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How to Achieve the Best Grades Possible With Minimal Stress
These scientifically-proven study habits helped me beat my exams while still enjoying my life
When I told my wife about my plan to do a law degree, her reaction was not quite what I expected:
“You’re joking. How will you find the time?”
Then I told her I was planning to get straight A’s, and bag the prize for Best First Year Student (these things matter in a subject like law). She believed in me — but I’m not sure she really believed me.
I set out to do this while also:
- Working 40+ hours in the office;
- Fathering an 18-month old baby;
- Writing freelance as a side-hustle;
- Lifting weights for four or five hours a week.
At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve this, but once I got it into my head that it was going to happen, I worked on my habits and found strategies and tactics that helped.
I’m pleased to say I pulled it off — and I actually managed to maintain a pretty normal life. I only ever studied in two situations:
- On my commute;
- When my daughter was asleep (and she hates sleeping).
I worked hard, for sure. But working hard gets you nowhere unless you’re working smart. Here’s my story of how I did it—and how you can do it, too.
Participate in Your Classes and Keep Your Goal in Mind
Your goal is to ace your exams. Treat every class as an opportunity to learn more about how to do this.
It might not surprise you to hear that attendance is closely linked to exam success. In a 2010 study by David O. Allen and Don J. Webber, students with high attendance achieved an extra 7.7 percent in their assessment marks for each additional seminar they attended.
But attending class isn’t just about learning the material. You can do that independently. You won’t remember this stuff the first time you hear it, anyway.
Classes are an opportunity to learn about your exams, your teachers, and your classmates.
- Find out as early as possible whether there are past exam papers or model answers available. These are incredibly valuable. They’ll help you learn the pattern of questions that will appear on your exams. Your college or university may have a policy on releasing past papers. I found some by just looking around the student resources area of my university website. If your university doesn’t release these to students, you should take a look in the library for textbooks containing practice questions. You should be thinking in terms of exam questions from day one.
- Your teachers, most likely, set your exams. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about potential exam topics. Some teachers are more reticent about revealing this than others. Listen out for tips, and consider which are their favorite subjects. One of my law teachers would sometimes refer to topics as “highly examinable”, with a wink. It’s worth checking out the research or textbooks that your professors have published to discover their main areas of interest. Remember, in almost every case, your teachers want you to succeed.
- Get to know your classmates. You might make some great friends, and you can share information and resources. Make sure there’s a WhatsApp (or other instant messaging) group where you can share articles and catch up on any classes you’ve missed. You want to know at least as much about the course as everyone else does. Cooperative learning helps you and your classmates hold each other to account, and discuss your subject in a language you all understand. It really works — a study by Roberta Dees found that students who engaged in cooperative learning experienced an improved ability to solve algebra problems. But without wanting to sound too catty, remember that your classmates are your competition!
Do your best to keep up with homework, even if it’s not assessed. You need to build a reputation among your teachers as someone who is eager to learn and enjoys their classes.
And it bears repeating: your goal is to ace your exams.
During class, I would take meticulous notes. I wrote by hand for two reasons:
- I knew I’d be required to write by hand in my exams, and I wanted to get used to it.
- It works better. A study by Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer revealed that: “students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” Taking notes by hand is slower, which forces you to re-frame the information you’re receiving, and to be more selective about what you’re writing down.
I’d highlight my notes with orange for headers, yellow for key points, green for cases, blue for statutes and pink for exam tips. Always write down anything that sounds remotely like an exam tip.
To be honest, I barely looked at these notes once I’d written them. But I’d scan them and upload them to Evernote. Then, when studying, I would look back at them. I probably gleaned a few marks off of them— not a lot, but when you’re pushing for the very highest marks possible, every point counts.
Evernote is a great app—without it, I probably would have lost my mind. Other organizational tools are available, and I’m sure they are all equally good once you know how to use them. Pick one, and make it work for you.
Collect as much information as you can, and keep it accessible.
Every time I read an article that wasn’t a total waste of bandwidth, I’d file it in Evernote and tag it with a few keywords to be revisited when I came back to study the relevant topic. I used maybe 10 percent of these articles in the end, but — again — it all adds up.
I found tagging to be a great way to organize my materials. Tagging involves assigning keywords to a document so that you can easily retrieve it when you need it. It’s actually quite a skill in itself — Evernote offers some guidance on how to make the most of their tagging system. At first I would throw as many tags as I could think of at each document (my “Cases Involving Animals” tag never grew beyond one file). Later on, I whittled my tags down to the bare bones.
By the end of the academic year, I’d amassed over 800 documents relating to my studies — articles, book excerpts, past papers, notes, presentations, videos, photographs of whiteboards. This sounds like it could be a total mess, but if you tag everything properly, you only ever see what’s relevant. Each of my documents would have three tags, categorized in terms of:
- The broad subject matter (e.g. Law of Contract, Law of Tort, etc.);
- The specific topic within that subject (e.g. Offer and Acceptance, Contributory Negligence, etc.);
- The type of document (e.g. journal article, blog post, etc.).
If there’s a chance that something could get you an extra mark, it’s worth the ten or twenty seconds it takes to properly file it.
Start Early and Space Out Your Study
Cramming is bad both for your grades and your mental health
I hate feeling stressed. When I started the course, not getting stressed about it was almost as important to me as getting good grades.
