How to Study: Think Like a Teacher and Test-Maker

It’s a common refrain: students don’t know how to study. It’s true that for the most part, kids wants to pull out their notes and review sheets, stare at them for an hour or so, then consider themselves done; but there are a few tried-and-true methods students know about that aren’t that hard to implement and actually are effective. And aside from those few, what else can kids do to study more effectively?

In a 2013 article published in Scientific American, a group of psychologists reviewed over 700 studies on commonly used techniques to evaluate and rate their effectiveness. An archive of the entire article can be found at the link above, and is worth a read, but I’d like to focus on a few of their findings and elaborate with some ideas of my own that I’ve seen work for students in the past.

The article identified two primary strategies as having the greatest effectiveness: self-testing and distributed practice. In other words, those two-sided flash cards are actually a fine idea, as well as any other method a student can devise to quiz him or herself over the material (distributed practice simply means it’s better to study a little each day over a longer period of time than it is to cram a lot of study in a night or two before an exam). Building on this, I’d like to throw out a few other effective self-testing methods that students don’t usually consider.


If you work in a study group, arrange to teach a certain amount of your study materials to the other group members at your next study session. Have other members take on different sections of the textbook or notes to teach, and as a group you each take turns sharing what you’ve learned with the other members. It’s important not only for you to know the material you are supposed to explain, but to ask questions of the other members when it’s their turn to ‘teach.’ In this manner, a discussion is generated about the material, instead of just rote memorization or review. It’s a more effective manner of using a study group than simply looking over the materials together at the same time; everyone comes to the group prepared both to teach and to learn.

If you don’t have a study group but work with a tutor or peer, you could do something similar, or just practice ‘teaching’ material to yourself by assigning yourself a topic, preparing to teach it, and then putting the study sheet away while going over it as if you’re teaching it to someone else. You don’t have to stand up at the front of the room and talk out loud to do this, just think of it as constructing the information into a different form from what’s on the review sheet or in the text. Facts are not malleable, but the way in which those facts are presented is, and any time you take what you know and re-shape it into another form you’re deepening your understanding of it. Look at it this way – you’re never totally sure how you are going to be asked to show what you know on an exam, so the more ways in which you are able to look at the information and understand it, the better.


Not only does thinking like a teacher help students perform better on exams, so does taking on the role of a test-maker and actually writing your own test questions. Here’s why: coming up with a test question and the proper response is easy, but coming up with three other wrong answers is a challenge, and having to do so reinforces the right answer in your brain. It’s another way to work with the material you’ve been given and manipulate it into a different form so you know it inside and out. Many students move into their freshman year of high school still expecting every test they take to ‘match’ their notes and reviews, only to find that this is not the case – more critical thinking is required. Aside from the fact that you have too much information to memorize anyway, you have to understand the information instead of regurgitate pre-supplied answers. Generating your own test questions out of study materials is an excellent way to add depth to your understanding.

For example, let’s say you take one chapter of a Biology text, and create 10-15 test questions for it as if you are going to give it to someone else. Then, if possible, actually give the assessment to someone else, see how they answer, and go over the results with them. No essay or short answer questions – create 10-15 multiple choice questions, with four answer choices for each one. Reviewing the questions with someone else, if possible, and letting them ask questions  so you  explain your answers will also help you understand the material – and if you find an answer that isn’t correct, it helps you know where your knowledge is falling short.

This all may sound like it takes too much time, but if you’re following the second recommendation of the Scientific American study (distributed practice), you’re only doing a little bit of this at a time over the course of a week or several days rather than all in one big session. It’s more engaging, it generates interesting discussion and thought processes, and it helps you understand the material as well as giving you test-taking practice. You can’t get all of that from simply looking over the notes and textbook and hoping you’ll be prepared. 


Creating your own test questions out of your study material is also excellent test-taking preparation. Creating test questions gets you comfortable with answering them, and gets you inside the mind of a test-maker, which is more valuable that you might think. Once you’ve gone through the process of creating multiple-choice questions yourself, you have a better idea how to break an exam down and understand the ‘tricks’ of that particular trade.

This not only helps you when you are trying to decide between answer choices on an exam and are not sure which one is best. It can also help you at those times when flat-out guessing is necessary (it happens to all of us). In addition, tips such as these from Brigham Young University  are essential for learning how to navigate the different types of test questions you encounter on a typical exam. Print out these tips and commit them to memory – they will save you more often than you might think!


