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Figuring out what to study

Video resources

Video resources

When there is such a large amount of content, and many lectures and textbook readings, how do we decide what content to prioritize?

This section will cover strategies to help us decide how to prioritize our studying.


  • Stoplight study technique

    The stoplight technique seen in the video resources section at the top of this page can help you decide what material you understand well, understand a little and understand the least. You should always study the material you understand least first!

    In addition to the stoplight method, it can be helpful to evaluate the likelihood of information appearing on the exam based on your notes, textbook, study guides, lectures and materials the instructor has emphasized. Consider if the information is certain, probable, possible, unlikely or impossible to appear on the test. Begin by studying certain and probable materials before moving on to possible and unlikely content.

    Also, be sure to ask your professor or TA what they feel is the most important to study. Reaching out to other classmates can also be helpful to talk through what they feel is the most important.


    Algonquin College Student Support Services. (3 June 2021). How do you decide what to study? Retrieved from:

  • Course syllabus

    Before beginning to study, use your course syllabus to gather details about the exam:

    • How much is it worth?
    • When is the exam scheduled?
    • Is this course vital to your program and to your future career?
    • What marks have you earned in the course thus far?

    When faced with several exams, this will help you to prioritize and decide how much time you will need to dedicate to studying.

  • Textbooks and lecture slides

    When reviewing your textbook and lecture notes:

    • Pay attention to the fundamental terms and key concepts, and then determine the anecdotes, examples and explanations that clarify meaning or that tie related ideas and observations together.
    • Look carefully at the headings and subheadings in the textbook and the lecture slides; these will help you figure out the key concepts you will want to study.
    • Use the glossary from the textbook to help identify key terms.
    • See if you can find practice questions in your textbook. Or, see if your textbook uses an accompanying online resource that provides further practice questions. One active study strategy involves taking as many practice tests as you can to help you prepare.
  • Prioritizing effectively

    Figuring out what to prioritize when studying for multiple exams can be tricky. Consider the following elements:

    Difficulty level

    Determine what is going to be the most challenging test. It can be a good idea to complete the most difficult task first, especially if we are working in a short span of time. 

    Duration you will need to spend on studying

    Start on the most time-consuming exam first. Estimate how long each studying task will take and try to complete the task within that set time; this will help you stay on track.

    Try to stick to the times you have estimated to complete your task, especially if you are working with a short turnaround and have a lot of things still to complete. You might not get through everything but be realistic and take into consideration how much time you actually have left to study.

    It is also a good idea to reflect after you have worked through the study task: how long did the task actually take you? Write that down too. That way, you will be able to estimate more clearly next time.

    The length of the test and whether or not it is cumulative

    If one exam only covers 4 weeks of material, while another is cumulative and covers 12 weeks, you may want to prioritize the more difficult task of studying for the cumulative exam first since that will be the most time-consuming endeavor.

    Test weightings and whether the class is a program requirement

    How heavily is your test weighted? If it is worth 5 to 10 per cent of the mark and other tests are worth 30 to 40 per cent, then prioritize the test that is worth the most and is going to have the biggest impact on your final grade.

    If your test is in a class that is a requirement for your program, you may want to prioritize that test over elective courses.

    When the test is scheduled

    Don't fall into the trap where you spend all of your time studying for one test just because you write that one first. Make sure that you give yourself enough time to review for your later tests as well, especially if those tests are more important for your long-term goals.