The best way to learn is smarter, not harder. And you can easily make that change, today, with these 28 clever study and exam hacks!
Trust me, these study hacks contain all the best, most cunning, secret tricks and shortcuts you can use to:
- Increase your productivity and efficiency
- Maintain your study routine
- Learn faster
- Boost your memory
- AND ace your exams with less stress
And all they require are a few small tweaks to your study habits!
Prefer to listen? You can find these study hacks as podcast episode right here:
Part 1: Hacks to improve your productivity and study routine
Streamline your studying with these effective study hacks that make the most of your time, space and resources for minimal extra effort!
1. Get clever with your clock
Struggling to drag yourself out of bed in the morning?
(Let’s face it, many of us do!)
Place your alarm clock across the room so you physically have to get up in order to turn it off. And strategically position your kettle (full of water) and all the things you need to make a mug of coffee beside that alarm.
So when you flip the alarm off, you flip the kettle on, and move one step closer to being awake and de-zombiefied!
2. Prepare before you sleep
In fact, that trick works for anything you want to achieve first thing in the morning!
All you need to do is: leave what you need laid out ready the night before.
Want to start the day with a run? Leave out your running clothes to slip right into. You’ll be out the door before you can change your mind!
Want to meditate with an app like Headspace?* Leave your phone and headphones on a chair ready to go. And make sure you’ve got a spot cleared to sit down in.
Want to study? Leave your books open at the right page. You’ll be amazed at how your success rate shoots up!
3. Eat a frog for breakfast
Start the day by eating the frog: pick your most difficult task and cross it off before doing anything else.
This will give you a nice feeling of achievement, and the momentum to carry you through the rest of the day.
Check out this epic podcast episode with productivity legend Brian Tracy to learn more about this idea!
4. Small task? Done!
If a task takes less than 5 minutes, do it now, rather than making a plan to do it later.
If eating a frog isn’t your thing, why not start the day by smashing through some quick 5-minute tasks! Your study motivation mojo will thank you.
5. Make procrastination your ally
Speaking of small tasks, a great study hack is to try keeping a procrastination list.
When you’re procrastinating on your core task, at least use the time productively by working on tasks that are low-energy, more fun, and often quicker – and that nevertheless need to be done sometime or other.
As an added bonus, all the ticks on your completed list are sure to inspire you to get back to work on that core task!
6. Purge the distractions
Another handy list-making study hack involves making a distractions list.
If your brain’s buzzing with thoughts while you’re studying, you won’t be efficient.
So write them down, get them out of your head, and keep your mind clear for the task at hand. And you never know, you might end up ticking some of those distractions off your procrastination list later too!
7. Distraction proof your tech
Talking of keeping distractions at bay, there are all kinds of apps and browser extensions that will block distracting sites if you need to.
Or you can use a little trick I came up with to help some of my distraction-prone coaching clients:
- Change all your passwords for Facebook, YouTube and Netflix (and all your other sources of distraction) to a password you can’t remember.
- Leave the passwords on a sheet somewhere else, perhaps in a different part of the house, so you have to walk past a set of judgemental eyes from family or flatmates any time you need to retrieve the password list.
- Log out and get to studying!
8. Bundle up!
One of my favourite, neat motivational tricks is temptation bundling.
Combine a task you really DON’T want to do with one you really do want to do!
Hate going to the gym but addicted to that new true crime podcast? Then now the only time you’re allowed to indulge your guilty podcast pleasure is while you’re working out.
Love the new milkshakes they do at your local coffee shop and you know you need to start writing up your research project? Then you’re allowed a milkshake IF you bring your research notes along and start organising them while you’re enjoying your shake.
Make a deal with yourself and reap the rewards.
9. Virtual study buddies
Some people find that the presence of others studying is a really powerful motivator.
But it’s not always possible or practical to get to a library or study room, and that’s particularly been the case in the last year or two what with the pandemic and all.
So try this hack to keep yourself motivated to study:
Head over to YouTube and searching for a “study with me” video. It’s like having someone there to study with, on tap. Just don’t fall into a rabbit hole of recommended videos while you’re there!
Alternatively, why not see if your friends fancy a virtual study session?
10. Indulge your inner stationery fiend
If you can afford to, buy quality study stationery.
Every study session will be that much more enjoyable with a pen that’s comfortable to hold and writes smoothly, and paper that’s thick enough to write on both sides of, without the ink all bleeding through from the other side.
It’s the little touches sometimes.
(There’s no need to go crazy though, we’re talking quality, not quantity!)
11. Omnipresent wallpaper wins
This is a great study hack for if you need to remember a course timetable or some other key resource (like a periodic table for chemists)!