As with everything else regarding your education, communication with the teacher is key. You should never go into an exam without knowing what sort of test is going to be handed out: is it multiple choice, fill in the blank, essay, matching? A combination of all of these? If so, how much? Some teachers will give the class all this information in advance, down to the number of each type of question, the amount of time each one should take, as well as how many points each one will be worth. But some won’t tell you a thing unless you ask them – so if they don’t tell you, you must ask! Knowing an exam is all essay means you’ll prepare differently than if it’s matching, true/false, or multiple choice, so you  need to arm yourself with that knowledge.*

Another overlooked key to successful assessment: you must go over your exams with your teachers – at least the first few, if not every single one. It’s imperative that you understand how the questions you missed should have been answered; you need to know the teacher’s expectations and testing style to better prepare for his or her exams. If you do not go over at least the first exam with each teacher, you are not going to perform to your full potential on assessments in that class. It’s that simple. Every teacher tests differently, and you need to understand why you missed what you did, and how the teacher constructs their tests and quizzes.

Of course, many teachers go over exams with the entire class, but many do not, for various reasons. A teacher’s curriculum is overloaded, and there often isn’t a lot of time for test review. And student absences are a problem – a teacher can’t go over the answers for a test when several students still haven’t taken it. Then often, by the time those kids do take it, too much time has passed and the review gets overlooked (hint: please don’t be that student. If you miss a test due to absence, make it up as soon as you return. It’s better not only for you, but for everyone). If you receive your exam back without getting a review of it in class, email your teacher and request to meet with him or her during a tutoring session to go over the questions you missed. Then, as you do that with your teacher, be sure you understand why you missed them. Pay attention to how the teacher explains the construction of the test too – there’s no reason to memorize those 100 vocabulary terms you are given at the start of each unit if the teacher only tests that vocabulary by throwing those words into test questions, for example. Understand that you need to have enough knowledge of them to figure out their meaning in context, and move on to other information you know is going carry more weight on test day.

So, think like a teacher, test-maker, good guesser, and engaged learner, and you can improve your study skills for quizzes and exams. If you put into play the concept of distributed practice, wherein you teach and test yourself a little bit each day, you’ll be prepared for pop quizzes and last-minute tests as well (it would be nice if every teacher gave you two weeks’ notice for every exam, but we all know this isn’t the case). Don’t settle for reviewing class material in the form it is given to you, re-construct it in creative ways to gain deeper understanding, and as always, involve your teacher in this process by asking questions both before and after the exam. 

*There may be times when a teacher does not want to reveal what form a test is going to take. Quite honestly, sometimes this just means they’ve yet to create it, but there are other reasons for a teacher to do this, and it shouldn’t be assumed the teacher’s being stingy or mean. Some teachers are committed to preparing students for college by expecting them to prepare for any sort of test without being told beforehand; it’s a legitimate situation students face in college, so it makes sense teachers want to prepare you for this in high school. Another reason could be student perception: sometimes getting the information in advance leads to less preparation rather than more. For example, I found  when I taught middle school that if I told students they were having an essay test over a novel, they interpreted that to mean they didn’t need to study for it since “we’ll be able to use our book and there’s only going to be one question.” Sigh. I tried a few times to convince them otherwise, and I thought their low test scores might do the trick if on my own I could not, but in the end I had to stay silent about what kind of test they were going to take in order to ensure they prepared for it. If you do encounter a teacher who chooses to keep the form of a test secret until the day of, it’s going to be even more important for you to review that test with him or her after it is graded so you can keep it in mind for the next one. Chances are they will test and grade in a similar manner in the future, even if they don’t tell you in advance what it will be like, and you’ll have to keep that in mind. 

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 


How to Meet and Greet Your Teachers

Your teachers put a lot of thought into making the right impression on students the first time the class meets (except for those who put no thought into it whatsoever, but even in that case – and perhaps more so – it still makes an impression!), but what can you do to make the right impression on them, when you’re one of as many as 100, 120, or even 150 students they will encounter throughout the day? Unfortunately the kids who often make strong first impressions are the ones who show up late to class, don’t follow the dress code, or refuse to pay attention while they speak, but if that’s not the sort of attention you want to generate, how can you distinguish yourself among the all other motivated, friendly, and cooperative kids who shuffle in and out that teacher’s door amidst the chaos of the first few days? If simply showing up, being polite, and paying attention doesn’t do it, what else is there? And does it really matter, anyway?

