In the wake of the exams period, this unique article represents a cheatsheet on how to optimize your studying methodology and aims at increasing the efficiency of your revisions. 

America’s greatest inventor Thomas Edison once said, “There is no substitute for hard work”. This statement is highly relevant for college. Putting in consistent effort is required for those who wish to have good grades.  This provides a comforting thought: one does not need to be smart or talented in order to be successful. Anyone with self-discipline can reach a high level of academic achievement.

On the other hand, Edison also stated: “Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” Therefore, before you start spending countless hours in the library, you should consider the following tips that will help you build an adequate study routine, minimize the time spent studying and maximize your focus and efficiency.

Part I : How to Motivate Yourself to Study

I used to be a severe procrastinator. I remember waking up at 4AM, having to skim through dozens of pages of an Economic History summary until the very last minute before the exam. I simply could not find the motivation to study the day before, I just did not feel like it. Sounds familiar? Two years later I am pursuing a double degree in Mathematics and Economics and I never prepare for an exam at the very last minute like I used to. I would fail every class by doing so. The biggest change I implemented in my academic life to undertake a double degree was to find lasting motivation. The following tips really helped me to motivate myself in the long run and they can help you too.

First of all, embrace the growth mindset. The growth mindset is a concept that was introduced by Carol S. Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She studied students’ behavior towards failure. She noticed that they could be divided into two categories: those who were resilient and bounced back and those who were overwhelmed and lost motivation even after the smallest of setbacks. The first group of students have a growth mindset, they believe that their talent can be developed through hard work and experience and they tend to achieve more than those from the second group, who, by contrast, have a fixed mindset. Consequently, believe in yourself and trust that you can improve no matter your initial level.

Second of all, I believe that being introduced to a topic in an entertaining way really boosts your motivation level. For instance, before starting studying for my Monetary Theory exam last year, I watched the movie “The Big Short” that depicts the 2008 financial crisis which triggered my interest for the subject. For those learning languages, watching a TV show before studying vocabulary lists or even visiting a country could also be stimulating.

Finally, ask yourself the following question: “In what way will I benefit from studying for this specific class?” In the best-case scenario your answer will be that this class teaches skills that you are required to possess in your professional career (so you might as well study hard now rather than later). However, as we all know, not all the knowledge we acquire at university will be applied or used later in life. Trying to engage with the material nonetheless will increase your level of motivation to work hard.

Part II : Optimize Your Way of Studying

Optimize your study environment 

Now that you are all motivated let’s talk about the ways to optimize your study environment. In order to do that, let’s use the famous psychological concept “Classical Conditioning”. Classical conditioning occurs when a conditioned stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus that will induce an unconditional response. After pairing is repeated the organism exhibits a conditioned response to the conditioned stimulus when the conditioned stimulus is presented alone. Wait… What? This concept seems complicated but let me explain how you can implement it in your study routine. Let’s say that the conditioned stimulus is the coffee shop where you study. Let’s say the unconditional stimulus is focusing/studying hard. By pairing the two over time (meaning by constantly focusing on your work when you are in that coffee shop) you will automatically be in a state of total concentration once you enter the coffee shop. The conditioned response which is focus here will occur naturally.

Positive Reinforcement” is another concept you can use. If you have already been studying well for a while or when you are done studying chapter four, indulge in something you like doing (watch a movie, go out for a drink, eat a blueberry muffin or whatever). Be careful, you are only allowed to have your reward once the task is finished! This will provide a strong incentive to work hard.

What could also be useful is the opposite of Positive Reinforcement which is “Negative Punishment”. The absence of the conditioned response will imply that the stimulus is removed. Let me clarify this with an example. If you have not studied today, then you MAY NOT indulge in eating that muffin or watching that episode of Game Of Thrones. The danger is that us humans are likely to cheat the system and have the cake even though we have been watching GOT all day long. To avoid this situation, you might consider involving other people in the removal of the stimulus. For instance, you could arrange with your friends that if they catch you on Facebook or checking your Instagram feed you would have to buy them drinks. This should provide an incentive to focus as most of us do not like losing money.

Bear in mind that the right study environment and the right incentives to focus are highly personal. Therefore, you should find methods that work for you.

Optimize you study preparation

1.) Before you start scheduling study sessions, write down the following things for each exam:

  • The exam format (Multiple choice questions, essay writing, problem solving)
  • The grading system (50% theory, 50% exercises)
  • The list of all the material you will need (resource notes, textbooks, papers to read, practice exams)

This will allow you to know exactly how to study for the exam.

2.) Gauge requirements and assess your state of understanding of each class. Identify which classes are more challenging than others.

3.) A 15 ETCS course is obviously more important than a 3 ETCS one. You should spend most of your study time on important courses or courses that you do not fully grasp yet.

Optimize your timetable

Successful students will design their study timetable in a counterintuitive way. Most people start by writing down study sessions for each day. This seems logical since you are making a study planning after all. But consider this instead: what if you started by planning non-study activities such as family time, sports, study breaks or lunches with friends?

