Are You Ready for That Exam?

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

What does it mean to “know” something? Knowing something involves more than just recognizing familiar material. That’s why simply re-reading course material as exam preparation might lead to a false sense of confidence. True comprehension comes from being able to recall material from memory and explaining it in your own words. Testing yourself by recalling content and teaching it to others are effective ways to gauge how well you know something. Ultimately, your exam readiness hinges on your ability to remember information and apply it in different situations.


 Use these strategies for optimal exam preparation:

  • Understand the exam format. Know what’s covered, whether it’s cumulative, and what materials you can use during the exam.
  • Test yourself on the material. Summarize, recall details, and compare information. Wait at least 30 minutes between reading something and self-testing to enhance memory and interrupt forgetting.
  • Say your answers aloud. When testing yourself, say your answers aloud in your own words. Doing so forces you to give a full answer and not be satisfied with a vague answer.
  • Take practice tests. Practice tests will not only give you a sense of the type of questions you’ll find on the exam, but you can also practice working under exam conditions and identify content areas you need to study more. However, practice tests from previous semesters can’t help you judge if you’ve studied enough for an upcoming exam because the content might be slightly different this semester.
  • Get feedback on your answers. Double-check your answers against source materials.
  • Create a comprehensive Q&A study guide. Mimic exam questions to practice retrieving information.
  • Space out your retrieval practice. Test yourself regularly throughout the semester for better retention. The day before an exam should be time for review, not for initial learning.
  • Mix up your practice. Solve problems out of order and vary problem types. This approach will help you become better at reading context clues, looking for commonalities between problems, and applying knowledge to new situations.
  • Teach the material to someone else. If you can teach it, you know it well.
  • Overlearn. Study beyond initial mastery to prevent forgetting.

Written by Julianne Reynolds, Associate Director and Learning Specialist for International Students, Weingarten Center

Further Reading:

Brown, P. C., Roediger, I. H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D.T. (2023). Outsmart your brain: Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy. Gallery Books.

Intentional Study Breaks

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Do you ever find it hard to get back to work after taking a break? When we feel tired or stuck during work, we often take unplanned breaks – checking our phones, and scrolling through social media. These types of breaks are difficult to come back from. Motivation may be low if we’re tired, and activities like checking social media have no clear stopping point, so it’s easy to lose track of time. Instead, take pre-planned study breaks for specific durations. For example, work for 30 minutes, then take a 5-minute break, followed by another 30-minute work session. Or work for 90 minutes, then take a 30-minute break, and repeat. Plan activities for each break that fit its duration, like eating an apple in five minutes. Remember to stay active during breaks and avoid screen time. Think of activities that will rejuvenate you. It could be something quiet and meditative, like coloring in an adult coloring book, writing in a journal, or listening to music. Or it could be something more active like cleaning your desk or going for a walk or a run. Check out the examples below and create your own go-to list of intentional study breaks.

  • Stretch
  • Make a to-do list
  • Eat a healthy snack
  • Meditate
  • Dance in your room
  • Make a hot beverage
  • Draw, doodle, or color
  • Daydream
  • Clean your desk
  • Listen to music
  • Flip through a magazine
  • Write in a journal
  • Go for a walk
  • Listen to a podcast
  • Eat lunch
  • Take a shower
  • Do a workout
  • Read for fun
  • Cook dinner
  • Call a friend

Written by Julianne Reynolds, Associate Director and Learning Specialist for International Students, Weingarten Center

Combating Procrastination

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Procrastination is an emotion management problem, not a time management one. Procrastination helps us manage the negative moods or emotions that the thought of doing an unappealing task might cause. These emotions may include anxiety, boredom, frustration, overwhelm, self-doubt, fatigue, insecurity, and resentment. Putting off a task that arouses such emotions in favor of a more appealing activity provides immediate short-term relief, but it compounds stress in the long term. The key to combating procrastination is to take emotions out of the equation; eliminate the option of doing the task at some future point when you imagine you’ll feel more like doing it and just do it now (or at least get it started).

When you find yourself procrastinating, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Why are you avoiding doing the task? If you can identify the reason you’re procrastinating, you can more easily find the solution to help you stop procrastinating.

Not sure where to start?

Ask for help. Your course instructor and learning specialists are useful resources.

The task doesn’t feel urgent?

Start with a small subtask to get started. Allow yourself to stop after working for a minimum amount of time, such as 30 minutes.

The task feels complex?

Break it down into smaller, more manageable subtasks that you can accomplish in an hour or less. Set interim deadlines for major project milestones.

Not feeling motivated?

