how to focus for studying for exams

How to Focus For Studying for Exams

Developing your focus for studying for exams is a lot like exercising a muscle. You have to start off slow and gradual. Then you increase your intensity as you move closer to the final date. To do that, the first step is to get organised and know when that date is. Then set out a study plan that factors in active recall, interleaving and spaced repetition.

Sounds easy right? Well, if my own personal experiences are anything to go by; failing my first couple of colloquiums in med school, it’s not always so obvious! Or maybe it’s because most of us just aren’t getting the execution right.

Either way, knowing how to focus in the lead up to an exam is crucial if you’re to make the best of your studies. So here’s where I’ll discuss my own approach in the hope of it being some help. I’ll also do my best to tackle a couple of other important questions surrounding the ever-popular (that’s some sarcasm) topic of exams too.

Especially the topic of cramming!

How to Develop Focus for Exams

Developing focus for anything requires some level of patience and flexibility. Exams are just the same. You need to be able to have a systems-based approach in order to stay on track and make consistent progress.

Here are the the main ways I’d recommend going about sharpening your focus:

  • Understand: find out and make a record of the final exam date and time. Read through any course material, or confirm with the professor or teacher, to know exactly what the format of the exam is. Make sure you identify if mid-terms, colloquiums, essays etc contribute a percentage of the final grade (or grant you exemptions).
  • Information Gathering: identify the topics/subjects of the exam by studying the syllabus or asking your course leader or teacher what things will be covered. Canvas some older students and ask them about the main pitfalls of the exam; things to look out for and resource recommendations. Ask them about effective study strategies and if there’s anything they would have done differently. Ask your professor on their recommendations for how best to prepare.
  • Formulate a Study Plan: estimate how much time it will take you to cover each of the topics of the exam. Work out which areas require more study hours. Decide if you plan to work on weekends and how many hours you can roughly dedicate toward your plan each day. Settle on the key resources you will use to review or learn the material.
  • Know What to Focus On Each Day: making a definitive plan and charting out which material you will study and when enables you to start each day leading up to your exam with a specific focus. This also frees you up of any mental energy you would otherwise spend repeating this whole process.
  • Start With the Hardest Task First: cover the more difficult concepts early on in the schedule and as the first action for each day of your study blocks. That way you’ll avoid procrastinating on the challenging areas and put yourself in the position to cover the easier things when your focus begins to wane.
  • Schedule in Regular Breaks: your concentration and focus are maximal after periods of rest. Perhaps divide your study time into pomodoro segments or a 90-minute focus block to alternate between high levels of attention and a dopamine-fuelled break with something fun.

Obviously eating right, sleeping well and keeping your stress levels at a minimum are important when it comes to building focus toward an exam. The aforementioned tips though, when coupled with healthy lifestyle habits, should put you in a great position come exam day.

How to Concentrate for Exams

Concentration during your study sessions is dependent on your approach. Allow yourself to get distracted and you’ll find it hard to complete what you were setting out to do. Studying when tired or hungry are two other ways to derail concentration so make sure you address those too.

My recommendations on how best to concentrate on your study sessions in the lead up to an exam are as follows:

  • Remove Distractions: turn your phone off, close all non-relevant web browser windows and clear your work space.
  • Change Up Location: going somewhere that’s other than your house or room to study can help shift mental gears and better put you in ‘work mode’. For me personally? That’s the library or a coffee shop. The latter preferably being somewhere off-the-beaten path where no colleagues or people I know are likely to disturb me.
  • Break Down Sessions: have a goal in mind from your plan at the start of every session. Decide how long you will work for and when you will stop. Avoid Parkinson’s law: “work expands to fill time available for its completion”.
  • Eat Before: fuel up with a balance of clean carbs, proteins and fats. Drink plenty of water. Grab a coffee or tea (or whatever else helps you focus) at the start of your session.
  • Study Effectively: use techniques like active recall and quizzing to reinforce neural networks instead of consuming information passively and then promptly forgetting. Check out my article how to study medicine effectively for more tips (they apply to other subjects too).

