How to Study for Exams: The Killer Test Strategy

Test taking strategies are a bit like superstitions: everybody’s got them, but nobody seems to know exactly what works. Until now. Here’s how to study for exams, according to science.

Hand completing a multiple choice exam.

What Causes Bad Grades?

Have you ever spent hours reviewing, but failed to get a good grade?

You may have fallen victim to the mere exposure effect. This is a trick our brains play on us when we look over the same material over and over again. You become familiar with your notes or the textbook, so it feels like you know the information. You might even be able to recite it by heart!

But this is why memorization is not learning. You can remember all the words, but you don’t have a solid grasp on the underlying concepts. The mere exposure effect, though, makes you feel like you understand the underlying ideas.

One common place this shows up is with so-called “story problems” in math. Students often complain about these sorts of problems (“if a train on a track…”). What makes them so hard is that the problem does not tell you what strategy to use. Merely knowing the formulas is not sufficient. You have to transfer and generalize the knowledge outside the context in which you learned it.

Common Studying Mistakes

Perhaps one of the worst things that students do is “cramming” before a big test. You’re much better off getting some extra sleep before a test than cramming (unless you’ve truly studied nothing at all, in which case by all means, try to get some information into your head). What most people do not realize is that resting is what makes studied material available when you need it. Studying is what puts the information into your brain, but rest lets you get it out again.

This is why it’s actually much better to study in small bursts. Even just 20 or 30 minutes

How to Study For Exams

So what causes the mere exposure effect, and how do you avoid it?

It all begins in the classroom, with note taking. If you’re just writing down what the professor says, it’s time to learn how to take good notes. Likewise, when reading the textbook, learn how to remember information more when you’re reading.

When it comes time to study, do not simply “review” your notes or “reread” the book. If possible, try to solve sample problems. Get your hands on a test from a previous semester of the class, or use additional homework questions from the back book. It does not matter that the actual content of the test is different from the real exam. The context of test taking is what’s important. You use different brain processes to solve questions like this, meaning that practicing by taking a test will help you take a test much more than reviewing material. Instead, use the book and your notes simply as a reference when quizzing yourself.

If you can’t get your hands on any materials like this, then at least turn the act of studying into an active process. The best grades I ever got are when I helped my friends study, explaining the material to them as best as I could. Similarly, you could restate your notes (not just copy them, but put them into different words). This active process forces you to clarify your understanding. The key is that your brain is performing work. It’s re-processing the knowledge, which causes it to be re-encoded in the brain. This forms new connections and makes it easier to remember.

Finally, don’t get discouraged if you struggle with the material. Struggling is a sign of growth! It means that you’re pushing yourself and learning instead of falling victim to the mere exposure effect.

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