Reframe the task. For example, instead of thinking of it as something you have to do, think of it as something you want to do. What are the benefits of getting it done?

Schedule frequent check-ins with an accountability partner to help you meet your goals.

Having difficulty focusing?

Minimize external distractions, find a distraction-reduced workspace, and limit mind-wandering.

Strategize about the time of day you work on difficult, creative, or boring tasks. Plan to do these tasks at times of the day when you are most alert, energized, and focused. Plan to do easier, routine, or more fun tasks during times of the day when your energy is lower.

Is perfectionism getting in the way?

Try some realistic self-talk. (e.g., “This paper doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, but it does need to be completed,” or “This one assignment doesn’t define me as a learner/scholar.”)

Written by Julianne Reynolds, Associate Director and Learning Specialist for International Students, Weingarten Center


Further Reading:

Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). The New York Times. Why you procrastinate (it has nothing to do with self-control)

Willingham, D.T. (2023). Outsmart your brain: Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy. Gallery Books.

How to Use Practice Questions

Friday, February 23, 2024

Part Two of our two-part series on Practice Questions covers how to supplement practice questions, how to use practice questions, and where you can find practice questions. 

How do I supplement practice questions?

  • Look for online resources like video explainers. Always look for specific topics. As you watch these resources, try to engage with them. One way I recommend doing this is by trying to summarize those resources after watching/reading/listening to them. This way you are not just passively listening to information but actively trying testing if you are learning the material.
  • Request a tutor or go to a drop-in tutoring session. Having done practice questions before and knowing your gaps can help as you will have a more specific topic or area to discuss with your tutor. Tutors can sometimes even show you resources they have used in the past both for practice questions as well as supplemental materials.
  • Collaborate with other students in your class. We all have different strengths, so you may find that one of your classmates really understands a topic that you are having difficulty with. Additionally, you may understand a topic better than some in your class and, conversely, you can help them in their challenges. Teaching others is a great way of reviewing material, especially material that you already feel comfortable with.

How do I use practice questions to self-evaluate?

  • Group questions by topic and track your confidence and how easy or difficult the question was.
  • Look at the results. How many questions did you get right and wrong? Are there any patterns that you notice? For example, there may be a topic where you got most questions correctly, but you felt they were difficult and maybe it took you a long time to complete them. This can indicate that you want to do more practice on that problem not because you are not getting the answer right but because you want to be able to get through those questions faster during the exam.
  • Track your progress. Once you start improving on a topic make sure to shift your efforts accordingly. You may feel that you need to continue to spend a lot of time on a topic because, at first, you didn’t do well. However, you should evaluate if this is the case as you could be using this time to work on another difficult topic. Practice questions can give us a more objective lens in this area.

Where can I find practice questions?

  • Your professor may give practice quizzes and questions on their canvas shell. Please note that you should be doing more questions than what your professor provides.
  • Most textbooks include practice questions at the end of the chapter.
  • Penn Libraries has a Supplemental Resources Guide that features books that provide practice problems for most STEM courses.
  • Ask your professor or TA for any resources they think are good for practice questions.


Written by Oscar Escudero, STEM Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

Why Use Practice Questions?

Friday, February 23, 2024

Part One of our two-part series on Practice Questions covers why to use practice questions, when should you start using practice questions, and what is an efficient way of using practice questions.

Why use practice questions?

  • Professors tell us that, in STEM courses, practice questions are one of the most effective strategies to learn the material.
  • Practice questions can help us in two ways.
    • One, they can show us if we understand the material from lectures.
    • Two, they can help us identify any gaps we may have. If you consistently get practice problems wrong in a particular topic that you feel you understand, this is an indication that you may need to return to the material. Conversely, if you consistently get practice problems right this shows that you have a solid understanding of the material.
  • The best way to prepare for a test where you will be asked to solve or answer questions is to practice what will be given in the exam. You wouldn’t train for a marathon by just walking a few times before it.

When should I start practicing questions?

  • You should start to practice questions as early as possible. Starting to practice questions after lectures can give you a sense of what you need to study next.
  • You should do practice questions as many times as possible before an exam.

What is an efficient way of using practice questions?

  • Start with an equal number of questions per topic so you can gauge where your gaps are. Don’t worry about how much time you spend on each question but do set an amount of study time you will be spending studying overall. I recommend an hour to two hours per lecture as a good rule of thumb.
  • As you work on questions keep track of your confidence. If you notice that you are confident about a topic but are not getting the expected results, maybe you are making small mistakes and just need to pay closer attention, or you may be overestimating your understanding and may need to revisit that topic. If you find the opposite, try to assess what is happening. Are you guessing and being lucky or are you understanding the topic and underestimating your ability?
  • Avoid looking for the right answer immediately instead try to get to the answer by retrieving prior knowledge.
  • Once you identify your gaps go back to those topics and revise them again (we’ll discuss this further in part two).
  • Now that you know where your gaps are, try adjusting the number of questions. Do more questions on the topics that you did not do well on in the first round. This doesn’t mean avoiding questions on the other topics. You are just shifting your efforts where they are most needed.

