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.

THINK LIKE A TEACHER

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.

THINK LIKE A TEST-MAKER

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. 

THINK LIKE A GOOD GUESSER

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!

THINK LIKE AN ENGAGED LEARNER

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. 

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