Midterms are coming, try these five study tips

Prepare for your first round of exams this semester with tips on how to get organized and optimize your study habits.
Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Midterms are nearly here! This can be a challenging part of the semester, but spending a little time now to get organized and strategize can help reduce your stress and produce more positive outcomes. Check out these five tips, compiled by experts at Learning at Iowa, to help you prepare for exam season.

A student studying in a classroom


Understand how you will be assessed

How are instructors evaluating your progress in each class? Knowing the task demands for each of your courses can help you spend more time and effort on what will be most helpful to your learning. Information on how you’ll be evaluated and what instructors hope you learn from the course can be found in the course syllabus and/or grading rubrics in ICON for specific assignments or papers. Take some time to review those criteria carefully before diving into studying!

Get the most out of your study time

You are a busy college student! Make your study time as effective and productive as possible by using metacognition. Take time to reflect on your own thinking and evaluate your strategies:

  • Planning: Before you start your assignments, figure out how long each will take. Designate regular times for studying in your schedule and set specific goals for each session. 
  • Monitoring: As you study, ask yourself, is there anything you are confused about? Are you staying focused? Do you need to take advantage of office hours, tutoring, or Supplemental Instruction? 
  • Evaluating: Don't wait until you get an exam or assignment grade to evaluate whether your current study strategies are working. Regularly ask yourself: what worked well? What did not work well? What will you do differently next time? 

Instead of just re-reading, test yourself

Testing yourself on the material improves your memory, even if you don't remember the answers right away. By actively trying to recall the information, you strengthen those memories and are less likely to forget the content or skills that you learned. Try one of these strategies before your next exam:

  • Create flashcards or Quizlet. The most effective way to use them is to take the time to really try to remember the correct answer, commit to it, and only then then flip it over and check to see if you got it right.
  • Complete any practice tests or review questions the instructor provides. Make sure you answer every question before looking at the answers.
  • Cover your notes or your textbook as you read and try to force yourself to recall all of the major topics on the page. Then, do a "brain dump" of all the information you are expected to learn for the exam. Put it in your own words or explain it to someone else.

Don't try to learn everything, everywhere, all at once

Spacing out your learning by focusing on a little bit of material at a time is a much more effective use of your study time than cramming everything in right before an exam. Cramming is not only stressful, but it also doesn’t give your memory the chance to work as well. Spaced practice is effective because memories fade quickly. So, each time you re-learn material that has faded, you elaborate and form new connections between ideas, which helps you retain more information and strengthen your memories of the content. Here is an example of a spaced schedule. Note that the actual amount of study time required will differ by course, this is just one example.

A chart showing spaced practice of studying compared to massed practice

Offload memory demands to free up brain space

If you plan ahead to reduce the cognitive load on your brain, you’ll have more mental resources to devote to studying and learning! Here are some examples of how you can reduce cognitive load in your environment:

  • Use a scheduling system that works for you
  • Make a daily to-do list
  • Set reminders on your phone
  • Keep your study space organized
  • Keep a bag packed with all of your course materials so you don't have to find and gather them up each time you head to a study session
  • Organize your essentials: your keys, wallet, books, chargers, and phone or laptop, and keep them in a place where you can easily find them

For more ideas and resources, check out Learning at Iowa.

The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers about 70 majors across the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. About 15,000 undergraduate and nearly 2,000 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by faculty at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all Iowa undergraduates through the college's general education program, CLAS CORE. About 80 percent of all Iowa undergraduates begin their academic journey in CLAS. The college confers about 60 percent of the university's bachelor's degrees each academic year.