Professor shares 14 tips to successfully get through the exams

15 May 2023 |

Professor Martin Valcke is facing his very last exam period after a career spanning many years. As an expert, we asked him for the ultimate tips for you to get through the exam period successfully.

"A lot of students fool themselves by spending hours applying the same study strategy. They know the ingredients of a good cocktail. They know tequila and they know cola. But they don't know the recipe of the cocktail. Studying well means making cocktails. You have to grasp the subject matter in as many different sensory ways as possible."


1. Don't turn your study material into a colouring book

“By using highlighters, you will never look at the same text analytically more than once. It is best to leave the original text clean because it contains more information than what you marked. Only highlight your own texts.”

2. Don't just study your summary

“When making a summary, you learn the process of summarising. After that, the learning process stops. Think of a summary as a wardrobe full of empty coat hangers. While studying, you grab each coat hanger and hang clothes back on it. In this way, you reconstruct the entire subject matter.

Because a summary is a selection you have made yourself, it is best to use it only once. An extra tip is to make more than one summary and compare them. Did you make the same selection again?”

3. Make up your own exam questions

“Creating your own set of exam questions is a very good way to learn how to study. But beware, this is again a selection. After all, studying means selecting, organizing and integrating information. Are you sure you selected correctly?”

4. Just reading is not enough

“Many students are addicted to reading. However, writing down your thoughts or drawing them if necessary has much more value. You add an extra sensory experience to the meaning of what you read. By doing so, you link the subject matter in your memory to something you already know. This way you really understand what you read and you will also remember the subject matter.”

5. Review the material in the right way

“Studying consists of selecting, organizing and integrating the subject matter. When selecting, you fall back on your current knowledge. Because your knowledge base is constantly expanding and you will select different things every time, it is better to study the material more than once.

But that is not enough. Repeating something several times in the same way does not guarantee that you will remember it better. You also have to organize the subject matter in a different way: visual, auditory, graphical… And you have to relate the subject matter to other concepts by, for example, looking for other examples.”

6. Explain the material to someone else

“When you explain something, you select elements of knowledge from your long-term memory and arrange them in such a way that the relationships between those elements become clear. A good study tip is therefore to meet up with fellow students while studying and to tell each other what is mentioned on page 45 of the handbook, for example. You both have 2 minutes. In this way you create an auditory representation of the subject matter. This is a very strong and slow representation because it works linearly. You have to wait until you have the meaning. You will also discover that you and your classmates selected and emphasized other things on page 45.”

7. Explain the subject matter to yourself

“You can also explain the subject matter to yourself. Sit in front of your computer and record yourself. First try to explain how the subject matter is structured. A second step is the question: 'what does this actually mean?'. Use your own words here. This is a nice method, but it is not used by many students because it is quite confrontational. You will be amazed at how many mistakes you make.”

Moreover, by listening to yourself you will select, organize and integrate again. Now from your own knowledge. You will also be able to immediately validate that knowledge against the pieces of learning material you forgot.

Are you a Ghent University student and in need of more tips or counselling?

8. Make a complete as possible schedule

“Many students are not honest with themselves. They ignore the things they know they won't have time for. You must therefore plan the entire study and exam period to the end. Daily schedules alone are not enough.”

If you think that you will definitely not succeed, don't do it. It's better to immediately go into some kind of urgency mode and to be realistic.

9. Make sure you can touch the study material

“Part of good planning is collecting your study materials. Physically grasping the subject matter (the course, your notes, all the exercises…) can be very liberating. On the one hand, you will realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. On the other hand, you can put the materials aside after an exam. That is a cognitive processing of the quantity by making a physical representation.”

10. Use timeslots that work for you

“There is no such thing as the ideal timeslot for studying. Be aware that hardly anyone can concentrate for longer than three hours. Your cognitive system cannot do this. By constantly storing new information, you overload your working memory. You keep selecting information, without organizing and integrating it with what was already in your memory. In other words, the information will never go to the long-term memory. You must therefore realistically organize your time blocks. Make sure your head stays fresh enough so you can really get started with the new information: structuring, organizing, anchoring, clustering... Only then can you add new information again.”

11. Studying in a group limits you

“Many students like to study in group. That is often in function of discipline, which is smart in that sense. However, it is no guarantee of actual studying. By sitting together with other students you are limited. Because you have to work in silence, you cannot apply many study strategies. It is therefore better not to do this during the entire study and exam period. It is good in the first phase, where you go through the course material for the first time.”

12. Make holiday plans already

“It's a mountain of work you're facing. Therefore, make holiday plans now so that you have something to look forward to. Also plan very behaviourally short relaxation moments as a reward, micro vacations. For example, reward yourself with one episode of your favourite show on Netflix. Of course you have to have self-discipline to keep it that way.”

13. Eat healthy and regularly

“Do not listen too much to all kinds of nutritional advice. Eat healthy and regularly. Think of your meals, including preparing them, as a moment of relaxation as well.”

14. Start when the cherry trees are in bloom

“One last tip, but maybe one for next academic year. From the moment the fair is on Sint-Pietersplein and when the cherry trees are in bloom, it's time to start.”


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