Updated: Oct 25
Stop wasting your time preparing for tests. At least, stop if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Learning techniques and strategies can help you become more efficient and effective at studying. That means you'll learn more and spend less time studying.
No matter whether you are preparing for an exam, reading a textbook, or developing a new skill, these strategies are essential for academic success.
I taught for 15 years. Countless students chose to use ineffective strategies to prepare for the AP exams. For the most part, the kids who aced the exams were the same kids who could ace my test over independent learning strategies (study skills).
This was not a coincidence, neither was the fact that kids who crammed could get away with it for a while, but not for the toughest exams.
Cramming is not an effective study strategy. It's typically the method of last resort, only used when you haven't adequately prepared for an exam or procrastinated until the last minute.
The problem with cramming is that the brain isn't given enough time to process and consolidate the information, which leads to poor retention and recall.
You may be able to memorize some information temporarily when you cram, but you won't remember it in the long run. The information you're trying to learn doesn't have time to move from your short-term memory to your long-term memory, which is necessary for effective learning and retention.
Furthermore, cramming can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and sleep deprivation, which can further impair memory and learning. Studies have shown that techniques like active recall, spaced repetition, and practice testing are more effective at retaining and retrieving information over the long term.
There are science-based study strategies you can use to ace the exam.
Do yourself a favor and take just a little time to learn a lot about the study skills you can ace exams.
Best ways to study for tests
There are commonly understood approaches to preparing for tests that can help you.
Start early: Don't wait until the last minute to start studying. Give yourself plenty of time to review the material and practice.
Organize your study materials: Make sure you have all the necessary materials, such as textbooks, notes, and handouts. Organize them in a way that makes sense to you, such as by topic or chapter.
Create a study schedule: Break down the material into manageable chunks and schedule specific times to study each section. This can help prevent procrastination and ensure that you cover all the material.
Use active study techniques: Instead of just reading your notes or textbook, engage with the material actively. This can include things like taking practice quizzes, summarizing key points, or teaching the material to someone else.
Take breaks: It's important to take breaks throughout your study sessions to help maintain focus and avoid burnout. Take short breaks every 45-60 minutes to recharge your brain.
Get enough sleep: Make sure to get enough sleep the night before the test. Sleep helps consolidate memories and will help you perform better on the test.
Practice, practice, practice: Practice as much as you can, whether it's through practice quizzes, past exams, or reviewing the material with a study group. The more you practice, the more comfortable and confident you will be on test day.
These broad strokes of strategies to study are a good place to start, but those alone are not enough to finish with success. Successful students have a deeper understanding of what needs to be done to ace an exam.
Skills on how to study
Here are two examples of key study skills that can help you learn more effectively:
Note-taking: Take organized and detailed notes to remember important points and review the material later.
Active studying: Engage with the material actively instead of just reading it. An example is retrieval practice.
There is an art and science to note taking and active studying. It’s not enough to have a general understanding of both strategies, you need to be an expert.
Study skills class
57 minutes. That’s all the time you’ll need to complete a class on your own time that will teach you the science of studying.
Two example units from Self Help Homework Hacks
Using active studying and note-taking as examples, I have shared examples from two of nine units from our course.
Unit video example: Note taking strategies
Each unit also includes flash trivia and concise reading material.
Unit reading material example: Active learning
The following is reading material over a different unit, which focuses on the active learning strategy of retrieval practice.
Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that involves actively recalling information from memory. Here are some examples:
This involves creating cards with a question or term on one side and the answer on the other. You can quiz yourself by looking at the question side and trying to recall the answer. The best example of using flashcards is the retrieval box strategy.
A container where you keep a set of cards with questions on one side and answers on the other. The goal is to repeatedly practice retrieving the information from memory by looking at the question side of the card and trying to recall the answer before flipping the card over to check.
Create a 5-compartment retrieval box that needs to be large enough to hold your notecards.
