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Study Tips: Develop Your Study Plan Six-Pack

Do you want to be a good athlete? Run a lot. Do you want to be an amazing dancer? Dance a lot. Do you want to do well in the exams? Examine yourself a lot.

Isak de Vries | May 2014

Study Tips: Develop Your Study Plan Six-Pack

Gotcha! It is true.

You will not get a six-pack by looking at hot bodies in magazines. Start doing sit-ups! You will never get to the Olympic Games by watching sport on television. You need to practise that sport five to six days a week. You will never pass matric by watching your teacher. Nope. You have to practise answering exam questions five to six days a week. Listening in class helps. Paying attention is extremely important, but it is not enough.

If you want to pass the final exams, you have practise answering questions for the exams.

What the latest research says

“Many students are being left behind by an educational system that some people believe is in crisis.”

Guess who said this? Helen Zille? Julius Malema? Nope, it was not even a South African and neither were they talking about South Africa. It is the first sentence in an academic article on study techniques published at the end of last year in the United States of America. The article tells the story of the biggest research project ever done on study techniques.

Five academics* from four of the USA’s largest universities tried to determine which study techniques work best. What did they find? They found that writing exams is like playing sport. You want to be really good at something? Start now and practise hard.

So, what does that mean to someone studying for matric? Two things:

  • Start early and do a little bit of study on each subject every day. (This is referred to as ‘distributed practice’.)
  • Practise by writing lots of tests or exams. (Otherwise known as ‘practice testing’.)


It is just like sport

Thinking about getting a nice, flat stomach? Well, what will work best: a hundred sit-ups the night before the date; or thirty sit-ups every day for six weeks? Of course it is better to do fewer sit-ups over a longer period of time. That’s distributed practice in action. Do a little bit of work each and every day. This is so much better than cramming the night before.

And will you get a flat stomach by highlighting all the stomach tips in magazines? Nope. Sit down. Start doing them. All those fancy highlighters that you are using to help you study do not help much. The best way to pass an exam is to work through old question papers. Test yourself, get your friends and your family to test you. Ask your teacher for old papers and for tests. This is called practice testing by the academics.


What does not work?

The American study found that a whole lot of things we have been taught about studying do not really work well. Here are a few techniques that did not actually produce very good results: Writing summaries, highlighting, using keyword mnemonics (donkey bridges), creating cool pictures to try and remember your work, and loads of rereading. All these things take time, but they are not as effective as answering old exam papers.

Now for the really cool news

Even average students score well if they practise working through exams or tests five days a week. Once again, the idea is to do a little bit of work on each subject every school day.

It is like running. Not all of us can reach the Olympics, but most of us can easily finish a 10km race – if we train a little bit five days a week.

Stop comparing yourself to others

Stop worrying about the guys who get eight straight As. Your worrying is not going to mean anything to them, nor will it help you. Remember, it is like a 10km run. Only about 30 people in the world can make it to an Olympic final, so run your own race. Study for your own matric. Stop trying to be someone else.

Pressure and expectation

So the family wants you to do extra well? The headmaster has already made that speech about doing the school proud? A few times, actually?

For once you have to be deaf to what others want: This one is on you. Do the best YOU can.


You can do it

Stop telling yourself: “I’m gonna fail, I’m gonna fail!” Start studying. You can do it, even if it is hard. Negative thoughts won’t help you. The more you study, the easier it gets.

Be healthy, eat the right food

Athletes are careful about what they eat and how much they drink. Most athletes will have a good party now and again, but they know: healthy food, very little sugar and enough sleep will get them to the top.

Be very careful of energy drinks. They contain enormous amounts of sugar. Sugar is not healthy; it simply makes the body secrete a lot of insulin and that could make you feel tired and/or irritable.

Get some exercise

A fit body studies better than an unfit body. Try doing some form of exercise at least five days a week. Go walking with friends, or with a pet. Playing tennis, going for a jog, having a swim or pumping some iron in the gymnasium are all clever ways to stay in shape. Others may enjoy dancing every now and again.

Cellphones? Eish!

We all know that it is easier to go somwhere without underwear than it is to go without a cellphone, but be careful… while you are studying, you should learn to ignore the BBMs, the WhatsApps, the Facebook prompts, etc. Check the tweets when you have done some work and you are ready to take a break.

Take a break, take a few breaks

Study really hard for a while. Work those old exam papers. Test yourself on the work that you have just gone through. Then take a break. It need not be a long break, just get up and do something.

Find a routine

Some people like routines and enjoy revising the same subject at the same time every day. Try it. If you discover that you work differently, find a way that works for you.

Where to study?

Where do you study best? It depends on you, but a library, a school hall, a little corner at a family member’s or friend’s house – any of these may work. You must look for a place that really works for you, then claim it!

Doing it with friends

Studying, like sport, can be done with friends. Working through a difficult paper can also be done in groups, but it is important that you participate fully. Looking at your friends working out the paper will not help you work it out. When I was at school, my maths teacher used to say that maths is not a spectator sport, one has to practice. She was right!


Study tips at your fingertips

  • Start early – it is easier and better than cramming.
  • Do a little bit of work on every subject at least five days a week.
  • When you start studying, switch off the phone.
  • Get enough sleep. Get enough exercise.
  • Test yourself, over and over and over.
  • Believe in yourself. You can do it if you practice.
  • Work the old exam papers.
  • Ask your teacher for tests.
  • Set tests for your friends. Answer the tests they set.
  • Prepare a box with all the things you will need, then you do not have to get up and go looking for things all the time.
  • Have fun in between.

Websites and Resources available to help


* John Dunlosky, Katherine A. Rawson, Elizabeth J. Marsh, Mitchell J. Nathan and Daniel T. Willingham. 2013. “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology.” In: Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14(1) 4–58. Website: http://psi.sagepub.com/content/14/1/4.full.