Study skills

La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library

Study skills

La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library

Study skills

La Trobe University Library La Trobe Library

Study skills


Preparing for exams

Exams can be stressful, start your preparation early so you feel confident going in on the day:

  • find out when and where the exam will be held
  • find out from your lecturers what the structure of the exam will be, and what subject areas will probably be on the exam; the Library holds copies of selected exam papers
  • review the Subject Learning Guide
  • attend exam review sessions; they are not to be missed as you will get an idea of what will be on the exam and you will have a chance to ask questions.

Activity 1. Create your exam timetable

Creating a workable study timetable will increase your sense of control over the task, reduce anxiety, and help you become more time efficient:

  • allow for the limitations of your attention span; avoid scheduling large slabs of time for one subject; alternating subjects will assist in sustaining concentration and interest
  • don't cram, several review sessions are more effective than one long session
  • work in terms of tasks not time; rather than a vague aim to ‘study biology for two hours’, set a particular section of work for each study period.  Successfully completing small tasks, and breaking the work up into smaller sections makes the whole process of revision seem less daunting
  • include recreation time, if you allocate time for such activity you will be less tempted waste time because of unrealistic expectations.

Activity 2. Create your timetable

Effective revision enables you to get material from your short term memory into your long term memory; long term memory is like a library – information that is placed in it in a systematic way is more likely to be retrievable; revision is more effective when you are actually doing something rather than passively trying to absorb information:


  • review the structure of the subject and the main concepts?  How did the lecturer set out the lectures and study materials?
  • organise your notes, it is easier to remember details when grouped into mini-sections. List the areas you need to know and list headings and subheadings. Add readings you have gathered from assessments and lectures/tutorials
  • summarise, underline, highlight or write comments in order to emphasise the idea of each section
  • draw mind maps, diagrams or flowcharts, it is easier to recall information which has been represented diagrammatically, colours are particularly helpful to stimulate the memory
  • record audio notes.  Prepared answers to practise questions can be recorded on your phone. Comprehension improves if you listen and read at the same time. You can listen whilst like walking, ironing or sitting on a bus! Reading notes aloud is also a good strategy.
  • learn definitions by dividing a piece of paper in two vertically, and write the words on one side and the definitions on the other, practise recalling them
  • use flip cards with the subject on the front and the information to be recalled on the back
  • memorise diagrams by make large ones and stick them up on your walls
  • use rhymes and mnemonics to assist recall e.g. to remember electron loss and gain in oxidation and reduction, the following may be easy to remember: OIL RIG - Oxidation Is Loss; Reduction Is Gain (of electrons)
  • revise with a friend or a study group to share knowledge, study strategies and practise recall
  • practise past exams under exam conditions (timed and without looking at your notes) then mark your own exam. Lecturers may put past exams into the subject LMS, some are available through the Library.
  • Find exam papers
    • explain key concepts to someone else, be concise, give examples and teach what you have learnt, this will give you confidence
    • practise legible handwriting – you may have forgotten how!
    • use music as a study aid.
  • Music for studying
  • Activity 3. Draw a mind map of your subject.

    Check out this free online software and draw a mind map of your subject.

  • Mind map software
  • Maximising the power of your brain

    How can we improve our memory and learning skills?

    Once you know the exam format you can prepare for particular questions types such as multiple choice:

    • beware of double negatives: for example, the question might ask, 'which of the following is true?' and the first answer may read, '(a) it is not the case that...'
    • think carefully about sentences with words such as never and always
    • if there is an answer that you think is correct, check to make sure that the others are incorrect, you may find that you’ve been a bit hasty
    • does the question stem contain any clues to the answer, do the alternative answers give clues?
    • there may be connecting words that make sense in one answer but not the others, by careful analysis and a process of elimination, you could arrive at the correct answer even if at first sight you did not have any idea
    • if you are not quite sure of an answer, guess (unless there is a penalty for incorrect answers).

    Activity 4. Multiple choice questions

    Short answer questions

    • summarise the main points in the first sentence:
      • this means that you will have to carefully plan your answer first, and if you run out of time your examiner will be able to see where you were heading with your answer
    • content must be strictly relevant:
      • make sure that your answer is clear and concise, padding only wastes time.

    Essay questions

    • give yourself time to think about and plan your answer:
      • before writing, make notes or a brief outline to aid your memory and keep your answer to the point
    • your introduction should outline the main points of your argument, the body of the essay should consist of a logical sequence of these ideas:
      • have one idea per paragraph and express the main point of the paragraph in the first sentence
      • the conclusion should provide a summary of your argument. 

    Tip:  If you run out of time on your essay question then write notes/points. Set out a plan of how you would have answered the question if you'd had time

    Problem-solving questions

    These types of questions are most common in science, mathematics, engineering and accounting.

