There are countless articles with advice to help you study better, and we’ve read most of them. Given the name of our site, we decided to make a resource of our own. By combing through what we think are the best articles to help you study better, we have come up with what we think is the ultimate resource to help you improve your study habits.
For many students, test-taking is their very least favorite part of school. It takes time, discipline, and motivation to study for a test, and you are graded on your retainment of what is taught. As daunting as studying for a test can be, students often miss the point of taking the test, and that is to learn.
Research has indicated that students who are tested regularly will actually retain knowledge longer and experience less anxiety than students who aren’t tested as much. This is true for anything in life. The more you do something, the better you will become at it; as the old adage goes, “repetition is the father of learning.” So while you’re reading this article it is our hope that you will no longer fear or dread a test, but rather, relish it, by thinking of it as your time to differentiate yourself from everyone else in your class or test pool. And you can do so by acting upon the strategies and tactics that we outline.
What is learning?
Before we dive into the actionable tips you can take to help you become a superior test taker, let’s take a step back and simplify exactly what learning is. Richard Feynman, who was one of the great scientists and physicists of our time championed something called “The Feynman Technique: The Best Way To Learn Anything.” And in it, he outlines the four steps to learning:
- Identify the subject matter.
- Pretend you are going to be teaching it to a sixth-grader.
- Identify gaps in your explanation; go back to the source material, to better understand it.
- Review and simplify (optional).
This is what and how you should be thinking about learning, or in your case, studying. If you’ve ever studied for something before, you know that it may seem daunting at the beginning, and become simpler at the end as you review and understand the material. By keeping Feynman in mind, it should make the start of studying (which is often the hardest part) a much more doable process.
So without further ado, let’s dissect the process of studying for a test…
1. Know What The Test Is Covering
The good news about taking any test is that you will be well equipped to prepare yourself for what is on it, and how the knowledge is measured.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”Ben Franklin
Let’s begin with the subject matter, or what you will be tested on. Whether you’re studying for a test in a class, or a standardized test, you will be able to know exactly what you’re going to be tested on. What chapters, or lectures? What sections or labs? Once you have an understanding of what is being tested, it is up to you to compile all the relevant information available on the subject and eliminate the rest. There is nothing worse than spending time studying for something that isn’t being tested, especially when that time could have been spent studying relevant material. Time, as they say, is precious.
Once you know what you’re being tested on, you can start to look at how you’ll be tested. Is it multiple choice, true/false, essay, or a combination of the three? As soon as you know the what and how, you can begin the actual studying.
There are different strategies to apply to different tests, but the universal method that seems to work best is taking practice tests in the allotted time that you will be taking your actual test. If practice tests aren’t available, try practice questions. In addition to better retention of the material, your anxiety come test day will also drop as we noted earlier. But practice tests are truly a “two birds with one stone” way of studying because you are getting both the what and the how of your upcoming test.
2. Create A Study Plan
This, believe it or not, is the hardest part of studying. We understand that it’s hard to start studying, and it’s even harder to start early on in the process when you already have so much going on in your life. But beginning early, and making a plan to slowly and surely grasp the subject matter is paramount to becoming a successful test taker and time and time again separates the best test takers from the worst.
If you’ve never created a study plan a good way to start is by creating a calendar or schedule of exactly when (or even what) you will study.
What Is A Study Plan And Why Do I Need One?
A study plan is a set schedule you will follow in preparing a week or two prior (or more if you are preparing for a standardized test) to your test date. Doing this will separate you from more than 90 percent of test-takers. By setting aside time each day specifically for the upcoming test you will almost be guaranteed to get a higher score. Time management is a challenging area; juggling extracurriculars, work, and social time is tough, we get it. By starting early, and continuing on into the test will satisfy you in the long run. People with study plans are much more confident going into a test than those who pull “all-nighters” the night prior to a test. As more classes are moving online, study plans are particularly important because you don’t get the constant reminders from the professor like you would in a traditional classroom setting.
Tips For Creating A Study Plan
Here are our top tips for creating a study plan.
Analyze what works best for you
How long can you study without getting burnt out? What time of day is your brain the sharpest? Is it better for you to study right after class while the material is fresh, or do you need a break? These are the types of questions you should be asking yourself as you start to prepare for your test. Some people use flashcards when applicable, others like to reread the material from a textbook or PowerPoint slides. If you’re reading this you’ve probably taken a test before and know what works well for you. Use what has worked in the past and apply it to your study plan. Repetition will turn into perfection.
Analyze your current schedule
Easier said than done, you need to evaluate your current schedule and make time to study for your test well in advance of your test date. This is specifically important when preparing for a standardized test like the SAT or LSAT. Block out time, almost as if it’s a job, and be sure to stick to that schedule. If you don’t feel like you have enough available time to study, you may need to reevaluate your schedule and cut back on certain activities to make the time.
