5 Steps to Help You Study Smarter, Not Harder

Students of all ages can benefit from learning how to best absorb the information they need to know. Whether you’re in high school, college, or just needing to pass a test at work, you can learn to study better so you’re not stuck with a poor score. Even if you’ve never considered yourself a good test-taker, you don’t have to resign yourself to D’s. Here are a few tips to help you make the most of the brain you’ve got.

Step 1: Figure Out the Testing Style

Many teachers will tell you this on the first day of class when going over the syllabus and course expectations, so make sure you show up. Read through the syllabus, too, focusing on assignments, expectations, and especially grading percentages. The syllabus is extremely important, and especially in college classes, this may be the only time your professor informs you of an assignment. Don’t be one of those students who looks at the syllabus on the first day of class and then ignores it for the rest of the semester. If tests are worth 80% of your grade, you want to know about it.

Showing up the first day isn’t the only thing you can do. Many professors are willing to answer questions if you ask. If they don’t tell you, ask if it will be multiple choice. Ask whether the test will come from the PowerPoint slides they showed in class, the textbook, or both. To get even more information, try asking their past students or looking them up on a website such as RateMyProfessors.com Sometimes commenters will give tips about how hard the tests will be or where the test questions are taken from. If the test turns out to be different from what you expected, at the very least, you’ll learn your teacher’s testing style after the first test. Use what you’ve learned to study for the next one.

Step 2: Take Great Notes

Before you can study, you need to take notes. Depending on the class, notes may be all you have to study from, or you may only need to take minor notes to supplement the notes your teacher posted online. If you followed the first step, you should know whether your notes need to be detailed, or whether you just need to write a few words on your handouts to make sure you understand the concepts. At any rate, make sure you take some kind of notes. Even if you already have the information, the simple act of writing something down helps you to remember it.

Step 3: Organize (Your Notes and Your Brain)

Once you know what topics you need to study and you have taken the notes you need for the test, it’s time to get organized. Locate all of the readings, textbooks, and handwritten notes that you will need to use to study, and keep them all in one place, whether it’s a folder on your computer or an actual, physical folder. If you type instead of write, back up your notes. This is especially important if you’re studying over the course of more than one day (your best bet if you want to remember the information after the test is over with). Losing your notes is never good.

Read through all of the material, but don’t focus too hard on cramming it into your brain just yet. Focus on how everything fits together. Make connections between different concepts and figure out how you can group them together. If you find something you don’t understand in your notes, try to find it in your book and add to them. If your notes are messy, disorganized, or contain extra information that you know isn’t going to be on the test, now is the time to rewrite them. Try making a “cheat sheet”: one sheet of notebook paper where you cram all of the important information into 8 ½ by 11 inches (you may use the back if you need). Just don’t cheat with it—it sucks to get expelled. You can write small, but make sure you can read it.

Step 4: Memorize

Memorizing is an obvious step, but how you memorize matters. Don’t just read the same sentence a hundred times until the words start to run together and you no longer know what the word “the” means. Simply cramming a word or phrase into your brain is inefficient. Your brain works better when it understands things, and it also works a bit like a web with millions of different connections between neurons. When you connect an idea to something you already know, you’re more likely to remember it. The more connections, the better.

There are a ton of memory tips you can find online, so you can be creative with this step. Ask yourself questions that you think might be on the test, then answer them out loud or write the answers on a sheet of paper. Create mnemonic devices, make flash cards, or draw pictures. You can find out your learning style here and use your result to help you study. Visual learners may do well with flash cards, whereas auditory learners may want to create a song to go with the concepts, and kinesthetic learners might want to build a model.

Step 5: Stay Calm

On the day of the test, the most important thing is to stay calm. If you finished studying all of the material, you don’t need to cram last minute. You can’t memorize every single detail, but the important thing is that you studied all of the chapters. If you ran out of time the night before, cramming five minutes before the test may help, but most of the time your best bet is to arrive a few minutes early and sit there with your iPod or book until the test is passed out. You’re as ready as you’re ever going to be, so why worry? You’re going to ace it.

Good luck, test takers. Even if you don’t get an A on your next test, the more practice you get, the better your chances are. You don’t have to follow every tip above, either. Try them out, then pick and choose those that work for you. If flash cards aren’t your thing, that’s fine. The important part is learning how your brain works and using it to your advantage. And above all, have confidence in yourself. If you do that, your grades will be rising in no time.

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