    • Read the question carefully: take note of each part of the question.
    • Check carefully what data have been given and what have been left out.
    • Think about which principles could be applied to the data:
    • List the formulae you will need to answer the question.
    • Decide the order of the steps you will have to take in order to get to the answer.
    • Double check your arithmetic before moving onto the next step.
    • Include all of your calculations in your answer:
    • That way even if the final outcome is incorrect, your examiner will be able to see where the mistake was made and may still award you some marks for your approach to the question.
    • In physics exams carefully define all symbols and explain in words what you are doing.
    • If the dimensions of the final result do not seem right, check your computations again and if you still come up with the same answer write down whether or not you believe it to be valid and provide a possible explanation for such a result.


    Open book or online exams

    Don't be lulled into a false sense of security. With limited time and much to write, you will not have time to sift and sort through books, notes, etc. Open book exams require you to learn for understanding rather than just remembering and to apply the information in your sources to the questions. What you will be able to do, provided you are well organised, is to refer to your materials for theories, arguments or quotations.


    Study strategies

    • Don't waste time trying to prepare 'model' answers
      • Pre-prepared answers don't work as the question asked might be quite different. You don't need to know everything, but you do need to know how to find the relevant information. Drawing a flow chart to show how topics are connected is very helpful.
    • Organise materials for fast reference
      • Don't overload with materials. You'll probably work best relying on no more than a few pages of notes and a few well-chosen texts.
      • Bookmark useful chapters or pages with coloured sticky notes. Then use index cards (one per book) to list key topics and relevant page numbers. This can help you find information quickly.
      • Prepare brief summaries, perhaps in the margins of texts to provide a quick reference. Highlight both theories and related examples.
      • Prepare a one page list of key information eg. formulae, definitions.
    • Organise your study space
      • Arrange your materials neatly in your study area at home. Put other clutter away. Set up a quiet space where you can concentrate and where you can work without interruptions. Turn off your mobile, the television or other distractions.
    • Find out if you need to reference in the exam
      • Will you be expected to give sources and page numbers in your answers? Even if this is not marked strictly in an exam, it is a good idea to include where your information has come from.

    Going blank

    Suddenly you cannot remember some key information or you just can't seem to get started on an answer. Don't waste time!

    • Don't try too hard to remember:
      • Leave a gap in your writing and add the information later.
    • Switch to a different question:
      • This may release the 'block'.
    • Keep writing:
      • On a spare piece of paper, write what you do know - any words, phrases that have anything to do with the question. This may help jog your memory.
    • Ask yourself questions to help focus you:
      • How? When? What? Where? Why?
    • Go back to your plan:
      • Looking at the big picture may help.
    • You may be too tense:
      • >Take time to practise a relaxation exercise. For example, close your eyes and picture a beautiful, peaceful place - breathe slowly and deeply - repeat a calming word until you start to relax.


    Tip: If you cannot remember some key information or you just can't seem to get started on an answer, don't waste time. Move on and return to the problem later.


    Writers' cramp

    If the act of writing becomes painful, you are probably gripping your pen too tightly.

    • Put down your pen and rest your handfor a short time.
    • Place your hand on the desk (palm down) and let the muscles relax.
    • When you begin writing again:

    Try using a differently shaped pen.

    Write more slowly for a little while.

    Try writing in a slightly different style.


    Running out of time

    Suddenly you realise you don't have enough time to finish all the questions.

    • Re-allocate your time for the remaining questions: based on their mark value, divide up your remaining time.
    • For any questions you haven't yet started, write a quick outline plan in your answer book - you will at least be awarded some marks.
    • Remember, the first few marks of a question are easier to gain. Therefore, two half-answered questions will usually give you more marks than if you completed just one of the questions.

    [Adapted from University of New England Learning Hub]

    Video: Exam strategies

    Watch Mr Bean - The Exam on YouTube and identify his exam strategies. What to do when you have the wrong paper?:


    Although a small amount of stress before exams may aid your performance, too much anxiety will negatively affect your exam performance.

    There are several strategies you can try to reduce your anxiety before and during exams:

    • Look after your health. Get plenty of sleep, eat healthy food and try to find time to exercise. Many people find that yoga and breathing exercises can help keep them in tune both physically and mentally.
    • Keep things in perspective. Although it may seem at the time that the next exam will be the most important event in your entire life, this is probably not really the case and thinking like this only puts more pressure on yourself.
    • Take a break. Notice when you are tired or losing concentration. A good way to refresh a tired mind is to go on a brisk 15 minute walk. A 15 minute TV break is mind numbing rather than refreshing and can easily turn into a one hour break.
    • Set rewards for yourself. Rewards for good progress can assist with motivation. A reward can be as simple as a cup of tea or your favourite TV programme.


    Around exam time, the La Trobe counselling service runs group seminars/sessions on exam success. If you feel overwhelmed by exam stress or study motivation problems, you may like to make an individual appointment with one of the counselors.

    See also advice on managing exam stress: