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How to Prepare for Tests in College: Tips and Tricks

written by: William Springer•edited by: Wendy Finn•updated: 12/8/2011

Don't you just love taking tests? No? Well, me either. Here are some tips to get the best grades with the least amount of stress.

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    High-Stakes Testing

    One thing that new college students often find themselves unprepared for is the importance of tests. Unlike in high school, many college classes have no graded homework assignments, so tests, quizzes, and projects make up the entire grade. This can be quite a problem for people who don't know how to prepare for tests and study! Tips for college students are readily available from your school's test preparation center, if one is available, but many students are unaware of such resources. Here we present a few tips to make the most of your study time.

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    Study, Don't Cram

    You know how your parents always told you to get started on your work early, rather than rushing to get it all done at the last minute? Bad news...they were right! While cramming for a test the night before can be effective enough to pass the test, the knowledge will often evaporate within a week. You might not care if you're cramming for a final, but keep in mind that classes tend to build on each other; not remembering what you've learned in this class will make the next class in line that much more difficult. Additionally, most college finals are comprehensive, meaning that you still need to remember the things you were tested on in the miderm.

    The best course of action is to study a little every night; that way you'll retain more of the information, and you won't be so stressed out the night before the exam!

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    Understand, Don't (Just) Memorize

    While rote repetition may be sufficient for doing well on tests in introductory classes, later courses wil require that you be able to use the information rather than simply repeating it. Additionally, understanding how different elements fit together will make it easier to recall them later, and to piece together logically anything that you're unable to recall.

    Many exams will test you in each of the levels of Bloom's Taxonomy; success in each level represents a successively greater ability to use the information presented. At the lowest level is knowledge; knowledge questions simply ask that you repeat information you've heard during the semester, and are the only questions that you can answer by memorization alone.Bloom's Taxonomy 

    Higher-level questions require you to demonstrate comprehension, apply the knowledge to a new situation, analyze a situation based on your knowledge, put together various things to synthesize new information, and make judgments about the validity of information.

    What this boils down to is that you should be prepared to use the information, not just repeat it. The best teachers will often have some questions that can be completed simply by recall (to see if you paid attention!), and which are often directly off of the homework, but then will have other questions that require you to do something you've never done before using that information.

    To prepare for these, when you study don't just commit information to memory, but ask yourself questions about why that information is true. In computer science, for example, you might know that bubble sort is a quadratic algorithm, but you should also understand what that means, why bubble sort is quadratic, and why this is usually a bad thing!

    Wondering how to prepare for tests and study? Tips for college students: worry less about memorization and more about why something is true. Understanding how elements work together will do more for you in the long run than simply memorizing facts.

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    Write Things Down

    Even if you never use them to study, taking notes is still a good way of solidifying information in your mind, as the act of writing them down helps to move information into long term storage (see the section below on how memory works). When taking notes, don't think that you need to write everything down, but do avoid just jotting words here and there; if you do, you're likely to come back to your notes later and have no idea what they were about. Either write in complete sentences, or have a simple, easy to use shorthand that you'll have no trouble understanding later. Indeed, of all the college study skills you need to learn, taking notes could be the most important!

    It's a good idea to write down questions that you may have when reading or listening to a lecture; this serves two purposes. First, if you don't find the answer, it's a reminder to look for it later! Second, it focuses your attention so you're more likely to notice the information you're looking for when you run across it. Third, asking questions helps to make connections so that the information becomes a whole rather than a collection of disjointed facts and trivia. If you're not familiar with this type of notetaking, you should read up on Cornell notes.

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    Ask Questions

    Professors love students who ask questions in class, for several reasons. First off, it shows that you're paying attention and want to understand the material. Second, it allows the professor to see what areas he or she needs to spend additional time on immediately, rather than waiting to get the homework assignments back. Third, many students generally have the same question, but are afraid to ask; the student who asks a question in class usually helps several people besides himself.

