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Effectively Studying for Exams that Require Critical Thinking/Application

Effectively Studying for Exams that Require Critical Thinking/Application

Author : Christopher Blake

I often get questions from students about how best to prepare and study for exams, particularly during finals week. While many sites online have good hints and tips, they often seem too vague or targeted at classes wherein the goal is memorization. The goal of this article is to provide students with some ideas for studying when they are being asked to apply material on exams or projects. This is often more difficult than repeating or remembering, yet is not often practiced in a high school setting. As you read through, know that I will keep updating this based on feedback and suggestions, so please feel free to reach out to me.

The Single Most Important Strategy: Know the Why

There are many aspects to effectively studying, but on exams asking for critical thought or application there should always be one question that motivates your study: Why? Concepts you learn and spend time on are important; you should be able to address why they are important. Why are you learning the things you are? What does a topic contribute to the overall goal of the course? If you can't answer this, take a step away from that topic and look at its overall placement in content as this can be informative. For a good example in economics, students often struggle with the notion of elasticity. For those who haven't taken an economics course, economists define elasticities as measures of responsiveness. This means the measurement come in many forms and therefore seems like a very vague definition. Even if the specific notion of elasticity is challenging, here is where taking a step back can be helpful. We often surround discussions of elasticity with the ideas of supply and demand, or how firms might adapt their prices to increase revenue. Using supply and demand, if demand is generally characterized by the fact that rising prices reduces how much people want to buy, we may start to see that elasticity can help us see how strongly they respond to those price changes. Similarly, understanding how quickly firms can react to price changes for their products can help firms understand their revenue and, taking the next step, where they might change up their operation to be more responsive. 

Sometimes students get bogged down in schedules, concerns over grades, or personal matters that make coursework seem more like a daily requirement than a contribution to a larger picture. Forcing yourself to revisit the question of why you're learning what you're learning can then be critical for success, especially leading up to exams.

What to Do if You Don't Know the Why

There will be times when you don't know the why and, after looking through topics surrounding a topic requiring clarity, you can't discern the why. In these moments, I've found its best to start by reaching out to a fellow student. Tell them what you know and guess why its important. As you hear yourself say it, does it make sense to you? If not, workshop with that student and have them try to explain it to you. 

After this, reach out to your faculty member. Oftentimes, the first thing your faculty member will ask when you say you are confused is to tell them what you know. To save time, include this in your initial email. For example:

Dear Dr. Blake,

I am studying the concept of consumer surplus and am struggling to understand why it would be important. I know that it is supposed to be a measure of welfare and that it comapares the highest price a consumer would pay for a product versus what they actually do spend. As I think about application though, I struggle with how we would get data on that price point consumers are willing to pay and so I don't understand how consumer surplus could be important for this class.

Thank you for your time,

By setting the email up this way, you help to minimize the time between responses and demonstrate to your faculty that you have tried to think about the topic. Without details about what you have done, many faculty will assume you have not put in the effort to study and will simply direct you to some resources (that you may already have looked at). Save both yourself and your faculty member the time and show what you have done.

Other Studying Tips

While I think that knowing the why of a topic is the most important, there are other elements to effective study. The following list comes from a combination of what I have read online from other sources, what I have noticed from my own students, and my own reflections on what worked for me as a student.

1. Make Yourself an Outline of Topics Covered

Asking a faculty member to make an outline can be helpful, but it doesn't help you think about what has been covered. Making your own forces you to, first and foremost, glance at every topic that might be covered. Even making visual contact with terms is a form of studying! Secondly, making an outline forces you to make choices. Outlines have an inherent structure, where one concept may serve as an umbrella that ties together others. Again, using economics as an example, the notion of demand is the top-level umbrella to: the Law of Demand; shifters of demand; utility theory; and consumer choice, among others. Forcing yourself to put concepts in outline format inherently forces you to determine what fits under what umbrella.

2. Compare Your Outline to the Number of Class Sessions that Cover Each Topic

Generally speaking, faculty intentionally design each course over the course of the semester to focus on what is important. In a normal semester, you may have up to 48 class sessions (assuming a 16-week semester and a course that meets three times per week). If you cover a topic for more than one of those sessions, it should be a top-level, umbrella topic. Keep track of the focus of each class session because this can serve as a comparison between what you understood to be important and what your faculty thought to be important. 

