How Should I Study for the Test?

If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably fielded this question before:

How should I study for the test?

When I really consider the question, it is an interesting query. Generally speaking, students don’t change their methods of studying depending upon the material. They study one way, no matter the subject. To me, asking this question implies there is another way…and if there’s more than one manner, one must be better than another. It’s an interesting proposition that I’m not sure our students realize they’re asking. More often than not, when students ask me how they should study, what they really mean is, “What should I study?” That is, obviously, a very different question that is usually teased out after I explain the ‘how’. 

While we may become tired of students asking (I know I’ve incorrectly judged students as being lazy), it is an incredibly important question to address. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the most important non-subject specific topics all teachers should focus on in the classroom. Yet, many teachers are left stuttering when tasked with articulating just how a student should study. So, I’d like to provide some simple talking points or tips. And, in almost all situations, the tips will be very similar. Proper studying is proper studying, no matter the subject matter. 

While the application of these strategies can be quite nuanced, I try not to go into too much depth during this introduction. I certainly don’t want to overwhelm and possibly confuse the student with too much information. So, I keep it simple and provide two primary strategies for study with a few applications of each.

Here are two (hopefully) helpful strategies:

  1. Question Your Knowledge

A major goal of studying should be to differentiate the known from the unknown (this is often a paradigm shift in thinking for students and teachers). The efficient and effective manner for doing this is to assess knowledge. Ask questions: multiple-choice, matching, short-answer, essay…whatever. Have a conversation about the material and attempt to apply the content to different situations/contexts. Have a family member call out key terms/people and talk about those concepts. No one around to help you with this? Create some flashcards. This method of recognizing and/or recalling information from memory is often called the testing effect or retrieval practice. The key with this strategy is that there is no assistance when attempting to retrieve the information; no notes, no textbook, no internet. Any aids used will only fool students into believing they know something they really don’t. If the learner cannot recall an answer (or if they need to use a study aid), that is information that should be prioritized for restudy.

Here’s a simple activity to do during class to create an easy study tool at home.

Here’s one more simple activity, called a brain dump, that is easy for students and teachers alike to apply for study.

  1. Plan Ahead with Studying

For a lot of students, this is quite a tough task. Believe me, I understand. When I was a high school student, the thought of studying days ahead would’ve seemed quite daunting. But, with a little bit of effort, spacing out studying (spaced practice) can be a much more effective alternative to cramming for remembering material long-term. Usually, the major hurdle students must surmount with spaced practice is the planning ahead aspect. I encourage students to use their phone and add an event on their virtual calendar…sometimes I have to instruct students on how to use their calendar app to do this. Some students don’t have the ability to use a phone for this, so I’ll ask these students to write a note to remind themselves to study and place it in a place they know they’ll check when at home. 

If today is Tuesday and students know there is a quiz/test Friday, students should add events for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings. Obviously, teenagers have different responsibilities after school, so they may have to choose different times that work out with their schedule. Depending on the amount of material to cover, I only want students to practice retrieving the subject matter for 10-15 minutes a night. Put the phone away. Turn off Netflix. Study for 15 minutes. Then, they can reward themselves with all the technology. Repeat this for all three evenings. Overall, students will have studied for 45 focused minutes, instead of attempting to cram the night before. Most students would rather give up 15 minutes for three nights than 45 minutes the night before…and, more than likely, they will not be able to focus for one 45 minute study session. Explaining it this way often makes the idea of studying for three nights in a row a little less daunting for students. 

Modeling spaced practice is somewhat difficult to demonstrate in class, but I believe it is worthwhile. Even after explaining, some students will still be overwhelmed at the idea of keeping up with a calendar. So, I will begin class for a few days in a row with retrieval practice of material for an upcoming quiz. And everyday I will explicitly say that we are spacing out our practice for the quiz. There will be a timer on the overhead with 5-10 minutes and when that hits zero, we have a short conversation about why we’re doing this, and then we move on. I want it to seem as simple and attainable as possible for students. Obviously, the goal is for students to use this learning strategy (and retrieval practice) on their own, for these strategies to be their habits of study.

An important point to reiterate: Notice that neither of these tips are subject specific. There’s zero reason why retrieval practice and spaced practice cannot (and should not) be applied across all classes. As I said earlier, proper studying is proper studying, no matter the subject. 

As students become more comfortable with these two strategies, I may go into a little more detail about the difference between studying with recognition vs. recall questions or spacing content at differing intervals and interleaving their studies. Again, I don’t want to overwhelm them with too much, too soon. If I can get students to understand the benefits of retrieval and spaced practice and start to form healthier study habits…that is a huge win that will continue to postively impact their education for years to come.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “How Should I Study for the Test?

Add yours

  1. Hi Blake

    I agree wholeheartedly with both your tips but would like to tease out tip 1 a bit more.

    I have in mind 2 things:
    1. Your previous post, A Better Retrieval Practice
    2. My own study routines at the moment

    With these in mind I have developed a study habit of making up my own online practice tests. I make the tests progressively as I learn, and then use them for spaced revision.

    I deliberately set the tests at 3 different levels:
    1. Recognition – multiple choice, matching defintion/terms, etc
    2. Cueed (not sure that’s a word) – 1 or 2 letter letter hints free recall the response, crosswords etc
    3. Free recall

    For each topic, I do the first level of test with no assistance (other than than the recognition nature of the quiz), I look up what I got I wrong, and repeat then and there + the next day. When ready I love to the next level of quiz and repeat.

    With 3 subjects, and many topics on each, I end up doing different levels of quizzes the same day on different topics. I repeat topics on a rotating basis.

    Interested in your thoughts 🙂


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