Try to do a couple of practice exams before the real thing. I recommend you do one a week before the exam and one a couple of days before. This will help you get a feel of not only how you are doing with the material but also how to tackle questions in an exam format. You can visit the Penn Libraries’ Guide on Practice Problems in Math and Science for a quick tutorial on how to use practice exams.

Written by Oscar Escudero, STEM Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

Notion: A Game-Changer for Penn Students

Friday, February 9, 2024

Notion is an all-in-one workspace that allows users to create a personalized digital environment to enhance productivity and organize their academic journey. In this blog post, we will discuss how Penn students can be successful by using Notion. We have even included a sample Notion page! You can duplicate this Notion template and begin customizing to make it your own. We have also included useful YouTube videos, links, and add-ons to make your Notion personalized for you.

Feature #1: Customizable Task Management

One of the key features that makes Notion stand out is its customizable task management system. As a Penn student, you have multiple courses and responsibilities to juggle, both academic and non-academic. Notion allows you to create individual pages for each course, where you can organize your lecture notes, readings, and deadlines.

Not only can you manage your tasks efficiently, but you can also prioritize them based on importance and deadlines. Notion allows you to set up a kanban-style board where you can move tasks from “To-Do” to “In Progress” and finally to “Completed”. This visual representation of your tasks helps you stay focused and motivated, as you can see your progress in real-time. By having a clear overview of your tasks, you can allocate your time effectively and avoid procrastination.

Feature #2: Note-taking and Organization

Notion offers robust note-taking capabilities. With Notion, you can create organized and structured notes for your classes. You can use headings, bullet points, and checkboxes to structure your notes and make them easier to review and revise. Additionally, you can embed images, files, and even audio recordings into your notes for a more comprehensive and interactive studying experience, helping you keep everything in one place. With Notion’s search function, you can quickly find specific information within your notes, saving you valuable time when studying.

Feature #3: Time Management and Productivity

Notion offers various features to help Penn students effectively manage their time and boost productivity. You can create a personalized calendar to track your classes, assignments, and extracurricular activities. By visualizing your schedule and setting priorities, you can optimize your time and accomplish more with less stress.

In Conclusion!

Notion is a powerful tool that can revolutionize the way Penn students manage their academic journey. By leveraging Notion, you can stay on top of your academic goals while staying true to your personal ones. Please use the template we have included in this blog post to help you get the most out of Notion – you can just duplicate the template and begin using Notion!

Some other resources:

Two of Our Ten Best Study Strategies

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Last week, we opened our Mastering the Ivy League workshop series for undergrads new to Penn with a session called, 10 Best Study Strategies for Successful Students. Although we cannot reveal all 10 of these wonderful strategies here, we’d like to share two that we think undergraduate, graduate and professional students might all find useful.

Drum roll, please…


  1. Identify your purpose for reading, preview the text, and read strategically.

This seems like common sense, but when faced with a long list of required readings or a heavy textbook, students often rush toward one of two ends of the reading strategies spectrum: 1.) skimming; 2.) cataloging every minute detail. The former may leave you feeling like you didn’t read anything at all. The latter may be unsustainable, given the demands of your other coursework.

In the 10 Best Study Strategies workshop, we ask students to please remember some simple reasons for reading these texts:


For instance, if you’re reading to say something in class, maybe “taking notes on the reading” means writing down three questions that you could ask in class. Or, if you’re reading to write a paper, you’ll develop a summary for each article or chapter and gather one or two key quotes. Keeping your basic purpose in mind will help you develop a more strategic approach to those very daunting syllabi.

And for your second and final freebee…


6. Make peer study a weekly routine.

You see your friends all the time. You live, eat, study, and recreate in very close proximity. But how often do you actually talk to each other about what your professors discussed in the lecture or what you’re reading on a given day?


Being intentional about having these conversations (on a weekly basis!) makes it easier to stay engaged with your courses, solidify concepts in your head, and prepare for class participation and your many exams. Don’t fall into the trap of waiting until the weekend before the big test to form a study group of 12 people that will only serve to stress you out. Find one or two committed peers (you don’t even have to be friends!) and make these conversations part of your weekly routine.