Two big ways that students waste time while studying for exams

Written by: Jimmy Li

Just like a day at the office, it's possible for a high school student to be busy for hours and get absolutely nothing done. Today we're going to go through two, really important parts of the study process and why many students waste so much time doing them wrong.

Practice alone does not guarantee results

Imagine that you want to learn kung fu. You spend 5 years watching Bruce Lee movies and imitating his moves. Are you a kung fu master yet? No because you didnt spend 5 years practicing kung fu, you spent 5 years practicing punching the air and making Bruce Lee noises (which you should be pretty good at by now). Practice makes perfect, but what exactly are you practicing?

In the leadup to exams, most students sitting Cambridge and NCEA will be going through a lot of past exam papers (something we wholeheartedly recommend). However what we notice is that many will just set themselves a quota - e.g. 1 past paper a day - without considering what they're actually learning

You do the paper, you get skip some questions, you get some others wrong, aaaaand done - that's your study for the day. What did you learn? You're getting some questions right - great that's good practice. However, if you don't spend some time figuring out what you got wrong or how to do the questions you've skipped, you're not really improving in those areas - all you're doing is practicing how to get those types of questions wrong and how to skip questions.

Don't mindlessly go through past paper after past paper, making no attempt to learn from your mistakes, and wait for your grades to improve - they won't. Like Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Instead, we find that students improve the fastest if they continuously go through a process of self-correction. Practice what you do understand and identify what you don't. Master an area before moving onto the next.

Do this by:

  • Look through your notes
  • Look at worked examples/answers
  • Google
  • Ask your teachers
  • Get help from a private tutor
  • Discuss it with your friends

Most students will do a bit of the above, and watch their grades creep up gradually, but if you want a big boost then you need to make an active effort to address your weaknesses.

Lesson #1 If you practice doing things the wrong way you'll be really good at doing things the wrong way

Forgetting things is a waste of time

Just because you understand something, it doesn't mean your job is done. In our experience, a major thing that limits the progress of students is the lack of followup.

A student will often be really engaged in a lesson, follow everything quite well, and improve their understanding tremendously. One week later - they'll have forgotten everything and will need to go over it again. This really hinders momentum and wastes a lot of time.

After finally understanding all these new things that confused you before, it's sometimes hard to have the motivation to do that extra bit of practice - you feel like you're past the finish line already and you don't have the energy.

But let's take a moment to pretend that you're not learning something new, but instead you're biking up a hill..

This professionally drawn diagram below illustrates the choice you have. You've done all the hard work climbing up the hill and you're finally at the top. Are you going to stop pedalling and roll back down the hill, or are you going to spend that tiny extra bit of energy to get yourself onto the flat ground?

Fig 1. Professionally drawn diagram

Similiarly, why don't you just spend a little more effort making sure you remember what you've just learned rather than letting that knowledge slip away? You wouldn't roll down that hill and then pedal back up, so why would you let yourself forget and relearn things later?

If it's a maths concept, do questions on that concept. If it's an essay technique, practice using that technique. Make sure you're so familiar with it that when you encounter a similar but different question in the exam you will still be able to apply the same concepts.

Get yourself onto that flat ground - if you just finish what you start, you won't need to waste hours relearning it. There's a life lesson in there somewhere too.

Lesson #2 - Going over something you just learned takes much less time than relearning it later

You need both

No amount of practice is going to help if you don't know what you're doing, and no amount of amazing explanations is going to help if you don't practice yourself. Overdoing one thing while neglecting the other will often give you the illusion that you're studying, when in reality you're not really improving. Both components are closely related, and both are needed if you want to improve .

Article by Jimmy Li

Jimmy is the co-founder of MyTuition. MyTuition helps high school students in Auckland succeed by connecting them with the right tutors and guiding them through the year.

Have more questions? You can get in touch with Jimmy at

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