Scheduling non-academic activities first has two major benefits:

  • If a break is planned ahead, you will not fall behind on your schedule by taking it. By adopting a forward-thinking mindset, you anticipate failure and you do not let it surprise you. Knowing your limits is wise: everyone will have to take that break from studying at some point.
  • It allows you to have realistic goals and keep a certain balance. By planning something you love doing everyday (taking a walk, watching a movie, having dinner with friends), you are more likely to remain positive and effective in your studying. Let me explain this a little bit further. If you spend one week in the library every day from 8AM to 10PM, you will have weaker moments and check your Facebook feed. At the end of the week, you will have spent several nonproductive hours browsing the web. However, being on Facebook or watching YouTube videos will not provide nearly the same satisfaction as doing something you love. Consequently, indulge in a real break! Moreover, staying mentally and physically fit is a key component of productivity and therefore of success that many of us overlook too often (including myself).

Now that you scheduled potential concentration failures, it is time to plan study sessions. Start by writing down the exam dates and location on your timetable (this seems obvious but making a mistake in that department is the easiest way to fail an exam ?). Then, instead of writing down “Library time” or “Economic History” from 8AM to 6PM in your agenda, be detailed about the tasks you need to achieve that day. To identify those specific tasks, you should go back to the exam’s specifics you wrote down earlier (format, grading systems, etc.) and plan your work accordingly.

For instance, if your exam is an essay writing, you should focus on studying the main concepts and ideas of the course’s content. In general, it will not be necessary to remember all the details and therefore you should not spend too much time learning those. So, you could schedule a few sessions where you review the material and the key concepts of the course and one session where you practice you writing skills.

By contrast, if your exam’s format is a multiple choice you should focus on details more, you will often be questioned about those. Firstly, you will have to learn the main ideas. Then, you will have to study the details and test your knowledge about those which might take a few study sessions based on your initial understanding of the course.

If your exam is a problem-solving one, especially for those majoring in the science department, force yourself to solve the problems. Do not look at the solution too quickly. Since you will have to do that during the exam you might as well adopt a solution-finding mindset right away. Searching for solutions yourself is time-consuming. Therefore, be sure to plan study sessions that are long enough for you to do so.

Bear in mind that you should spend the most time on the most important material. If 70% of your grade accounts for theoretical questions, focus on those!

Part III : How memory works and effective study methods

There are three stages to memorize information: the encoding, the storage and the retrieval. Gaining a deeper understanding of how your memory functions will allow you to take advantage of it and build more efficient study routines.

Encoding = Formation of a new memory

The first stage of the memorization process is when you encounter a piece of information for the first time. It is crucial, as the information needs to be encoded to be stored and later retrieved. You can improve the encoding stage by removing as many distractions as possible. Turn off your phone! (I cannot emphasize this enough). If you check your phone every time you get a notification or a text you will not be able to encode the piece of information properly. Why is that? Well, building a memory requires focus. If you do not focus intensely on the material you have to learn, you will only partially encode the information. This implies that you probably will have to spend far more time on reviewing the material a second time because the information was not retained.

If you need to do computer-related tasks and you do not manage to discipline yourself not to scroll down your news feed, there are amazing apps you can download for free to prevent this situation. For instance, “Stayfocusd” is a Chrome extension that lets you block websites for a certain amount of hours and that has many other useful features.

To encode information properly, you must remain focused. But as human beings we have limitations,  our attention span (=amount of concentrated time a person can spend on a task without becoming distracted) is limited. Moreover, it can be quite discouraging to have to study for an entire day. There is a cool technique that tackles those issues by breaking study sessions into chunks. This method is called the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique is a time management method that uses a timer to break down work sessions into intervals (usually of 25minutes). There are dozens of apps and websites that provide you with a Pomodoro timer. To use this technique there are four main steps you should follow:

1.) Decide on the task to be done.
2.) Set the Pomodoro timer and work hard on the task without any distraction.
3.) End work when the timer rings and take a short break of 5minutes.
4.) Repeat the process.

After four Pomodoro sessions you may take a longer break before you start another cycle.

This technique keeps you from being depressed by studying for countless hours, since you only have to study for 25 minutes at once. And this in turn boosts your motivation and focus.

Memory_Technique_2Storage = Maintenance of previously encoded memory over time

The second stage involved in remembering information is called storage. Storage is the maintenance of previously encoded memory overtime. To reach the storage stage you must consolidate the memory once it is encoded. Consolidation is stabilizing a memory trace after its initial acquisition.

To ensure a better consolidation process, you can use different study techniques listed below. Some are more advanced than others. Keep in mind that you do not have to use all of them but rather pick the ones that suit you the best and that suit the topic you are learning.

Facts vs concepts: First of all, you must ask yourself the question “What is it that I am learning?” Marty Lobdell, author of “Study Less Study Smart” made a very useful distinction between facts and concepts that can help students identify the type of material they need to master to pass their exams. A concept is an abstract idea that you can apply to a situation.  For example, GDP or secularization are concepts. Understanding a concept and its applications is like acquiring a new tool or a new skill and it is likely to be retained forever. Conversely, a fact is piece of information. Thus, a fact needs to be learned by heart. For instance, “there are three regions in Belgium” is a fact. To simplify the difference, concepts are grasped whereas facts are memorized. When you are studying for a course, take this distinction into account! You should spend enough time on concepts to fully grasp them and to be able to use them in an exam situation. Facts are hard to remember so you can use some of the techniques described below such as flashcards and mnemonics to learn them more easily.

