Education Matters

Trinity endorsed study techniques - is there a formula for fail safe exam preparation?

Posted by Deborah Williams on Aug 8, 2019 6:00:00 AM

Trinity endorsed study techniques - is there a formula for fail safe exam preparation?By Deborah Williams, Academic Dean

As we enter this concluding phase of our students’ 2019 academic journey it can be exciting to begin to contemplate what lies beyond, but the reality is that the final stage of a journey always involves stepping deliberately into challenges, if we are to finish well.

One of these challenges will be managing the concluding stages of an assessment programme, whether it is our Year 12 students confronting the formality of Trial examinations or Year 7 continuing to build their capacity for productive study.  While I would very much like to be able to provide a formula for fail safe exam preparation and outstanding results – the reality is that while everyone has advice they are super keen to share, each individual needs to find their own study methods, systems and schedules. Successful learners have experimented with different approaches to study, know what works for them and embrace the discipline required to stick to a plan. If you don’t quite have the plan worked out yet … now is the time to do it!

It seems if we are serious about working out how to be the most successful learner we can, one of the places we should look to is expert research. I’d like to share insights from the work of molecular biologist and research consultant John Medina. Here are four of my favourite ‘brain rules’ students can experiment with as they take responsibility for developing a personal approach to study.

1. Exercise
Exercise boosts brain power. Experimental studies with a range of populations, from the elderly to the young, show that cognition is improved not only immediately following exercise, but perhaps more importantly, that a sustained programme of exercise over time can improve cognitive function. Medina found that long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem-solving and fluid intelligence were all improved in people who engaged in even a moderate exercise plan. When researching school students, Medina found that exercise helped students allocate more cognitive resources to a task, concentrate for longer, and be less anxious. If you don’t have one in place – then include an exercise plan in your study schedule!

2. Sleep
A sleep deprived brain cannot perform – no buts and no exceptions. Research with trained soldiers found that a single night’s sleep loss resulted in a 30 percent decline in cognitive skills. Research with teenagers found that when students who normally performed in the top 10 percent received less than seven hours sleep, their cognitive skills plummeted to the bottom 10 percent. Sleep deprivation accumulates until it is almost impossible to overcome. A rested brain performs so much better than a sleep deprived brain – so your study schedule must include periods of rest and relaxation to ensure your brain is sleep saturated.

3. Study actively
The brain learns best when it is actively engaged. There is no such thing as passive study. Simply reading over a text book or copying other people’s notes is wasted time. Your brain must be working to create something new and meaningful to you if it is to learn. Make a mind map, construct a summary, assemble flash cards to organise key content, write a paragraph, visualise a process in a flow chart … do something! Medina also found that the brain responds when multiple senses are stimulated – and vision trumps all! This means that the more visual cues you can use when preparing study notes, the better your brain will respond. Colour, layout, study cards, visual cues and well-designed mind maps are far more brain friendly techniques than big slabs of text to remember. Make your study notes visually attractive and enticing. Chunking information on colour coded cards is an excellent place to begin.

4. Repeat, revise, repeat
Finally, repeat to remember – but keep in mind that not all forms of repetition are as useful as others. Medina found that spaced repetition and practice over a long period of time far outweighed crammed practice in a short period of time. This means that revising a topic for 30 minutes, twice a week for six weeks, is much better than six hours of study the day before an exam. That means successful students can start in Week 1, to be ready for exams that begin in Week 6. Plan a study schedule where you spread your subjects over each day so that you keep coming back to practice core skills and understandings.

So, the message here is that somebody else’s formula probably won’t work quite as well for you. We all must work out the study schedules and methods that are most motivating and meaningful to us. That doesn’t mean you’re on your own. Teachers, tutors, Housemasters, Library staff, and counselling staff can help individual students find personal study approaches. Trinity’s Study Support programme operates Monday to Thursday from 4pm to provide academic assistance to all secondary students; and Study Plus offers an evening programme with access to academic mentors and structured time for Senior School students, Monday to Wednesday from 6pm to 8pm. I recommend both of these avenues to students who are seeking to be deliberate in learning and develop more robust habits.

I wish each boy a satisfying and successful final term that is characterised by consistent periods of productivity and healthy relaxation. Balance, then, is in fact the final rule your brain would like you to embrace.


For over a hundred years Trinity Grammar School has educated boys in mind, body and spirit. Fuelled by a pastorally aware culture with exceptionally high levels of individual student attention, we aim to know, understand and nurture each student to help him realise his potential, passion and purpose in life. At the start of each year we contract Enhanced Learning Services to speak to parents and boys about study, so that students can begin early to experiment with and implement study techniques to them, and parents know how best to support their sons through study.

Trinity is a non-selective school that aims to provide the best environment for boys to flourish and succeed. To learn about the Trinity difference and to discover why we’re one of Sydney’s top boys’ schools, subscribe to our newsletter. 

Trinity enews sign up

Topics: Homework, Improve learning, Study tips