3. Compare Your Outline with that of a Fellow Student

As an additional check, find yourself a study partner who is in your class and is willing to take the time to make an outline. After they make their outline, compare the two. The most important aspect of this exercise is when the two of you disagree. Suppose you have one topic as a top-level topic and they have it as a minor topic. Take the time to describe why you feel it is top-level and have them describe their view. Doing so by itself is helpful as you would have to explain both the topic and its larger importance for the course, but the added benefit is that you get feedback on your own outline.

4. Do Not Disturb Mode and Study

Once the you've thought a lot about the outline. Take time to study on your own. From personal experience, I've seen many students show up to the library early on a Saturday, open their laptop, pull up the course website, open a book, and then spend 3 hours on social media. Don't waste your own time! Instead, give yourself a solid hour or two devoted to no distractions and studying. Given above, make sure you can address the question of why is concept is important as you go through. While it can be tough to disconnect, you'll end up saving yourself a lot of time by focusing intensely.

5. No All-Nighters

I was prone to all-nighters in college. It seemed so easy to wait until a day or two before an assignment was due and finish it. While tempting, the best thing you can do the night before an exam is get a decent sleep. Hopefully the implication is obvious, every step I've talked about before should not happen the night before an exam. Your brain needs time to internalize, rest, and reflect. Give it the time it needs and sleep well before an exam. I've seen this work for (and against) students in my Intermediate Micreoconomics courses. The class asks student to learn how we can mathematically model and how calculus might be a valuable tool to predict economic outcomes. As anyone who's taken the course knows, I intentionally structure the second exam in such a way that almost no one can finish it and the difficult is far higher than warranted in an intermediate course. I do this to see how they handle the challenge (knowing full well to grade accordingly), but such difficulty requires the ability to think on your feet. In the past, students have shown up bragging they stayed up all night and then performed very poorly. I can't say this was the reason behind the design of these exams, but it certainly was an added benefit. From personal experience as a student and teacher, cramming is not effective. Kill this habit early and often.

6. Day Of, Don't Care

This is perhaps the most difficult of my advice. Studies continue to show that stress and worry can negatively affect performance (though evidence is mixed). Here, I speak anecdotally and from observation of students. The second you sit down for an exam, feel accomplished. Anything less and you may start to worry about how you will do, questions you missed, or what effect it will have on your grade. To quote economic theory, those are all the equivalent of sunk costs; you cannot do anything about them. As a result, do the best you can because there is literally nothing you can do.

7. Know How Much Time You Should Spend on a Question

Most exams are timed. Even if they are not, economics teaches us that opportunity cost matters--you could always be doing something else. Before writing a single thing on any exam, look at the number of questions and their type. In addition, add in their point value, if offered. Multiple choice questions can sometimes be a trap if the exam has them. Remember that you have a 25% chance or greater of guessing the question's answer correctly and that percentage only rises as you eliminate answers. Typically, short answer and essay questions are worth more so make sure you don't get bogged down in multiple choice questions that have a small chance or random guessing when writing questions are unasnwered. The fact of the matter is, no teacher will award any credit on a blank essay question, but you may get 2-4 points on a random guess on multiple choice. Given relative point values, 2-4 points shouldn't matter much; focus on the essays.

8. Answer Every Question

Finally, answer every question. This may seem obvious, but experience indicates it is not. You cannot get points for things you don't say. Even if you don't know an answer, write what you know. This forces your faculty member into a position wherein they have to think about what you know, rather than simply giving you a 0 out of X. The number of times this has hurt students is astounding in my experience, so this piece of advise goes out to students who are looking to salvage some points.


Again, this post is meant to bring together what I have seen on the internet, fill a gap for those looking to study for critical thinking-based exams, and provide insights based on my teaching and learning experience. I hope this is helpful, but if there is an omission, I would like to continue working on this post. Feel free to email me directly: christopher.blake@emory.edu or via the contact me page on this website.


Leblanc, V.R (2009). The Effects of Acute Stress on Performance: Implications for Health Professions Education. Academic Medicine.

Post image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

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