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How to Study for a Test: One Student's Experience

Updated on March 15, 2012

Let me say up front that it's been a while since I've had to study for a test. The last time, I think, was for a professional exam, and when I was doing so, I wasn't quite so organized as what I'm about to tell you might lead you to believe. Nevertheless, I have had to study for quite a few exams in my day and I must have done something right. I did very well in high school, got into a prestigious college, became a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and went on to graduate school, where I became a member of Beta Gamma Sigma.

Who knew?

In any event, there are several time-honored studying techniques that will help you do well in school, and I would like to share some of them with you based on my own experience.


Immerse Yourself in the Material

Let's address the bad news first. You can't study anything unless you have a pool of information to study from. In order for that pool to have any depth, you're going to have to immerse yourself in the material.

Back in my high school days, there was a time when I wasn't doing very well in English. I didn't know how to answer the questions on the tests and I was frustrated because I really wanted to do well. It seems quite silly now, but eventually it dawned on me that one of the reasons I wasn't doing well was that I wasn't reading the books carefully enough! Sure, I would start them. But the ones the teacher had picked out wouldn't hold my interest long enough for me to continue with them. I knew I had to finish them, though, so I'd race through them the night before the test at the rate of perhaps half a second per page without any intention of absorbing what I read.

This is not a strategy I would recommend.

You need to immerse yourself in the material. This always applies to reading assignments. It's also true of lectures.

Some students think that they can get by without going to the lectures, that as long as they read all the assignments, they'll be okay. I don't recommend that. You never know what's going to happen in a lecture. It's true, some professors simply regurgitate what's in the text. Most of them do not. More likely, they will supplement what's in the text or provide a different insight. And perhaps a fellow student will ask a question that will get a memorable discussion going. So don't skip the lectures. Attend as many as you can. And be sure to tape-record them or take good notes so that you can refer back to them later.

Decide What's Important

Okay. Let's assume you've gone to the lectures. You've read the required reading, and have even done some of the non-required reading. The test is looming on the horizon and it's time to start studying. What do you do?

The short answer is -- prioritize. They can't test you on everything. (Well, okay, I suppose they could, but they won't because they don't really have enough time. The test is probably at most only a few hours long.) You therefore have to decide what's important and concentrate your study efforts on that. Here is where attending those lectures can help. What topics did the professor emphasize? What did s/he seem to care about the most? What parts of the material are the trickiest? Those things are great candidates for test questions.

Once you've decided on probable topics, you can then rank your studying priorites. Are there any areas that are a piece of cake to you? Move those to the bottom of the list for a brief refresher at the end of your study period and concentrate on those things which are more difficult. Is there any area that seems important but which you're especially fuzzy about? You'll want to spend extra time studying in that area.

Learn By Doing

Being able to remember things is an important study tool, and we'll get to some techniques for doing that in a minute. Many classes are indeed memory-oriented. There are other classes, though, where you just have to learn by doing. If you're studying math or physics, you need to do the problem sets. If you're studying a language, you need to go to the language lab and do the drills.

What's important in these kinds of courses is pattern recognition. Problem sets are usually related to chapters or topics -- the conservation of energy, for example, or the concept of work. Problems for one topic are usually set up a certain way, while problems for another topic are set up differently -- sometimes only slightly differently -- and you need to be able to distinguish between the two. If you're taking a statistics course, for example, can you tell when a problem involves a permutation and when it requires a combination? It could save you a lot of time on a test knowing which is which.

As you study for your test, try to identify all the problem types and do several of each until you feel you really know them. Try to determine all the necessary set-up characteristics. If you're tackling word problems in algebra, do you know how to identify a distance problem? How does that differ from a work problem? Or one trying to identify numbers based on facts about what's in the units, tens, or hundreds place? Even better, try to make up some problems of your own for each type and try to solve them.

If this sounds like this requires a lot of time, it does. If you want to do well, you need to put in the time. Cramming is never recommended! Don't go crazy, though. Be realistic about the time involved and don't put in any more time than is necessary. For a calculus final my freshman year of college I spent perhaps a total of two hours studying when I knew that other students were studying a lot more. That didn't bother me though because I had spent my semester doing the problem sets. It also helped that I had taken the course before in high school, even though I didn't understand the material nearly as well the first time around as I did the second. My decision to study for only a couple of hours turned out to be the correct one. I got an A on the exam.

One Approach to Test-Taking
One Approach to Test-Taking | Source

Memories, Memories

Most of the tests you have to study for in school are tests of memory at some level, but it's not enough simply to stuff facts into your brain. You also need a means of getting them out. I had a professor once in grad school who referred to this as the "dump truck" approach. You load up the night before, dump everything out in class the next day, and then drive off -- as empty as you were before you started.