Map out how much time it will take
This varies depending on the type of test you are taking. If you are taking a test for a class, you will have a syllabus at the beginning of the semester which will layout the test dates in advance. From there you can budget your time accordingly depending on the difficulty of the material and what the tests will be on. Some classes are easier than others, and it is up to you to decide where to allocate your time to make sure you get the grades that you desire. Standardized tests are a different animal, and you will often need to budget months in advance depending on the test you are taking. Students often utilize different prep courses for these and with them comes some kind of loose outline of studying that you should be able to adhere to.
Develop your study plan
Now that you know what you need to study, and how much studying needs to be done, it is time to integrate that study plan into your (already busy) regular schedule. If it seems overwhelming, don’t worry, you’re not alone, and you should sleep more comfortably knowing that everyone who is scheduled for the same test is going through the same thing. As you develop your study schedule, try and treat it like a job – day in and day out. You’re in it for the long haul, and you will be surprised at how successful you will be if you stick to it.
Assess your weekly calendar
On Sunday, for example, it is a good idea to go back and reassess your last week’s schedule and see if you accomplished everything that was in it. If you met your goals, great! It’s on to the next week’s learnings. If not, why didn’t you complete what you set out to do? What was keeping you from getting all the studying in? It is very unlikely that you will map out a schedule at the beginning of a semester or study cycle and not need to make any changes in the following months. Tweak and tinker until you’ve found a daily routine that you are comfortable with.
Stick to your plan
This may go without saying, but what good is taking all this time to create a study plan that you don’t stick to? This isn’t just a schedule for a certain class or a certain test, this is a schedule for the longevity of your career as a student for the multiple classes and tests that are going to come. If you’re in high school, these schedules are going to get you through college. If you’re in college, these schedules will get you through graduate school, and so on, and so forth.
Live a balanced life
This is an article to help you maintain proper study habits, we get it. But you will find that it is hard to maintain a proper study plan if all you’re doing all day every day is studying. You’re going to need breaks… going to the gym, socializing with friends, extracurriculars. This is exactly why you’re making a plan to begin with. It doesn’t have to be limited to studying, you can add personal time to your schedule, as well, which is almost as important as the study time itself. As you craft your schedule you’ll find that there are some things you just can’t live without, and some things that you can.
Where and how you create your plan
It’s simple, are you a digital person who wants their plan synced with their personal cloud, or do you need to see something written down on paper. There is no right or wrong way to do this, and you should make your schedule based on what has worked for you in the past and what you’re most comfortable with.
3. Optimize Your Environment
You should either create an environment that is conducive to studying or go to an environment that fosters it. Think of two people studying the same material for the same amount of time. One person is in a noisy, messy apartment, with lots of roommates and distractions, and the other is at the library. If everything is equal, who do you think will receive a higher score on a test?
Your brain associates a study space with learning the same way it associates your bed with sleep. And because of this, you should try to find or create a space that will help with – not deter from – your focus. In the case of your studying environment, it truly is different strokes for different folks. Some people find that they have to leave their dorm or apartment in order to study, and some people are just fine studying in their bedrooms. Here are five types of study spaces:
This is perhaps the most frequented choice of serious studiers. A quiet, distraction-less, well-lit room where you can really zero in on your material.
Your school’s building (e.g. the business school)
This is a great place because there are often quiet, designated study spaces scattered throughout the building. It’s also nice because of the proximity to your professors. A stone’s throw away, if they’ve got office hours. You can skip on over and ask them a question whenever one should arise. There are also often labs, or tutoring going on nearby so can participate in those, as well, if you feel it will help you.
A coffee shop
Some people prefer the bustling sound of a coffee shop as a way to ease into their material. And depending on what you are preparing for, it can be a great place to conduct group study sessions or project collaborations. There is also that small detail of all the caffeine your heart desires a few feet away.
Studying off-campus might be the best choice for you. You might be one that needs to get away from it all, in which case a public library might make do.
Staying at home
If you do like to study at home, how do you feng shui your place, so you can create an optimal study environment? The main benefit of this (aside from not having to spend the time commuting from place to place) is that you will have all of your materials readily available.
If you’re a stay-at-home person, having a designated space where you get work done is important. It’s simply not enough to lay in bed and study (for most). Having all your material together, and working, is important. Nothing is worse than getting ready to make hundreds of flashcards only to not have something to write with. Figure out what works best for you… are you a bean bag chair kind of person, or a desk person? Coffee, tea, water, or juice? Getting into a habit or routine is important because it is something that you will be doing often, for a long period of time.
