I am frequently asked, “How do I study for tests?” This question actually puts the “cart before the horse” because the efficient way to study for tests is to do your homework on time, ask questions in class, and learn information as it is taught, not just memorize the night before. There are easy ways to do these tasks, but this article will assume that you have a test tomorrow and you need some help…now!
How the Brain Works
To maximize your study time, it is helpful to know how your brain works. The most significant thing your brain does to learn new information is to connect new knowledge to concepts you already know. For example, you must know about earthquakes before you can understand the Richter Scale. The connection process is vital! When you struggle to learn new information, it is usually because you are not able to make a connection to something you already understand. If you have experienced a moment when something finally “clicked,” that was the moment that your brain made a connection.
Connections help you learn new information, but visual images help you recall it. Visual images are powerful memory-enhancing tools because brains tend to think in images. Pictures, graphs, maps, and symbols help your brain see new concepts, see the relationship between concepts, and give you an image to “connect” new information.
Next, your brain best remembers “firsts” and “lasts;” the first few sentences you read, the last few comments your teacher said, etc. For example, as a teacher is lecturing in class, it is common to listen to the first few minutes before drifting into daydreams. Eventually, you sense that the lecture is about to end, so you “snap” back into attention and catch the last few sentences. Because of this, you can learn as much in three, 30-minute study sessions as you can in three straight hours of studying.
Finally, your brain must be healthy to be efficient. Proper sleep, nutrition, and hydration help you think clearly while you are studying and while you are taking your test.
So, how DO you study for that test?
** Action Plan **
Step 1: Know the test format. Ask your teacher or call a friend, but you do need to know if you are preparing for multiple choice or essay questions.
Step 2: Collect all homework, worksheets, handouts (You kept all of these, didn’t you?), and notes covering the tested material. Create two groups of papers by separating quizzes and graded assignments.
Step 3: Open your text-book to the tested sections and “read” the pictures, graphs, and diagrams; look at each one, read the captions, and ask yourself, “What is this picture? Why is it here? What did I learn about this in school?” These connection questions refresh your memory from lectures and class activities and help your brain “attach” new information from your notes and handouts.
Step 4: Take a short, 2-4 minute study break every 30 minutes. Get a drink, do a few jumping jacks, or grab a short snack to refresh your brain.
Step 5: Review your packet of quizzes and graded assignments. These are gold! Pay close attention to all questions you originally had wrong. Figure out the correct answers and make sure you understand your errors. Read all other questions, notes, and diagrams on these papers. As you read each problem or paragraph, stop and think of a connection to one of the visuals from your textbook.
Step 6: Create a 5×8-inch “cheat-sheet.” Certainly, I am not suggesting you actually cheat, but creating a cheat-sheet as you study is a great learning process. In high school, one teacher let us use one 5×8-inch index card of notes when taking tests. We thought very carefully about information we might need before writing anything down. Interestingly, we rarely looked at the card when taking the test because the process of thinking about what was most important, then writing it down, helped us remember the information.
Step 7: Review your remaining handouts and notes. First, look at the visuals on these pages. Then, read the headings and sub-headings on each handout and turn them into questions. Read the text to help you answer your questions. This strategy helps you identify key points and think in “question mode,” which is what you will do on the test.
Step 8: Read your “cheat-sheet.” Now that you have reviewed all of your study resources, you must memorize important items, such as definitions, formulas, important dates, “the five key elements of…” or “the three most important things about…” Create potential test questions from the information on your cheat-sheet, then answer them. Make connections to things you already know…class activities, pictures from the text book, or even silly things (such as Never Eat Shredded Wheat” to remember the clockwise order of north, east, south, and west).
Step 9: Get a good night’s sleep. Eat a good breakfast. Drink water to keep your brain hydrated.
Step 10: Read your cheat-sheet first thing in the morning. Read it again on the bus and just before your test. Then, PUT IT AWAY (it’s not a real cheat-sheet) and relax…You’ll do great!
** In Conclusion **
As you study, follow these tips:
– Know the format of your test.
– Gather all study resources. Pay attention to “wrong” problems on previous tests/quizzes.
– “Read” the visuals in your text and on your handouts.
– Create a “cheat-sheet” of important information to memorize.
Take advantage of your brain’s natural learning process by connecting “new” information to “old,” study visuals, take short breaks from studying ever 30 minutes, and sleep, drink, and eat well.