How to Earn High Marks on Exams

BY WENDY L. OSTROFF // DEC. 4, 2012 //

If you are beginning to get nervous about final exams, you are not alone. Almost all college students experience some degree of test anxiety. The good news is that recent research has given us a window into the inner-workings of learning and memory.

With just a few tweaks to your test-preparation habits, you can use your study time much more efficiently and achieve better results. Study smarter and you will see marked improvements in both your test-taking performance and your grades. Here are a few tips to get you going.

Ostroff_WebTake “elaborate” notes during class. Neurological research shows that the first few seconds of learning something are the most critical for remembering. If you jot down a picture or a funny example that goes with the course content, you are much more likely to encode a lasting memory for that information. Likewise, when you use a variety of modalities to represent and rehearse the information (for instance, visualizing it, listening to it again via recorded audio, drawing a picture, or making up a song), it will be stored in multiple areas in your brain, becoming a much stronger memory.

Make a study plan. Best results come from starting early and using short, frequent study periods. Studies show that it is much more effective to study for one hour per day for five days, than to study for five hours in one day. If you must cram, remember that cramming is never effective for learning new information. Use cramming time to review those things you already fully understand.

Do something with the information. The brain remembers by connecting new knowledge with existing experience and memories. In a recent study on test taking, students who read over their notes before the test did just as poorly as those who did not study at all. But students who did something active with the information (for example, made study sheets and concept maps, outlined the chapters, took practice tests, or drew out charts) showed superior test performance.

Distill all of the topics on the test into one sheet of paper. Even if you are not allowed to bring that paper into the test with you, creating one concise study sheet quells anxiety and makes the task at hand seem more manageable. Write or type all concepts and definitions in your own words (use only one to two words for a definition, and no more than 4 bullet points for a bigger concept). Bring your study sheet everywhere with you the week of the test. When you are waiting for the shuttle or finishing your lunch, quiz yourself on it.

Think like a test maker. When you are preparing for a test, ask yourself, “If I was the professor, what would I put on the test?” Oftentimes, essay questions are obvious if you think about what was emphasized in class. If you can anticipate short answer or essay questions, then you can outline them in advance. On test day, you will already have your thoughts clearly laid out.

On test day, get plenty of sleep. Cognitive science research has shown time and again that sleep is absolutely critical for consolidating memory. Those who study and then sleep show superior memory to those who study for the same number of hours, but do not get deep sleep prior to being tested.

Eat a healthy breakfast. Brain cells use twice as much energy as any other cell in your body and are in a constant state of metabolism. Recent research has shown a robust correlation between eating breakfast and performance on memory tests.

Read over the entire test before answering any questions. Next, answer all of the questions that you know. This will build your confidence and get you into a positive state of mind. Use your momentum to tackle the questions you are less sure of.

Use the entire time allotted. If you finish early, review questions that you were not 100 percent sure about. But resist the temptation to second guess yourself and change answers that you initially felt good about. Research shows that students are much more likely to change correct answers to incorrect ones the second time around, especially in multiple choice or matching.

For multiple-choice questions, cover the answers with your hand and anticipate the correct answer. Only then, uncover and rule out answers that do not match your hypothesized answer. Studies indicate that students are easily misled by “distracter” items, even when they knew the correct answer to the question.

Breathe. If you feel any anxiety or panic, put down your pen, close your eyes and take 10 deep breaths. Let the exhale be twice as long as the inhale. It is physiologically impossible to remain stressed after doing this simple exercise. Open your eyes and finish working.

Wendy L. Ostroff is an associate professor in Curry’s Program for the Advancement of Learning.

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