How to Study for a Test.
Whether you believe in the effectiveness of making students take tests or not, the fact remains that they will have to take them. As teachers and/or parents we need to make sure they know how to study for a test.
It’s probably important to note that I live and teach in the UK. Here we call studying for a test “revision”, so, may I apologise in advance if I refer to studying as revision. Thanks.
Now, back to the good stuff!
As a teacher, I’ve found myself saying, on more occasions than I care to remember “make sure you study for this test”. The kids hear it all the time, you can literally hear their eyes rolling as you trot out the same old statement.
It suddenly dawned on me around, what seems like a billion years ago, that whilst I’ve told kids to study for tests, I’d never really taught them how to actually do it.
I promptly started writing some revision guides to give to my students. They were very basic at first. This lead me down a rabbit hole, one that I have remained in ever since. I’ve been researching study methods, surveying students before and after major exams and reading about a multitude of memory improvement tactics employed by various memory experts.
The result of all of this is the Ultimate Study Plan. In short, it is perfect for any subject, for any age and any ability. I’ve been testing it with my students at school (ages 11-18) and with my own private tutoring students for the last 4 years. It works…VERY well.
Let me guide you through it now. At the end of this article, I will give you a link to buy the PDF of the plan (I may even tell you how to get it half price).
The most common forms of study (reading and writing notes) are the least effective, (Ineffective Study Methods) but what are the most effective?
It turns out there is no single “best” method, just like there isn’t one single type of learner. It turns out that the best strategy for effective study is by using multiple methods, in short bursts.
In the Ultimate Study Plan, I utilise 7 different strategies that use different memory techniques and different areas of the brain. Let’s dive in
1. Review a Previous Study Session.
In this section, we build on work done in previous revision sessions. We use the creative, colourful things you produced we will learn about later. It should be a topic you find more difficult.
Getting things into your long term memory requires repetition, think of a time you tried a new activity, then think about how it got easier with time. Revision works in the same way. Memory experts all agree that repetition and reinforcement are key to improving retention (Memory Is Repetition and Reinforcement).
- A video game that took you ages to complete the first time that then only took minutes the second time.
- A hairstyle that you struggled with that now you can do in seconds.
2. Get In The Study Zone! Read a New Topic or Watch YouTube Clip.
As I stated earlier, reading notes is the most ineffective way to study BUT that is only when it is the only method used. When used in combination with other strategies it is very useful.
This section focuses on waking the brain up, the student is reminding themselves of the keywords and concepts and generally getting into the study zone.
The student probably won’t remember much from this section alone but it is required to get ready for the rest of the session.
It’s like warming up before exercise, letting your hair straighteners heat up before using them or preheating an oven before putting in a soon to be baked cake. It has to be done to make the rest of the session more beneficial to them.
3. Answer Practice Questions on the Study Topic.
In this section, the student is starting to use the information they just read or watched.
At this point, the students are using the problem-solving part of their brain (the prefrontal cortex) to analyse questions and construct answers. Problem-solving helps embed knowledge in their long term memory.
This section has the additional benefit of giving the students experience in recognising different question styles and helps them practice what the question is asking them to do. They should look for the command words (explain, describe, compare etc) and also look out for the word ”and”. This is a commonly missed command word that this should prompt the student to understand the question is asking them to do more than one thing.
4. Create Study Tools with Colours and Diagrams.
This is probably the most important section of the study session, it is the creative, colourful section. The student should spend the most time on this section because it is, in my opinion, the most effective.
The brain is very good at remembering colours and especially linking colours together. If you highlight two or more things that are related in the same colour, you are more likely to recall them together when required.
Without a doubt, the single biggest fail a student can make is to produce something colourful and NOT put it up where they can see it. I can’t even guess how many times I’ve had the following conversation.
Me: Did you spend most of your time making colourful resources?
Student: Yes sir, of course.
Me: Where are they now?
Student: In a folder/in my desk drawer/under my bed.
What is the point of creating something worthy of a frame if you don’t put it on the wall and look at it? After all, you don’t buy art to put away where no one can see it (unless you’ve bought a Picasso a Matisse or a van Gogh!)
The reason for putting up on the wall is an adaptation of the mind palace technique (The Mind Palace). Close your eyes and think of a poster or picture in your home…can you describe it, can you see the words written on it, what colours are on it, what details can you see? I bet you could describe it accurately.