I’d suggest that, while it isn’t crucial, it does matter to make an impression as soon as possible, if for no other reason than most students won’t do it, and it’s an easy way to make an early connection that will benefit you as you move through the year. What I would suggest is that at some point in the first week of school, you introduce yourself to your teachers. Sure, they’ve already called your name out during roll call, and you’ve told them you were present so they could match your face to your name. But that’s just a procedure, and not really an introduction. Perhaps they had some ice breaker games or had you write out some information about yourself on a form – but that’s all stuff other kids are doing, too. I’m suggesting you take it one step further, and personally introduce yourself to your teachers.

In my opinion, the easiest way to do this is with a note card. That way, you have time to write out exactly what you want to say, and hand it over to the teacher without having to remember any of it in the moment. Plus, teachers are often busy both before and after class, and standing by awkwardly waiting for a free moment to speak to them can really whittle down your confidence. So, if you see an opportunity and feel comfortable extending your hand, introducing yourself, telling the teacher you are excited to be in their class, and thanking them for being your teacher, then go for it. But it may be much easier to hand them a note card, smile, and take your seat (if it’s the start of class) or leave the classroom (if it’s after). If the teacher is busy at the moment, they can put the card aside and read it later when they have time.

You could also make your introductions through email, but in my opinion a hand-written note is a nicer gesture, especially at the beginning of the year. Still, emails are certainly an acceptable form of communication with teachers nowadays, so if it feels best to you to do it that way, it would work – just be sure to format the email properly and be cognizant of your tone. Emails are easy to misread, and you want to be sure your message comes across clearly. Be it note card or email,  be sure the message includes your full name (first and last) and the class period you are in (teachers won’t know right away who you are, so help them out), and a thank you to them for being your teacher. That’s really all it needs to say, but you can also include anything you might want them to know about you, like being on the swim team, or being a new student at the school, or having a learning disability of which they should be aware. If you like the subject they teach, you could share that, or, if you struggle in that subject, let them know that too. If the teacher said something the first day that caught your attention, you could mention that. Whatever you say, keep it brief, and be sincere. You’re not trying to kiss up to them so that they give you an A later. You’re letting them know who you are, and that you appreciate the effort they are putting in to teach you.

This may make you nervous because you fear how the teacher will respond. And certainly, we can never predict how others will react to anything we do. Is it possible a teacher might misconstrue your gesture of kindness, and react negatively? Yes, that is always a possibility (although it would be a strange way to react to a kind note expressing gratitude to a teacher!) but remember that you are not doing this to get some sort of reaction from your teachers – that would be manipulation, which is not what I’m suggesting. You are doing it to introduce yourself, and to put your best foot forward for them. Whether or not they appreciate it, you will have still achieved your goal. Celebrate the fact that even though you didn’t get the response you expected, you still did your part and took a risk, and  your actions will still be of benefit to you in the future. For the most part, though, you will get positive responses from your teachers for such a gesture – teachers don’t hear thank you very much at all throughout the year, and they never hear it at the beginning of the year! 

What’s most important about this is that you are taking charge of your learning experience a little bit more than you have before. You are owning your participation in that class, and your connection with that teacher. So, write those notes and file those first-day documents into their proper folders. And then, get ready for a great year!

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page. 


All Systems Go: Student Organization Made Easy

Most students start off the school year with a resolution to be better organized and stay on top of their assignments, but if they’ve struggled with this in the past it doesn’t take long to fall behind again and feel defeated. That’s because those plans for getting organized usually involve changing behaviors and routines without changing the thinking about what it is being organized.

If this sounds familiar to you, try considering the way you navigate each school day as an exercise in information management, because that’s really what you’re doing. The data may be presented to you by different people, and it may take different forms, but at a basic level it is all information with which you need to do three things:

  1. Categorize
  2. Review
  3. Interact


Your average student has between 7-8 classes a day. That’s a lot of information to manage and process by the end of it. This blog post will focus on boiling it all down to the most basic level, but for many students this is all that’s needed. In fact, the less organized you tend to be, the more basic your system of organization should be. Students often get this backwards, thinking that the more chaotic their academic lives have become in the past means a more elaborate strategy is needed than that student who stays on top of assignments and always gets home knowing what needs to be done. Not necessarily – in fact, the latter student already has a system that probably is an elaborate one they’ve refined over the years and can maneuver through like clockwork; you just aren’t aware of it.  Look at it this way: if you were capable of following a detailed and elaborate form of information management, wouldn’t you be doing it already? Of course you would.

