Study habits and their link to exam performance


Every year I update my ‘Preparing for Exams – the Series” by adding new content, updating old posts and examining new research. This year, I thought I would see if I could find some new research on the topic of better exam performance. 

What I found was this research by Walck-Shannon, Rowell and Frey (2020) who looked at the relationship between study habits and exam performance. 

Before digging into their research, it is worth knowing a few things.

  • There are essentially two things you learn at university. The first is the actual topic you are studying. The second is how to study and learn. Not only do you get better at your chosen area of interest as a result of being at uni. You also get better at learning. It is why most unis have a learning unit. At Flinders it is the Student Learning Support Service (SLSS). Their job is to help you be a better learner. 
  • To be a better learner, you need to adopt high quality, evidence-based learning strategies. We’ve covered many of them in our Evidence-based Study and Exam Preparation Tips document. There are also websites dedicated to teaching people effective learning strategies such as Learning Scientists and Retrieval Practice
  • The best learning strategies are sometimes referred to as ‘Desirable Difficulties’, capturing the fact that the best learning strategies are often the ones that feel the hardest. For example, self-testing feels a lot mentally harder than re-reading, but it is a more effective way to learn. I like the term and I think it neatly captures that some of the things that are best for us, also require a bit of frustration and effort (like trying to get my legs to do this pose).
  • A distinction is often made between active and passive learning strategies. Passive strategies involve no real processing effort other than exposing yourself to the material that needs to be learned. Examples include re-reading, watching lectures, re-writing notes. Active strategies involve far more mental processing and activity. They include completing problem sets, self-quizzing, explaining concepts to others, making diagrams and creating summarised notes. Generally speaking, the literature supports active strategies as better for learning than passive strategies. 


With these in mind, the authors wanted to see what study strategies their cohort of students used and whether the strategies they used predicted their performance on exams. Their cohort included 600+ students doing an introductory biology course. 

The authors asked students, immediately after 2 exams, what study strategies they used, the time spent studying, how often they were distracted, how early they started studying, how many days they studied and a few more similar questions. 

They then looked to see if there were any patterns of studying that reliably predicted better exam performance. 

What they found helps provide a basic blueprint you can use for your own exam preparation. 

First, total study time and class attendance predicted exam performance, meaning the basics of showing up and allocating reasonable time to your studies remain important factors. Granted this has been a bit harder in the times of COVID, but attendance, even in a digital environment builds commitment muscles 💪

Second, the cohort of students they studied used a combination of active and passive strategies, but the authors noted (happily) a higher use of active strategies than they expected, suggesting students are clueing in to the benefits of active study strategies and taking advantage of the active study opportunities afforded by lecturers (e.g. quizzes, past exams, extra problem sets etc). It seems perhaps that people like me rabbiting 🐇 on like I do might have an impact. 

Third, active strategies were associated with better exam performance whilst passive strategies were not. There were significant gains found for those using active strategies. For example a 2-3% increase in performance for each additional active strategy used. A 4-7% increase in performance for each of problem-sets, explaining concepts, self-quizzing and attending review sessions. A 5-10% increase in performance if most study time was spent using active strategies. 

Fourth, cramming (which most of us use, but is generally viewed as a poor study strategy) was not associated with exam performance, in either a positive or negative way. It might be the case that concentrated periods of study before an exam are OK if you are using that time to implement active study strategies. 

Fifth and finally, distraction during study was found to impair performance but the impact in the study was fairly small. For every 10% of time spent distracted, students lost 1% of exam performance. 


Plain words summary:

On the basis of this study (and similar studies before), a good exam preparation might involve the following:

  1. Turn up to lectures and tutorials. 
  2. For a full-time degree, consider it appropriate to (at least) be allocating a total of 38-40 (full-time work) hours per week. 
  3. Prepare for exams by summarising your notes and readings, preparing and using flash cards, completing past exams and quizzes, completing problem sets, attending any additional review/preparation sessions and explaining concepts to others.
  4. Reduce distractions (e.g. social media, phone, games, TV, other people, etc) when studying. 

Whilst cramming remains a popular strategy and was found to be neutral in this study, it is typically found to be detrimental to performance, so where possible, start studying earlier than you might normally, so you can get a) extra total study time and b) extra time to utilise active study strategies. 


Got questions about how to study better?

Make sure you follow the Student Learning Support Service (their FLO topic is the best place). 

Read our Evidence-based Study and Exam Preparation Tips document.

Post any questions you might have in the comments below ✍

Posted in
Academic skills Recommended Reading Research Digest

Leave a Reply