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How Can I Perform Better on My Exams?

By Eric Dean JD, MBA, MA, MA, LPC, CADC

Odds are that you have taken hundreds of formal exams during your life – school exams, licensing exams, standardized exams, to name a few. But no matter how many exams you have under your belt, you still feel stressed and nervous in the days or weeks leading up to the exam date. With respect to exam performance, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Research has demonstrated that taking an exam with moderate stress – as opposed to no stress at all – can boost performance. However, excessive stress can be seriously detrimental to exam performance and general health (Terada, 2019). 

Helpful Strategies to Study Smarter  

Therapy can be a useful space to explore and process your pre-exam stress. While there are numerous stress reduction techniques, adequately preparing for your exam is key to feeling less stressed and more confident going into exam day. Here are two evidenced-based approaches to study smarter and be more prepared:

  • Information Retrieval Through Writing

While highlighting a textbook may help somewhat with retention, testing yourself after each chapter will be more effective (Penn, 2021). After you finish reading a chapter, write out the major points and concepts from memory. When we put concepts in our own words – instead of trying to reproduce the author’s message – we are forced to think more deeply about the information we are studying, which will strengthen our understanding of the material and improve information retrieval (Penn, 2021).

  • Interleaving and Blocking

Two approaches to studying are blocking and interleaving. The former involves studying one subject at a time to completion, before moving on to the next one. The latter involves alternating between subjects and identifying categories of information within them (Penn, 2021). To illustrate these concepts, here is a hypothetical example: 

John is getting ready to prepare for an exam in his Nutrition class. He will need to retain information about vitamins. For the current study session, John will be focusing on three in particular: Vitamin D, Vitamin C, and Vitamin A. 

Blocking Approach: John studies each vitamin separately and to completion before moving on to the next one. 

Interleaving Approach: John studies all three vitamins together by using defined categories of information. John could make a table to compare the functions of each vitamin, recommended daily intake, solubility, and foods in which these vitamins are found:

Vitamin D Vitamin C Vitamin A
Recommended Daily Intake 15 mcg 90 mg 900 mcg
Solubility Fat Water Fat
Foods with Vitamin


Egg Yolks







Sweet potatoes


So, which one should you use?

Short answer, it depends. 

Compared to blocking, interleaving may be more effective at elucidating differences between subjects. Therefore, it can be more helpful when studying subjects that are similar (Penn, 2021). On the other hand, blocking may be more effective for differentiated topics, as it can help you more easily identify similarities (Penn, 2021). Using our hypothetical above, interleaving would be the better approach for studying the three vitamins. If we were interested in studying the different categories of nutrients – vitamins, minerals, protein – the blocking approach may be better because the topics are easily distinguishable.   

Wrapping Up

To summarize:

  1. Test yourself after each chapter by writing out concepts in your own words from memory
  2. Consider the approach you want to use for studying – blocking is more effective for distinguishable topics while interleaving is better for similar topics

Small and simple changes go a long way towards studying smarter, feeling more confident and less stressed, and boosting exam performance.

So, let’s get started– call Symmetry Counseling today at 312-578-9990.


Penn, Paul. (2021). “How to Study Effectively: Psyche Guides.” Psyche.

Terada, Y. (2019). “Helping Students Beat Exam Anxiety.” Edutopia.

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