of stress and anxiety for our kids. As an educational therapist who has helped many kids overcome their learning difficulties, I can tell you that the number one complaint I hear about when it comes to exams is “I am nervous” or “I am not confident”.

When your child just cannot “study” or “focus”

Yet, it seems like no matter how much you tell your child to just “go and study”, either they fall short of the mark (and end up beating themselves over it), or they study halfway and get distracted.

That raises the question: is studying really that difficult?

To answer that depends on how much you know about what it means to “study”. The truth is, studying is more than just going through assessment books, Ten-Year Series, notes, and textbooks. There are a lot of influences that affect the entire studying process. These are not often talked about, and they’re not easy to recognise unless you know what to look out for.

How can one study effectively?

Over the past 5 years, I’ve made notes of the different ways in which my students would study. I’ve noted down things that worked for them, and things that didn’t.

It took me a while, but I’ve finally consolidated all of the information, and split them into SEVEN parts. You’ll want to take note of these seven things to maximise the effectiveness of your child’s studying ability:

1) Be in a comfortable environment

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy, physiological and safety needs are most important. No matter what you do, you’ll want to be in as comfortable an environment as possible.

What more studying, which requires students to be in a state of maximum concentration?

Thus, the tricky part is to determine what is a “comfortable” environment for the student.

Some prefer to study while listening to music. That’s fine.

Some study best while on the bed. That’s also fine.

The important thing is to have an environment comfortable enough so that your child can concentrate or focus.

A few suggestions can include (but are not limited to):

  • Listening to instrumental music or white noise. A few of my older students have told me that white noise helps them to concentrate. Certain types of instrumental music, like jazz or sci-fi tunes, may also help to get students into the mood for particular subjects. Oh, and while we’re on this topic, for older students on the autism spectrum, it may help to put on ear muffs while studying. You can get these cheaply from neighbourhood provision shops, Qoo10 or Lazada.
  • Adjusting the temperature of the room. Some students find it easier to study at the library because of air-conditioning. At the same time, it can be sleep-inducing if the air is too cold. If you are able to, adjust the temperature of the room until you get “Goldilocks” temperature—not too warm but not too cold.
  • Making sure that the chair and table are comfortable enough. I know it sounds basic, but if the chair’s too low, or the table’s too high, it won’t be long before the student gets removed from their state of concentration.

Again, this is just a very brief list. There are many factors that contribute to comfort. Observe your child to see what kind of environment they thrive best in. Work with your child to set up the best possible environment for studying.

And if your child prefers to study outside with his or her friends? Let them, but they must also agree to have their time fruitfully spent. Trust your child to do the right thing.

2) Know what the exam expects of students

Students who don’t know what is expected of them in an exam often end up going through too much unnecessary information.

This is a big factor that causes a lot of anxiety and missteps. Students who don’t know what is expected of them in an exam often end up going through too much unnecessary information. This means they’re absorbing a lot of knowledge that’s ultimately irrelevant.

And this is a problem especially for English and Humanities subjects, because a lot of the information in notes/textbooks will never be used in an examination.

To put things into perspective, I asked about eight secondary school students who were struggling with Social Studies whether they ran into this problem. Six of them said “Yes”.

Another issue is that textbooks for language-based subjects don’t explicitly teach students how to answer exam questions. This creates further dissonance between the student’s understanding of the subject, and their understanding of the exam. I know a lot of my students find it an almost futile exercise to study for Social Studies and English.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

To overcome this problem, get your child to talk to his/her teacher (or a similar expert in this field). Have your child ask their teacher about about what the exam requires. If they still don’t get it, well, they need to keep asking until they do.

I always lay out the expectations of exams very clearly to my own students (especially those transitioning from P6 to Sec 1, or Sec 2 to Sec 3). I even teach ‘O’ Level English writing skills to my Normal (Technical) students (for those who are ready for it). They can handle it, because they know what criteria to satisfy.

Of course, learning the right techniques for a subject is also important, which brings me to my next point…

3) Learn/create their own techniques

Studying for an exam is all about practice and revising previously-learned information. However, as we move up the education ladder, our workload goes from this:

whack a mole

…to this:

fury road

Students who do well in primary school can end up struggling in secondary school (especially those with learning difficulties). The skills and information needed to progress to the next level can very quickly become overwhelming.

However, there are myriad techniques that can help one learn better:

Make full use of these techniques. If your child’s unsure of how to use them, have him or her ask an expert (e.g. their teacher) for help.

And if the techniques really don’t work for them? After all, mind maps and concept maps may not work for everyone. What happens then?

Get your child to come up with a technique/framework of their own. If they want to make the learning process easy for themselves, the only way to do it is to come up with techniques and methods that they’re comfortable with.

4) Have fun in the process

Learning should be fun, or at least tolerable. If it’s boring, it can have a negative impact on the child’s learning. In fact, a study by Dr Al-Shara from the University of Jordan (2015) found that students performed better when they enjoyed what they were learning.

