How to actually study for an exam—Based off the “Learning How to Learn” course
(sprinkled with some of my life experiences)[a]
Tác giả: Phạm Bùi Mỹ Linh – Học viên khóa 2022-2025
1. The part where it starts
– The opening situation
Allow me to set the scene. Final exams, semester one. Classroom filled with really anxious people trying to do last-minute cramming. It’s not the first time, and it definitely wasn’t going to be our last very soon. I’m sitting at my usual table, hardly even bothering to look through the outlines of the learning material and my classmates are starting to crop up out of nowhere to ask me Geography questions, and asking me to teach them.
Some of my classmates are all complaining about exam season and they have pretty terrible methods of learning. They relied mostly on other people’s stuff like school-made quizzes and all-in-one-page outlines filled to the brim with the required knowledge to pass that subject. They read with such intensity that if looks can damage stuff then anything they were reading from on their hands would have been reduced to ashes. They tried to stuff all the knowledge learned across the span of an entire semester into their heads in a week. Some of them told me they stayed up until they could barely keep their eyes open just to do that. Obviously it is a terrible tactic but it doesn’t help anyway; they either thought their efforts were to no avail or they think they’re so ready when they actually aren’t.
Our ways of studying definitely differ, and that was probably what made the difference between our levels of confidence and how we believed we would do on the exam. That was my inspiration to write this article, and I’m going to talk about how my life changed after learning the Coursera course titled “Learning How to Learn”.
Back in primary school, I thought that my classmates kind of learned the same way I did (but they didn’t get similar results), so as I grew up I was really surprised that some people just have really different learning methods, claiming that “it really does work!” and getting the occasional high score because they got lucky and not because they had grasped the concepts they learnt.
2. The part where I explain
– The way I’ve seen other people study
If you have ever been in a school, which I’m assuming you have, then you’ve probably seen a lot of people cry after receiving their exam results, either from failing their exams or those were tears of joy because the part of the material they studied cropped up in the exam and it was an easy win for them. There are people who tried to look through the notes for at least the thousandth time now, people who tried to highlight and glance through the outlined materials, and people who only studied the very few parts of the exam which they think will be in the exam. I very much disapprove of the last way of studying because of two reasons:
One, it relies on chance. Chance isn’t a good thing to play with if your aim was to make your GPA high and make you appear better than other students, especially in the later school years.
Two, this method isn’t actually effective. Sure, you can tell me you got a high grade for this time because you’re lucky, but it doesn’t help you remember the material though, and this is not the style of learning that I want to adopt. I want to learn how to actually remember things and not just passively study by holding it in your mind for a short while and releasing it when you’re done with the information.
There’s this one pitfall that I saw a lot of people go into, and that is instantly flipping to the solutions page for a problem they can’t solve instead of attempting to approach it from more different angles. This happens mostly for subjects like Maths and Science because most of the contents of these subjects are really black and white (unlike Humanities) and people get lazy easily, so they read off the solutions page and think, “oh, I can do this too!” and don’t even bother thinking about why that works or try to solve the problem by themselves after they’ve seen it.
“But why do people learn like that?”, I hear you ask.
Well, there might be various reasons for this. One of them might be because some people think that since they get the occasional good result, it means that their means of learning is effective but they weren’t trying hard enough, so they keep doing it again and again. Cramming—when one tries to study intensively over a short period of time just before an examination—is one example. I’m sure that you must have tried this tactic before as a student at school, but it only causes you unnecessary stress; if you had tried to study a little bit each day way before the exam, it would be less of a hassle for you to remember the material.
The consequences? Both your health and your grades will suffer. Next up, I want to rewind and show you how my older method of learning works, and how it affected me.
– The older method and has it failed me yet
Let’s rewind a few years back.
