Studying for exams is a hugely stressful time for any student. It often feels like no amount of work will ever be enough, and yet at the same time any work you do seems ineffective. I have experienced this many times as a student, revising for GCSEs, A-Levels, university exams, and many other tests along the way. Therefore, in this article I will be compiling my personal tips and tricks along with scientific studies and data about studying. Through this, we will explain the most effective ways to revise, and pinpoint exactly how much studying we recommend you do!
Studying can be stressful, and many students feel the urge to study as much as possible, no matter how much they have to sacrifice. However, this is never the most effective method. Students can easily become burned out by endless studying, leading to lack of motivation. Furthermore, studying too much can be detrimental to health, especially if you neglect eating, exercise, and sleep. Overall, it’s best to study little and often, using techniques like the Pomodoro method, which uses 25-minute chunks of work. This way, you can get your work done without damaging your mental health.
Disclaimer: while some of the information in this article is based on scientific research, much of it is based on my own experiences. Therefore, please do not take all of it as absolute fact, and it may not work for everybody.
While this should have given you some brief tips for studying, please read on for a full explanation of how much studying is too much.
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How long should you study for?
In my opinion, the most important thing to consider when studying is quality over quantity. In my experience, studying for hours and hours on end for weeks is the quickest way to fail an exam, and lose all your motivation.
Ultimately, the ideal length of time to study will depend on you. However, I have always found that frequent but relatively short chunks are the most effective method. A scientific study by Newport (linked here) found that students who used “distributed practice” – spacing out work over several days and weeks – were much more likely to recall material and perform well on exams.
Personally, I find that shorter sessions with frequent breaks are best. This is because I tend to become distracted quickly when working on tasks. Therefore, I use a method called the Pomodoro to track my work and breaks.
In the Pomodoro method, you set a timer and work on one task for 25 minutes without getting distracted by other tasks, even if they are work related. Then you have a 5-minute break. This repeats 4 times, then you have a longer break of around 30 minutes.
The beauty of Pomodoro is in its simplicity. If you try this method and after 25 minutes feel you are just getting started with your work, try upping the time to 50 minutes, with a 10-minute break. Trial and error will help you to find a time that works best for you, so experiment until you feel you have achieved proper focus and efficient work.
For more information of the Pomodoro technique and how to effectively apply it in your studying, check out this article from Todoist. Think Student also has a great article about how long is ideal to study for, which can be found here.
When should you start studying for an exam?
Of course, studying in small chunks means beginning to work much earlier than you would if cramming in one long session. Therefore, now we will explore when it is best to start studying. However, starting too soon might mean you won’t even remember what you revise by the exam, so finding that sweet spot is key.
Of course, this does depend on what sort of test or exam you are revising for. Some are more serious, and therefore require much more preparation.
For an in-class test, such as an end of unit assessment, I would usually study for around a week. I found this gave me time to review all the content, create summaries and guides, practice questions, and ensure that any gaps in my learning could be filled before the exam.
For a more serious exam, such as end of year exams, I would probably begin studying a month before the exams begin. This again allows me the same amount of time to cover everything as above, but accounting for the fact that you likely have several tests to revise for. However, this relies on the scientific method of spaced repetition which means revising things throughout the year to keep it fresh – see more below.
Finally, for the most serious official exams such as GCSEs and A-Levels, I believe revising around 6 months before is ideal. For summer exams this means starting around Christmas. The sheer volume of content in these exams means that the sooner you start, the more chances you have to review your learning and secure your exam technique.
These are all estimates based on my experiences in school and college. Many students will find they need longer, or shorter, to effectively revise and study. However, these guides were a useful baseline for me and many of my friends.
Creating a revision timetable is a key step to ensuring your studying is organised and logical, and will truly prepare you for an exam. Think Student’s tips on making an effective timetable, which I found hugely useful during my own exams, can be found here.
Is it possible to study too much?
In all the stress of revising for an exam, or trying to study all your content, it can be easy to lose sight of other things that matter.
It is very important to consider throughout this article that studying (and school) are not the only things in your life. Leaving time for sleep, eating, and even socialising is key to continuing your academic success.
Also, studying too much can lead to feeling “burnt out”. This is a state of mind where you feel exhausted and unable to work anymore and leads to a lack of motivation. You can avoid this by being careful of your health, as above, but also by making sure you take time to do things you enjoy.
The saying “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is a cliché for a reason – if you neglect your needs, you will not be able to perform well academically! So, make time during your week to see friends, and take part in your hobbies. While it may feel like a waste of time, these things are crucial.
Furthermore, too much study can make you bored of the content. This is especially important if you are studying ineffectively, such as by just passively reading, or studying for hours on end. For more tips on optimising revision, please see the section below.
When should you stop studying?
As above, doing well in school should never come at the cost of your health.
If you are exhausted, have headaches, and cannot focus, this is a good sign that you need to take a break from studying and get some sleep, do another activity, or just relax. This break could just be a normal 30-minute chill if you are feeling a little distracted, but sometimes it is best to take a day, or even week, off studying to focus on your health.
Furthermore, if you are studying so much that you only eat while working, or forget to eat, this is a good sign that you need to step down your work routine. Brain breaks are just as important as the chance to fuel your body – nobody can go on working forever. The occasional snack while working is fine, and can even help with revision by keeping your body fuelled, but ideally you should be taking regular breaks so this is not necessary.
The same goes for exercise – even going out for a short walk can be hugely beneficial for mental health, but also for overall memory. A Harvard study (found here) shows that habitual exercise improves overall cognitive function, which is a great sign for exams.
What is the most effective study method?
The first, and in my opinion best, study method is spaced repetition. This is a method of studying information at intervals to counteract the action of the “forgetting curve” in your brain, which is how the brain forgets information.
This method involves studying a batch of information, usually as flashcards, at intervals like 1 hour after learning, then 1 day, then 2 days, then 4 days, then 1 week, 2 weeks… continuing until the exam date at increasingly larger intervals. This method is used by application such as Anki, linked here, which help you keep track of the cards you need to study for the day. It is particularly useful when you need to study small bites of information, such as vocabulary words.
Another interesting and effective method is known as the Feynman technique. This is based on the principle that teaching is the best test of how well you know information, and essentially involves teaching what you know to someone else. This is a form of active recall which helps you to cement your knowledge and identify gaps, and can be done by just explaining things, even if you do not actually have someone to teach.
Finally, the key to studying is active processes. Pre-study, by reading or watching videos on what you learned, is important, but it is not study. Recalling by completing exam questions, applying your knowledge by teaching or doing flashcards, or writing practice essays, are the ways to truly understand information.
Think Student has a great guide to revising specifically for GCSEs and A-Level exams which can be found here. Furthermore, this article from Think Student on revision techniques explains how many of the top study methods work, which is a great overview for students looking to broaden their understanding.