Surface vs deep learning: Surface learning is knowing about a certain piece of information or a certain idea. For example, if you go to class and review your notes, you will have gained a surface understanding your class’s concepts. On the other hand, deep learning is how you relate, extend and transfer the knowledge you have acquired. For instance, after reviewing your notes, you would test how much you remember of what you just have studied. You would try to come up with your own examples to illustrate the material. You would break down complex processes step by step. By doing so, you will consolidate the memory of the notes you just reviewed but also prepare yourself to potential exam questions. Note that surface and deep learning coexist. In order to extent and apply the ideas and concepts you first have to know about it (surface learning). But taking your knowledge and understanding further is also essential (deep learning). First of all, you will consolidate the memory. Second of all, you will be better prepared for your exams.

Active recall vs recognition: Have you ever experienced a mind blank during an exam? You read the exam question, you remember studying the question’s answer but simply cannot recall it? That may be because you believed that you knew the material when in fact it was not really the case. It is highly important to distinguish active recall from recognition. Recognition refers to our ability to recognize an event or piece of information as being familiar. For example, by reading your course’s syllabus over and over you might think that you master the material. However, by doing so you will often not be able to actually recall everything that was written in the syllabus without consulting it. If you wish to pass the exam by studying this way you will need to be given an initial cue such as a quote, a formula or an image. On the other hand, active recall is how you can retrieve previously learned information without initial cues. For most exams, you will be tested on your ability to recall information rather than simply recognize it. But how do you recall information then? Well, the best way to do so is to TEST yourself. Take practice exams, use flashcards or teach you course’s content to a friend.

Flashcards: Flashcards offer a wonderful way to test if you can actively recall a piece of information. A flashcard is a card bearing information. The most effective way to use it is to write a question on a card and its answer overleaf. My piece of advice is to make your flashcards personal. The more personal the elaboration the better the recall. Therefore, do not hesitate to add your own mnemonics to the flashcards (first letter of each word etc.)

Leitner system: Take your flashcards to the next level by taking advantage of the spacing effect. The spacing effect is the phenomenon whereby learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, as opposed to cramming (intense, last-minute studying). The Leitner System is a method to use flashcards efficiently, introduced in the 1970s. How does it work? As illustrated by the image, your flashcards are sorted into boxes according to how well you know each one.


Visual imagery: A large body of psychological research suggests that visual imagery helps the consolidation process of a memory. Indeed, our brain is mostly an image processor which makes retaining and retrieving concepts easier if they are associated with visuals. To illustrate how powerful images are, consider how memorable visuals are in brand logos:

Memory_LogosIf you see these logos, you effortlessly think about the brand names and what products they are associated with.

In comparison, words are abstract. If I ask you to remember what you learned about the Cold War in high school, you might find the task slightly more complex.

Thus, adding several types of visuals such as photos, icons, symbols, sketches and maps to your course’s summaries or to your flashcards will significantly increase your chances of recalling a piece of information.

Feynman technique: Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist that won a Nobel Prize in for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. In addition to being a great scientist he was also a very good teacher. According to him, if you wish to understand a concept deeply, you must explain it in simple terms. The concepts or ideas can come from any discipline from Physics to Communication. If you have a friend willing to play the guinea pig at hand well, that’s perfect! However, if it is not the case you can still pretend to explain someone the concept and use the following method. Note that you should use this method without consulting your course book!

1.) Identify the concept you would like to understand better. You can write down its name on a sheet of paper or say it out loud.
2.) Explain the concept in simple terms as if you were teaching it to someone that does not have any basic knowledge of the topic. Try to come up with your own examples.
3.) Review your explanation and try to pinpoint if something is missing or unclear. Go back to your course book and complete your explanation.
4.) Voilà, you’re an expert!

Retrieval = Recovery of encoded memory

Now that you master your course’s content and that the information is properly encoded and stored it is time to retrieve it during the final exam! Retrieval is a difficult task because on the exam date you have to deal with high stress levels. Moreover, you never know in advance what your exam will exactly entail. To smoothen the experience, I have one last tip for you!

Our memory is context-dependent. That means that you will increase your ability to retrieve information if you are in the same environment as you were at the time of encoding it. One common example of context-based memory occurs when you lose an item such as your keys. People often tell you to “retrace your steps”. Once you find yourself in the right context you suddenly remember your keys’ location.

How can you benefit from context-dependent memory in your studying? Well, when studying for a test try to match the exam’s environment and conditions as closely as possible. For instance, study in a room that looks like the exam room (or better, the room itself). Additionally, take a practice test under a time constraint (if your test will last 4 hours, try to do the practice exam in 3hours 45’).

I hope those tips will help you ace your exams. Good luck!


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