Tom Stafford and Michael Dewar conducted a study to analyze which learning strategies work best. Over 850,000 people learned to play an online game. The researchers looked at two different styles of learning — people who practiced 10 times, with a 24-hour break in the middle, and people who practiced 15 times, with no break. They discovered that the first group, who had a break, scored just as high as the second group — who had no break, but had 50 percent more practice time. That extra practice time was completely wasted.
The takeaway from this? Start your studying early, and leave yourself time to take breaks. In the run-up to exams, when some of my classmates were up drinking coffee at 3 am with their notes spread out all over the floor, I just carried on doing the one or two hours per day I’d been doing for the last three months. Sounds better, doesn’t it?
Another reason that studying spread out over multiple days is more effective is probably due to sleep. Sleep—and the NREM stage of sleep, in particular—is where your brain creates memories out of what you’ve learned during the day. Sleep researcher Matthew P. Walker says that “sleeping is like hitting the save button on your memories.”
During an exam, your performance will be significantly impaired if you’ve been suffering from stress or a lack of sleep. A study by Yoo et al found evidence of “hostile and non-optimal decision making” and “emotional irrationality” in sleep-deprived individuals.
If you’re well-prepared for an exam, you’ll be ready to take it far in advance, and you can get a good night’s sleep beforehand. Getting enough sleep is an objectively good idea.
Break It All Down and Make a Plan
Organize your time and think about your subject with your exams in mind
Whatever you’re studying, the subject can feel like a gigantic, sprawling mess — until you start “putting it all in boxes”.
Think in terms of courses/modules, and then in terms of topics within those courses. Some topics will be more important than others. If there are crossovers — great! Choosing to focus on topics that cross over could save you time and effort when it comes to studying.
As early as possible, you need to know when the exams will start. If you don’t know exactly, get a rough idea of which month they’ll be in. Then, start working out your study timetable.
Here’s how I organized my time:
- I calculated the number of days I had until the exam period started.
- I figured out the number of topics I needed to prepare — four topics for each of my four modules (sixteen overall).
- I split the time up. First I gave myself ten days on each module — including days off. This was for basic information-gathering about the four topics for that module. Then, I divided the remaining number of days between each topic.
It’s all too tempting to only study the subjects we enjoy. Concentrate your efforts on your weakest subjects. Psychologist Tom Stafford warns:
“ Unfortunately, it’s far more satisfying to revise [study] what we know, since this triggers a rewarding sense of familiarity, rather than focus on our weaknesses.”
Set a Routine
Decide when and where you’re going to study, and do it before you can talk yourself out of it.
Around 60 percent of my self-study was done on the bus. I have a long commute, and so what better way to spend it than studying? Once I’d got on and sat down, I would immediately open my laptop, get my head down, and start studying. I would listen to music (no singing) or white noise to reduce distraction. It sure made my journey seem quicker.
Once you have a routine, you don’t need to worry about motivation. There’s no point sitting around waiting to feel motivated. Don’t think about that. You know what you’re supposed to be doing — just start. As Oliver Burke says in his book The Antidote:
“Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it? […] You can note the procrastinatory feelings and act anyway.”
There are many benefits to living a life of routine, including improved mental health. Applying routine to your studying just makes good sense.
Practice, Practice, Practice — The Right Way
Taking tests is a skill. You need to practice that skill.
Two things you should not be doing when studying:
There is no greater waste of your time than sitting around reading stuff. Except (perhaps) for reading the same thing over and over again in an attempt to memorize it.
A classic study by Thomas S Hyde and James J Jenkins shows that trying to remember material in a superficial way has virtually no effect. You can’t just read something over and over, and then expect to be able to pass an exam on it. To truly remember something, you need to think deeply about the subject, and fully understand it.
Forget flashcards. You will be tested on your ability to take exams. That’s it. You need to practice taking exams.
My exams were three hours long, with three essay-style questions. So after I worked out what questions were likely to come up, and how I would answer them, I got to work practicing essay questions.
At first, I would just write on my laptop, with access to my notes, taking as long as I wanted. Then, as exams got closer, I would start handwriting my answers. Then I took away the notes. Then I started timing myself.
I remembered an insane amount of stuff this way. Law is all about remembering cases and principles. For each of my four exams, I covered four topics. For each topic, I remembered:
- the names of at least 20 cases (that’s approaching 400 cases overall);
- the year each case took place;
- the principle deriving from each case.
And quite often:
- the names of the judges that heard the case;
- quotes from the judgment.
- at least two pieces of academic commentary on each topic, including the publication year.
I learned all of this by writing essays, over and over. Usually, I wrote no more than one a day. Whenever I was reading, I was also writing. My reading was directed by what I needed to write in my essay. For instance, if I was studying Tort Law, and the question was “under what conditions can a claimant successfully sue for purely economic losses?”, then all my reading for that day would be directed to answering that question. As soon as I found a relevant point in a journal article, I’d integrate it into my essay. This might not be advisable in all subjects!
By the time my exams arrived, I had basically memorized a set of essays that I could reproduce in the examination room depending on which questions came up. I’d written these so many times that it was just a case of pulling the relevant sections from the essays I’d practiced and combining them in an appropriate way.
It works. It will work for you.
I got my prize — in fact, I got two.
It’s not that I’m particularly smart. Every time I was in school before, I earned pretty average grades. I now know why I didn’t do well:
- I wasn’t organized;
- I crammed at the last minute;
- I didn’t practice taking exams.
Fixing those habits changed everything and made me a top student—without ruining the rest of my life and relationships.
Even if you aren’t as obsessed with getting the highest possible grades as I was, you will thank yourself for approaching your studies in a smart and orderly way. And your friends and family will thank you, too.