For most of my pre-college education I was a very average student–and that’s being charitable. In my first year of college, I vowed I would learn how to get A’s. I bought (and read!) a bunch of books on the subject as well as attended any study skills workshops available on campus. With the right techniques and the willingness to apply them, my outcomes improved drastically. The skill I became best at was test-taking to the point were I even looked forward to them.
Very early in my teaching career, I discovered that many students (like former me) have never been taught how to prepare for a test. Consequentially, they typically do poorly, provoking high levels of anxiety leading up to and during tests. This inevitably leads to a negative feedback loop wherein their negative expectations manifest a self-fulfilling prophesy of poor performance.
This blogpost is for all you people out there that get test anxiety or have children that do. Hopefully, with the tips I’m going to share, they (or you!) can learn to do well and to not fear tests.
Preparing for Exams
The most common mistake students make in preparing for exams is to study ‘passively’ rather than ‘actively’. Let me explain the difference. Passive studying is when you simply reread the material and/or the notes. This will not help you very much and is basically a waste of time. To figure out how to do well on an exam let’s think about what an exam is.
Tip 1: Focus on Understanding Rather Than Memorization
An exam is a demonstration of your comprehension of a topic. So, to do well on an exam you have to be able to do two things: (a) recall the information being asked of you and (b) show that you understand it–usually by applying it.
If you focus on (b), (a) will follow without any effort. Going from (a) to (b) takes more work. Understanding something requires putting it into a larger context: Figure out where an argument or explanation fits in relation to the main issue. Figure out and how each step in an argument connects to previous premises and supports the conclusion. Once you’ve done this, you will also have recreated the argument! Pure memorization without understanding is much harder to do. Avoid it where you can.
Some tests do require brute memorization of terms and so you can’t escape all memorization. However, most technical terms are merely tools for understanding more complex concepts or theories. Figuring out where a term fits in the larger scheme of things will help you remember it. In short, connect new terms and concepts to other ideas to help understand, and in turn, remember them.
Tip 2: Recreate Exam Conditions
The other vital part of studying is to RECREATE EXAM CONDITIONS. This can be divided into two core ideas: (a) recreate the activity you will have to do and (b) recreate the environment you will be in.
Recreating the Activity
On an exam you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE information. Simply rereading doesn’t train you to recall and write. To practice recalling information, you have to–well–recall and write information. This principle is the same for any skill.
Suppose I’m on the sportball team and there’s a big match coming up against State. Should I just sit in my room thinking about all the sport moves I’m going to make under various conditions? Obviously not. I need to actually play sportball and make real sport moves to perform well in the match. It’s true, thinking about it will help a bit, but if my practice consists solely in flipping through a playbook and imagining how I’m going to make awesome sport moves, we won’t win the sportball game against State.
Similarly, suppose I’m a musician and I have a concert coming up. Suppose I prepare purely by skimming through the sheet music thinking to myself, “Ok, I got that part. Umhuh. Ok, that’s just triplets, I can do that.” No one would ever think to prepare for a concert this way. Yet this is how people prepare for academic tests!!111!!!11! Why???/????//!!??
So, to recap, on a test you are being asked to RECALL and WRITE. You should practice recalling and writing the information the same way you’d practice for a sportball game by playing sportball and a musical performance by actually playing the music.
In practical terms this means that after reviewing a potential exam question, you should WRITE, in point form, your answers to the question while your text and notes are closed. This is what it is to recreate the activity of exam-taking. On the exam you don’t have access to your notes. If you can’t recall and write out your answer in point form without looking at your notes in the relaxed environment of your room, there is no way in heck you’ll be able to do it on the actual exam. That kind of crap only happens in the self-deluded dreams of tired students.
Details: I am rarely able to recall and write an answer on the first attempt. Just like learning to play a section of music for a concert, you’re not going to nail it your first time through. This is normal. Learning is repetition and incremental improvement. Expect do to just that.
If I get stuck trying to recall an argument, I peek at my notes, complete the answer then I DO IT AGAIN, this time without peeking. I keep repeating this process as many times as I have to until I can write out the answer without peeking at my notes (i.e., until I perfectly recreate the exam conditions). When I can do it perfectly, I KNOW I will ace the test because I’ve already aced it several times before even stepping into the exam room.
