There is a strange irony that most of the best prepared students in class end up the weakest test takers. It actually makes sense when you start digging into the details though. The skills that make a student “a good student” in the traditional sense, are the same things that drag them back when it comes test time. Part of becoming a skilled test taker is related to completely ignoring the “good student” urges (or compartmentalizing them) and starting to focus on a less traditional style of test taking.
“Good students” I use in quotes to emphasize that I’m referring to the traditional idea of good students and not just any student that gets good grades. In this context, a good student gets good grades but a “good student” gets good grades by studying hard and making a large effort to making those grades.
One way to virtually guarantee your success (or at least survival) in any class is to just keep working on a subject until you get it. That usually means sitting down with the textbook and looking down on it until something finally sticks. Some students spend hours and hours on this process just to become sufficient. This is where one of the first things you should learn to become unshakable come test time comes into play.
1. Control Your Obsessiveness
If you sit with a textbook for hours trying to understand a subject then you’re going to be giving every aspect of your anatomy signals that what you’re studying is unbelievably important. It’s going to make it inevitable that you’ll stress when the subject comes up. The bigger you make the assignment seem, the more difficult you’re going to make taking the test. When you step into the test, you’re going to feel those hours of stressing over the subject.
Does that mean you should just walk in and fail without ever learning the subject?
Of course not. While using the 15MSS (15 Minute Study Strategy) that is taught on this blog, this shouldn’t be a scenario you run into very often. By using the right study strategy well in advance of the test, you can prevent this problem from coming up during the test. When it does come up, you’ll have the tools to handle it without turning it into an overly stressful experience.
Even if you don’t go for the full 15MSS, there are better approaches to solving this test preparation problem.
If you’re looking to prepare for a difficult test, instead of stressing obsessively for hours on it, study in regular short sessions. So, instead of sitting for 5 hours trying to learn it. Sit down for 25 minutes trying to learn it. Then an hour later you can do it again. Then repeat that as long as you find necessary. This is dramatically more likely to teach your brain the subject is important but it won’t be giving the same obsessive signals to your body as studying it straight through. You’ll get plenty of breaks and enjoy the process a whole lot more.
2. Focus On Memorization
Once you have the basics of what you’re learning understood, it’s time to forget about trying to develop a deeper understanding on the subject. In an ideal scenario, you should have a basic understanding of the information by the end of class time. By the time you’re sitting down with your study material, you should be able to focus most of your energy on straight up memorization.
If you don’t understand the material by the end of the class then check out our future article (How To Survive A Boring Lecture.)
Memorization is a strategy that helps you control your stress levels. While trying to understand a subject deeper and deeper is a challenge that is constantly increasing in difficulty, trying to memorize a list of facts is a relatively steady challenge. Science has done enough studies on how to memorize information. If you’re looking to stimulate memory, there is a standard set of procedures you need to go through. If you go through them, you’ll memorize it (in the short term at least.)
For more info on that you should read 6 Memory Strategies You Need In Your Study Toolbox.
Understanding isn’t as well understood. It’s not easy to know how well you can creatively think about a subject. What seems like progress may not be progress. What seems like no progress can be tons of progress. This is inevitably stressful and confusing. At a certain point, it’s much easier just to settle in for the sure thing of memorization.
When you step into the test, you won’t have to worry about forgetting the information you should know. (I’ve had so many aha moments on tests that it drives me nuts. After hours of uncertainty about my understanding, when the test comes and I know what I need to know, the pieces seem to fall right into place.) This isn’t a sure thing but once you have the basics of understanding, memorization is the safest place to focus on.
3. No Improvement Mentality
Test time is not the time to be worried about improving your grade.
It’s not an athletic event where stress will help you improve. It’s the opposite.
Worrying about improving your grade during test time is a sure method to stressing yourself out about it. You have limited time. You have limited access to resources. You have plenty of points at stake. You do not need the extra concern of improving your grade.
When you step into a test, only look to hold your ground. If you’re expecting a B on the test then fight for a B. That means, it’s not time to stress about every stupid little question that you can’t answer. When your grade doesn’t require perfection, you shouldn’t be stressing about imperfection.
When you sit down for the test, you know what you know and nothing more. It’s not the time to stress excessively to try and dig up hard to find information you haven’t thought of in years. It’s the time to do what you know you know. Anything extra you can do is just that: extra.
This blog often recommends going into a test with the mentality that your grade is already decided. This is usually a state best achieved by not doing crazy things like trying to cram months worth of studying into a night.
There is nothing (virtually nothing) you can do at that point to improve your grade. If the teacher throws you a question you’re completely unprepared for then you will be screwed. Accept that. That’s okay. You can learn from it. Sitting and worrying about it will not improve your grade. You can’t magically go back in time to study something else. You only know what you know and nothing more.
Accepting this is one of the most powerful ways you can reduce the stress you feel during tests. (It’s not completely true. It might as well be though. Naturally, skilled test takers may be able to improve their grade through a strange mind-over-matter confidence but the average person would get a lot farther just settling in and trying not to screw up the grade they already have in the bag.)
Using these strategies you can make tests your easy class day. On your average class day you’ll be forced to focus on hard learning what your teacher is lecturing. On test day you’ll get the relatively relaxing chance to just review the stuff you already know. That’s an amazing experience that absolutely everyone should be looking for.
Do you want to know how to study in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s what this blog is all about. Be sure to check out the archives, follow along, and read the ebooks in the sidebar for all the dirty secrets your teachers don’t want you to know about.
Aaron Richardson took his grades from fighting F’s to Easy A’s. In the process, he read over 300 books on personal development. Today he’s founded 2 blogs on studying including Smart Student Secrets. He’s written 3 books on the subject. His work has been featured on some of the biggest news, psychology, and student sites on the internet.
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