Often it's important to distinguish between recognition and recall. Consider these two questions:

  • Name five colors of the rainbow.
  • Which of the following is not a color or the rainbow? a) red b) blue c) green d) black e) orange.

Note that in the first case the question is asking you to provide an answer with only a minimal prompt. That's asking you to recall something. The second question gives you a bit more of a hint. That's asking you to recognize it.

Needless to say, recalling things demonstrates mastery of a subject better than recognition does.

One time-honored technique for improving recall is to use flash cards. The idea behind them is simple. One side of the card lists a word or phrase as a prompt, while the other side gives more detailed information. In our rainbow example above, the prompt side of the card might read "Colors of the Rainbow" while the information side would read "Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet."

For some courses, such as science or languages, there are standard packs of flash cards that are available for purchase. For other courses, you will have to make up your own flash cards using 3x5 index cards or something similar.

When using flash cards, it's often helpful to take what might whimsically be called the Joni Mitchell approach and look at them from both sides now. Go through the deck once looking at the prompt side and give the information listed on the back. Once you're done, flip the deck over and based on the information on the back, identify the prompt on the front. Doing things both ways can be extremely useful since you never know how a question is going to read. It may be just as valuable knowing that the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with women's suffrage as it is to know that the amendment dealing with women's suffrage is the Nineteenth.

Create a Mnemonic

Another useful technique for memorizing is to employ what's known as a mnemonic device. Mnemonic comes from the Greek word mnemon, mindful, and simply means a memory aid.

Mnemonics often work a lot like acronyms. In those mnemonics, each letter stands for something. HOMES is one example. Each of the letters in HOMES stands for a Great Lake -- Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior. Other mnemonics have been crafted into short sentences and have been used by students for decades, such as King Phillip Came Over from Germany Singing to remember the order of biological classifications or At the Canine Club Never Give Out Vital Victuals to Dalmatians to remember the names of the first Roman emperors.

Some mnemonics, though, you might have to make up on your own.

A mnemonic doesn't have to be meaningful in order to be memorable. I once came up with a mnemonic that sounded totally nonsensical: ATGCLVLSSCAP (pronounced "At jick levels, scap.") I had no idea what a jick level was, and I had never met anyone who knew how to scap. But the phrase was a way for me to remember that the signs of the zodiac in order, beginning in the spring were Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces.

Draw a Mental Picture

A time-honored way of fixing things that you want to remember is to create a mental picture of them. It doesn't have to be a realistic picture. In fact pictures that are stark or silly are often the easiest to remember. The important thing is that your picture contains the essence of everything you want to remember.

For example, if I wanted to remember that the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution deals with the direct election of Senators, I might create a mental image of some Senators going into and out of a theater (which is also called the Senator, just to reinforce the image). This theater happens to be in the shady part of town, though, and none of the Senators want to be seen there, since it only plays movies that are rated NC-17. Not the most flattering view of our public servants to be sure, but by associating Senators with the number 17 in this way, I'll remember the amendment that deals with that. (And you probably will, too, now, possibly for the rest of your life.)

Modules, Anyone?

Sometimes it's not facts you want to retrieve but rather groups of ideas. This is a particularly useful skill when it comes to preparing for an essay exam. Obviously you can't write an entire essay beforehand -- unless you break into your professor's office and get the essay question in advance -- but you can certainly write pieces of one in your mind, by organizing your thoughts around key points.

Let's say your class is in American History and your exam wil be covering the Civil War. You'll want to identify the likely themes in your mind, such as the major causes of the war, what the South's view was, what the North's view was, and so on, and identifying the most important points of each. As you study, try to make a modular outline of those ideas and the key points you'd want to emphasize if they did show up on a test. On the exam itself, you can easily turn those modules into paragraphs or sections.

Using modules in this way works a lot like going to a cafeteria. You put some things on your tray and leave others out. Thus if the essay question is about the North put down your module about the North. If it's about the South, flesh out your outline about the South, and so on. Don't get carried away, though. If only 25 percent of your module is relevant to the question and 75 percent isn't, you'll have to throw away three-quarters of it, but it's better to do that than being told you're off point.

These are some of the techniques that I have used and which brought me success in high school and in college. I hope they will do the same for you. Good luck to you, and happy studying!


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    • Robin profile image

      Robin Edmondson 5 years ago from San Francisco

      What wonderful tips! I haven't studied for a real test since undergrad. I always felt like it was more of a cram session rather than a dissemination of all the material. Grad school was harder but more memorable: papers, papers, papers. I love your mnemonic tips; it's a great way to retain information.

      Welcome to HubPages! You are off to a great start!

    • Kristine Manley profile image

      Donna Kristine 5 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      I wish I had had these tips while in college. Great Hub! Voted up.

    • dipless profile image

      dipless 5 years ago from Manchester

      There are some really good tips in here. Good hub and well written.

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