What do you look at every day, multiple times a day? The background on your phone and laptop.
So set that timetable or resource as your phone wallpaper or laptop background. And you’ll save yourself a few moments multiple times a day looking the thing up for the umpteenth time.
It’s an easy win!
12. Divide up your life
Spending a lot of time in 1 place, especially if that’s just 1 room? Let’s face it, that’s been a reality for many of us recently.
So this might be my top study hack for these pandemic times:
Use every trick in the book to compartmentalise your life by time, by space, even by the clothes you wear.
- By time: create a timetable and know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to rest.
- By space: have different spaces for working, resting, working out and sleeping, even if that’s just different corners of the same room.
- Even by clothes: change your clothes to help mark the transition from work time to relaxation time.
And then, most importantly – stick to it! You’ll find it much easier to make the most of your study time and your time off.
13. Get creative with your clock
Finally, if you’re trying to solidify a daily routine, one interesting hack I came across the other day involves making yourself a custom clock.
You only need two things: a cheap clock with a plastic face and a permanent marker, so grab yourself one of each.
Use the marker to mark segments of the clock face according to what you intend to do in given hours of the day.
For example: you get home at 4pm, want to start with an hour’s exam preparation, then work out for an hour, take a couple of hours for dinner, then work on your essays or assignments. Divide up that clock face accordingly and write it all in.
Clearly, this only really works if you’re able to have a pretty similar routine every day, so I’d suggest testing the routine for a week or two to make sure it’s the right one before marking up your clock irreversibly!
Check out my own university daily routine in this podcast episode.
Part 2: Study hacks to boost your memory and learning
These next study hacks are all about the tricks you need to learn most effectively – and remember when it counts!
14. Get environment savvy
The first study hack I’ve got for you on memory is based on the principle of context-dependent recall.
Simply put, this means we’re more likely to be able to remember stuff if we learn it in a similar environment to the one we need to recall it in.
So, if you’re going to be sitting in an exam hall when you’re being tested, then the closer you can replicate an exam-hall like environment during at least some of your learning, the more you’ll get a small boost to memory come exam time.
What does that mean in practice? Silence, timed practice tests, exam stationery, and no phones or notes!
15. Make it harder
Writing notes digitally? Then use this study hack:
There’s some evidence that a slightly harder-to-read font is actually better for memory, perhaps because it forces your eyes to really take in the words rather than skimming through.
So try something like Garamond or a handwriting font instead of Arial or Times New Roman.
Just don’t go too far with this, it still needs to be readable. Leave swirly calligraphy fonts and Windings out!
16. Retrieve to re-read
I’m really not a fan of re-reading as a learning method: it’s just not effective.
So if you must re-read, use these study hacks to increase your benefit:
- For a slight benefit, add highlighting
- And for a much bigger benefit, pre-test yourself on the topic by scribbling down whatever you can remember about it BEFORE you do the reading – spaced retrieval practice at work!
17. Write and flash
Flashcards, either digital ones or paper ones, are fabulous ways to do retrieval practice. I love them.
Make the most of your flashcards by prioritising what you use them for.
If you need to practice remembering anything complicated (like a list of 4 or 5 or more items, or a complex equation or formula), don’t recall it in your head – write it down. It will massively help you recall the whole thing – trust me!
18. Number and flash
Another flashcard-related study hack:
If your flashcard has a list on the back, put the number of items in the list on the front – that way you know how many items you’re aiming for in your retrieval practice.
19. Order is important
Hack the order of your study sessions:
Take advantage of the primacy effect, which says that things you study early on in a session are more likely to be remembered – perhaps because you’re at your freshest and most alert.
So if you’ve got a choice of what order to tackle a set of topics in on a given day, start with the hardest one.
20. Have you got a sore thumb?
The von Restorff effect, or the “sore thumb” effect means that you’re more likely to remember unusual things.
So why not hack your study materials with a little humour?
As a student, I liked to break up the pattern of predictable study notes or flashcards, especially on topics that could be a little dry, by adding a zany phrase or a joke – even if it was completely unrelated to the material!
If nothing else, it will give you a little smile when you’re doing your retrieval practice later.
21. Freshen up outdoors
This is a great hack for every type of work – because we all need a break sometimes!
If you’re getting stuck, take a walk, preferably in nature.
It’s great for creativity and problem solving, and lets you return with fresh eyes and fresh energy. You could even listen to the Exam Study Expert podcast whilst you walk to learn more tips and tricks!
22. Catch some zzz’s
You know what’s really important for effective learning? Sleep.
So get a good night’s sleep.