In fact, it’s not just okay to keep it simple, it’s necessary that you do so. Once you’ve established a foundation of organization, you can build on it in any way that feels right to you (I have suggestions for that, too, but I’m not getting into it here). The good news is this: As far as what information you need to manage, I can break the organization of your school day down to two basic categories:

  • Incoming Information
  • Outgoing Information

You need to collect the information you receive throughout the day (Incoming), and you need to compile the information you will give to others throughout the day (Outgoing). And for now, these are the only two categories you need.

If you’ve never broken your school day down into these two components, doing this simple step will give you a better grip on what’s happening in your classes. Sure, these categories are very broad, and you can generate many subcategories under each one of them, but for now I’m going to do as little of that as possible to make it easy for you. And for some of you, this might be as deep as you ever go. Others will create subcategories on their own once they’ve got the basics down. But here are a few simple subcategories, just to identify the difference between the two:

  • Incoming Information
    • Handouts from teachers
    • Graded/returned work
    • Class notes

Each class will have information that varies from this a little, but you get the idea. Notice that Incoming Information is not just pieces of paper a teacher passes out in class or hands back to you, it’s also the intangible information he or she gives you in the form of lectures or class discussions. So some of your Incoming Information will be written down by you – but it’s still information you received from that teacher.

What about Outgoing Information?

  • Outgoing Information
    • Completed assignments to turn in
    • Important documents or forms to return

On your end, this is basically it. Not bad, right? Notice again I’ve kept it general; within the completed assignments category, for example, there could be subcategories such as homeworkessays, or late work, but again, I don’t recommend getting too detailed with this until you’re sure it’s something you can maintain. Take it too far, and you’ll lose track and get discouraged. Just keeping in mind that you have these two basic types of Outgoing Information to manage is a perfect start.

So, you’ve now got your two categories, but how are you going to use them to organize information throughout the day? Once again, let’s keep it simple – how about having one folder for all Incoming Information, and another folder for Outgoing Info? You don’t even have to separate the information out by subject. Just carry an Incoming folder and an Outgoing one all day, every day. The Incoming folder will get loaded up with all the things we mentioned being in this category – notes, handouts from teachers, returned work, and so on. And the Outgoing folder will have within it everything you need to turn in that day, so you can simply pull it out and check it at the start of each class to find whatever it is you need.*

So we’ve taken care of step one – categorize – let’s turn now to step two.


Step two is the tricky bit for students with Executive Functioning issues or ADHD; just remembering to gets things into the proper folder or written down in a planner (which is another area where I can help – planners are important, too) is so far out of the norm for them, and requires so much effort for them to do, that it feels like they’ve done far more work than they actually have. Then the impulsivity kicks in – if it feels like I got everything done, there’s no need to check and be sure; I must be done with everything because it feels like I am.  It’s important to understand that this is not laziness, absent-mindedness, or rebellion; many kids’ brains work much harder to focus amidst the chaos of  that crucial time in class when papers are being handed back, homework is being assigned, and class discussions are underway, to get their own work turned in and their handouts filed properly.

So, keep the responsibility throughout the school day focused simply on getting things filed into one folder, or removed from the other one. That’s all you have to do. Then go home and review what’s in the Incoming Information folder when nothing else is going on around you. This is your time to think about what each piece of information is, and what you need to do with it. Having to stop during class and decide where each piece of paper should go is too much – if it all goes into the one simple place, you have a much better chance of  getting it home and getting it done. Just stick it all into the same folder and deal with it later.

And while we’re on the subject, please don’t think that shoving everything into an open backpack is the same thing as placing information in a folder. Cramming papers into your backpack may be easy at the time, but later on you’ve got a crumpled mess that is harder to sort through and cannot be mended. Your teachers work hard on the handouts and documents they give you, so respect that enough to treat them with care and keep them neat. The same goes for respecting the work you do, too, by the way – the work you produce is NOT garbage, and should NEVER look like it is.

So what does it mean to review information anyway? It works like this:

  • Take out anything from the Incoming folder that is for homework, and move it into the Outgoing Information folder to be worked on that night
  • Review every other piece of paper and create one “pile” for each subject
  • File all this information by subject in a manner that works for you

As you can see, you do need somewhere to keep information by subject, but it doesn’t have to be carried with you everywhere you go. You can keep it all at home – in separate binders or one big one, in stacks located somewhere in the room, in an accordion file – whatever you decide works for you (or whatever we decide together, if you’re working with me). But the idea is, you don’t need to carry an elaborate system with you every day, and you don’t have to think about that system during the bustle of each class. You can go through and organize things later during a quieter time. It’s much less stressful and far more productive for those of us that struggle to keep things straight in the midst of chaos (and I say us here because I’m one of them).