    If you want to do better on tests, one of the easiest ways to improve your understanding is to ask questions when you're confused about something. In fact, one of the largest benefits of college is that you have easy access to a number of experts in whatever you happen to be studying; don't waste it!

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    How Your Mind Processes Information

    By understanding how information moves into long term memory, you can better process it with less effort. Note that this section is a simplification; the entire process is beyond the scope of this article. Improving your memory lets you make the most of your college study skills and process more information with less effort.

    The human brain has one memory system, but three different functions: sensory memory, short-term (or working) memory, and long-term (or permanent) memory. When we first gain a piece of information, it moves into sensory memory, where it lasts somewhere between a third of a second and two seconds. If we're paying attention, it then moves into short-term memory (usually stored as sounds, but sometimes as images). People can generally hold about seven items in short term memory, with a range of five to nine items depending on the type of information; thus, the saving "seven, plus or minus two". Items in short term memory last around 18 seconds, but can be refreshed to keep them longer (for example, repeating a phone number to yourself until you are able to dial it).

    In order to recall information later, we need to move it from short-term to long-term memory, where it can last anywhere from days to decades. How do we facilitate the transfer of information from short-term to long-term memory?

    In order to strongly encode the information, it helps to focus on only a few items at a time. This is one reason cramming doesn't work well; because you're trying to learn a lot of information at once, it is encoded only weakly and thus lasts for only a few days. Focusing on one area at a time allows for a better encoding. Additionally, we tend to recall things by association, so understanding how various elements fit together makes it easier to recall them later; this is also the basis for memory tricks that tie a list of items to be recalled to a funny picture.

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    Because much of the work of permanently encoding memories is done while sleeping, not getting enough sleep can make it harder to remember things later. This is why teachers will often recommend that you get a good night's sleep before a test; letting your brain rest will actually improve recall, so someone who gets plenty of sleep will often do better than someone else who spends the night cramming for the test.

    A word of warning: it does take some time for information to be encoded into long-term memory, and falling asleep can interrupt the process, causing you to lose the information you just studied! As a result, it's a good idea to wait at least half an hour after your study session before going to sleep.

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    Taking the Test

    Once test day arrives, don't panic! Have a good meal beforehand, so that you can concentrate on the test rather than on your stomach. If it's allowed, you might want to bring a drink as well, particularly on a final that could last for several hours.

    Once you get your test, start by answering all of the questions you know. In many cases, there won't be time to complete every question, so there's no reason to waste a lot of time and effort on one question when there are easier problems still to be answered. Additionally, there will often be multiple questions on related topics, so the answer to one may provide clues to another.

    On multiple choice questions, if you don't know the answer, start by getting rid of any answer you know is incorrect, then turn the problem into a fill in the blank question and read it in your head with each remaining answer substituted. In many cases, the correct answer will "sound" better than the others, even if you're not sure why.

    When taking a math test, be sure to show your work; not only do many teachers require this for full credit, but most will give partial credit if you got most of the steps correct, particularly if your wrong answer is caused only by a minor error in the arithmetic.

    If you finish early, check over your answers, but don't be in a hurry to change them; your first impression is often the correct one! Change an answer only if you notice an error or something you overlooked before, not just because one answer previously "felt" correct and now does not.

    Stay calm, and keep working until time is up. Good luck!

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    Bloom's taxonomy was first presented in The Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, The Classification of Educational Goals, Handbook I: Cognitive Domain by Benjamen Bloom, published in 1956. A more recent presentation can be found in 1994's Bloom's Taxonomy: A forty-year retrospective by Anderson and Sosniak.

    How memory works is an ongoing area of research. The discovery that most people can store between five and nine items in short-term memory was made by George Miller in 1956 (although more recent estimates are lower). The working memory model presented here was first proposed by Baddeley and Hitch in 1974. The ineffectiveness of cramming is due to the spacing effect, which has been known for over a century; the earliest known study was published in Ebbinghaus' Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology in 1885.