Assuming you stick to the system and hit your goals, I recommend winding things down the day before an exam and maybe doing a brief skim through key notes or a flashcard deck.

That way you allow your energy stores to build back up. It also takes your mind off the pressure.

How to Focus on Exam Day

Maintain your focus on exam day by going through your morning routine as normal. Wake up at your usual time and eat a good breakfast so that you have enough energy for the day ahead. Have confidence in the system you’ve stuck to in the lead up to the exam, knowing you’ve put in the work.

Give yourself plenty of time to get to the venue so that you’re not rushed or panicked by the possibility of being late. Make sure you have all the equipment you’ll need by packing your bag the night before. Bring some water with you to avoid getting dehydrated.

A few extra tips:

  • Normal Conversation: if you find yourself with time to speak to colleagues before an exam try to keep things off the topic. A lot of times I think discussing an exam beforehand can unnecessarily panic people and have them doubting the work they put in. Try to resist the urge to talk about the material and focus on other things instead.
  • Stretch Out and Breathe: it might be a personal thing but I like to do a real gentle form of exercise before I go into an exam. That might be a few yoga-style poses and the like. Or five minutes of quiet breathing. I find this helps settle my nerves, reminds me to be confident knowing I’ve put in the work and not let the possibility of failure dominate.
  • Plan Something Fun to Do After: despite how you feel the actual exam went, I think it’s a good idea to get some space from it and the constant reflection by planning something fun at the end of it. Doing so helps you put things in perspective. It also positively reinforces the whole process so you can apply it, with greater experience, to the next exam.

If, despite your best efforts, you think it’s been a disaster, remember: grades don’t matter all that much. Not in the grand scheme of things.

There’s generally always a chance in life to have another go.

What Helps You Focus During a Test?

Focusing during a test can be difficult when you begin to hit the tricky questions that challenge your thinking. That’s why I generally advise skipping through all the questions you don’t instinctively come to you during the first reading. Moving to the questions that you do have a good grasp of, and tackling those first, helps build your confidence for these later.

This is a technique I picked up from Cal Newport’s many books and excellent blog Study Hacks. The principle behind this approach is that skipping these questions allows you to work on them subconsciously as you go about the rest of the exam. When you return to see them again it’s likely other questions or concepts further along in the test may help you retrieve the answer.

Obviously this depends on the format of the exam – as well as whether you can actually go backward and forward in the question ordering. The more questions you generally do outside of an exam though – specifically if you do them under similar time constraints and conditions – the better focused you’ll be.

That’s why doing mock exams – and having the discipline to create the environment for them – can be such a devastatingly effective study technique. So grab past papers or make up your own self-styled exams with similar questions and integrate them into your study plan.

Does Cramming Before a Test Work?

The opposite of a systemised-approach to preparing for an exam is cramming. Cramming is ineffective because it does little for long-term retention of the material, making future, related, exams more difficult and only adding to your workload long-term.

Spacing out your learning and repeatedly returning to core concepts, builds a deeper neural network of interconnected data points. This enables you to perform better, with less effort, on future tests. As well as building your general intelligence so that you can make more accurate inferences about new material you haven’t studied yet.

Of course, there’s the argument that cramming can help you pass tests. Short-term recall is still effective enough to help you get past a lot of questions. But the real question is; what’s the cost of this approach to your sanity and long-term health?

A lot of the time cramming only makes you more anxious come exam day and throws all your natural habits off-kilter. Performing under that level of stress is never a good idea and unlikely to gain anywhere near the same result you would have with consistent work spread out over a number of days and weeks.

As you can tell; I’m not a fan!

Summary

Developing sharp focus is all about following a process. Do a little each day to push the needle in the right direction and you’ll find focus gets progressively more easier. Couple that with some of the other techniques outlined on this site and you’ll be as far from failure as possible.

Image Credit: Green Chameleon at Unsplash