How Many Days Before An Exam Should I Study?

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How far in advance you should prepare for an exam depends on subject, level, and your own knowledge starting point.

If you’ve recently completed and fully understood a course of study, 5-14 days is often sufficient to prepare for a major test. Cramming for a day or two, or staying up all night before your test, are unlikely to produce positive results.

Something every student has to work out for themselves is how many days before an exam they should start studying.

While there are different variables at play in answering this question, our article takes you through some of the key considerations and guidelines and should help you set your own sensible study targets.

If you work better thinking in an hourly metric, studies have shown a minimum number of study hours is needed to reach your peak potential, our guide summarises the exact formula for how to work out your own winning study pledge.

When should you start preparing for an exam?

The question is really about how many days or weeks you personally need to be sure you have mastered the course material which will be covered in your exam.

Not all students, subjects or exams are the same. The exact amount of revision study time required immediately before the exam will therefore vary from student to student and course to course.

Someone studying a familiar subject at a basic level may only need a few days to remind themselves of the knowledge needed to pass the exam.

Someone learning a completely new subject and/or studying at a higher level would be advised to begin their preparations at least several weeks in advance.

Likewise, a student who has attended every lecture and tutorial, completed all additional reading, and regularly reviewed their notes throughout the semester may require less pre-exam preparation than someone who has missed part of the semester or didn’t take full notes of their lectures.

There will also be a tension between potentially forgetting something learned too long ago, and trying to learn too much too late. Between 5-14 days appears to fall into the sweet spot between these extremes while allowing for the varied circumstances already described.

If you’re aiming for a solid long-term understanding, then distributed learning over time is typically far more beneficial than a very short period of intense study. Spaced study is widely recommended and should certainly be a key piece in your learning toolbox.

 

Spaced learning is beneficial for all types of exams

Decades of research support the practice of spacing out study sessions over longer time periods in order to improve retention in long-term memory. For example, if you think you need to spend ten hours on pre-exam study, it will be more effective to study for two hours each week for five weeks than trying to complete all ten hours of study on the day before the exam.

Spaced learning may be so effective because it ties into the overall process of how we form strong memories. Over time we forget what we learned in the initial lecture or study session, but when we return to that material later, a new session of study jogs our memory to retrieve the initial learning memory. Engaging this process of forgetting and retrieval appears to cement new knowledge in our brains.

 

Cramming isn’t in the recipe for success

Something you should definitely avoid is trying to fit your entire semester’s work into a day or two before exam day.

Most sources agree that last-minute cramming is rarely the answer, especially if it involves losing a night’s sleep before the exam.

Lack of sleep affects your overall cognitive function and could potentially lead to a worse exam performance if it prevents you from understanding a complex question, for example.

Cramming also causes anxiety, which may lower your information-retaining capacity and exam performance.

In some cases last-minute cramming may help you to pass a test on an odd occasion, but the chances are that you won’t retain the material you’ve learned.

This then gets you off to a bad start for future courses which might build upon this material, and may mean you need to repeat and re-learn core information and concepts.

The night before the exam!!

If your exam preparation is already complete and you’re feeling confident, you may gain some additional benefit from a quick review of the toughest course materials before you go to sleep. This can reportedly make it easier to recall relevant information the following day.

Study techniques to help you intake more information

Remember that in terms of exam preparation, what you do in your study sessions is just as important as when you do it.

Months of ineffective learning could be of less value than a week of constructive and focused revision.

Here’s a few points you should try to remember:

  • Be clear in your revision aims. Make sure you know the scope of each exam and the section of your course syllabus it will cover. Set out your pre-exam study plan well in advance to ensure you focus on the right subjects at the right time and don’t encounter any surprises in the exam room.
  • If you don’t understand a concept, ask for help. If you can’t understand an important idea in your study sessions, it’s unlikely that you will be able to properly address a question in that area during an exam.
  • Use flashcards and practice tests. These study practices are among the most effective in promoting effective learning.
  • Avoid distractions. Research shows that distractions (e.g. music, texting, TV) disrupt the learning process and make your study sessions less effective, even if you’re not conscious of this.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Memory and reasoning both function better when you are fully rested.

A final thought…

Remember that effective exam study requires prior planning and preparation. You should also allow at least 5-14 days focused exam revision time, depending on your existing knowledge and the scope and challenge of your course. Spaced study is the most effective way to learn in the long term, while cramming is not advised. Never forget that study technique is just as important as timing.

Good luck in your exam!

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