How to Prepare for Tests   back

The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
124 Osband

Students who have been around the University of Alabama for a time have learned that just reading over their notes is not sufficient to adequately prepare for most college tests. The following are some suggested steps for really preparing for college tests. Keep in mind that good students begin the test preparation process several days before the actual test.

Step 1 : Figure out what you need to know
This is not as easy as it sounds. You need to analyze how the instructor organized and presented the information. Look at your course syllabus, class notes and textbook. Think back and ask yourself "What does the instructor think is most important, and what are the main concepts he or she is trying to get across?" You should begin this step about a week before the test date

Step 2: Write
Write down what you believe are the major concepts and areas that will be covered. Think about how the instructor has presented the material. The information you need to know can usually be broken down into 3, 4, or 5, major areas of information. These major areas may correspond to textbook chapters. The course syllabus and the textbook’s table of contents will help you with this step.

At this point you should be trying to get the "big picture." You will need to think like a college instructor (this is not as hard as it sounds).

Step 3: Study Actively
Once you can see the "big picture" and have figured out what the instructor wants you to know, you can begin to actively study the major concepts. Active studying does not mean just reading your notes and textbook chapters. Active studying means interacting with the material while you study. Active studying involves creating new study material that will help you to keep the information organized in your mind. Active studying also helps you to see how different parts relate to each other.

When you have figured out a new piece of information and believe you understand it well enough, then write it down in an organized fashion. It is up to you to figure out the best way to organize the material to make it easy to learn. Different students will use different methods depending on their learning style and the type of course. The method you use is also dependent on the type of test you will have (essay, multiple-choice, etc). It is up to you to be creative and figure out the most efficient way that will help you to remember the material later. Whatever you create should be neat and organized. Computer word processing programs will force you to be neat and organized, although they are not necessary. A blank piece of notebook paper can work just as well.

Some methods of displaying information to be learned:

  • Outlining – Very effective and works well for social science courses (economics, history, psychology, human development, etc.)

  • Listing – Effective for learning a lot of new terms. The lists should have some type of organizational structure (by chapter?)
  • Diagramming – Can be useful for showing how concepts are related. If you are a visually oriented learner, this may be a very effective method.
  • Flowcharting – Can be useful for showing how one thing leads to another. Particularly effective in science classes.
  • Flashcards – Can be useful for learning a lot of terms or definitions. Do not just memorize the definition. Examples are more effective than definitions. Can you think up an example on your own? Can you explain it in your own words? Give the flashcards to a friend and have them ask you questions. You will find out very quickly whether you know it or not.

This new material that you create should become your primary source of information as the time for the test draws closer. The process you go through in creating it will help you to organize the material in your mind. Your goal is to thoroughly understand the major concepts that will be tested. Within the major concepts, your goal should be to understand how all the minor points (terms, definitions, theories, names, etc.) fit together. Pay particular attention to the subtle differences between closely related terms.

This process of active studying must begin at least four or five days before the test. It cannot be done the night before. Your mind requires several days to process and store this new information. It is like a puzzle, you may see a lot of individual seemingly unrelated pieces, but it takes time to see how they all fit together.

This process also requires effort. Thinking and writing requires more effort than just reading over notes. However, the more time and effort you spend thinking about and organizing the material ahead of time, the better prepared you will be, and the less anxious you will feel when the test finally arrives.