1. Home
  2. Articles
  3. Study Tips: Make Or Break Time

Study Tips: Make Or Break Time

The countdown has begun and the clock is ticking as the ‘biggie’ looms on the horizon. Once you’ve got Matric under your belt, you can saddle up and ride off into your very own sunset. Sound study techniques are vital when it comes to optimum performance during exams. Christine Battersby suggests some top study tips, and setting realistic goals.

Christine Battersby | June 2012

Study Tips: Make Or Break Time

Good preparation and sound study techniques are vital when it comes to optimum performance during those all-important exams. Studying is a technical skill and, like any skill, the more you practice the better you become. Being motivated is an important aspect of studying, and this means really knowing what you want out of life – and what marks you need to get it.

Christine Battersby of Yearn 2 Learn – a Cape Town based company that runs study workshops – suggests avoiding relying too heavily on reading and reading over the work, and setting realistic goals for yourself such as an improvement of 10% on your next exam. Here are some more tips from the experts…


Have a dedicated study space that is clean, organised and well lit. This can be a desk in your room, at the local library or even a space at a relative’s house. Use a chair that supports your back and avoid lying on your bed. It’s important not to have distractions, such as TV or background music, except perhaps classical baroque music (Bach, Vivaldi and Handel), which is said to help by stimulating the parts of the brain dealing with memory.

Diet plays an important role in certain brain functions such as concentration and memory. ‘Green leafy vegetables, oily fish, berries, oats, nuts and seeds, and green tea are recognised as “brain foods” that boost functioning in these areas,’ says dietician Kelly Lynch. ‘It’s also important to avoid sugar, caffeine and junk food.’ Consuming small, frequent meals will keep your energy levels up, and drinking plenty of water will prevent you from feeling sluggish.

Ensuring adequate sleep will help ensure that your brain is functioning optimally. ‘Staying up all night to cram leads to anxiety and consequently not writing at your best. The thinking part of your brain shuts down with too much stress and fatigue,’ says Judi Kurgan, a literacy and educational consultant. Getting regular exercise ensures that your body and brain are getting plenty of oxygen.


Good studying starts before and in the classroom. ‘Come to class prepared,’ says Judi. ‘Arrive knowing what you don’t know, so you can ask relevant questions. Your number one job is to be actively present at school. This means being focused, asking questions and taking effective notes in class.’

With teachers piling on homework and scheduling tests, it can be difficult to stay on top of things. Having a daily and weekly ‘to do’ list and noting important events on a calendar will help you to set a realistic timetable. It’s also valuable to take advantage of the time of day when you work the most effectively. Keep your brain alert by studying in short intervals and taking breaks. We tend to remember more at the beginning and end of a study session, so it’s better to study for about 30 minutes, then take a 5 minute break and start again, rather than study for one hour straight.

Good note taking is a skill. Some universities actually offer courses on how to take notes. One of the methods taught is Cornell Notes (see info bubble above for tips on how to make them). It is still a good idea to make notes in your own words, even if your teacher has given you handout notes already.



‘The better you understand something, the easier you will be able to learn it and recall it,’ advises Judi. ‘By understanding and knowing how to apply the knowledge, you’ll know how to answer more abstract questions.’

ACTIVE READING makes sure that you make the most of your reading time. This involves engaging in the text, mainly by asking questions, and using a review component to make sure the info sticks in your brain. There are many methods to choose from, such as SQ3R and RWCSR (Read, Write, Cover, Say, Review).


Concept mapping (also referred to as mind mapping or spider diagrams) is a visual way of presenting information that facilitates a deeper understanding.

The nonlinear fashion of concept mapping encourages the right-hand side of your brain to be more involved in the learning process, especially if you use colour and shapes. When the whole brain is working on something you will achieve a greater understanding, and be able to tap into more creative ways of looking at things because it will be easier to see how ideas interrelate.

Concept maps also help you to organise your thoughts, see the important issues, communicate complex information, and are easy to recall, which makes them perfect for note-taking and reviewing purposes.



Unless you were blessed with a photographic memory, when you learn something new you’ll probably only remember that concept or information for a day or so before the memory starts to fade away. To take something from your short-term memory and actively commit it to your long-term memory takes work.

Regular reviewing means that you don’t have to spend time re-learning information or cramming the night before exams. Your first review should happen as soon as possible on the day of learning, the next review a day later, then one week later, then one month later and then every few months.

Avoid simply re-reading your material. To really test yourself, start by writing out your notes or concept map from memory, then see if you’ve left anything out.

Another great way of reviewing is as part of a study group. Discussing concepts with friends can provide you with new ways of looking at things, and being able to teach a concept to someone is evidence that you truly understand it yourself.

One of the best ways to prepare for exams is to write exams from previous years. Old exams are readily available online. Don’t just look over them and say ‘yeah, I know that’. Write them from memory within a time limit, and then ask your teacher to mark your work. Take note of how much each section is worth and how much time you should allocate to it on exam day.


Many people suffer from exam anxiety, but there are steps you can take to try and counter a bad case of the nerves.

‘Positive thinking is a good way to deal with anxiety,’ suggests high school councellor Tania Bruce. You may find yourself having self-defeating thoughts like, ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m going to fail’. Replace these with realistic, believable phrases like ‘I’m going to do the best I can’.

Here are some last minute tips to help beat the nerves:

  • Arrive at your exam early and be prepared.
  • Take a moment to relax (do some deep breathing) before you begin writing.
  • Carefully read through all the questions first.
  • To get your brain thinking, start off with a few easier questions and use concept mapping to assist you.

‘Remember that your best IS good enough,’ says Bruce. ‘There is a huge amount of stress involved, but good exam results shouldn’t come at the expense of overall health and well-being.’

Don’t forget to talk to your school counsellor for more ideas on how to tackle anxiety issues.

Useful Websites