How to Study for a Test: Principles from a Successful Test-Taker (2007) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

How to Study for a Test: Principles from a Successful Test-Taker (2007) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
July 19, 2014
Note from the Author: This essay was originally published on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007.  I seek to preserve it as a valuable resource for readers, subsequent to the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices. Therefore, this essay is being published directly on The Rational Argumentator for the first time.  
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 19, 2014
Perhaps you are looking to ace a standardized test. Or you want to get an A in an Advanced Placement (AP) high-school course or a challenging upper-level college course. Getting a high score on any test can be considered a skill in itself – apart from knowledge of the subject matter being tested. In fact, many people who are otherwise great learners and know a subject in detail tend not to score as well on tests as they could. If you are one of those people, here are some helpful suggestions as to how to improve your performance. These principles have helped me – among other things – to obtain an SAT score of 1580 (under the old system), an ACT score of 35, straight A grades throughout Advanced Placement courses and other classes in high school, as well as straight A grades in undergraduate college courses. I do not mention this to boast of my talents, as I do not consider myself to possess any exceptional abilities inaccessible to anyone reading this article. You can do what I did – honestly and genuinely – if you follow the proper techniques.

First, remember that every instructor and testing organization has certain patterns or modes of functioning that you can expect and anticipate. Sometimes the teacher or organization might not even be aware of these modes of functioning. They are just the ways of doing things that seem natural to the teacher or the people in the organization: ways that fall in line with their habits, general personality, expectations of students, and evaluation of what is important in the subject matter. Nonetheless, these modes of functioning manifest themselves quite systematically, and they affect the tests designed by that instructor or organization.

There is no a prior way to know what these tendencies are; you will simply have to watch the teacher or organization for patterns. If you are dealing with a large institution that puts out standardized tests, you will have a substantial body of prior exams to analyze for patterns. Ask yourself: what kinds of questions tend to occur most often? What is the prevalent format of the questions? What are the skills that tend to be tested most frequently? Unless large departures from prior procedure are explicitly announced and publicized by the testing organization, you can be sure that future tests will be extremely similar to past tests. Having examined past tests sufficiently, you can be sure to have a vast pool of data at your fingertips, hinting to you what you should concentrate on most in your preparation.

If you are studying for a test from an instructor you know, you have other helpful indicators to guide you along in your studying. If the instructor emphasized certain topics in class repeatedly, you can be sure that they will be tested. If the instructor states that the test will be over a certain section of a book-but he did not cover all the material in that section – focus on the material that he did cover; he likely considers that material to be more relevant than the material he omitted. If in doubt, ask the instructor for additional clarification; you might not always get an answer, but you will be surprised at how receptive most teachers and professors are to clarifying what you will need to study.

Take detailed notes during the class lectures; do not rely on your memory alone to understand the class material. You can be following the instructor perfectly in class and forget everything he said a few days later. Having notes on everything he said will give you a reliable study aid for the exam-one of the most important aids you can get. The notes will help you recall anything you forget later; they are also an excellent way of figuring out what is likely to be tested. The night before the exam, review all the notes so that the material is fresh in your mind. In the meantime, try to develop a technique for taking notes more efficiently, so that you can record all the essential things an instructor says and writes on the board, at the rate at which he says and writes them. Learning a system of shorthand or developing your own will assist you greatly in obtaining accurate transcripts of classroom lectures.

Use your time efficiently; remember that it is possible for you to work really hard at learning interesting material that has little relevance to the exam. If you enjoy learning for learning’s sake, more power to you. I, too, like to accumulate knowledge for pleasure. However, do not consider time spent in this fashion as studying for the exam in question. The primary purpose of studying for a test is not to expand your knowledge base – though that may be a secondary consequence. It is, rather, to give you the highly limited and specific ability of answering the fairly narrow range of questions a given test might contain. If approached properly, this can be a far narrower task than the accumulation of general knowledge about anything; thus, it can be a task that can be accomplished in several hours as opposed to several months. Becoming more knowledgeable is not something you can effectively do the night before an exam; you should have been doing it since the beginning of the course or several months in advance of a standardized test. The purpose of intensive studying is much more immediate; it is to get you ready to face the specific challenges with which the test presents you. You probably already know a lot more about the subject being tested than you imagine. The key to success on the test is to be able to express your knowledge in the proper format.

In general, you will be well on your way to success if you approach at studying for the test not as a body of knowledge to be learned, but as a task to be completed. To understand this better, consider an analogy. Learning all you can about tables and actually making a table are two quite distinct endeavors. Studying for a test is more like making a table. If you do it right, you can not only be sure that you are spending your study time in a manner that will actually help you; you will eventually be able to accurately determine when you have studied enough and are prepared to take the exam – just like if you were making at table, you would know it if you were finished. Then you will be able to approach the exam confidently and rationally, knowing that you are well equipped to earn some of the highest grades possible.

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