It’s that super special time of year again. Just yesterday, you were at Staples deciding between purple tie-dye spiral-bound or classic black and white composition notebooks. It seems like you’ve only just memorized your class schedule, and now here you are, eating stale holiday candy and preparing for… MIDTERMS (insert Law and Order dun dun sound here). Whether you’re new to midterms or you’re an exam veteran, these tests are crucial for your semester grades. Here are Carnegie Prep’s clutch study strategies to keep your grades high and your stress low.
If you’re sitting there thinking, “but, like, cramming works for me,” then you’re likely one of the majority of students who believe that but are actually quite wrong. In 2009, UCLA professor Dr. Nick Kornell found that 90% of students performed worse on an exam after cramming, as opposed to spacing the same number of study hours out over several days. However, 72% of participants still reported to believe that cramming worked best for them.
It might feel exciting trying to learn an entire semester’s content through the wee hours of the morning, but let’s face it: taking the proper time to study completely would be a better plan. So try this one … review one topic or unit every day leading up to midterms. See how many units your midterm will cover, and be sure you leave yourself enough time to cover one unit a day. This not only makes sure you have ample time if any issues in understanding arise, but also ensures you’re in the right mindset when you study.
Try to decrease your anxiety if possible. Research shows that anxiety may lead to “increased distractability, attentional lapses, inability to maintain attention, poor concentration, and intrusive thoughts” (Mathews and Mackintosh, 1998; Robinson et. al., 2013). Anxiety hinders our ability to understand high-level conceptual information and weakens our attunement to fine details — double whammy! Better to put in 15 solid minutes today to understand a single topic rather than 20 scatter-brained minutes the night before. Avoid this altogether by getting a head start on studying.
Know the content and the format.
You don’t want to be blindsided on the test when you have ten minutes left and you discover the final question is an essay. You also don’t want to waste valuable study time memorizing vocab only to discover your teacher provided a word bank on the test. Knowing the format of the test beforehand helps you prioritize studying and test-taking. Most teachers provide this information and some are happy to upon request. Being informed about the structure, content, and format of the test will help you study smarter and study better.
Use your mind’s eye.
Not everyone is good at drawing pictures, but everyone is good at remembering them (especially compared to our ability to remember words!)*. Put info into your own “visual words.” We all know how easy it is to copy and paste things from our notes or Google into a study guide. Making or finding a visual simply requires more time, and so you spend longer thinking about an individual topic than you would just writing a definition. Additionally, our lives are mostly visual. You may not know (nor ever see) the word “almuerzo,” but you do know what a tasty sandwich looks like. You may not understand the chemical equation for photosynthesis, but you can recognize sugar, water, sun, and air. Visualizing also frees you up to see things in a new light. This can make the difference between rote memorization and that moment of conceptual “click.” Whether you like drawing them on your own or scouring the internet for GIFs, “translating” the names and definitions into images ensures you understand the concepts behind them.
*For the extra organized: Make a color-coded study guide with many visuals and different size fonts to emphasize certain concepts over others. Purple are people; orange are dates; blue are concepts; and so on. Do it on a trifold board or index cards or graphing paper.
Make an info map.
Your teachers teach information in separate units and then, come the end of the semester, test you on all that info at once. If a question draws upon two of these units and you’ve never before explored their relationship, you’ll be wasting a lot of time and brain power during the test. Make these connections for yourself before your teacher tests them. Try to think about the thematic connections between the sections. Map out all the information and ask yourself how it’s connected. This also helps with memorization. Your brain works a lot like your laptop. If you have too many tabs open, your computer is going to run really slowly. Similarly, sheer memorization takes up a lot of mental RAM. If you can see how the semester fits together, you can condense a bunch of separate facts (a.k.a. a bunch of open tabs) into one logical web.
Create your own test.
I know what you’re thinking: the last thing I need is another test. I also know this: another test is exactly what you need. Making questions takes more care than you realize (shout out to teachers!). You need to understand everything– the topics themselves, their relationships, and potentially incorrect understandings of these relationships– in order to develop challenging questions that truly test your knowledge. A week or two before the test, create a test for yourself that has a similar format to the exam. Ask yourself basic multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the-blank, short-response, etc. Put this test to the side for a week while you just study content. Then, take your test the weekend before the exam. Score yourself. This not only provides a good metric as to your recollection of the information; it also may give you insight into what your teacher will ask you on the test.
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Einstein
Man, oh, man, was he an Einstein or what? Too many students try to memorize word-for-word definitions that sound fancy but really are just a garble of academic nonsense. Studying like this doesn’t stand a chance when faced with complex conceptual questions. Better to paraphrase the “jist” in your own words than to botch an impressive but incomprehensible summary. Find someone willing to sit down with you and learn from you — a parent, a sibling, a friend in another class, a tutor. Ask them questions and allow them to ask you questions. Guide them through practice problems. Get them to explain it back to you to make sure they get it as you intend. And hey, you just may discover that you love teaching as much as we at Carnegie Prep do.
No one is perfect.
If you’re worried you’re going to have a brain cramp and forget something crucial during the test, then refresh yourself on it right before you go into the test room. When time starts, flip your paper over and immediately write that fact down on the front page. My AP Physics teacher trained our class to write down certain helpful formulas on the equation sheet provided during the AP exam, so we didn’t need to worry about them at all as we went through the test. Maybe you are scribbling down key equations, definitions of terms, significant people, or even just a big old reminder to check your work (HEY ME! CHECK YOUR WORK. LOVE, ME). Free up your brain space to focus on answering the questions rather than just memorizing facts.
More is not more.
The difference between zero hours and one hour is huge. The difference between nine and ten is negligible. Overpreparation is a real concern. It’s true: you can fatigue your mind by studying too much. At a certain point, put the books away. Remind yourself that you’ve been preparing all semester for this midterm, in addition to your more recent midterm-specific studying. Instead, sleep. Laugh. Eat. Sleep some more.
Following even just a few of these study strategies will have you walking into exam day calm and confident. You can apply these same strategies to finals and beyond. Who knows– you may actually learn something!