An article in the 01 May 2009 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education debunks common perceptions about the best way to study for a course – any course.Most people think the best way is to read carefully, write down unfamiliar terms and look up their meanings, make an outline, and re-read each lesson/chapter.
[S]ome scientists would say that you've left out the most important step: Put the book aside and hide your notes. Then recall everything you can. Write it down, or, if you're uninhibited, say it out loud.
Two psychology journals have recently published papers showing that this strategy works, the latest findings from a decades-old body of research. When students study on their own, "active recall" – recitation, for instance, or flashcards and other self-quizzing – is the most effective way to inscribe something in long-term memory.
The author of one of these papers, professor of psychology Mark McDaniel (from Washington University in St. Louis), says that "it is generally a mistake to read and reread a textbook passage. That strategy feels intuitively right to many students – but it's much less effective than active recall, and it can give rise to a false sense of confidence."
"When you've got your chemistry book in front of you, everything's right there on the page, it's all very familiar and fluent," says Jeffrey D. Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychology at Purdue University and lead author of a paper in the May issue of Memory about students' faulty intuitions about effective study habits.
"So you could say to yourself, 'Yeah, I know this. Sure, this is all very familiar,'" Mr. Karpicke continues. "But of course, when you go in to take a classroom test, or in real life when you need to reconstruct your knowledge, the book's not there. In our experiments, when students repeatedly read something, it falsely inflates their sense of their own learning."
Q: I’ve taken my end-of-course test three times and still haven’t passed. My ESO says I’m in too much of a rush, that I should take more time. But I either know the material or I don’t, so I don’t see how taking more time will help. What am I doing wrong?
A: Well, I wouldn’t say you’re doing anything wrong. But think carefully about what you’re telling yourself (“I either know the material or I don’t”). There’s a hidden assumption in that statement: I completely understand what the question is asking.
Keep in mind that the four choices offered with multiple-choice test questions contain one correct answer and three plausible but incorrect answers designed to distract you from the correct one. Test writers count on people reading them too quickly, and then answering the question they thought they read rather than the actual question.
You have to read the question carefully to avoid falling into the trap of picking the obvious answer to a question that wasn’t asked. Some people call these trick questions. Test writers call them questions that call for careful reading.
Most Coast Guard end-of-course tests are untimed. So there’s no reason to rush. And even the timed tests give you an hour, which usually translates into multiple minutes per question. Use the time you’re given.
Try this technique: cover up the answers available to each question before you read them or the question. Then read the question carefully and answer it in your mind before viewing the answer choices. Read all the answer choices carefully before selecting one; don’t pick the first one that sounds plausible.
If you do this, assuming you really know the material you’re being tested on, you may find tricky questions, but no trick questions.
The strategies described on a page of Harvard College's web site ("Interrogating Texts: 6 Reading Habits to Develop in Your First Year at Harvard") will help you develop critical reading skills (defined as "active engagement and interaction with texts". These skills are "essential to your academic success . . . , and to your intellectual growth."
The handouts listed below are from the web site of the Sanger Learning & Career Center at the University of Texas at Austin. There, in addition to the handouts, you can find videos on how to get better test results and on how to stop falling behind on readings required for your courses. There's also an "I Need Help With . . ." page which has tips for dealing with all kinds of college-related issues.
Time & Goals
reading & writing
Note Taking (Richland Community College; Decatur, IL)
Notetaking, Listening, Participation (Dartmouth College)
Note Taking (College of the Canyons; Santa Clarita, CA)
Note-Taking Skills (Sweet Briar College; Sweet Briar, VA)
Learning Strategies Database: Note Taking (Muskingum University; New Concord, OH)
Begin to review/study the material a few days before the test, and take study breaks every 20-30 minutes.
Skim the material and decide which parts are difficult and which ones you understand best.
Read a sentence or two. Stop and close your eyes, trying to visualize what the sentence(s) is/are talking about. If you can't/don't understand what you've read, go back over it again.
