Ask a Teacher: What Is the Best Way to Study for a Test?
Q: Hey Mr. Jung, what's the best way to study for a test? I can study for hours but it never does me any good when it comes to taking the test. Do you have any suggestions?
A: The best way to study for a test is to make the work personally meaningful. While specific strategies will, as a result, always depend on the nature of the test and on the personal temperament of the test-taker, I can offer a few pieces of general advice that have helped me on tests ranging from the ACTs, to doctoral field exams, to message-board debates about Doctor Who miscellanea. Personal investment is incredibly important, because effective studying is not necessarily related to time: it requires prolonged engagement with the course material, of course, but disinterested engagement is a contradiction in terms, and ultimately a waste of time.
But let’s suppose that we can’t be interested in everything all the time. Are there ways to "fake" this motivation, such that it becomes real enough to make your study time productive? I think so, and my advice on this front is to experiment with multi-modal learning (approaching the same content through different mediums) and role-playing, in which one tries to imagine tests from the viewpoint of teachers, students, test-writers, and/or test-takers. Approach tests more like games, and you will probably have much more fun taking them. In my world, this has conveniently translated to better results. Remember: test-writers and test-takers are just human beings, like you. There is no magic involved in these matters. You can reasonably expect to do well on any evaluation given the right perspective and use of time.
Adopt a task-based approach, as opposed to a time-based approach.
Studying for ten hours is not a virtue if you don’t learn anything. Instead of viewing the amount of time you spend studying as the final arbiter of your studiousness, focus more on devoting each study session to mastering one discrete, tangible thing. There’s the old saying, “It’s better to have a bird in hand than two in the bush,” meaning that one should probably focus on the attainable over the hypothetical, and as regards test preparation, take this to mean the following: stop wasting your time thinking (and especially, worrying) and start using that time to check specific items off your list.
Split your time between studying the content on which you will be tested, and studying the test itself.
I was tempted to exhort you to "just" learn the content inside and out, with the understanding that content-side mastery would suffice to ensure a good grade. This, however, isn’t true, and gives test-makers more credit than they deserve in assuming their product gauges knowledge with neutral precision. And in any event, true mastery of any subject must entail the ability to formulate critical questions about content, and crucially, to anticipate how these questions might be phrased and arranged in a testing environment. Study to the test: consider the objective of the test-makers, what students would reasonably be expected to know, and how such expectations might be tested in words. Imagine the following impossibly crazy scenario: your job depends on whether students actually learned the material from your course. Given this, what kinds of questions would you ask them, in order to judge their learning-outcomes?
Allow enough time to approach the material through several different mediums
With the advent of theories of multiple intelligences, it is commonly assumed that people learn in different ways, even if our educational system hasn’t quite figured out how to acknowledge this fact in practice. While some might be more inclined to learn by doing or by watching, there is definitely something to be said for taking the content you have been working on and approaching it from different angles, and perhaps ones that are not immediately natural. Draw charts, write songs, do whatever you feel might help you to grasp the materially conceptually, because the technical vocabulary people so often get hung up on memorizing isn’t going to mean anything unless you can “picture” the way something works in your head. This is not arcane imaginative alchemy, either, just the way that we build knowledge. We understand things in terms of relationships: stories, visual dynamics and the like. Use the way your brain works to your advantage!
A final anecdote: To this day, I remember a minor epiphany from early high school. At the time, I was trying (and failing) for hours to beat the final boss of Twisted Metal 2. I enlisted new strategies, new characters, and even new controllers in my pursuit of victory, but to no avail. I basically came to the conclusion that the game was rigged, and that no mere mortal could destroy the enemy: a giant, flaming clown-head that was, in this case, the final barrier between victory and defeat, and in my strange little world, a crucial source of self-affirmation. I must have spent nearly a whole day trying to defeat that boss, and eventually gave up in total discouragement. The next day, however, I picked up where I left off, and beat the boss on my very first try. The crucial point is to give your brain time to absorb the information, and try out different strategies. If you put in the right amount of time, and use that time wisely, you, too, can destroy the giant, flaming clown-head standing between you and your dreams.
What's your study strategy?
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and their growing collection of street maps.
Got a question for an English, science, math, writing, special ed, sociology, or PE teacher, or a specific question for Mr. Jung? Send it to email@example.com!
Related post: How NOT to Study for Finals