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8 Study Strategies That Work for Passing a Comprehensive Exam

I’ve talked before about “study” strategies that don’t work. Now, I want to talk about strategies that actually do work. I’m hesitant to say that these are the “best” strategies. After all, there are many additional strategies I haven’t discussed. Also, a strategy that works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. However, study strategies that work are listed below, and I do believe that at least one of them will work for you.

1. Write in a learning journal

I can almost hear your disbelief. “What? Keep a diary? Really, Marie? And  this is your first suggestion out of the box?” OK, settle down, stay with me a minute here.

Certainly, any of us who are in a healthcare profession know that there is a clear connection between the mind and the body. There are hundreds — probably thousands — of studies that show that how people think directly affects how their body responds. This connection is called psychosomatic (i.e., the psyche (mind) and the soma (body) act in concert). So why would we think it’s any different with learning?

Research in the education field has shown that people who have negative feelings about exams do not perform well on exams. For my Online Lactation Exam Review I provide a hefty course companion, and the last few pages of each chapter are dedicated to a few questions about how users feel about what they just learned. I leave plenty of white space for them to write.

Writing is good. I recommend that IBLCE exam candidates focus on their feelings, but I could also make a strong case that the journal is a place to record insights about clinical care, new words that were learned during the process of studying, or anything else having to do with learning. Journals are good. You could keep a handwritten journal, write in your regular computer software program, or use something like Evernote, which is a great piece of free software for recording notes.

The writing helps you to become aware of yourself. Study strategies that work involve self-awareness.

2. Learn your terminology

It drives me a little crazy to have to say this, but honestly, I constantly see people stumble over this. If you don’t know what a T cell is, and if you don’t know that there are different types of T cells, how on earth are you going to answer an IBLCE exam question about HIV and AIDS?

I see this, over and over again. People don’t know what a word means. They don’t stop to look it up. They just move on. Or at least, they think they have moved on. Their mind is actually still searching for the meaning of that word, which sucks up a part of your brain which should be taking in information, not searching for information. Research in the education field has shown that people lose a large percentage of learning when they skip over unknown words. Study strategies that work often include ways to learn your terminology.

3. Use flashcards

Study strategies that work often harken back to reviewing, reinforcing, and getting instant feedback on how well you did (feedback is a huge part of memory retention). That’s what flashcard do! Learn the term, and then move on to the next word or phrase.

I’m a strong advocate for flashcards. I can’t imagine how anyone studies without them. I know, I know. People laugh when I suggest flashcards! They think flashcards are for fourth-graders. And that’s true. But it’s not the whole story. I’ve used flashcards myself, and I recommended them for others, because flashcards provide a means for tackling a lot of information, one small nugget at a time.

4. Study with a group

This strategy comes with a necessary word of caution. Research shows that study groups CAN be a very effective means for learning new information or reviewing information you’ve already studied, but they can also be a huge time-waster.

The study group needs to have structure, structure, structure! Rules for what each group member needs to do before the study session, rules for when to show up and for how long, rules for who is going to do what, and rules for what needs to get accomplished by the end of the session. Otherwise, it turns into a blab session with the blind leading the blind. If you doubt me on the importance of rules for a study session, watch the movie, The Paper Chase. It’s a funny yet inspiring movie that is well worth your time.

Unquestionably, study strategies that work involve structure, structure, structure. Studying with a group won’t work unless you have the structure. 

5. Figure out what kind of learner you are

Do you ever wonder why some people are “good” test-takers and always pass, while others are just so-so? Or downright rotten? Covington says there are four kinds of learners:

(1) success-oriented students

These learners are motivated, fully engaged, enjoy learning, and are accustomed to success. A set-back now and again doesn’t faze them.

(2) overstrivers

These learners are successful students, but they are not entirely confident in their ability and therefore worry about their grades. The live in fear that someone will discover a chink in their armor.

(3) failure-avoiders

These learners have not always been successful in school, and they will avoid tasks or assignments that push them out of their comfort zone.

(4) failure-accepting

Uh-oh. These are learners for whom failure is a way of life. They are basically in despair. The good news is that you are not a failure-accepting student, or you wouldn’t be reading this! You are obviously trying to improve yourself or you wouldn’t be reading this post on study strategies that work!

But you do need to ask yourself, what kind of learner am I? 

6. Create a mind map

What? No GPS for my mind? Nope, this is a do-it-yourself project. Creating a mind map is a great way to learn, because it forces you to make connections. Just “memorizing” isolated facts or “knowing” information is not enough.

The ability to make meaningful clinical connections is the key to passing any high-stakes exam, the IBLCE exam included. Check out Professor Toni Krasnic’s books on Concise Learning and Mind Maps. They will change the way you think.  Really, no kidding.

7. Take a practice exam

Don’t fool yourself! Use a tool that will confirm or refute your abilities. Find out your strengths and weaknesses with a practice exam that gives specific feedback. By feedback, I don’t mean just getting a report of your score. At the very least, you need feedback about how you did in each category listed in the IBLCE Detailed Content Outline, and the IBLCE Chronological Areas. Without such feedback, you cannot begin to focus your study so that you can improve your weak areas.

Ideally, you should use an exam that gives feedback about specific questions; why the rights answer is correct; and why the other options are wrong. You should also see how you do with just plain old endurance. You need to work on budgeting your time, as well as getting the right answer. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: study strategies that work involve feedback

8. Write a short summary

Back to writing, but a little different than the journal writing earlier, this strategy involves using the IBLCE Content Outline to write a brief summary of what you think you know about each area. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a long and arduous task. But it will help you to quickly integrate the information you are confident of, and it will show you where you need to do more work.

I’m not saying that you need to use all or any of these strategies. But these are strategies that the education world has recognized as being effective. And, as one who has prepared IBLCE Exam candidates for over two decades, I can assure you that if you’re like most IBLCE Exam candidates, using even one of these methods would be a step in the right direction.

So if you know study strategies that work, which will you choose?

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