Pick out main ideas or key terms. Think up possible test questions and quiz yourself.
Read aloud and study with a parent or partner. Listen to yourself as you read.
Think about the important points that the teacher spoke about in class.
Try mnemonics. For examples, "ROY G. BIV" is the mnemonic for colors of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). A mnemonic for the scientific classification levels of living things could be "King Phillip Came Over For Great Spaghetti," (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species).
Remain motivated and positive. If you are motivated about learning the material, you are likely to remember the information. It is hard to remember material that doesn't interest you. Your brain believes what you tell it, so always keep a positive attitude by telling yourself you will do well and that you know a great deal of the information. Do not give up before you begin! "Of course I can be a successful test taker!" Challenge yourself to be the best that you can!
Use SQ3R (survey the reading - look over, turn headings into questions - answer them as you read, read the material, recite with notes or by re-telling in own words, review all reading and answer review questions also).
Use flash cards to learn the material. Write a question on the front and answer on back, or write vocabulary term on front with definition on the back. Quiz yourself with a yes/no pile or work with a parent or partner.
Study a little each day rather than the last moment.
Always write test dates on a calendar and in an assignment notebook to help you remember study dates.
Take time to do some type of physical exercise to help relieve stress and tension.
Do not study the night before the exam – if you don't know the information by now, it's probably too late.
Get a good night's sleep – you need a clear head during the test.
Get a good meal – you don't want to get hungry or tired during the test.
Go easy on the caffeine,
Get all your supplies together (pens/pencils, paper, calculator, etc.).
Manage your anxiety – some anxiety is natural and helpful (it sharpens your senses), but try to stay calm; remember, the exam is only one part of the learning process.
Relax – take a deep breath, then breathe calmly during the test.
Read the directions carefully and completely – is there a time limit? do some questions count more than others?
Skim through the entire test before you begin – examine the structure; count the pages; think about how you should divide your time; if the test includes different types of questions (such as multiple choice and essay), begin with the type you do best on.
Read each question carefully – don't read more into the question than what is actually written.
Budget your time – answer what you do know first; leave more time for parts that require more effort; plan some time at the end to review.
When you get stuck, identify the problem and move on – if time is left over at the end, return to the parts you skipped; a later question may jog your memory.
Concentrate – don’t daydream; do the test at your own pace, don’t worry about who gets done first.
Ask for clarification – make sure you understand what each question is asking; give instructors exactly what they ask for; when you’re confused, ask for help; most instructors try to clarify a question if they can.
Proofread your work – under pressure it’s easy to misspell, miscalculate, and make errors.
Think positively about doing your best!
Take a few deep breaths to relax. Breathe in slowly and concentrate on your breathing. Clear your mind of anxious thoughts and worries.
Push your feet down on floor and count to five. Push them harder and harder. Relax. Repeat.
Visualize by closing your eyes and picturing yourself in a place where you're happy and peaceful.
Bring all necessary materials for the test.
Listen carefully to all directions, and ask if you don't understand the directions completely.
Write your name and the date before doing anything else.
Reread all directions carefully.
Look over whole test to see what you must do before beginning.
Figure out how much time you'll have to spend on each question, and allow more time for answering essay questions or those worth most points.
Read each question carefully before answering.
Work on easiest problems first to get as many points as possible.
Skip difficult questions, as you may find information later in the test that will help you answer these.
Go back and answers questions you skipped.
Double check your answers by rereading the questions to make sure that you haven't made any mistakes.
Check to make sure that your paper is easy to read and neat.
While reading the question, cover the answers with your scratch paper – after you've read the question, you should already know the answer; when you remove the paper, the answer should jump out at you. If not, rule out two of the four answers immediately and you have at least a 50-50 chance. Often when they say "all of the above" or "none of the above," these are not the correct answer.
Always go with your first answer; in most cases, that will be the correct answer – when you change your answer, you begin to doubt yourself and may get the wrong answer.
