Exams 101: The ultimate guide for learners and parents


There's no escape! The final exams are around the corner and there’s a whole lot of studying to be done before then.

Getting yourself into a fluster about what lies ahead is normal. There’s a lot to do. But where do you start? What do you need to cover? Is there enough time? How can you lessen the stress?

Getting through these exams is going to take a lot of determination and hard work but the good news is you can do it with

our help.

Preparing well is vital for a less stressful experience that will boost your confidence. Before you know it you’ll be patting yourself on the back, ready to tackle the world beyond school.

The secret to success is confidence in your preparation for the exam, Gauteng-based educational psychologist and former school counsellor Ken Resnick says. “Also important are good planning leading up to the exams and understanding subjects rather than trying to learn off by heart,” he says.

So, where to start?

Click on a topic below.

1. Get the basics: How to study

2. Using social media to study

3. Memory tips to help you study faster and more efficiently

4. The perfect place to study

5. Coping with study stress

6. Eat for brain power 7. Tips for parents 8. Get extra lessons online -- for free

Kick-start your studies 

Whether you’ve begun studying or been avoiding it until now use these tips to start studying the right way.

  • Begin by creating a study timetable.

Take each subject divide the work into sections and diarise what you’ll study when. Seeing everything set out on a calendar will give you peace of mind. Tick tasks off as you complete them so you can see what you’ve accomplished. This will increase your confidence.

Being disorganised may mean you won’t be able to manage your time effectively and you might leave out subject sections

that should have been studied.

  • Set up a special study area (see below).

In your study area set out only the books, notes and past exam papers you’ll be using for that day and clear other clutter from the space.

  • Ensure you have some brainboosting snacks on hand (see below).

Study only on a satisfied tummy or you may find yourself distracted.

  • Wear comfortable clothes while studying.

Why not have a lucky outfit you wear only when studying?

Study so it sticks 

One of your biggest fears may be putting in all that effort and then drawing a blank come exam time. Concentration during a study session will go a long way in making the information stick. Here’s how:

Switch off your cellphone during a study session or leave it in another room to avoid temptation.

Change the subject you study every two hours for variety.

Take regular, scheduled breaks. “Normally the brain can’t concentrate for longer than 40 minutes,” Resnick says. “It’s best to study in one-hour bites broken up into 40 minutes of study, a 10-minute break and 10 minutes for revision.” He recommends studying for two to three hours a day during the week and four to five hours a day over weekends.

Divide large tasks into smaller tasks that are easier to complete. “Draw simple mind maps where at a glance there’s an overview of the whole section,” Resnick says. “You’re then able to see and understand the connection between all the sub headings. Sections of work should be well numbered with clear sub-headings.” Finally test yourself. Make up questions about key sections in notes or reading.

Social media ? if used correctly ? may give you the boost you need to perform at your best, says Wonga Ntshinga, senior head of programmes at The Independent Institute of Education.

“It’s become a resource for learners serious about their studies.”

FACEBOOK Creating a Facebook group is another popular way of working with fellow learners.

“Your study group can share questions that can come up in the exam papers or use the group to post previous question papers. Each time your peers post important subject matter you’ll get a notification,” Wonga adds.

Tip: Mute your notifications while studying because incoming messages could be distracting. Catch up on them when you take a break.

TWITTER Some believe Twitter is a waste of time, as you can only send messages containing a maximum of 140 characters.

“Follow interesting topics and users,” Wonga advises. “For example, if you search #biology, you’re presented with user @Molecular who tweets about the latest news, research and journals in molecular biology, cell biology, genetics and stem cells.”

Tip: If you’re interested in a topic, but don’t know of a hashtag that will help your research, do a search using a keyword rather than a hashtag. Then scan the results to see what hashtags people are using when they discuss that particular topic.

WHATSAPP WhatsApp can be used as a cross-platform mobile messaging application to create study groups. For instance, a group can be created called G12_Science_Class_Emdeni_High_School. Members of that group then discuss issues concerning the study materials, questions, papers and even admin issues around particular exams.

Tip: Users can send each other unlimited images, video and audio messages. Create a video of how you solved a mathematics equation or physical science experiment and share it with your group. Or record a tutorial and pass it on to your peers.