Imagine if that poster was something you created in a study session, now imagine you are visualising that while in an exam…BOOM…reading your study notes in your mind…in an exam hall!
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Within this section, I also want to cover a few other strategies that work wonderfully. The first one is a method I have called “passive study”.
5. Passive Study; Study while doing other things.
Post-it notes; your best study friend!
The great thing about Post-it notes is that you can stick them anywhere. They are small but large enough to use them for mini-posters, snippets of tricky topics, labelled diagrams, equations etc.
A student can stick them up around their bedroom mirror, on the wall up and down the stairs or on the back of the toilet door. If they actively read them every and every time they find themselves in front of them (when putting their make-up on, using the stairs or as an alternative to wasting time on their phone whilst doing what one does when sitting on the throne!) they will be able to visualise them in the exam.
One of the most surprising conversations I have found myself having in recent years was when I was speaking to a 16-year-old boy who, until this conversation I thought would only do limited, if any study for his final GCSE exams (the final high school exams in the UK). The conversation went like this:
Student: Sir, you know that post-it note on the mirror thing you said about?
Student: I don’t look in the mirror much (this was not the surprising thing) but I do play a lot of Xbox. One night while playing a game (he did say what game it was, but A. I can’t remember it and B. it’s irrelevant). I noticed that when my TV had a black screen I could see my face in it and it made me think of the mirror thing.
Me: Yes, go on.
Student: So I decided to give it a try…I put some stuff on post-it notes and stuck them around the edge of my TV. Every time I died or was waiting for the game to load I looked at them.
Me: (after picking myself up from the floor), did it work?
Student: Yeah, sir! Although a funny thing happened. I found myself looking at the Post-it notes more and more, even when I was supposed to be playing. I kept dying but I can remember more about Biology now.
What I’m trying to say is, this technique works! Even with the most disengaged students.
Group chat is Study Chat.
Students, like us adults, spend vast amounts of time glued to their phones. Rather than forcing them to look up, why don’t we utilise this? I have trialled this with several classes and I was surprised how well they took to it.
If the students create a group chat on WhatsApp (other messaging services are available) they can study with friends and classmates remotely. One class I trialled this with got so serious with it, they had assigned some students as moderators and had given a couple of students a temporary ban for “non-study related” messages! The majority of that class gained grades higher than their target. (I can’t be certain the group chat was the prime reason for this but it certainly didn’t hurt!)
Study Songs, Silly Rhymes and Memorable Actions.
Incorporating silliness into revision makes it easier to remember. We can recall abstract things easier, they stick out in our memory! I still meet ex-students in the street from time to time who rejoice in repeating silly rhymes I made them remember well into their adult life (the poor fools will still be thinking of me dancing around the class singing in a silly voice well into retirement!)
6. Power Paragraph! Write a Paragraph on Topic Learnt.
One problem students often suffer with is not being able to get what’s in their head down onto paper. The Power Paragraph will help them address this, it is pure retrieval practice.
The idea is that the student just picks up a pen and paper (not a device) and just start writing down everything they have just learned. It doesn’t matter what order it is in or what it looks like and, at this point, the spelling and grammar don’t matter either…they just need to start writing and not stop for the whole time.
They should write as much as they can, it’s surprising just how much they can recall. Seeing this on a page will both improve their confidence and show them visible evidence that the study session is working. It will also prepare them for writing answers to long-form questions in tests. It also has the added benefit of training you to take notes in the future.
7. Choose the Next Study Topic to Revise.
Last by no means least is choosing their next topic. If a student chooses which topic they will revise in their next session at the end of a session they are more likely to pick one that they find harder because at this stage of the revision session you are feeling quite confident and pleased with the progress you have made.
Choose now, win later!
That’s it, 7 simple strategies and a few novel ideas, all of which I have tested and been given great feedback.
I have put all of these together in a nice PDF which is available as the ULTIMATE Study Plan in my store for £4.99. Also in the PDF I give the ideal timings for a 30, 45 and 60-minute longs session. I break down just how long should be spent on each section.
For a limited time, you can get it half price. Just ENTER YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS in the box at the bottom of this page and you will be emailed a discount code to use in my shop. You also get a behaviour management strategy PDF and an invite to my Facebook group for FREE!
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