The Single Best Way to Improve Your Test Scores

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The Single Best Way to Improve Your Test Scores

Students often come to me frustrated by their test scores. They explain that even when they do spend hours reviewing their notes and their textbook before an exam, it doesn’t matter. Their scores don’t improve.

I’m sympathetic. Retaining information is difficult and tests are stressful. It’s been over a decade since I was a high school student, and I still occasionally have unpleasant dreams in which I show up for a math midterm completely unprepared.

However, there is one study strategy that is not only extremely effective, but often overlooked by students. That strategy is...(cue drum roll)... testing yourself.

It might not sound like a game changer, but I promise that it can be. In a 2011 study, for example, researchers asked students to read a scientific passage. Those directed to perform “retrieval practice”--another way to describe self-testing--retained 50% more information a week later compared to students who used alternative study methods (such as repeatedly restudying the material). And a 2013 study that reviewed 10 different learning techniques found that the two most effective were “distributed practice” (i.e. spacing out study sessions over multiple days leading up to a test) and practice testing. The phenomenon of taking practice tests to boost recall has been demonstrated so often that it even has an official name: the testing effect.

Practice tests can be stressful--buy they do help.

What I find most interesting about the testing effect is that most students do not seem to know that it exists. And even when students do utilize the testing effect, they may not realize it’s working. In fact, during that 2011 study in which students read a scientific passage, those who took a practice test predicted they would remember less than the other students--even though the opposite ended up happening.

I think this erosion of confidence is one of the reasons students avoid testing themselves. Practice tests are difficult and uncomfortable; they expose you to what you don’t know, rather than affirming what you do. However, it is this exact reason I think they are so effective. How else are you going to identify the gaps in your knowledge? Plus, I think that by testing yourself, you can actually become better at adapting the mindset of a teacher and predicting what will be on the actual test.

So don’t just study longer--study better. Before re-reading a section of your textbook, pause and try to identify the main points it covers. Ask your teacher for extra practice questions. If you are having trouble finishing tests on time at school, practice with time restraints to get used to the anxiety of a deadline.

In short: test yourself before the actual test.

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