Simple Strategies for Improving Test Performance

Improving test performance really isn't rock science (unless you're studying aerospace engineering). Improving test performance is actually very achievable, if you'll simply practice the basic study strategies listed below. While applying one or two of the study strategies will definitely improve your performance, practicing all of the strategies from the first day of class will result in much better academic and test performance.



Take Good Notes

If you want to improve your test performance, then improve your note taking. Taking good notes, and correctly utilizing your notes, is one of the most effective strategies for improving test performance. Why? Because memory fades fast. Most people don't realize how quickly they forget things. According to a study performed by the University of Texas at Austin, without review, nearly 50% of what a student learns in class is forgotten within the first twenty minutes and over 60% is forgotten after just one day. Having good lecture notes to review can make all difference in the world when it comes to maximizing performance on an exam. The following are proven tips for effective note taking aimed at improving test performance.

  • Go to class prepared
    Preparation is key to effective note taking. Bring with you to class a three-ring binder for note taking instead of a traditional spiral notebook or bound notepad. This way you can easily remove individual pages for reviewing and then replace them when done. A three-ring binder will also allow you insert important class handouts and notes for cross-referencing within your written notes in the correct order.

    Also bring a highlighter to class you can used to underline important concepts within your notes that are likely to be on the test. Highlighting will remind you later when you're studying your notes in preparation for the exam what you definitely need to know.

    Arrive at class having read all assigned material AND having reviewed your class notes from the previous lecture. If you have any specific questions from your review of the assigned material, make sure to seek clarification during class.

  • Employ a note taking method
    There are several effective note taking methods (eg. Cornell System, etc.) Which one you choose to use is not as important as choosing one and sticking with it. We recommend starting a new page of notes for each new lecture or class period. Date and number each page. Keep your notes in chronological order within your binder. Use only one side of the paper. You can make additional notes in the margin but don't write on the back. Leave blank space within your notes so can add comments or additional notes later. Keep your notes concise using phrases instead of sentences. Use abbreviations and symbols when possible. Note down unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary you don't understand.

  • Pay attention and listen
    It's hard to pay attention when you don't have a positive attitude. Do everything you can to arrive at class with a positive attitude and mentally ready to learn. This will enable you to have an open mind and get the most out of the lecture. Listen for meaning. Don't only focus on words, focus on the message being communicated by the words. If your lecture takes a turn, don't zone out, keep listening for meaning and adjust your note taking accordingly.

  • Review notes after each class
    As we mentioned previously, nearly 50% of what a student learns in class is forgotten within the first twenty minutes and over 60% is forgotten after just one day. Reviewing your notes is just as important as taking good notes. Always review your notes within 24 hours. We also recommend editing your notes, if necessary. If something you wrote down doesn't make sense, make sure you correct or clarify it. Review all highlighting or underlined notes. You may even want to compare your notes with those taken by other classmates or members of your study group to make sure you captured all the important topics and concepts.

Employ SQ3R

If concepts and topics being tested are based on text book material, or other reading assignments, employing the SQ3R reading method will improve understanding, recall and ultimately your test performance. SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, and Read, Recall, and Review (3Rs).

  • Survey
    Before you jump in and start reading your text, skim through each chapter to get a general idea of the main ideas and themes. Pay attention to chapter headings, introductions, subheadings, visual aids and summaries. Try to develop an idea of what the text is going to communicate. This will provide your reading direction and focus.

  • Question
    As you survey the text, develop questions that will help provide additional focus and direction to your reading. Use chapter headings, subheadings and introductions to develop questions. As you read, attempt to answer the questions you developed. Actively search for answers to these questions as you read will help you stay focused and engaged.

  • Read, Recall, Review
    After you've surveyed the text and developed questions, it's time to read text. Read for meaning and understanding, and seek to answer the questions you previously developed. Immediately after reading each section of text, summarize in your mind what you've just read, paying attention to the important concepts and topics discussed. This will improve your ability to recall important information come test time. Finally, review the questions you developed and try to answer each one without referring to the text or your notes. Can you answer them from memory?

Learn more about the SQ3R reading method.

Manage Your Time Effectively

Everyone has 168 hours in each week, but not everyone chooses to manage their time effectively. The difference between a poor student, a good student and a great student often boils down to how effectively each manages and uses their time. Have you ever arrived at the end of a long, busy week and asked yourself, "Where did all that time go?" or "Why wasn't I able to accomplish everything I needed to get done?" More often than not, the answer isn't because you didn't do anything, or that you didn't work hard, but rather that you didn't work smart. Time management isn't about "activity", it's about "productivity".

Productivity, not activity is your goal. You don't just want to work hard, you want to work smart. Students who work smart have effective time management skills. Effective time management is essential to improving overall academic productivity, as well as test performance. Take a moment and learn about effective time management skills.

Begin Reviewing a Week Before the Test

About a week before a test, sit down and put together a test preparation plan. Every test you take is going to be a little different – as will each test preparation plan you develop. In you plan you should decide how many hours you'll need to study and how to allocate those hours.

Your plan should (1) identify the most important study materials and techniques for the test (ie. reviewing notes, practice problems, etc.) and (2) how much time to allocate to each. For example, if you're preparing for a geometry test then the most effective study technique may be working practice problems assigned by your teacher. If it's a history test you're preparing for, then reviewing lecture notes and group study may be you best avenue for improving performance.

Now, let's make one thing clear. To improve test performance you should begin reviewing a week before a test – not studying. You should be employing effective study habits and techniques throughout the entire semester. Good reviewing is no substitute for poor studying. Don't expect to start studying one week prior to a test and perform well. The key to improving your test performance is to employ effective study habits and techniques all semester and then employ effective reviewing techniques one week before a test.

Self Testing

Once you have a good command of relevant subject matter, one of the most effective strategies for improving test performance is to test yourself using old tests, practice tests provided by your instructor, or by making your own practice test. If you end up making your own practice test, we recommend doing so with the help of a study group. Developing a practice test with the help of study group members will save time and provide a greater array of problems likely to appear on the test.

An important part of self testing is to take your practice test under actual test-like conditions. If your actual test is not open book, or open note, then don't use your notes or books as you complete your practice test. If your actual test is going to be timed, then your practice test should also be timed. Completing your practice test under the same conditions as your actual test will ensure you know the material well enough to perform well come test day.

Employ Proven Test Taking Strategies

Once you've prepared adequately, and done all that you can do prior to test day, the last thing you'll want to do in order to improve your test performance is to employ the following test taking strategies.

  • Arrive early.
  • Practice relaxation.
  • Budget your time.
  • Do a memory dump.
  • Read directions carefully.
  • Look for cues.
  • Answer all questions.
  • Rely on your first impression.
  • Review your answers.
  • Analyze your performance.

Learn more about test taking strategies that can improve test performance.

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