Lighting & Temperature of your Study Environment
Without getting into the science of it, it is best to study near natural light, something that your library might lack. If you’re studying at night you can experiment with different levels of light and what you’re comfortable with. Another benefit of studying at home is access to the thermostat, where it is verified that optimal productivity happens between 72°F and 77°F. We know that controlling these external features is subject to where you live, but it is worth noting, as every bit helps. Again, everything equal, the person studying under optimal conditions will do better than the person who doesn’t come test day.
4. Take Breaks Often
Breaks are important, and should be taken however often you feel you need one. Most students take breaks every 75 to 90 minutes, but some can go longer, and some go shorter. Wherever you feel you’re getting optimum productivity is what you should take. The length of your break, and what you do with that break is also up to you. Different people enjoy and benefit from different activities while studying (we’ll get into this more below).
- The Pomodoro Technique is a popular method where you use a timer and study in 25-minute intervals punctuated by breaks.
- Getting Things Done (GTD) is listing your objectives, and then crossing them off one by one.
- Zen To Done (ZTD) is similar to GTD, but focuses more on habits and time management.
Physically, if you decide to move around or go to the gym it can make you happier, give you more energy, improve your brain health and memory, and help you sleep better. Creatively, it is almost like hitting a reset button for your brain; getting your mind off the material and on to something that interests you for a little while. A little tip: try not to spend your break scanning social media. The key word is try. We know that you will, but try not to go down the Internet rabbit hole where you’re flipping through pictures of celebrities’ houses.
Reasons People Don’t Take Breaks
Here are a few common reasons that people choose not to take breaks.
“Not enough time.”
This is a fallacy a lot of students have, especially students who are cramming for a test. As we’ve established, taking breaks has a positive effect on the brain. So the time you spend studying with breaks added is more valuable than the time you spend studying without breaks. Humans were meant to move around, and it’s just not natural to stay sitting in one place in such heavy concentration for an extended period of time.
“Breaks ruin my concentration.”
This is tricky because too many breaks can and will disrupt your focus. There is a certain flow state you are trying to get in where you’re laser-focused on the material and doing a good job of retaining it. Breaks (to a certain degree) can help you do this as opposed to no breaks. There will usually be certain sections that you are studying where you will find ample times to take breaks in between those sections.
- Something physical. As noted above, any kind of physical activity will help your brain function. Something as simple as going for a walk can help. But if you really want to turbocharge your brain you’re going to want to get your heart rate up. If you don’t have time to get to the gym, head over to YouTube, where you can find everything from Yoga to kickboxing.
- Getting a change of scene. Staying in the same place is difficult to do, especially when you are immersed in such a high level of concentration. Getting out and going to the student union, for a walk in the park, or a trip to the mall will help hit that reset button we talked about earlier.
- Something mentally stimulating. Games of any type (cards, video, board), playing an instrument, doing a jigsaw puzzle, or drawing are a few examples of this. What do you usually enjoy doing that is some form of release for you?
- Meditating. If you haven’t heard already, meditating is a great way to reduce stress, control anxiety, and lengthen your attention span. If you’ve never meditated before, Headspace is a great app to get you started.
Now that you have some ideas, it is important to get in the habit of not only taking breaks, but taking breaks that will stimulate your mind and make you more amenable to the learning process. We know that the reward is hard to quantify, but keep in mind what you’re getting in return for your breaks: a clear mind that will be sharper in the long run. And this goes back to the study schedules. Remember, we’re talking about your entire academic career here – you’re running a marathon, not a sprint.
So far we’ve discussed breaks you can (and should) take while studying. These are known as micro breaks. Macro breaks on the other hand, are important, as well. What we mean by macro breaks is something like going away for the weekend to completely get your mind off of your studies. We know that not everyone has the means to “get away for the weekend” but it is your time, and as we outlined earlier, your time is now extremely valuable. Social activity of any kind is proven to stimulate the mind, improve health and well being, and increase motivation. A break from your regimen is not only ok, it’s encouraged.
5. Eliminate Distractions
With your smartphone, you’ve literally got the entire world at your fingertips, so it is natural to want to check in and see what’s going on. But while you’re studying, airplane mode is not the worst idea. We’ve already got breaks in place, so you can check-in then.
That takes care of the phone. But what about the computer? If you’re studying in this day and age, you’ve probably got a laptop open so you can access notes and past lectures and look things up if you have a question that should arise. If this has been a challenge for you in the past, there are apps that you can install on your computer to help eliminate distractions. Here are a few you can try:
A good place to start is by eliminating multiple tabs open on your computer and just sticking to the ones associated with your studies. If you can tolerate music while studying, try it with headphones in order to eliminate other noise (unless you’re in the library where there is no noise).
You should also inform others that you’re studying.
We know this shouldn’t be a problem, because your phone is in airplane mode. But if you tell people who you’re in touch with often, it will eliminate the need to check.
