Test preparation made easy

By Ashleigh Viveiros


As exam season stealthily creeps up on students across the country, here's a few studying tips to get you through the worst of it:

Take notes!

Right off the bat, let me say that studying for an exam is made 100 times easier if you have good class notes to work from.

This sounds like such a 'duh' thing, but some students seem to spend an entire semester listening to a professor and barely write more than a couple of sentences down in their books.

Of course, you don't have to write down everything your instructor says, but getting the gist of the day's lesson down - in a coherent way - is always a wise idea come exam review time.

This is especially true since profs will almost always use at least one question based on something discussed solely in class (and not necessarily in your textbooks) on an exam.

In the end, though, how much stuff you need to write down during class ties in directly with the next tip ...

Textbook reading - the right way

The first step to effective textbook reading is simply to do it, preferably in accordance with the reading schedule outlined by your professor. That way, when you attend class, you'll already have a grasp on the day's subject material and will know whether you need to frantically write down everything your prof is saying, or if you can sit back and relax, secure in the knowledge that the bulk of the information is outlined in detail in your textbook.

Another benefit to keeping up with a course's reading schedule is it means you won't be cramming five weeks of reading into the week before your exam or test - wasting valuable studying time.

But, even if you do keep up with your reading right from the beginning, are you really going to remember something you read in September for a test at the end of October? Not likely, which is why it's a good idea to take your textbook reading one step further.

Personally, I took fairly detailed notes from my textbooks as I read through them. I didn't write everything down, but did make notes on important definitions and concepts that I knew I would need to memorize come exam time.

Now, some students find that simply highlighting important passages in their textbooks works for them, but, remember, not only are you possibly lowering the resale value of your textbook by doing this, you're also missing out on a valuable brain process.

When you rewrite information from your textbook you're getting your brain to deal with that information three times instead of one - first you're reading it, then you're processing it and trying to figure out how to explain it in your own words, and then you're writing it down.

Another great thing is, come exam time, you won't be wasting studying time re-reading entire chapters - or searching for highlighted sections - in your textbook, because you'll have all the important stuff in a personally condensed form right in front of you.

Non-cheating cheat sheets

Although condensed textbook notes are great for studying, sometimes you might not want to lug around pages of notes with you. Which is why, for some exams, making up study sheets can be really helpful. Think of them as cheat sheets - except cheat sheets you are NEVER going to bring into the exam with you.

Sit down and think about which parts of the information you're having the hardest time remembering - the stuff that, if you could bring a cheat sheet in, you'd want to have on it. Then, put all those troublesome concepts / definitions / formulas onto a single sheet of paper, and carry it around with you for a couple of days before the exam. Whip it out when you're on the bus, while standing in line at a coffee shop, or when you're waiting for your ride home. The repeated exposure should lead to easier memorization and / or understanding of the material.

Also, when the exam day rolls around, if you're really tempted to take a last-minute peek at the material before heading into the exam room, at least you're narrowing down your 11th hour cramming to the stuff you're most worried about forgetting.

The best laid plans...

Midterm season can be overwhelming for the best of students. When you realize that, in just one or two weeks, you have maybe three exams to study for and multiple essays to write, sometimes it can be hard to know where to start.

Your best bet is to figure out ahead of time how you're going to tackle things. For each upcoming exam, break up the material you need to know into manageable chunks and figure out how many days before the exam you'll need to study each of them.

But, remember, you don't want to start too early before an exam because you'll likely forget it all, but if you wait too long you'll be stuck cramming too much too late. You want to find the studying sweet spot where you have enough time to cover the material, but aren't going to forget it all by the time you take the test.

For example, in my Psychology classes, the tests were generally on three chapters at a time. So, about four days before the test, I would study the first chapter. I'd spend a couple of hours making sure I knew it backwards and forwards, and then I'd put it away and go do something else. The next day I'd spend maybe 15 minutes making sure I still knew the stuff from chapter one, then I'd go on and do chapter two. On day three, I'd review chapters one and two and dive into chapter three.

By day four of my studying - usually the day before the test - I'd already spent three days with that stuff, and usually felt pretty secure I had a good grasp on it. So I'd just review all three chapters, and leave it alone - if I didn't know it by then, I wasn't going to figure it all out the day before the exam. This was, to me, much more preferable to sitting down for several hours in one day and cramming in three chapters worth of experiments, definitions, and concepts.

If you have multiple exams, simply stagger both your individual study sessions (study for psychology for an hour, take a break, study for sociology for an hour, take another break, and so on) and your studying start days for each course based on when you're taking the exam.

Get down and study

All right, so you've paid attention in class, you've read your textbooks, got your notes in front of you, you've got a study plan - now, how do you cram all that information into your mind effectively?

The truth is, there's not really any "right" way to study your notes. Some people need absolute silence, others prefer to cram with heavy metal music blaring in the background. Some people sit up straight at their desks, others hang upside down from their La-Z-Boys. For some people mnemonic devices work great, while others find it's just one more thing to remember.

I often used to take my notes and pace around the house, reading, memorizing, and reciting the information out loud. Now, it looked (and sounded) totally stupid, but it worked.

By reciting information aloud or - better yet - pretending you're explaining it to someone else (your goldfish, your cat, whatever) you're once again making your mind process that information multiple times.

Meanwhile, the pacing kept my body busy so I wasn't tempted to start tapping my pencil annoyingly on my desk or fiddling with the various items around me - allowing my mind to be totally focused on the task at hand.

Whatever works for you - just go with it. The key here is probably consistency - try and study in the same way and maybe even the same place every time. That way your brain will know it's study time.

Avoid distractions. Take lots of breaks. Don't keep trying studying tactics that aren't working for you (studying in groups, for example, if you feel the group is moving too fast or too slow for you). And, above all, remember that if you've been paying attention in class, you probably already know more than you think.

Modified on April 23, 2009