Preparing for a Test

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify effective strategies for preparing for a test

Preparing to pass tests is something that begins the moment you start learning material for a class, and it continues all the way through to the final exam.

Many students, however, don’t start thinking about test taking, whether weekly exams, mid-terms, or finals, until the day before. They pull all-nighters, cram, hoping that this will prepare them to take a test the following day. Unfortunately, cramming won’t help you retain information in your long-term memory, and it just isn’t the most effective method for studying for an exam.

Studying and test taking are both part of learning; honing your skills in one will help you in the other. Let’s start by evaluating which test prep strategies you’re already using.

Pre-Test Taking Strategies

Which pre-test strategies are you already using?

  • Organize your notebook and other class materials the first week of classes (sample notebook organization plan).
  • Maintain your organized materials throughout the term.
  • Take notes on key points from lectures and other materials (examples of note-taking formats).
  • Make sure you understand the information as you go along.
  • Access your instructor’s help and the help of a study group, as needed.
  • Organize a study group, if desired (review of organizing study groups).
  • Create study tools such as flashcards, graphic organizers, etc. as study aids (review of study aids).
  • Complete all homework assignments on time.
  • Review likely test items several times beforehand.
  • Instead of asking your instructor what items are likely to be covered on the test, ask specific questions about the content that you have. These questions will be much more welcomed than simply asking what will be on the exam.
  • Instead of asking your instructor if she or he can provide a study guide or practice test, ask them how would they study for the exam if they were a student in the class.
  • Ask your instructor how test items such as essays are graded. For example, is there a rubric that the instructor uses?
  • Maintain an active learner attitude.
  • Schedule extra study time in the days just prior to the test.
  • Gather all notes, handouts, and other materials needed before studying.
  • Review all notes, handouts, and other materials.
  • Organize your study area for maximum concentration and efficiency.
  • Create and use mnemonic devices to aid memory (review of mnemonic devices).
  • Put key terms, formulas, etc., on a single study sheet that can be quickly reviewed.
  • Schedule multiple, shorter study times. Research shows that shorter, more frequent study sessions are much more effective in learning the material than one long study session. This method is called “the spacing effect.”
  •  Get plenty of sleep the night before.
  • Set a back-up alarm in case the first alarm doesn’t sound or you sleep through it.
  • Have a good breakfast with complex carbs and protein to see you through. Your brain is not an ethereal thing; it is an organ that needs calories in order to function well. During the test, simple carbohydrates such as sugars (fresh fruit) will be digested much more quickly and can give you a boost of blood sugar to get you through the exam.
  • Show up five to ten minutes early to get completely settled before the test begins.
  • Use the restroom beforehand to minimize distractions.
  • Get up and move around for a few seconds (if you are permitted to). It can help your focus.

After reviewing these strategies, you have likely discovered new ideas to add to what you already use. Write at least two new test prep strategies down somewhere you’ll be able to easily reference them, and implement them into one of your other classes.

Leveraging Study Habits for Test Prep

In your mind, you probably know what you need to do to be prepared for tests. Occasionally, something may surprise you—emphasis on a concept you considered unimportant or a different presentation of a familiar problem. But those surprises should be exceptions. You can take all your well-honed study habits to get ready for exams. Here are some study and test strategies for your consideration.

Test Prep Starts on Day One

Remember, preparing to take your exams starts on the day you start learning. Read all your assigned lessons and attend all your classes throughout the term as much as possible. When you have to miss class, make sure to connect with a peer to catch up on what you missed. Remember to take notes during class and review those notes within twenty-four hours. This practice will help you retain the information you learned, and hopefully will help you commit it to long-term memory so you don’t have to resort to cramming later on in the term.

Active Learner Note Taking

Instead of simply copying down the professor’s lecture or what the PowerPoint says, use note-taking techniques that require active thinking. Make connections to other concepts and scenarios and ask questions that you’re curious about in your notes. This method will help you learn during class instead of using your note-taking time to simply transcribe the lecture so you can “learn it later” when you study.