YOUTUBE This video sharing service allows you to view videos on your cellphone, TV or laptop. “It has many videos related to Grade 12 content,” Wonga adds.

If you search for “Grade 12 physical science”, for example, you’ll get an extensive list of videos that may be helpful in your preparations. Or you could narrow your search to a particular area that you find challenging. Tip: Downloading videos can be expensive because of data charges, so rather view them in libraries or other areas where free WiFi is available.

Follow these tips from memory champ Daren Denholm and double productivity

Darren used these techniques to help him memories the entire contents of YOU!Darren used these techniques to help him memories the entire contents of YOU!

1 Stay healthy Start every day with a healthy breakfast, take a multivitamin, drink plenty of water and get

enough sleep. During sleep, information is hardwired in your brain, making your learning more effective. Try to maintain a healthy physical, emotional and spiritual life. A lot of mental energy gets depleted through studying and you need to find a way to replenish the well.

2 Don’t allow distractions Be specific about what you want to achieve and think about this every day. Your brain never sleeps and continuously provides answers in line with what you deem to be most important as well as what you think about most often.

If you spend most of your time on social media, you’ll be distracted and your brain won’t be working at peak performance. Unless you're using them to help! See above.

3 Double your productivity You can do this simply by halving a to-do list. Achieve more by doing less. You’ll be a lot more productive if you choose one or two major areas of focus each day. This can be one or two sections of a subject, for example, or one or two subjects separately – for instance English in the morning and maths in the afternoon.

4 Give yourself a break Never study for long periods at a time. Even an hour is too long, unless you’re practising a past paper and working on your concentration. It’s much better to split your studying into short, focused study sessions made up of 20 to 30-minute segments of time followed by a short five to seven-minute break in between.

This not only gives your brain a chance to rest, but also an opportunity to reflect and reinforce what was


5 Highlight key information only A recent study of university students across the US found that highlighting information with a pen was the least effective study method. This was because most had the tendency to highlight too much information rather than sticking to the core details.

6 Use flash cards One of the most effective study methods pinpointed by the US study was the use of flash

cards. This entailed writing key facts on cards and then reviewing them frequently to commit them to memory.

7 Watch the clock One of the best ways to increase your learning speed is to time yourself. You’ll usually manage to do what you need to do in the time limit you set yourself. You’ll be amazed by how much more productive your brain is when it has a very limited time to complete a task or learn a section of work. Set a specific goal for the session.

Your brain is at its creative best when it has a problem to solve. The more ambitious the goal, the more energy you’ll have to achieve this goal. Achieving the goal is less important than working towards it.

8 Take time to reflect At the end of each day spend 20 to 30 minutes reflecting on all core information learnt that day. Eighty percent of information is lost within a 24-hour period if not reflected on correctly.

Learning without reflecting is like eating without digesting. Spend one to two hours reflecting on your work each week.

9 Stick to the key facts You can accomplish 80 percent of your work with 20 percent of the effort by first isolating key information and using this as a foundation. Once you have this in place you can focus on the less important information. Don’t be overwhelmed by the volume of work. Break it up into bite-size chunks and just keep building consistently. At the end of the study session get a blank piece of paper and try to recall as much as you can. Then check to see what you’ve remembered and make notes.

10 Doodle Avoid a mental block in an exam by taking a deep breath, trying to stay calm and doing your best to doodle any key information closely related to what you’re “looking” for. Stress immediately shuts down your ability to access your long-term memory, but doodling closely related information almost always triggers your brain into finding the answer you’re looking for.

Changing where you study may bring better results if you’re struggling. Try these locations to see which one works best for you.

A coffee shop This can provide a stimulating background noise, a relaxed atmosphere and you can order food and drinks when you want. It’s perfect for studying in small groups, with a partner or alone. You’re surrounded by the comfort of people yet you can concentrate on the task at hand.

Your school’s study area or the local library. These are good places to get together with study mates and being on school grounds may make you realise the seriousness of the task at hand. But if the noise is too distracting move to where your studying will be more effective. Your bedroom can be convenient. You can wear whatever you want, be warm and comfortable and not be distracted. Kitchens are great for studying as they usually have clean surfaces and good lighting. But be sure there’s no TV close by.

Eat fresh food and avoid junk or processed food that contain lots of sugar, colorants and preservatives.

