Everyone has had to cram for an exam at some point in their life. Somehow, the switch from high school “tests” to college or university “exams” is extremely intimidating. As such, many new students find that the study techniques they used in high school don’t work as well as they thought. If you’re in that situation now, don’t panic. Learning how to study and cram is just part of post-secondary academics. The next time you’re scrambling to cram for an exam, these helpful tips will help you study smarter, not harder.

Exercise first

When we exercise, we don’t just stimulate our muscles — we also stimulate our brain.

Studies done on mice suggest that exercise helps to jumpstart neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells. Scientists have discovered that exercise triggers a process that they call “brain-derived neurotropic factor”, or BDNF, which strengthens the connections between neurons and sparks the creation of new brain cells. The more robust the connections in our brain, the easier it is for us to comprehend complex topics, make creative connections, and retain information.

So, the next time you know you have a big night of studying ahead of you, go for a run, hit the pool for a swim, or do an energetic workout. It will help calm your nerves and will jumpstart the BDNF process in your brain which helps you study better.

Set the mood

Once you’ve done some energizing physical activity, set the mood for studying by organizing and tidying your space. Clear away clutter, as well as anything that could potentially distract you from your study material.

If you don’t already have an area dedicated to studying, like a desk or a favorite chair, set one up now. Many people recommend not studying on a couch or bed since places associated with relaxation and leisure could make you sleepy or distracted. Ideally, you want your study space to be comfortable, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep.

If you need your phone as a study tool, put your notifications on silent or put it in airplane mode to discourage distractions.

Play music

Some people find that listening to music helps them focus, while others need complete silence. If you already have a method that works for you, break out your preferred tunes and get to work.

If you’re looking to test-drive a new study method, you may find that certain types of music work better for you than others. Some research has shown that students who listen to music with lyrics while they study tend to absorb less information than their counterparts who listened to instrumental music. Calm instrumental music is generally thought to be the best option for a study soundtrack.

Make a list of topics you need to cover

Once you’ve sat down to begin studying properly, most people find it helpful to go over the course syllabus and exam materials and make a list of any topics that you know you’ll need to master. This helps you limit your studying to material that you’ll actually need to know.

Some professors are eager to help students by specifying exactly which topics they’ll need to know for the exam, while others are more enigmatic.

Scour the material that you have before you start and make a list of all the topics you’ll need to study. Then, as you learn them, cross them off one by one so you can keep track of what still needs to be covered.

Read to yourself out loud

Many people confuse reading with studying. They think if they read things silently a few times in a row, the information will have magically transferred into their brains. Unfortunately, unless you have an impeccable memory, it’s unlikely that just reading the material will be enough.

Many people start studying for an exam by reading the course material out loud. A study done at the University of Waterloo in Canada recently found that reading out loud is much more effective than listening to recorded material, listening to someone else read, or reading silently.

Use mind maps to test your understanding of complex topics

Mind maps are a useful study tool that you can use to test your understanding of complex topics and make connections that you may not have found otherwise.

Start your mind map by flipping a piece of paper into landscape view and writing the central topic or idea that you’re studying in the center. Surround the central topic with sub-topics, then branch out further from there until you can’t think of any more details.

A lot of people find that the visual element is useful in increasing their learning comprehension, so feel free to use different colors or symbols to help separate each idea.

Take practice exams

If your professor has old exams available for your course, take full advantage of those by using them as study material. Look at which concepts were tested and make sure you’ve got them covered.

It’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with the way individual questions are phrased and make sure you understand your instructor’s testing method. The questions won’t be the same but learning your instructor’s testing style will definitely help you feel more comfortable on the day of the exam.

Teach the concepts to someone else

A great way to test whether you’ve retained the key concepts that you’re studying is to try and teach them to someone else. Standing up and presenting the material forces you to make connections on the fly and helps you figure out where your knowledge is lacking. Furthermore, there are tons of studies that have confirmed that students who spend time teaching the material are able to retain more information and show a higher level of understanding than their peers who spent all of their time re-learning the information.

This is a great way to study with friends who are taking the same course. Trade off teaching concepts to each other until you all understand everything.

Don’ burn out

Lots of people make the mistake of burning out while studying. Focusing on the same material for so long can you get exhausted and annoyed.

To combat study burnout, focus on a single topic for a limited amount of time, then move on to another. You can use a focus method like the Pomodoro Technique to keep yourself on track or just move on once you feel yourself getting frustrated or distracted. When you come back to the first topic, you may find that you retained more information than you previously thought.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Cramming for exams is hard, but there are lots of steps that you can take to improve your study habits. No one is born knowing how to study, but with a lot of effort and hard work, you can ensure a great result on your next exam.

However, good study habits are only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to getting a good exam result. A good night’s sleep, eating healthy food, and putting yourself in a positive headspace as you walk into the examination room are all critical steps to achieving a good result.