How do you study for a test? If you are like most high school students, your study strategies probably consist of a mix of the following: reading and highlighting, reading and summarizing in notes, or reading and re-reading. And you are probably a “crammer,” meaning you study a lot right before the test, but not much in-between. Guess what? These study strategies are the LEAST EFFECTIVE techniques for studying.
Don’t believe me? Then read what I did. A 50 page article in the current issue of Psychological Science in the Public Interest, which summarizes all the research on 10 study strategies and evaluates them in terms of effectiveness. Turns out the data is pretty unequivocal. If you want to study in the most effective ways possible, abandon your summarizing, highlighting and rereading in favor of these three strategies:
Take “practice tests” in any format available for the material you are studying.
- What kind of “practice test” should you do?
Ideally, you use a practice test that is as similar as possible to the real test. So if you will have a multiple choice test in Mrs. Adams’ US History class, then ideally you would study using a multiple choice test previously given in Mrs. Adams’ US History class. BUT and this is a big BUT, you will still get benefit from practice testing even if the practice test is not of the same format as the real test provided it addresses the same subject matter.
- Where do I find practice tests?
For tests in your school courses, you can get the same effect by treating the questions at the end of a textbook chapter as a test, using homemade or purchased flashcards to test yourself, or searching online for tests in the subject matter. You can also see if your teacher will release old tests for you to use as study tools.
- How many practice tests should I do?
As many as you can. You get more benefit from doing more. So don’t stop at one. And don’t stop just because you got the questions right. Reinforcement helps. So practice until you get it right 4 or 5 times.
Follow your practice tests with some “restudying” of the material being tested.
- What does restudying involve?
Restudying involves going back to the questions that you got wrong and studying the correct answer. If you can’t understand the correct answer, then ask someone to explain it to you. (Your teacher, a friend in the class, a tutor.) Once you have read and understand the correct answer, you have “restudied” the material.
- How much time should I spend restudying?
You get best results if you spend about as much time restudying as you did doing the practice tests.
Schedule yourself for “distributed practice” rather than “massed practice” (aka cramming).
- What is distributed practice?
Distributed practice is a fancy way of saying that you break your studying into shorter sessions over time, rather than cramming.
- How should I “distribute” my practice?
The science says that you should have a gap of time between study sessions equal to 10-20% of the time that you want to retain what you are learning. So if you want to retain something for a month (30 days), then you would space your study sessions out so that you had one session every 3-6 days.
But that formula is a bit tricky for most students to apply, since it is pretty unclear how long you really want or need to retain what you are learning. Based on my experience working with students, here is what I would suggest:
For the standardized tests: commit to doing at least two study sessions of about an hour and a half to two hours each for 10 weeks prior to the test. That would mean you work a practice test for half of the time and then you “restudy” for half of the time.
For tests in school courses: commit to adding at least one study session of the practice test-restudy variety into your “homework” each week for every course. If you don’t have regularly assigned homework in the class, then do a study session like this every other day.
That’s it. Those are the study strategies that work. All the rest pale in comparison. So why do anything else?
Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (most recently at Dartmouth College). She works with students and families throughout the U.S. and abroad. Follow Alison on Twitter (@IveyCollege)