After I’m able to recall and write an answer perfectly without peeking at my notes I move to the next question–but not before! I like to work in sets of three. So, when I’m able to do 3 successive questions perfectly, I circle back to the top of the exam and repeat all of them once. For example, if I’m at question 6, then I’ll redo all 6 questions once just to make sure I’ve really got them. Remember, repetition is the name of the game. It ain’t fun but it’s more fun than the feeling you get from a crappy grade.
Get yourself to where, with your notebook closed, you can recall and write the answer for every potential test question. When you can, you will ace the test (so long as you took good notes). Also, you’ll have a lot less stress because you’ve already successfully taken the test several times at home.
Recreating the Environment
Most of this should be obvious but I’ll spell it out:
- Cellphone off and in another room.
- Unplug your modem.
- Don’t use your computer. Print your notes if you took them on your laptop.
- Cellphone off and in another room.
- No talking.
- No chewing gum.
- No fart noises.
- No friends.
- No life.
- Never give up, never surrender.
I’m going to discuss time from two points of view: Total time and duration of study periods.
Total Prep Time (for Undergrad Exams):
If you want an A, expect to study at least 6-8 hours.
If you want a B, expect to study at least 4-6 hours.
Notice I didn’t write anything for the other letter grades. If your goal is a C, save your money, quit school now and find something you enjoy instead.
These prep times will differ from person to person. They will also differ depending on how experienced you are at proper exam preparation. When you use the tips I’ve given for the first time, you probably won’t get an A. This makes sense since you’re just beginning to acquire the skills for exam preparation. Similarly, if it’s your first time ever practicing for a sportball game you shouldn’t expect to beat State. And no right-thinking musician would believe they’re going to play a perfect concert after only their first time learning to practice.
Importantly, the above times are total undistracted study time and does not include breaks or meals. Plan your study schedule accordingly.
Finally, the total number of hours can be split up over 2 or (max) 3 days. It can also be done in one day/night.
Conventional wisdom is that you shouldn’t study for longer than about 45min intervals with 10-15min breaks. I think this is right for people who are just leaning proper exam prep but wrong for people who are experienced. No one would say that everyone, regardless of experience, should only run for 45min. No, it depends on how much prior training you’ve had. The more training you’ve had, the longer you can run or study effectively, or whatever.
In the beginning start with conventional wisdom but as you build your recall muscles, extend your study periods. The fewer breaks you can take, the less total time you need to prepare and do well.
Study groups are useful for coming up with the answers for potential test questions, but this shouldn’t be counted as studying.
Exam preparation means recreating exam conditions. Your study group isn’t going to be there to offer you answers during the exam so you shouldn’t prepare as though they will. And neither will your mom…
Advanced Techniques: Experts Only!!!111!!1
Like I said, I wasn’t always good at taking exams but through training and alignment of my chakras, I developed the skills. As I developed the skills and aligned my qi with the universe, I also developed confidence.
So, here’s how I studied for exams at the end of my test-taking career:
I come home from class and sleep until it’s 9 hours (or however long I think I’ll need to learn everything perfectly) before my exam the next day. I get up. Make a pot of tea and study for 4 hours straight. I take a 30min break to eat and drink a pot of coffee, eat chocolate then I study for another 4 hours. By now I’m starting to get a bit tired so I grab a light breakfast and 2 energy drinks on the way to the exam. I drink one drink on the way and have one on my desk if I feel I need it.
Write the exam.
Walk aimlessly around campus waiting for my heart rate to come down from all the caffein.
Note: This way of studying for exams requires absolute confidence in your test-taking skills. When it’s 1am and are just opening your notes 9 hours out from a final, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed and panic.
- Decide what letter grade you want on the exam.
- Set aside the corresponding number of hours required for that letter grade.
- A=6 to 8
- B=4 to 6
- Mentally commit yourself to studying that number of hours–come hell or high water.
- Set yourself up in an environment as close to the exam conditions as possible.
- Turn your phone off AND put it in another room.
- Cover, Recall, and Write until you can do it perfectly for each answer. NEVER skim your notes. This is a complete waste of precious time.
- Do not move to the next question until you’re perfect on the one you’re working on.
- Focus on understanding (i.e., how different ideas relate and apply to each other) not memorization.
- Every 3 questions, go back to the top and see if you can do them all again.
- Walk into the exam with confidence because you’ve already done it several times perfectly.
- Write clearly! Your instructor can’t give you points for what they can’t read.