Review with Classmates

You might be surprised how much reviewing the course material with your classmates can help you learn and retain the material. If you have a discussion about class instead of just reading the assignments and listening to the lecture, you are more likely to retain that information you’re likely making connections to what you already know and you’re reviewing the material again but in a different format. You’re likely to also benefit from your classmates’ points of view, which may be different than yours. They may have picked up on something in a lecture that you didn’t, or have an interesting point to share about the reading and how it connects to another class they are taking that you’re not enrolled in. However, make sure to resolve any disputes between you and your classmates about the facts—if you’re unsure of a peer’s interpretation of course material, don’t just assume they are right, make sure to confirm this information where you can from a reputable source.

Focus on Your Weaknesses

Focusing on your weaknesses may sound counterintuitive, but this isn’t about lowering your confidence! Throughout the term, you will probably encounter concepts that are more difficult to understand than others. When you’re preparing for your exam, you should take your weaknesses into account by devoting time specifically to studying concepts you’re not as familiar with and sure of. Consider taking time out of your day to seek tutoring for these concepts, or set time aside to review that material with a classmate who understands it. If you’re able to cement your understanding of just one concept that you were previously unfamiliar with, you have an opportunity to improve your test grade.

Stress Yourself Out

Probably the most obvious differences between your preparation for an exam and the actual test itself is your level of urgency and the time constraints. A slight elevation in your stress level can actually be OK for testing—it keeps you focused and on your game when you need to bring up all the information, thinking, and studying to show what you’ve learned. Properly executed, test preparation mixed in with a bit of stress can significantly improve your actual test-taking experience.

You can replicate the effective sense of urgency an actual test produces by including timed writing into your study sessions. You don’t need all your study time to exactly replicate the test, but you would be well served to find out the format of the exam in advance and practice the skills you’ll need to use for the various test components. For example, on one early exam in his history class, Stuart learned the instructor was going to include several short-answer essay questions—one for each year of the time period covered. Stuart set up practice times to write for about fifteen to twenty minutes on significant events from his notes because he estimated that would be about how much time he could devote out of the hour-long testing session to write one or two required short-answer questions. He would write a prompt from his notes, set a timer, and start writing. If you’re ready and you have practiced and know the material, twenty minutes is adequate to prepare, draft, and revise a short response, but you don’t have a lot of extra time.

Likewise, in a math exam, you will need to know what kinds of problems you will have to solve and to what extent you’ll need to show your computational work on the exam. If you are able to incorporate this sort of timed problem-solving into your study time, you’ll be more prepared and confident when you actually come to the exam. Making yourself adhere to a timed session during your study can only help. It puts a sense of urgency on you, and it will help you to find out what types of problems you need to practice more than ones that perhaps you’re more comfortable solving.

Prioritizing Time Surrounding Test Situations

Keep in mind that you don’t have any more or less time than anyone else, so you can’t make time for an extra activity. You can only use the time everyone gets wisely and realistically. Exams in college classes are important, but they are not the only significant events you have in your classes. In fact, everything leading up to the exam, the exam itself, and the post-exam activities are all one large continuum. Think of the exam as an event with multiple phases, more like a long-distance run instead of a fifty-yard dash. Step back and look at the big picture of this timeline. Draw it out on paper. What needs to happen between now and the exam so you feel comfortable, confident, and ready?

If your instructor conducts some sort of pre-exam summary or prep session, make sure to attend. These can be invaluable. If this instructor does not provide that sort of formal exam prep, create your own with a group of classmates or on your own. Consider everything you know about the exam, from written instructions to notes you took in class, including any experiential notes you may have from previous exams, such as the possibility of bonus points for answering an extra question that requires some time management on your part.

Try It

Create a study schedule for final exams

Read How to Create a Study Schedule to Prepare for Final Exams, which lists ten steps, four tips, two warnings, and a list of things you will need. Based on this advice, design a plan you know will work well for you when it comes to studying for any big test–final, mid-term, State Boards, etc.–incorporating at least ten of the suggestions.