The Power of Practice Tests and Study Guides to Boost Learning and Reduce Test Anxiety

Most students rely on re-reading their notes and textbooks to prepare for a test. A whopping 84% of college students report doing this, according to an in-depth study by researchers at Perdue University and Washington University. Yet, this age-old approach isn’t as practical as you might think. Why? Because it’s passive and only engages one of the student’s senses- sight. 

For actual retention, students must learn to study actively rather than passively and make their brains work to pull information from their memory. 

In this blog, I’ll explain the most powerful research-based study techniques used by our tutors and executive function coaches. I’ll also explore new research that shows practice tests (at home or school) can help students improve their grades and reduce anxiety on test day.

Why Rereading Notes Falls Short for Test Prep

student reading over notes

Rereading notes is the go-to study method for many students. However, research published in the book Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning suggests it’s just not as effective as active study methods.

The research shows that re-reading gives a student “the illusion” that they know the material when, in reality, the knowledge will never make it into their long-term memory. To cement the material to memory, students must actively recall the information.

The Importance of Study Guides and How to Use Them Strategically

Using study guides and self-testing are invaluable ways for students to study actively (and excel on exams!). Here’s how your child can maximize their test prep efforts, whether they’re making their own study guide or using one from the teacher:

Use a Self-Created Study Guide

The goal of a study guide is to help a student master the material and anticipate potential exam questions. Your child can make one by reviewing their textbook and assignments and combing through their notes. They should find the main ideas of topics and turn them into questions. 

creating a study guide

If your child has a textbook, they can transform the chapter headings into questions. For example, “Photosynthesis and its Stages” should be written down in their study guide as “What are the stages involved in photosynthesis?”

Creating a study guide helps students figure out what they already know and allows 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.

If the student has typed notes from class, great! They can also print their notes and cut them into strips, which they can then organize into piles based on what they know and still need to learn.

Use a Teacher-Provided Study Guide

A common misstep for students is filling out the study guide their teacher gives them and then repeatedly rereading it. Research shows this passive approach doesn’t help with long-term retention. 

Instead, your child can try this approach:

1.  Create two (or more) additional copies of the blank study guide. 

2.  Without looking at the completed version or notes, they should fill in what they know. 

3. They can refer back to their notes or textbook to tackle the rest. To challenge themselves further, they can cut the questions into strips and rearrange them or use notecards. Many students also enjoy Quizlet to generate digital flashcards.

4. Finally, they can complete another copy of their study guide from memory or with minimal checking.

New Research Shows the Importance of Practice Tests in Improving Academic Performance and Reducing Test Anxiety

Self-testing has long been regarded as one of the most effective study methods. Now, some cognitive researchers believe that practice tests in school also significantly improve learning outcomes. 

An August 2023 report published in Educational Psychology Review found that quizzes improve academic performance and reduce test anxiety. The researchers analyzed 24 existing studies that measured student test anxiety across various school subjects in students from third grade to college. They found that when students took low-stakes practice tests and quizzes in class before a big test, they earned higher test scores and had less anxiety on test day.

We’re Here to Teach Your Child How to Study Effectively

At Educational Connections, we empower students through effective study techniques. Our expert subject tutors and executive function coaches provide personalized guidance that goes beyond the classroom. 

Our educators do more than teach kids tricky subjects. They equip students with a toolkit of proven study methods. The result is not only improved grades but also improved confidence in and out of the classroom.