So, all homework you pull out of the day’s Incoming folder goes straight into the Outgoing one. After you’ve filed everything else away, that Outgoing folder is essentially your homework one – just make sure it’s all done before it goes back to school the next day.

But what about the handouts you receive from teachers that you are supposed to carry with you at all times (it could be a formula sheet you’re working on in math or a handout of notes you will be working with in English class)? You can still keep it simple: for any piece of information you are unsure how to categorize, ask yourself, is this Incoming or Outgoing? If it’s something that at some point you are going to turn in to someone, it’s Outgoing. If it is never going to be turned in, but used in class for a while, it’s Incoming. Make sense? This works because anything you are to eventually turn in will be in a folder where you see it every day during review time, as a reminder that it still needs to be done. And if it’s something you need to take with you to class every day, keeping it in the Incoming folder will ensure you actually have it when you need it.

This is where a lot of students say to me, can’t I have a third folder for information that’s ongoing, and title it as such? To which I say, sure – great idea! That’s how a student starts to take ownership of this system and make it his or her own. But don’t feel like you have to do that now, or ever – keeping it limited to two folders of information will always work.


You’ve probably already noticed that Step Two (reviewing) involved interacting with the information already. And that is correct. Reviewing is a form of interacting with the information, but so is utilizing your two folders throughout the school day appropriately. It’s important for you to check both folders in every class at least once; to be sure to put anything new into the Incoming one and to retrieve anything you need to turn in from the Outgoing folder. This has to be done in every class, as well as during other periods of the day – you may have things to turn in within the Outgoing folder that aren’t going to be called for in a class, such as application forms for a special program or a permission form for a field trip that needs to be turned in to the proper office. Therefore, it’s not enough to wait for a teacher to trigger your interactions with your information; you have to prompt yourself to do it too.

Make it a habit of checking each folder either at the beginning or at the end of each class, whichever works best for you. Certain teachers may call for homework every day at a certain time, and that might dictate your interactions in those classes. But it’s best not to wait for prompting. You also need to check both folders before the school day starts, somewhere that is calm and peaceful so you can pay attention. That might be at home before you leave, or it might be in an area at school where you hang out before the first bell rings – as long as it gets done.  You also need to check them mid-day, either at lunch or during a study hall. And of course, check them again once you get home for your Review session.

It sounds like a lot of interacting, but look at it this way: no matter how comfortable with this system you become, things happen throughout the day that will shake up your routine – special assemblies, pop quizzes, and fire drills, just to name a few. Checking mid-day during lunch or study hall will make up for those times you get thrown off track in a class, and by doing so you can catch something like a homework assignment you forgot to turn in. You can also use your information management system to help out any friends you have who aren’t yet as organized as you are – checking it during lunch can remind others they have assignments to turn in, too.

So let’s sum this blog post up: We now know that in order to stay on top of your assignments and class work you must learn to manage information that comes to you in two basic forms: Incoming Information and Outgoing InformationIncoming Information is all the data you receive throughout the day from your teachers. Outgoing Information is all the data you must turn in to teachers and other educators throughout the day. In order to ensure that you are managing these two types of information effectively, you must categorize it (determine if it is Incoming or Outgoing), review it (go over both folders at the end of each school day), and interact with it (check each folder regularly throughout the day, including after school, during lunch, and/or study hall). And by the way,  don’t get disheartened if it takes some time getting used to, or if you stumble every once in a while. No system is foolproof, and things happen. Just commit to doing better the next time, and move on.

Here’s some more good news for you: No student is ever as on top of things as on the first day of school; it’s the one time everyone shows up to all their classes completely caught up with everything (I’m ignoring summer reading assignments for the sake of argument). So take advantage of that clean slate to change your thinking about organization, and stay one step ahead for the rest of the year.

*Some teachers will require you to keep a binder in their class that is organized in a specific way, and when that’s the case, there’s generally a grade involved. Don’t let that throw you off. Carry that binder with you every day – chances are the teacher references it on a regular basis – but you can still put all NEW information you are given during class into the Incoming folder. When you review the folder after school, you can then file away the materials for that class into the binder the teacher requires you to keep. 

READY TO GET STARTED? Contact me at, call or text me at 281-346-9372, or use my contact page.