I was lousy at studying in high school. I generally had good marks and thus never learned how to do it. When I arrived at university however, I quickly realised a structured approach was required to get through the courses. In this article I outline the method I’ve developed when studying for course finals. The goal is to effectively practice where it is most needed and avoid wasting time on what is already known.

Investigate

The most important step is to learn what to practice. You will probably have access to previous exams given in the same course. Set aside some time and do one of them the whole way through. It is crucial to be honest with yourself and solve each problem as you would on a real exam, without looking at the answer before doing a proper attempt.

As you are solving the problems and checking your solutions, write down what you think is hard on a separate piece of paper. You will use these notes in the next step.

In order to accurately asses your current ability, it is important to do this alone. There will be ample time for collaboration during the practice step.

Summarize

Examine the notes you’ve collected. What was hardest? What is essential to the course? What is most likely to come on your exam? Rank the areas to improve by priority.

Now you have an agenda! If you want to get a better overview, you may want to organise these topics in your calendar.

Practice

This is where the learning happens. Use your prioritized list of topics and find relevant sections in the course literature. Do exercises, look at examples and read the related text. Focus on one topic at a time and don’t skip to the next one until you feel you’ve got it.

In contrast to the investigation step, I’ve found practicing with a friend to be very helpful. Remember, gaining understanding is what is important.

Rinse and repeat

Once all topics are crossed out, stop and pat yourself on the back. Then go back to the old exams and repeat the process until you feel satisfied, or time runs out.

Good luck!