Best ways to study for a test or exam

Pauli Raivio·February 9, 2023·8 min read
Best ways to study for a test or exam

Most learners have a good command of the methods of receiving and acquiring information. In practice, this means reading or in some other way passively going through their study materials. Stumbling starts at the point when you need to do something with the information, for example, apply it in an exam. The information just doesn't seem to come back to you except in fragmented pieces.

The problem is very likely to be related to the relatively small proportion of study time devoted to review, or to the wrong review methods. Reading and other forms of information acquisition seem effective and are the most familiar way of studying for the majority of students. However, there is overwhelming consensus in learning studies that active methods, i.e. methods that process, modify and actively recall information, are much more effective for learning.

Actively processed and sufficiently rehearsed information is easy to recall in a structured way in an exam or test. In contrast, passively memorized units are not logically anchored in the mind, making them challenging to grasp.

The traditional way of learning with an emphasis on knowledge acquisition

Study phaseExample
Setting a goalGrade B in the history exam
StudyingReading textbooks and notes
Goal testingThe history exam

A better way of learning with an emphasis on reviewing and active learning

Study phaseExample
Setting a goalGrade B in the history exam
StudyingReading textbooks and notes
Self-testingAnswering old exam questions, using flashcards
ReviewingEmphasizing topics that require more studying, remembering key words and concepts, active processing of information
Goal testingThe history exam

The majority of students also use the traditional method in the review phase. They go through the material again and again in the hope that as much of it as possible will stick in their minds. Even if the whole thing feels familiar during the reread, there is a pitfall to this method. We recognize the information, but this does not mean that we can recall it when necessary. It is for this reason that so often in an exam we can't recall an answer to a question that we feel we should know.

Active learning and review are tedious but effective ways to learn

The sooner you get to the review phase, the better. You need to study the material anyway, and an active approach to the course or class and the ability to take good notes will help. Different ways of reading and an understanding of the big picture also help a lot.

Once a subject has been studied, it is worth testing as early as possible which areas of the subject are best mastered and which need further work. For example, when preparing for a history exam, answering old tests and textbook exercises is a particularly effective way of doing this. You should write down your answers, for example in bullet points, and check how many points you would have scored. You will need this information for the review phase.

You can also test what you have learned with flashcards. Flashcards are also an excellent review tool, as they help you easily identify the parts of the lesson that you still need to study more.

Self-testing is a tedious and often psychologically difficult process if we have to admit that we do not yet have full mastery of a subject. On the other hand, this observation is much more comfortable to make during the practice phase than during the exam itself.

How to effectively review what you have learned

Self-testing, active learning, and reviewing go hand in hand, and here we have separated them into their own steps, mainly for the sake of clarity. However, it is worth remembering that actively recalling and testing what you have learned is itself a form of review. Similarly, after reviewing, it is worth testing again to see how much information has been retained compared to the first time. This creates a self-feeding cycle that helps to fill in the gaps in knowledge one by one.

In the review phase, you can still go back to your materials and notes, but the more your work focuses on remembering and structuring what you have already learned, the better. You should use at least the following methods in the review phase:

Summarizing and explaining things simply

The ability to summarize what you have learned and explain it simply is a hugely useful skill, not only for learning but also for understanding things in general. Your brain is processing and forming new information as a whole anyway, and by focusing your attention on this work, the process is greatly accelerated, and the neural networks and summaries that are formed are all the stronger.

To explain things simply and clearly, you need to understand the subject. The best scientific articles, for example, are written in a very simple way, and even a lay reader can quickly grasp the point. Weaker presentations or summaries, on the other hand, are harder to understand and can contain a lot of scientific jargon. The subject may not have been so clear even for the authors themselves.

Whatever the form of summary or simplification, pay attention to the following:

  • Use the simplest possible language
  • Explain the issue properly and not just refer to it vaguely
  • Try to answer the question "why" first and foremost. Why is something the way it is? Justify your reasoning.
  • Explain it as you would explain it to a child. You can leave out the babbling
  • Review the points you are unable to explain properly
  • Use social situations to your advantage. For example, at dinner, you can quickly explain to others what you have learned and worked on today. If you are eating with other learners, swap parts so that everyone can speak up.

Learning key words and memory rules

Using keywords and memory rules, the units learned can be stored in a condensed way in the mind in a form that is easily understood by the brain. The technique is not very popular today, despite its huge potential.

Even when taking notes, it is worth creating keyword lists that allow you to create a "catalogue" of information in your head. The technique allows you to recall large chunks of information very effectively.

Quick reading of your notes

In the review phase, the temptation to return to the textbook can be strong. However, it is worth putting the emphasis on reading your notes, at least for the following reasons:

  • The information is summarized and structured in the notes
  • The information has been actively processed in the notes
  • Notes are much quicker to go through

In the review phase, you should be confident that you have a good enough grasp of the bigger picture, as long as your brain has anchored it in a condensed form. So if you can remember the progression of a chapter in a book using ten key words, you will also remember the details with sufficient accuracy. In contrast, if you try to remember everything as it is, you will end up remembering nothing.

You can read the notes several times, but try to read them quickly, focusing on key words and key points. It's also worth covering up some of the notes and checking whether you have the main points memorized.

Assignments and quizzes

As mentioned, the review phase is also a good time to do exercises and test your knowledge. This is particularly important in mathematics and languages. For example, you can ask a friend or family member to quiz you, and you can swap roles if you are both reviewing for the test.

Review is an important factor in determining how well you will do in the test. Another perhaps often overlooked factor is your performance on the day of the test. You can read more about this in our article on tests and nerves.

You can learn more about learning techniques in our course Most effective learning techniques. If you are preparing for entrance exams, it's worth checking out our Prepare for entrance exams course.

Thanks for reading and have fun learning!

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