How To Ace A Test: 10 Tips for Smarter Studying (And Better Grades)

By Ann Dolin | Study Skills

Dec 10

how to ace a test image 1When most of us sit down to read through our son or daughter’s report card at the end of the quarter, we generally use it to get an idea of how well they’re doing.

They come home with an “A” and we think: “Wow, they must really be getting this stuff.”

The come home with a “C” and we think: “Okay, looks like they’re having some trouble. We have some work to do.”

What lies underneath that grade though, are a select few moments in time which dictate the large proportion of that grade. Yes, I’m talking about exams.

And when it gets toward the end of the quarter, it’s prime time for studying and preparing for those tests that will ultimately dictate what shows up on that report card.

So in today’s post we’ll talk about how to ace a test. We’ve put together a list of 10 simple study tips you can use with your child to help them study smarter and get as prepared as possible to get the best grades they’re capable of.

How To Ace A Test, Study Tip #1: Plan out your exam schedule

Ever have that moment when you sit down to help your son or daughter with their homework, and they mention something about a test…

You ask: “Oh I didn’t know about that… when’s your test?”

They respond: “Umm… tomorrow.”

Your child can be skilled at studying, and as smart as they come, but if they’re not organized enough to plan ahead for when those exams are coming, they’re going to underperform every time.

Instead, have your child list out the tests they have in all of their classes for the current month. Then have them fill them in on a calendar so you can both see when they’re coming up. This will help them gain a better perspective on when to start studying and what days might be a problem (e.g. if they have a math and english test on the same day).

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Then (and this is important) ask them which days, and how long they’re going to study for each subject. Rather than dictating what they need to do, giving them the freedom to plan out their schedule is much more effective because they’ll be much more likely to follow it. Once they’re done, you can still give it a once-over to help point out anything they’ve missed and provide suggestions, but let them take the first crack at it.

Study Tip #2: Study for exams BEFORE starting homework

It’s not uncommon for students to put off studying because it’s not really a task they have to do.

  • It’s not graded
  • There’ no firm due date
  • And there’s usually nothing to turn into the teacher

Homework is different because there’s more immediate accountability (i.e. it’s checked for completion by the teacher or they have to turn it in for a grade). So, it’s easy to see why studying is put off until after homework is done or not even attempted at all.

An easy fix to this all-too-common situation is to set a timer for 20 minutes and study before starting any homework. Simply reversing the order of tasks ensures that studying is at least started, and often completed prior to digging into the actual homework.

Study Tip #3: Use study guides… the right way

Outside of taking notes on important concepts when reviewing for an upcoming test, good students will use a study guide, either one that they’ve created or one that their teacher has provided. Here’s how to go about both options:

Option 1: Self-created study guides

Creating your own study guide is one of the best ways to improve test grades. Try to predict what your teacher may have on the exam. Pull out old quizzes, find important parts of your notes, and ask others in your class what they think is important. Find the main ideas from these topics and turn them into questions.

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If you have a textbook, turn the chapter headings into questions and write them down. For example, “Election of 1860: Democrats Split” should be “Why did the democrats split in the election of 1860?”

Creating a study guide helps students figure out what they already know, allowing them to refocus their time on what they still have to learn. Knowing what you don’t know cuts down on time spent reviewing what you’ve already committed to memory.

Option 2: Teacher-provided study guides

The biggest mistake students make when they’re given a blank study guide is to complete it with their teacher, or independently, and then read it over many times to study.

Re-reading is passive learning, and it will not stick for long-term retention. Instead, before you complete the study guide, make two additional copies of it. Without looking at the completed version or your notes, fill out what you know. Now, look back at your book or notes to finish the rest.

The third time, complete it from memory or better yet, so you’re not memorizing the order of the questions, cut them into strips and rearrange them. Now, complete it a third time on your own for maximum retention.

Study Tip #4: Get focused on studying with time tracking apps

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Use Forest to help with concentration

Forest is an app that helps students stay away from their phones and focus on their work.

Here’s how it works: when you want to concentrate, you can plant a seed in Forest. Over the next half hour, this small seed will grow into a large tree; however, if you can’t resist the temptation to watch a YouTube video or play a game on your phone, your lovely little tree will wither away.

Every day you will tend to a forest filled with trees (hopefully not too many withered branches). Each tree represents 30 minutes that you have been focused on homework and not playing on your phone. It’s a novel way to help kids beat phone addiction, often a real problem for those with ADHD.

Use SelfControl to prevent distractions

SelfControl is a desktop app that lets you block your own access to distracting websites, email, and anything else on the Internet. All you need to do is set a period of time for which to block, add the sites to your blacklist, and click “start.” This app doesn’t mess around. By blacklisting sites students know will distract them from their school work, they can get those mundane assignments done by working diligently until the time expires. Even if they restart their computer or delete the application, they are still unable to access the blacklisted sites.

According to my 18-year old (he’s the one who told me about this app) and his friends, SelfControl is their go-to app when they need to focus. The bad news is that it’s only available on Mac. PC users can check out Freedom, a similar application.

