As the school year begins, a problem that I hear parents express most often, working as a study skills tutor, is that they see their children studying and then it seems they cannot remember the material on test day or for end-of-the-year cumulative exams. Many times they wonder aloud if their student has test anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, test anxiety is a type of performance anxiety caused by fear of failure, poor test history, or lack of preparation. Students who are experiencing test anxiety can have physical (stomach upset, headache, sweating, shortness of breath, feeling faint, or panic attacks), emotional (feelings of fear, helplessness, or anger), or cognitive (negative thinking and difficulty concentrating) symptoms.
Test anxiety, although seemingly difficult to manage, may be, at least partially, a result of studying inefficiently or ineffectively over a long period of time. Ineffectual studying can cause poor test-taking experiences, which in turn, result in a negative mindset towards test-taking. We often hear advice about how to study, like: 1. Identify your student’s learning style and find an instructor whose teaching style matches your student’s learning style. 2. Always study in the same place, and make sure you have the materials you will need. These suggestions and advice are easy to come by, but not necessarily helpful or validated by any sort of research.
Here are some research-based strategies you can use if you need to learn something and actually remember it.
1- Study in Different Locations
Studying in different locations has been shown to increase retention because what we retain has been proven to be state dependent. The brain makes unconscious associations between the material being studied and the information in the background at the time. For example, the melodic hum of people talking on the bus with the Pythagorean theorem or the smell of freshly brewed espresso at the local coffee shop with the events that led up to the signing of the Treaty of Paris. Studying in multiple locations causes the brain to make multiple associations with the same material increasing the likelihood of retention.
2- Space Out Your Study Time
Because memory is state dependent, if we feel happy when we study, we will remember more if we are also happy when we take the test. If we study while drinking coffee, we will remember more if we also have had coffee before taking the exam. This can explain why sometimes, people feel that last minute, all night cramming sessions before a test are helpful. You are tired, slightly stressed out, and caffeinated while studying and when taking the test. However if this stress becomes extreme, memory will be inhibited and you will have the experience of studying and then blanking out or forgetting everything you thought you knew. In addition, cramming will leave you with very little memory of the information studied several days or weeks after you have taken the test.
Studying in short spurts (for example, for 30 minutes a day) over longer periods of time (several weeks or months, depending on whether you are taking a unit test or the SAT) has been shown to be more effective for recall. When you study over time, you have the opportunity to forget and relearn material, and when content is revisited, you learn it better than you did the first time. Planning out short blocks of study time, spaced out over weeks or months, can help you feel committed to actually devoting the time necessary to learn the new information.
3- Take a Practice Test or Do a Practice Presentation
Since practice tests and quizzes cause you to retrieve information, they can be a very valuable study tool. The process of practicing the retrieval of certain information has been shown to make it more accessible in the future. Testing not only assesses learning but can also improve it. Practicing the test or quiz before it happens in conditions similar to test conditions can also decrease anxiety on the actual test day.
4- Vary the Type of Information You Study
We are often taught in school using many examples of the same type of problem. However, students who study mixed sets have been shown to perform twice as well as those who study problems that are all of the same type. When you do mixed practice you have to use more critical thinking skills to select the correct operation or procedure, causing your brain to notice patterns and pick up similarities and differences. For this reason, alternating between different types of study material in one study session can be more effective than focusing on a single topic or type of problem.
5- Set High Expectations and Aim for High Difficulty
The study referenced above by Taylor and Rohrer also mentions that interleaving or mixing the types of problems that you study in one sitting increases the level of difficulty of your task. Having what Robert Bjork and his colleagues, in previous research, call a desirable difficulty, lowers success during practice sessions but increases performance on subsequent testing. In other words, the harder you have to work to get correct results while studying, the more likely you are to remember it.
Although factors like motivation, dedication, and follow through also come into play when discussing performance on tests, using the research-based strategies above should help to make test preparation more effective. Using these tips to study, in conjunction with stress management techniques before and during the test, should help a great deal to reduce test anxiety and increase test performance.
-Nina Parrish, M.Ed.
Owner | Parrish Learning Zone, LLC