It helps you consolidate what you learned that day and will help you stay awake and energised for your work tomorrow.
Part 3: Hacking your exams
It’s exam week, and you’re nervous – that’s understandable! But you can give yourself an edge (and stay calm!) with these top six exam hacks. Ready? Go and beat that test!
23. How to train your … brain!
You can train your memory can be cued or triggered by familiar things.
So why not hack that process? Think through the items you will have in the exam that could legitimately act as memory cues.
For example, if you need to remember certain key formulas, perhaps you could practise writing them on the cover of the exam paper if it’s always laid out the same.
I’ve even known students use the contents of their pencil case as memory cues, like a set of coloured pens that they can arrange in a certain order to help them remember information.
24. Watch your watch
Another all-time favourite exam hack:
Wear a watch to the exam, and make sure it’s synced with the exam-hall clock when you enter!
This guards against the main clock being hard to see, especially if you’re vision isn’t perfect, and also gives you a choice of analogue or digital. It’s another small thing that makes a surprising difference.
Plus, many people I’ve talked to (myself included) find an analogue watch weirdly easier to interpret, perhaps there are more instantly available graphical clues to the progression of time from the way the hands move round the circle.
Lots of exam halls use digital clocks because they’re easier to make large and visible, so if you prefer analogue like me, you’ll need to bring it in yourself.
25. My precioussss …
Speaking of time, we all know that time in the exam is precious.
In some exams, it’s acceptable practice to name all the sheets you might be using while you’re waiting for the exam to start. So definitely take advantage of this if you can!
What’s more, it might save you a few precious moments towards the end of the paper, or spare you the embarrassment of holding everyone else up after the exam finishes … because the examiner is waiting for you to finish naming ALL of your sheets to collect your exam script in. I can just feel the awkwardness!
26. Make some space
This is one of my favourite exam hacks: leave appropriate space for extra thoughts.
Start each essay on a new page, so there’s room to:
- Add stuff as a neatly numbered endnotes
- Leave a few lines at the bottom of each page for clear footnotes
And if it’s highly likely you might edit or change things, write double-spaced. This is particularly handy for translation or foreign language writing exercises.
27. Keep it cool
If it’s a hot day, bring a bottle of water to the exam – and make sure it’s nice and cool from the fridge!
And if it’s really sweltering, try the 50%-iced hack:
Place a half-full bottle of water on its side in the freezer overnight. In the morning, top up the bottle with water from the tap. You can start drinking ice-cool water right away, and it will stay cool for hours to come – perfect.
28. Get environment savvy – again!
This is a bonus tip for those of you taking exams digitally, from home, due to Covid arrangements or otherwise.
Your examiners don’t want you to put cheat sheets on the walls, sure, but otherwise, you’re at liberty to design your environment for maximum comfort and good vibes.
In an exam hall, a bottle of water is pretty much the only addition you can make to enrich your environment. But at home, you can hack your exam environment! You could add some real plants, an inspirational quote on the wall, an inspiring or calming photo or artwork, good lighting, even a candle or two depending on the vibe you’re going for. Make your exam environment your ally!
Looking for more study hacks?
There are now two fantastic Exam Study Expert podcast episodes on study hacks!
So if you enjoyed these study hacks and you’re just itching for more, check out this earlier episode of the podcast:
10 study hacks to get you better exam results, faster, including:
- Engineering your environment for success
- How re-planning your schedule to REDUCE your work hours can help you achieve MORE each day
- How to do high-intensity “memory workouts” to make exam day feel easy
- Managing your diary and why it pays to help your friends
Links and resources mentioned in this episode:
- The Exam Study Expert blog – full of resources on study habits and motivation, learning and memory, essay writing and exam skills
- Episode 7 of the Exam Study Expert podcast, with Yana Weinstein-Jones
- Episode 4 of the Exam Study Expert podcast, with Joachim Cassel
- The D’Nealian pen grip
Take these hacks on board and your study sessions and exams will be feeling streamlined in no time – you’ll definitely be among those who study smarter (not harder).
And if you’re looking for more awesome and action-packed study hacks, tricks and shortcuts to get you through your next exam season with winning marks, sign up below to receive a copy of my Exam Success Cheat Sheet! Or pick up a copy of my best-selling book dedicated to the topic of exam hacks: Outsmart Your Exams.
As always, please get in touch if I can help you to improve your studying in any way!
*I may get compensated if you use Headspace, but this has no bearing on my decision to recommend it to you. In fact, I had been personally using and enthusiastically recommending Headspace for 3-4 years before we started our commercial partnership. Learn all about the Headspace app in my thorough, honest review!