Exam prep: How students can improve study skills, learn more in less time

It’s the homestretch of the school year, and with that comes lots of tests and final exams. So, what does it take to ace these exams? It’s not just the time that’s put in; it’s also the method of studying that produces the best results. 

Where do students go wrong when it comes to studying?

Some 84% of students report that they study by rereading — reading their notes or their study guide over and over again. This is actually one of the most ineffective ways of learning; it’s very passive, like sitting on the sidelines of a basketball game instead of playing.

When it comes to remembering, if you just read the information over again, you might be able to recall some of it the next day, but it won’t be in your long-term memory for that test down the road.

That’s why some students do OK on exams that just test a small amount of material, but don’t do as well on unit tests, midterms or finals.

How should kids be studying?

study published in Psychological Science found that the No. 1 way for students to learn and retrieve information is by quizzing themselves: asking yourself the question or the topic posed in your notes. Instead of reading the answer, cover it up and answer yourself out loud or write it down.

If the teacher provides a study guide, make three copies. Fill out the first one in writing (or typing) while looking up the answers. Over the next few days, pick up a blank study guide and see what you can recall from memory.

Any time you’re asking your brain to retrieve information — by asking yourself questions out loud or writing answers down — that’s much harder than just reading it. You’re learning it at a much deeper level and thereby remember more for exams without actually spending any more time.

How can parents help?

They can encourage kids to start studying earlier instead of at the last minute. Many students can get by with cramming when they’re younger, but as the material gets more complicated, that no longer works. And, if you are in the habit of procrastinating and only get going when your back is against the wall and your adrenaline is flowing, you often fall into the habit of believing that’s the only way you can do it. It’s not true, but now it’s a bad habit.

Parents can also help by asking the right questions. Instead of saying, “Go up to your room to study!,” ask, “What’s the first thing you might do to get ready for that biology test?” or “Is there something easy you can do to just get started?”

And one of my favorite questions is, “How will you know that you’ve learned this material?” It gets kids thinking about their study process and also helps them to break down something that feels really big into much more manageable chunks.

Ann Dolin is a former public school teacher and author of the book “Getting Past Procrastination: How to Help Your Kids Get Organized, Focused and Motivated Without Being the Bad Guy.”

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