The students at my high school are getting ready for their first round of exams next week. I hear many of my students identify themselves as “bad test takers” and report that no matter how hard they study, they never seem to do well on these exams. Others even go so far as to claim that they just shouldn’t study, citing a time where they didn’t study and still did well. While I doubt this theory is anything more than a bizarre coincidence, there is truth in the fact that some of my students who put in time and energy to study for their tests still do not perform well on these tests.
I think the problem that many of my students face is that they may be putting in time to study, but when they are not using the most effective and efficient strategies, the information they are learning may not stick. Specifically, when asked how they had prepared for a test where they didn’t do as well as they had hoped, many of my students state that they simply reviewed their notes. While reviewing notes is a great way to start things off and to familiarize ourselves with the scope and breadth of content that needs to be studied, studying should not just end there. To guide students in identifying additional study techniques to adequately prepare them for in-class assessments, I have developed three questions they should be asking themselves:
1. What tasks will my teacher be asking me to perform on this test?
The first thing we want to do is to think about the “what” of the upcoming test. Will I be asked to respond to an essay prompt? Complete math problems? Diagram a sentence? In order to best prepare for the tasks at hand, we must be fully aware of what we will be asked to do.
Furthermore, we must also be sure on what content will be included on the test. Is this a unit test, a cumulative exam, or a quiz focusing on one small skill? Knowing this will inform what content gets included in the review. If you are unclear on either of these two “whats”, then it is important to gain clarity by asking the teacher in class or in office hours before fully immersing him or herself into studying.
2. How can I practice those tasks on my own?
The key word here is practice. The most effective way to study for a test is by practicing that task or skill on our own. For a quarterback to be ready for a game, training involves throwing passes. For a student to be ready for a Latin vocab quiz, studying involves practicing translating words from Latin to English and English to Latin by using flashcards or Quizlet (OK, not quite as fun, but I think you get the point!). When we simply look over our notes instead of practicing the skill, we are not able to develop automaticity with using that skill on our own. We are only able to determine how ready we are for something by practicing that something on our own. It is better to figure out at home what information we still don’t know then wait to figure this out on the test. For example, if the first time we try solving a complex math problem is during the test, and we come across a step we are still uneasy with, then there is not much more we can do but guess and hope for the best. In contrast, if we try practicing that type of problem at home and encounter a difficult step, there are steps we can follow to sort things out before the test (see next question!). Only by practicing the skills and tasks are we able to identify what we do and do not know.
To help my students identify ways to practice a task for studying, I differentiate between what I call “passive” and “active” study techniques, advocating for students to focus more on the latter than the former. I consider passive study strategies to be those in which a student is preparing by passively engaging with the material. As discussed above, the most common example I hear from my students is reviewing class notes. There are two reasons that I encourage students to move beyond just reviewing their notes or reading the textbook. First, as discussed above, it does not allow them to practice the task. Unless your teacher has you look at information on a page and indicate if it sounds accurate or not, the way in which you are practicing cannot really be applied to what you will be asked to do on the test. Furthermore, when engaging in passive study strategies, it is easy for our brain to wander. Questions about what we are having for dinner or doing this weekend can pop up as we read through material, distracting our minds from absorbing the content we are trying to study.
In contrast, active study strategies are those that require the student’s brain to be actively engaged; there is no room for their mind to actually be thinking about something else because they are performing a task that requires their focus and attention. Here is a list of some examples of study techniques a student can use to practice a task at home for the purposes of studying:
Completing practice problems
Reviewing old tests/quizzes and redo questions that you got wrong (and ones you got right as well!)
Making flashcards or using quizlet for vocab or key terms
Making up short answer questions or essay prompts your teacher could ask and answering or outlining them yourself
Completing teachers’ review packets (if applicable)
Making a visual diagram or chart of key concepts
Saying information aloud as if you are teaching someone else
Putting all important information onto a “cheat sheet” (even if you cannot bring it into the test, it can be helpful to study off of!)
Teaching information to someone who is less familiar with the content
3. Where can I go for help if any questions come up during studying?
A luxury of practicing the skills on our own is that if questions come up, we can try to get help. I always encourage students to first practice doing some things on their own without their notes to get a sense of how comfortable they are with the material. Next, I suggest they use their notes to try and look up anything that did not come naturally for them. To use the example above of solving a complex math problem, a student could look through problems completed in class with the teacher to figure out what step was missing. If that does not work, then a student is encouraged to ask a friend or check in with the teacher about it the next day. After the question is answered, the student is to go back and retry the task again to confirm that the question has been adequately addressed, and to revisit this task again at a later point without notes to confirm that it has been retained.
By asking (and answering!) these questions, we can begin to prepare ourselves more efficiently and effectively than by simply reviewing our notes. Because these steps listed above may take longer than some of our previously used review strategies, it is important that we give ourselves enough time to do this. Cramming the night before a test is not going to cut it. Instead, we need to begin preparing at least a few days in advance, revisiting content learned each day to insure it is still fresh in our minds each day.