I used to take really elaborately decorated notes (filled to the edges with lots of people in historical events in the form of Among Us[b] characters) and make mind maps before every exam so that I could firmly remember the material. In addition to that, I made super-condensed notes (for History, Geography, Language Arts, but sometimes if needed I also do it for others) that only jotted down the details and required you to figure out the other unwritten details. In the end, I always manage to come out victorious after the exams and remember those pieces of knowledge for quite a long time.
The reason why this entire system worked was because one, back then, I’d learnt that colour can actually enhance your memory by increasing your focus on areas that have colours on it—this is why people use highlighters and draw mind maps with coloured branches. The super-condensed outlines probably actually made me remember because I made myself learn how to apply the knowledge instead of just looking at it. Because the strategy works, I still continued to use it from time to time until I came across the “Learning How to Learn” course.
There was one problem: I did some of this shortly before the exam. I want to cut out all of the excessive stress every night before the exam, and maybe I can tap into the hidden potential behind all of this mess.
And that’s where the newer method of learning comes in.
So, let’s go back about a couple months before I even started to make the building blocks for this article, but when I was halfway into the Coursera course I mentioned.
Everything kind of made sense to me slowly as the course progressed on, and it told me how the brain functions, what modes do your brain go through as you try to study or when you’re trying to wander around in your headspace. Because of this, I decided that I should change some aspects of my way of learning to make it more effective.
I used to stay up until very late making the aforementioned mind maps and condensed outlines because I used to think that it would make me “retain” knowledge for longer if I study right before the exam. I now try to not do that anymore and advise you to stay away from late night working sessions[c], because the course taught me that sleep helps us wash toxins out of our brains, and if we can’t get enough sleep, it’s like trying to make a machine work when it’s jammed somewhere inside—it wouldn’t help.
I also try to space out my learning a bit more instead of intensely studying for the last few hours before the exam. This way, I’ll be able to lay down the foundations for new knowledge before applying new ones in. It’s like building a wall—if you don’t have the base solid and ready, then if you pile other bricks (other pieces of knowledge) in, it’s all going to fall apart in the end.
I try my best to build mental images of things that I’m trying to learn or compare them to something similar (making analogies) so I can understand these concepts better. It might appear very silly to me as I’m creating things that seem to have no correlation to the school material at all, but it helps a lot when I can think of that silly thing and recall all of the information I need.
I like to practise over and over again, because each of my skillsets are like toolboxes—I have to take the tools out and sharpen them up again after a while or they won’t function the way I want them to anymore. I also have to make sure I do practise the hardest aspects of the material. Don’t just read the things you have to study, try to recall.
Lastly, if you ever feel stressed out, there are a few tips to help you deal with it:
- When you feel like you’re an impostor and you think that all of your successes and talents are just due to luck, it might help to know that you’re not alone. Don’t stress yourself out, know that you are special and talented in your own way and value your own achievements.
- Try to shift your thinking to make you feel that this is a chance for you to do your best! Tests aren’t a measure of how smart you are, but you can make yourself feel motivated to learn something along the way.
Try to control your breathing when you’re stressed. It’s alright to feel last-minute jitters before you do the actual test. You’ve prepared everything for this day, and that’s one thing that you should be proud about.
3. The ending
In the end, if you prepare yourself in the right way and study for the sake of acquiring knowledge instead of thinking you’re only doing it for an exam, you will eventually understand the material and excel at your work.
I have gained new understanding for the art of learning after this course, which you can find here. Just remember to sign up for a Coursera account, and persevere through your new journey to a new way of learning.
Thank you, kind readers, for reading through this 7-page article jam-packed with lots of (internet-found) photos and my personal life experiences.
I wish you luck on your life journey.
[a] Which you would have to read in English, until I make a translated version.
[b] (If you want my Among Us notes, tell me in this post so I can get you a photo or two. Cringe at the mass of crewmates and impostors swarming the entire page ඞ)
[c] Disclaimer: I actually lost sleep to write this article—you are at liberty to call me an absolute hypocrite.
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