Don’t eat a lot of refined carbohydrates for breakfast such as white bread or cereal not made of oats or bran.

The best diet for your brain is one that contains protein (to stimulate memory) and fats, which are the brain’s messengers.

This means oily fish such as sardines, nuts and eggs should be part of your diet. Scrambled eggs on wholewheat toast is an excellent pre-exam breakfast. Or have mince or cheese on wholewheat toast.

Iron and vitamin C are important for maximum brain function. For iron eat red meat, spinach, lentils, beans and nuts and stock up on vitamin C by eating lots of tomatoes, peppers, guavas and citrus fruit such as oranges and naartjies.

Vitamin B is important too. A shortage of B vitamins can have a negative effect on memory. Eggs, liver, lentils and soy beans and fresh fruit and vegetables are good sources. Healthy exam-time snacks include biltong, nuts and cheese. Drink water before and during your exam. Too much coffee may make you feel alert but it will slow down your thinking process.

Stress can cause you to lose concentration when studying so ensure you’re cool and calm during this vulnerable time.

Think positively. Change thoughts such as “I’ll never remember all of this stuff” and “I can’t cope” to positive thoughts such as “My work is planned, all I have to do is stick to my daily schedule” and “I can do this!” A change in attitude can do wonders to ease your mind and ensure you study effectively.

When a moment of panic sets in take a minute to refocus with some deep breathing. It’s a tried-and-tested way to relieve anxiety and refresh the mind.

Maximise your breaks by getting pampered. Book a back and neck massage or ask a family member or friend to do it for you.

Exercise is a sure way to relieve tension. Go for walks during breaks or spend time at the gym before or after a study session. Exercise reduces stress by using up hormones the body produces under stress and relaxes muscles.

Eat healthier while studying. Processed foods with too much salt, sugar and caffeine can leave you feeling wired – not  something you want while studying. Rather eat brain-boosting foods such as nuts, fish, fruits and vegetables. Drink between six and eight glasses of water a day because it flushes toxins from your body, keeping all your organs, including your brain, in

top form.

Get enough sleep. Fit afternoon naps into your schedule, sleep a bit later during weekends and go to bed an hour earlier in the week to give your mind and body enough rest. Being tired may cause crabbiness and a lack of concentration. This can lead to you not sticking to your schedule, which means more to study closer to exam time and more stress. Speak to your parents about doing fewer household chores during study and exam time. “Learners need to understand passing matric is their problem, not their parents’,” Resnick says. “They’re the ones who need to pass so it’s their responsibility to draw up a study timetable, ask questions, learn study techniques and plan well in advance.” If you’re feeling terribly stressed and overwhelmed call a counsellor at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group between 8 am and 8 pm seven days a week on 011-262-6396, speak to a school counsellor or call an education expert such as Ken Resnick.

Be positive. Encourage your child and emphasise what they’re doing right rather than talk about what they should improve. People perform better when they feel good about themselves.

Acknowledge your child is experiencing stress and anxiety and urge him or her to talk about it. Then listen without criticising.

Stay calm even if you’re stressing too.

Your child should be aware the exam is important but he or she should be reassured they’re even more important than the exam and loved and valued no matter what the outcome.

Be realistic about the outcome. Let your child know you expect them to do their best – no one can be expected to do more.

Make it a team effort. Involve the rest of the family in keeping down noise and taking over some of your child’s chores for the duration of the exam.

Create a study area at home that’s well-lit, quiet and private.

Allow reasonable opportunity for relaxation and spending time with friends to compare notes and unwind.

Take good care of your children’s health, making sure they eat and sleep properly. Avoid the temptation to spoil them with fast food or sweets (see above).

Make a photocopy of the exam timetable so you know on which day each subject is written. On the day of an exam make sure your child eats a healthy breakfast and arrives at the exam venue safely and on time. Make sure they have the equipment they need to write the exam such as a spare pen, pencil sharpener and spare batteries for the calculator for example. Call the school to ask what your child needs if you’re unsure what is required. Relieve them of chores during the exam – rather let them use the time to study or relax.


A new online learning tool called Tendopro rewards users for completing tutorials and watching educational videos with a currency that can be used to buy airtime.

The website, co-founded by social entrepreneur Jerome Maggerman and social work student Ellen Betridge, is aimed at learners in grades 8 to 12.

Get more info here

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