Label each compartment 1 Day, 2 Days, 3 Days, 4 Days, 5 Days
The 1 Day compartment is the concepts or terms you do not know well yet and need to study each day.
The 2 Days compartment is what you draw from to study every two days.
The 3 Days compartment is what you draw from to study every three days. So on and so forth.
Work through the process as follows:
To begin, place all of your cards in the 1 Day compartment. Move it back one slot when you test yourself and know the term or concept well. In this case, it would be the 2 Days compartment.
When you practice in a couple of days, any terms or concepts in the 2 Day slot get moved back one slot to the 3 Days slot. So on and so forth.
This strategy works best if you write out the cards at the beginning of each unit and study a little bit each day.
As you work through the class, add the cards for each unit to the same box. This way, you are not cramming for the final exam.
These can take many forms, including multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, or short-answer questions. Trying to answer questions from memory helps strengthen the retention of the information.
After reading or studying a passage, summarize the main points in your own words. This helps reinforce the information and also aids in long-term retention.
The Feynman Technique
A powerful tool for learning because it helps you identify what you know and what you don't know. By trying to explain a concept in simple terms, you force yourself to think deeply about the topic and organize your thoughts clearly and concisely. This can help solidify your understanding and highlight areas where you need further study.
Choose a concept or topic you want to learn and write it at the top of a piece of paper.
Explain the concept or topic in simple terms, as if you were teaching it to someone without prior subject knowledge. This helps identify any gaps in your understanding.
Identify any technical terms or jargon used in your explanation and define them in simple terms.
Use analogies or examples to illustrate the concept or topic. This helps make the information more relatable and easier to understand.
Review your explanation and identify areas where you can simplify further or still have gaps in your understanding.
Creating a visual representation of a concept or idea. This helps you organize and reinforce the information and aid in recall.
Similar to quizzes, but are usually longer and more comprehensive. Taking a practice test can help you identify areas where you need to study more and also helps reinforce the information through retrieval practice.
Spacing boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities over time, so learning is not crammed all at once. Attempting to recall the information helps strengthen the neural pathways in the brain associated with that information, making it easier to recall in the future.
The optimal amount of long-term retention spacing was approximately a 1:10 ratio. For example, space retrieval every three days to remember information for 30 days. Here are some examples:
This involves breaking up study or practice sessions into smaller, spaced-out sessions over time rather than one long session. For example, studying for an hour a day for a week instead of studying for seven hours straight.
This involves mixing different material or topics within a study session rather than focusing on one topic at a time. For example, practice math problems for 20 minutes, switch to vocabulary for 20 minutes and then return to math.
This involves taking a brief quiz or test on the material before studying it in depth. This helps identify areas of weakness and focus study time on those areas.
Spaced repetition software
Various apps and software programs use algorithms to determine when and how frequently to review material based on the user's past performance. This helps optimize learning and retention.
This involves periodically reviewing material that has already been studied or learned rather than only reviewing once and then moving on. This helps reinforce learning and aid in long-term retention.
Open resources for learning strategies
Retrieval Practice, A YouTube playlist of study strategy videos
7 Tips To Beat Exam Anxiety, An engaging video explanation
Agarwal, Pooja K., and Patrice M. Bain. Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2019.
Brown, Peter C. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap Harvard, 2018. Cepeda, Nicholas J et al. “Spacing effects in learning: a temporal ridgeline of optimal retention.” Psychological science vol. 19,11 (2008): 1095-102. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02209.x
Karpicke, Jeffrey D. “Metacognitive Control and Strategy Selection: Deciding to Practice ...” Research Gate, Journal of Experimental Psychology General , Nov. 2009, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/38061304_Metacognitive_Control_and_Strategy_Selection_Deciding_to_Practice_Retrieval_During_Learning.
Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R. F., & Stershic, S. (2014). Interleaved practice improves mathematics learning - eric. Eric.ed.gov. Retrieved February 11, 2023, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED557355.pdf