Study Tip #5: Use classmates for accountability

Many who struggle with motivation have found that having an “appointment” to study with their peers via Skype or Facetime can provide much-needed accountability.

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Just the other day, I walked by my high school son’s room because I heard a voice other than his. He and a friend from his history class were quizzing each other for an upcoming test. I heard questions like:

“Do you think she’s going to ask about the causes of the revolution on the test?”

“How did you create your Venn diagram showing cause and effect? This is how I did mine (holding up paper).”

Whether students study with one another online or in person, having a scheduled time to connect with someone else provides accountability they don’t get from studying alone.

Study Tip #6: Change up your study space

There’s definitely something to be said for having a regular, quiet study space where your child can go each day to do their work. It creates consistency of routine, and signals that it’s time to focus and get their work done.

However, there is some counter-intuitive research that shows switching locations can actually improve test performance. Because the context of where you learn is stored along with the actual material you’re learning, it can be harder to then switch environments and try to recall that same material at a later date (e.g. studying at the kitchen table at home, and then trying to recall that material at your desk in class).

So if your son or daughter get bored or fidgety while they’re studying, encourage them to change up their study space every once in awhile. Have the kitchen table available, but also a desk in the office, a spot on the couch, or even a table out on the deck outside. Not only can changing location break up the monotony of studying, it may help them remember more too!

Study Tip #7: Switch between subjects when you get bored

Another common study myth: you should sit down and focus on one subject for an extended period of time.

It turns out that practicing multiple skills over a set period of time can be more effective for learning than focusing on just one. In our case, that means that it may be better for your child to study a little bit of math, followed by studying vocab words, followed by some more math.

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Again you can encourage them to switch it up, this time by subject, when they start to get tired, stuck, or frustrated. Word of warning though: this does NOT mean multi-tasking. So make sure they’re fully switching tasks, not trying to study multiple subjects at the same time.

Study Tip #8: Don’t just re-read, watch, or type.. write it out

Phones, tables, laptops. Kids are increasingly being allowed, and in some cases encouraged, to replace pen, pencil, and paper with digital tools for assignments, notes, and studying.

The problem is, the research doesn’t indicate that this trend is helping. For example, a study out of Princeton University found that students who took notes by hand (versus by laptop) performed better on subsequent recall tests, even when instructed on how to take notes more effectively.

Bottom line: writing out notes, study guides, essays, practice problems, etc. by hand helps with memory and learning because it encourages students to interact and interpret the material more than typing, watching, or reading does.

When you’re child is studying for their test, encourage them to write everything out, even if they’re not going to use those notes in the future. Have them print out any digital materials they need, and have them re-write notes and study guide questions that may show up on the exam. Explain the reasoning behind it, and then let them take it from there.

Study Tip #9: Test yourself during study sessions

Self-testing is another study strategy that has been proven again and again by the research to improve students’ ability to recall information and perform on exams.

Some familiar examples of testing oneself include using flashcards and completing problem sets. However, when it comes time to reading new information online or in a textbook, most students do not test themselves. They rely on the off chance that the information will magically transfer from the page to their memory just by reading.

By testing oneself when reading a novel, i.e. employing active reading strategies, for example, there is a much higher likelihood of remembering key information. Doing so requires much more mental effort, but it pays off in the long run.

Ironically, many students state that spacing out their studying and testing themselves are counterproductive. Spacing makes it more difficult to recall information the second time around and testing can be discouraging as it reveals gaps in one’s knowledge. But it’s exactly that feeling of difficulty that means actual learning is occurring, and prepares them most for the questions they’ll face on the exam itself.

Study Tip #10: Put extra emphasis on sleep, not the other way around

When students have an exam coming up, the temptation is to stay up late studying, especially when they’ve procrastinated beforehand.

But this is directly the opposite approach your kids should be taking leading up to a big test. For example, in a 2014 study out of KU Leuven University, the researchers found:

“Students who sleep seven hours per night during the exam period score an average of 1.7 points higher (on a scale of 20) on their exams than peers who get only six hours of sleep.”

Sleep is critical for consolidating new memories. And when your child doesn’t sleep enough (or well enough) much of the learning they do throughout the day doesn’t stick like it should.

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The advice here is straightforward: make sure they’ve studied as much as they can, but don’t push back bedtime as a result. If they can sleep better, they’ll be more likely to do better when they head into class the next day.

How To Ace A Test: Time To Take Action

Okay that’s it for our study tips on how to ace a test.

Now having worked with thousands of students over the years, we know better than most that studying is never perfect. Each student has their own unique way of going about learning, so your child’s study process may look different than what we’ve laid out here.

That being said, the research provides some guidelines, and the more of those you can help them incorporate into their learning, the better off they’ll be going into their exams.

So, let’s talk about next steps.

First, how many of the above tips does your son or daughter follow?

Second, which one of these can you implement now to help them study for their upcoming tests?

And third, are there any other study tips you’ve found work well for your kids for exams? We’d love to hear them.

Please share below in the comments!

And hope these help with their next set of exams.

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