If you feel the urge of a distraction coming on, whether it’s in the form of TV, social media, or whatever; try and take a deep breath – two seconds in, two seconds out. It will help you calm yourself and retain focus on the task at hand.
6. Make Your Own Study Aids
Let’s review what we’ve covered so far. You know what is going to be on the test and how you’re going to be tested. You’ve made (and are sticking to) your study schedule, which is going to be punctuated with breaks that will increase your overall productivity. You’re all set, and now it is just a matter of retaining the material that is out in front of you.
So how can you create study aids to help you in the process?
First and foremost, find any available practice tests that are available either in your textbook or online. Koofers is a great resource for this. If you are preparing for a standardized test, your prep course and/or book will come with multiple practice tests. If you can’t find any practice tests, or feel like you need more practice tests, check the review section for questions at the end of the chapters of your textbooks.
Another great way to learn is by making a one-sheet of everything you think you need to know. Even if they’re not allowed on the test, they are worth making as they will force you to learn the material by condensing all the relevant information in such a small space. Flashcards are also a tried and true method to help prepare.
7. Teach Someone Else
Recall Feynman from the beginning of the article and try to find someone who will take the time for you to teach the material to them, as if they are a sixth grader. This will not only boost your confidence in the material, but will also point out areas where you need improvement or more practice. Should your “pupil” ask you questions about the material, it will stretch your knowledge even further.
This “protégé effect” is a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information. It can lead to increased:
- Metacognitive processing
- Use of effective learning strategies
- Motivation to learn
- Feelings of competence and autonomy
Students who learn the material with the intention of teaching it later perform better when tested on that material than those who learn it just for themselves. If you can’t find someone who is willing to be your pupil, try seeking out a tutor or TA who is willing to sit down with you for a while. A bonus with this route is that they may ask you tougher questions which might actually be on the test.
8. Avoid Skipping Class
Whether you’re preparing for a standardized test or an in-class exam, it is still important to attend class no matter what stage of your academic career you’re in. Here are seven reasons why.
It’s less work in the long run
Students who attend class regularly do better than students who don’t – plain and simple. When you’re studying, it’s easier to recall the information after you have sat through a lecture. The instructor may highlight certain sections or questions in the text which could be more prone to coming up on quizzes and exams. There is also the possibility that you could fall behind. This is especially true in STEM classes, where you can’t do one part of the work without having a foundation in another.
There may be an attendance policy
Some teachers will randomly take attendance and either dock participation points for those who don’t show, or give out bonus points for those who do.
You’re already paying for the class!
School is expensive. As of this writing, the average student loan debt was north of $30,000. It costs anywhere between $100 to $300 per class, so it is in your best interest to attend, Otherwise, you might as well be flushing your money down the drain.
Another note, your professors (or instructors) are there for a reason. In most cases they are interesting people to forge a solid, long term relationship with, who, at the very least, can write you a letter of recommendation or reference should you need one down the road.
Skipping can be addictive
If you skip once, what’s to stop you from skipping twice, three times, or more. It can be very easy to talk yourself out of going to class for whatever reason (there always is one). So take this advice as you read it now and pretend as if attendance will boost your grades. Even if it doesn’t affect your grades directly, it will indirectly.
You never know if you’re going to miss important news or information
Not everything is announced on Blackboard. A due date change, a grading curve, you never know what could be announced in class.
You may miss out on extra credit
Although it’s scarce in college, some instructors are known to hand out extra credit that you could receive simply for attending class.
9. Three Pillars of Mental Clarity
Eating healthy is not only important for the longevity of your health, but can also help increase your brain function. Here is a list of eleven foods that you can try and consume leading up to the time of your test to make sure your brain is running on all cylinders.
Getting a healthy amount of sleep on a consistent basis will help you better retain the knowledge that you learned the night before. Here’s why: when you learn material, and then fall asleep, it builds memory. Getting the recommended eight hours is important because in that time you can get the proper REM cycles which increase brain activity, promote learning, and create dreams.
We have discussed exercise a few times in this article and wanted to bring it up once more, here, at the end. When you exercise you pump more oxygen to your brain which provides an excellent amount of growth to your brain cells.
Hopefully, you can now see that there is a method to the madness. It’s almost like science that you need to tweak in order to get to perfection. It will take discipline and determination, but you can and will succeed if you follow the guidelines in this article. We can’t stress enough that those who study little by little, with consistency, do better than those who wait until the end and cram for a test, especially standardized tests. So good luck as you embark on your journey for that perfect test score. If you need additional test prep resources, testing.org is littered with articles to help find one that’s just right for you.
Michael Valverde is Editor-in-Chief for Testing.org. He has written hundreds of articles and blog posts for many different websites, including Forbes, Entrepreneur, and G2. He is considered an influential voice in online test prep and has collaborated with some of the top companies in accounting and finance education.