Mark the correct answer bubbles – after each ten questions, double check that you have not accidentally skipped any questions on your answer sheet.
Use logic – if you come to a question where you don't know the answer, you should throw out the obvious wrong answers and select the best remaining answer based on the question; this will save time and reduce anxiety.
Read and consider ALL the options before you identify the best one.
Mark answers clearly and consistently – use the same method of marking your choices throughout the test; this may be important if questions arise later about an unclear mark; if your test is machine scored, avoid having extra marks on the answer sheet, they can be costly.
Change your answers cautiously – make sure you have a good reason; if you aren’t certain, it’s best not to change; your first impulse may be best.
Guess!! – some tests subtract points for incorrect answers. However, most multiple-choice tests give credit for correct answers without penalty for wrong answers; if so, answer every question.
Look for structural clues – when the item involves completing a sentence, look for answers that read well with the sentence stem; if a choice doesn’t work grammatically, it’s probably not the right choice; in complex questions, the longest alternative may be the best one; the instructor may simply require more words to express a complex answer.
Be cautious when the answer includes every, always, and never – there are few situations in which something is always or never true.
Go with your hunch – when you don’t know the answer, choose the alternative with the intuitive edge; be cautious about changing answers.
Words such as everyone, all, none, nobody, no one, only, never, and always may indicate the statement is false; words such as often, maybe, some, most, seldom generally, frequently, sometimes, probably, and usually, often indicate statement is true.
Don’t look for answer patterns – instructors generally strive to make the order of true-false answers random; this means there’s no particular pattern to the answers; selecting “False” on question 35 should have no bearing on how you answer question 34 or 36.
Honor exceptions to the rule – if you can think of exceptions to the statement, even one exception, then the statement is probably false.
Never waste a lot of time pondering true-false questions.
Read the question carefully and highlight the requested action – for example, if the question says “compare and contrast,” underline those verbs and answer the question accordingly.
Give your essay an organization – don’t just ramble and free-associate; decide what points you want to make and then make them.
Use an introduction – describe the most important or main questions/ideas you intend to discuss in your essay; pretend you’re writing a short article and need an interesting opening.
Develop the main body of the essay – each paragraph should address an element required in the question.
Use subheadings – they clarify the order of your thoughts and show organization.
Don’t strive for a literary style – the purpose of an essay exam is to assess learning; say what you need to say as directly and clearly as possible.
Work into the essay all the relevant, specific ideas and facts you can muster.
Use key words and catch phrases.
Use terms and names, examples and facts, and define concepts – make connections between concepts; tie ideas together.
Write legibly – instructors can’t give credit for what they can’t decipher.
Use humor carefully – don’t substitute humor for an effective answer.
Write on just one side of the paper.
Leave space between answers so your instructor can give feedback or you can add ideas later.
Make your essay a good length – one too short will seem to be a feeble effort; one too long will seem padded; the typical student essay runs in the vicinity of two or three handwritten pages.
Pay attention to spelling and grammar.
Proofread your work – go back over your work and make corrections.
Draw conclusions and summarize if you have time – if you write like a reporter, i.e., you present key ideas first and follow with details, you increase the likelihood that you’ll cover the most important and point-scoring information before you run out of time; in other words, write main ideas first and fill in details and examples later.
Remember partial credit – if worse comes to worst, write something down, anything; partial credit has salvaged more than a few test scores.
Write clearly and concisely – write with clarity and purpose; get down as much as possible in the most logical fashion.
Always agree – don’t disagree with your teacher at test time; regurgitation, however boring, is the best bet come grade time.
Answer every question, if possible – don’t spend an hour answering the first question when you have five more of equal weight staring you in the face.
Don’t stress out – getting uptight because you can’t answer the first question is useless; move on; do the best you can; excessive worrying only makes you less productive.
Academic Success (Penn State)
Study Skills Self Help Information (Virginia Tech)