Expecting your child to have fun while learning may sound impossible, as it requires a level of self-motivation. If your child really, absolutely hates the subject to the point where he must drop it, there isn’t much that can be done. However, if they’re willing to do so, try to help them see the fun side of a subject. This applies to even the most seemingly boring of subjects.

For example, role-playing games can stimulate one’s interest in learning English. Similarly, History can be made less dry through games like Microscope. Suddenly, learning about civil wars is the most exciting thing of the week.

The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.

In fact, I’d like to share my own personal experience here: I remember my undergrad days at NUS doing economics, and wondering why my professors enjoyed the subject so much. Turns out as I got into the second and third year that there was a lot of fun to be had by developing models to predict behavioural patterns.

Every subject has a fun side (yes, even Chinese). You just need to find or create it.

5) Understand the need for time management

running out of time

Parents of older kids sometimes complain to me about how disorganised their children are at home, or how they keep failing to adhere to schedules. They either play longer or study less than they should. I’ve also seen students trying to take charge of their time, and failing to stick to schedules they’ve drawn up for themselves.

This is an issue that arises when students do not want to take complete responsibility for their studies. By getting someone else to do their schedule, or by giving excuses like “Just a few more minutes”, they’re being task avoidant. They might as well be saying, “I don’t even want to get started on my work.”

As a result, studying feels ineffective or unsatisfying, and can seem more overwhelming than it is.

Kids need to take responsibility for their own schedules. Teach them how to work on their schedules step-by-step. If they’re finding it hard to stick to a schedule, balance the leisure-vs-work hours and let them tweak it as they go along.

This is easier said than done, of course. It hinges on a lot of factors, including self-motivation, self-awareness, and all the things mentioned above (#1-#4). Additionally, the child needs to understand why they have to be master of their own time.

Slowly work out a plan with your child, but don’t force a difficult, rigid schedule down their throats. They shouldn’t be creating a schedule to please their parents. Typically when that happens, the schedule will quickly fall apart.

Instead, let them slowly internalise it, until they can work out a schedule on their own. Once that’s accomplished, half the battle would have been won.

[Read This Too: How One of Our Students, Ash, Turned His Life Around]

6) Get away from negative influences

In life, we have many voices telling us to work less hard. Some of these voices are internal, while others are external. Regardless, they tend to stop us from doing our best.

The solution: walk away from these voices.

Also, it is important to recognise what constitutes to “negative influences”. Are games necessarily a negative influence? What if games help your child to concentrate better by being there as a reward (in the form of a short mini-break)?

Work this out with your child. If it is a negative influence and they can’t do without it, then work out a plan that they can agree to commit to, to slowly wean them off it.

7) Find help

The studying process can be overwhelming and daunting. At times, your child may find it difficult to study because he has no one to turn to. Even if he knows who to consult, he may not know the right questions to ask.

No student should have to be alone in his learning journey. If your child is unable to progress, find an expert who can help.

If unable to find an expert, get in touch with someone who would know such an expert.

In fact, there are many guides out there. Swords & Stationery has one on helping dyslexics to cope with their learning challenges, and another on managing children with ADHD.

The bottom line is, there are specialists and experts out there who hold the keys to unlocking your child’s potential. These are people who can help your child to overcome learning obstacles that hinder their ability to study fruitfully. You may not meet such people immediately, but keep at it! You’ll find the right expert for your child eventually.

Final thoughts: the seven secret ingredients on how to study effectively

comforting coffee

Studying for an exam in Singapore is never easy. One has a thousand things to worry about.

However, we can mitigate these problems. They’ll never fully go away, but we can circumvent them and make ourselves feel better about the studying process.

First and foremost, one should be in a suitably comfortable environment. There’s nothing worse than being distracted by one’s surroundings while studying.

The next important ingredient is to know what the exam wants. Does it require you to memorise the dates leading up to Singapore’s independence? Are you supposed to write persuasively? Knowing what you’re supposed to do is crucial!

With that in mind, the student needs to know what techniques to use. There are so many different ways to tackle a question that it can be overwhelming. Find a technique that helps, and stick with it.

That being said, studying without joy is one of the worst things a person can go through. It need not be all fun and games, but at the very least, one shouldn’t dread the subject. Look towards making learning fun.

Additionally, it is also important for the child to be able to organise his/her own schedule. Encourage and motivate them to take responsibility for their own learning.

From time to time, your child will run into negative influences. Teach your child to move away from them, or to at least not let them affect him/her.

Finally, your child will inevitably get stuck in his/her learning journey. It will seem like they’re not able to progress. Don’t let that stop your child from learning; find help!

The bottom line is, studying can be a positive experience. It doesn’t have to be scary. Apply the seven secret ingredients, and your child will have a much easier time.

Follow Swords & Stationery, the world’s first game-based remediation programme for kids with specific learning differences, on Facebook and Instagram for the latest learning tips, strategies and discussions.

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.

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