Studying for exams should begin the first week of the term!

10 weeks fly right by, and it's important to start thinking about how you're going to plan your test prep from the very start of the term.

Effective test prep is actually one of the ASC's most common conversations with students. There's a lot of research out there that looks into the best ways to learn material and prepare for exams, and the two most effective strategies (as researched), are distributing your practice and practicing self-testing (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Let's start with distributed practice.

Distributed practice is the idea that, instead of spending a single 8-hour period of time studying for your course, you break that 8-hour chunk up and distribute it over multiple days across the week. This technique isn't asking you to study for more hours, it's positioning you to study more sessions with fewer hours in each session (which is way better for your learning and memory process!). Because the thing is, that single 8-hour chunk is going to invite you into familiarity traps, has the high possibility of fatuguing you (especially if you're not taking breaks), and may even yield results similar to a cramming session (and the results aren't great).

Now, when you distribute your practice, you break your study up, which invites your brain to forget and your memory to learn how to remember. It's true! Forgetting is an integral piece of the memory process. Each time you leave the content you're studying and then come back (preferably in  day or so), you'll forget some of it and will have to form, revisit and reinforce the pathways back to those memories. As an added bonnus, distributed practice also allows for sleep between sessions, and sleep is when your memory is transferring content from short- to long-term stores.

Distributing your practice provides you the opportunity to really vary your practice strategies and activities as well. Your five days of sessions could look something like this:

  • Day 1: you read and take notes
  • Day 2: you summarize your reading and also your lecture notes (and combine them)
  • Day 3: you practice teaching someone the content, or making a mind or concept map of the information, all the while creating links between different topics
  • Day 4: you draw/re-draw figures from memory, and turn all those notes you combined two days ago into a study guide
  • Day 5: you engage in practice problems or practice exams or some form of self-testing

While there may be ways that you prefer to learn, it's important to vary your practice like this. Don't get stuck in a re-reading or a going-over-my-notes rut. Adapt and adjust your strategies to work for you in the university environment, and use your distributed practice to help yourself make the most of your time.

Along with distributed practice, self-testing is an extremely effective and important aspect of your learning process (Dunlosky et al., 2013). In studies done to evaluate this strategy, students who engaged in a "learning session" and were given a practice test on the content during the session were able to retain more information when tested a week later than their counterparts who didn't receive a practice test. Here's a graph about it all (Figure 7, Self Testing: Dunlosky et al., 2013):

Similarly, here's a graph that shows a comparison between "learning sessions," one of which involved studying + a practice test, while the other involved studying + re-studying. You can see that the rates of information retrieval were quite a bit higher a week after the initial learning took place in the group that engaged in studying + a practice test (Figure 8, Self Testing: Dunlosky et al., 2013):

Why is self-testing so effective? Because again, like distributing your practice, self-testing is asking your brain to learn how to remember. It's asking your brain to retrieve that information, which is exactly what you'll need to do on your exam. But we often don't make this kind of practice a part of our routine; we wait until it's our allotted test-prep time (if we're not thinking of test-prep as a term-long practice), and we do our practice testing (sometimes) there. But we also, often, do a whole lot of re-reading, and a whole bunch of "going-over" notes, neither of which has been proven to be a very effective strategy (seriously, you should really read the research!).

So! Check out the following self-testing ideas, and then take a look at our Active Studying techniques and our Make It Stick tool for even more ideas.And you can do this kind of testing on your own or with others. Here are a few activities that can get you there (we've got them listed as individual | group):

  • writing your own practice problems | writing/exchanging/answering practice problems
  • explaining the topic/concept aloud | teaching the topic/content to a group, and fielding questions
  • working forwards, backwards, and out of order with your flashcards | exchanging flashcards with your group and using others' to test yourself
  • drawing/re-drawing figures/graphs from memory and being able to write what they mean | doing the same with the group, and then explaining to the group what it all means
  • creating a concept map of all you've learned and how it all connects | exchanging concept maps of all you've learned with others who've also made concept maps (Can you all field questions? Are you missing anything? Are they?)

The above are examples, but there are so many ways to engage in self-testing; find some you're not yet using, and vary your practice by trying them out. In general, if you use your book or text to test yourself with the questions within or at the end of each section, don't let yourself flip to the answer immediately, if you're having trouble figuring it out. Sit with it longer. Really dig into that amazing muscle of yours. If you're having trouble figuring out how to solve a practice problem, and you're getting frustrated, get up and walk around, or put it in your pocket and walk around, and give yourself time to think without thinking about it; your head will keep processing and you may find that when you return to work on it again, you're able to think more clearly through the steps.

One of the last things we like to share with students, and that students really seem to latch onto, is the 80/20 rule: spending 80% of your time each week on new material, and 20% of your time returning to old content from throughout the entire term (so you're never 11 weeks away from what you learned that first week, and you're always working to make connections between what it is you're learning and have learned). 

This was a lot! And this is what we talk about in our conversations about test prep with students. We encourage you to try these strategies and approaches out, and to do what you can to avoid falling into the trap of feeling a false sense of knowledge about your material. If you take notes while you read, take notes in class, consolidate and reorganize your notes weekly, and do homework problems, you’re definitely engaging in weekly study activities, but your activities might not be furthering your understanding of the material, or maybe they're happening all at once in a single session rather than preiodically over the course of the week. To effectively study for exams, you must actively, regularly, engage with material.

Finally, as you think about preparation for specific exams, and as you consider how you're going to distribute your practice, engage in self-testing activities, and employ the 80/20 rule, keep these general test-prep tips in mind, too:

  • Develop study plans specific to each of your exams. This includes knowing what the test will cover, organizing the materials you need for studying, planning out your study time to ensure you have time to cover all areas, and choosing study techniques that fit the material and exam(s).
  • Assess what you do and don't know. Identifying areas of strength and areas that challenge you can help you make a more concrete study plan. Specifically, think about how you'll divide your time and how you'll organize and prioritize content within your studying.
  • Use specific study strategies for reviewing and testing yourself on material. Go beyond re-reading and going over notes. Transform your notes into study guides. Read to gain clarity on information and to find additional practice questions you can work to answer. Find ways to test yourself to reveal what you know and what you need to spend more time learning/practicing.
  • Form a study group when possible and use the time to test each other, ask and answer questions, do practice problems together, and talk through difficult concepts. 
  • Vary your process. Study different things in different places in different ways. The more ways you encode information, the more pathways you have to retrieve it again when you need it.
  • Add variety. Vary the ways you practice problems or answer practice questions.  Try to see if you could get the same correct answer using a different process. Alternate between topics or skip around to different chapters and content areas. This approach is more likely to accurately simulate a testing situation where exam material is drawn from a portion of or the entire term.
  • Give yourself time to practice recall. In the last 48 hours before the test, try to focus on recalling information, not on learning new information. Use self-quizzing, practice problems, etc., to prepare yourself.  Be sure that before the test you are mentally and physically prepared through strong study practices, good nutrition, and sufficient sleep.

Come and see us. We're here to talk with you about this, to help you think about your current approach and how you might tweak or adjust it to work even better, and to offer new ideas (we also give high fives, celebratory cheers, and punny buttons when you need them). And, you can come back as often as you like to keep the conversation going. You don't need an appointment, just swing by when it works for your schedule: Waldo Hall 125 | Monday through Friday | 9 AM to 5 PM.