Best Study Strategies to Ace Your Next Test

This guide provides an overview of the best study strategies to use when preparing for tests including the Pomodoro method, SQ3R method, PQ4R method, mind mapping, and more. Using the study strategies outlined in this guide can be incredibly beneficial for avoiding procrastination, making the most of the study cycle, and acing your next test!

Written by Brent Loomes

Best Study Strategies to Ace Your Next Test

If students have ever wondered how they can turn studying from a miserable chore into a fun activity that can set them up for success, they should keep reading. This article aims to let students know how they can avoid the big robber of their free time that is, surprisingly enough, procrastination! We are going to discuss proven and tested methods that facilitate successful studying and high test results.

Student taking a test

How to Study to Avoid Procrastination

Procrastination is a huge obstacle to success in all pursuits of a student's life. It refers to putting things off in the hopes of somehow gathering enough momentum to tackle them successfully at a later time. However, procrastination feeds on itself, and instead of fostering effective learning or studying, it simply eats away at the student's study time and, eventually, their free time as well.

Procrastination is caused by many factors. Some students avoid doing difficult chores, like tackling particularly difficult homework, out of fear that they won't do well on it. Others get distracted by other activities, like hanging out with friends after school, social media, and prioritizing other pursuits. Yet others actively procrastinate by telling themselves that by putting studying off, they will be refreshed and ready to ace the assignment later. However, all these reasons are equally detrimental to studying and doing well in tests.

So, how to study to avoid the traps of procrastination? There are several steps students can take to avoid the major reasons they put away studying and schoolwork. Let's look at some of them:

  1. Think of studying as a part of the day, rather than a chore that needs to be eliminated for more pleasurable pursuits.
  2. Avoid time-wasters, like smartphones and social media. Study time should be focused on studying and phones should either be put on airplane mode or turned off.
  3. Researching ahead of the time can make difficult assignments a lot easier to write. Dedicate time to studying and research instead of putting them off because of fear of failure.
  4. Use rewards for getting things done. When completing homework within a reasonable time, rewards like eating a favorite healthy snack or allowing some time for hanging out with a best friend will encourage active learning and eliminate procrastination.
  5. Avoid putting things off and making excuses. Procrastination eats away at productivity and leads to having no free time, so it is never part of a successful study strategy.

Now that we know what to avoid so as to not fall prey to procrastination, let's look at particular strategies that work for high school and college students.

Study Strategies for High School Students

High school students are in the process of studying at the highest level of their lives so far. Many are also preparing for college. As such, it is important that they have the right tools to tackle difficult assignments and study effectively. The best strategies for them include:

  • Paying attention in class and taking notes. Most students find it hard to pay attention and take notes when having to sit in classes that they do not find engaging or interesting. Moreover, they miss important information that may be a building block to more complex information when they are allowing their minds to wander during class. Taking notes and jotting down outlines of what is being discussed is a good way to retain information. Actively participating in a discussion and volunteering to answer questions is also a good way to stay engaged and better retain information.
  • Having a planner and keeping it up-to-date. This is particularly important for students who tend to procrastinate often because it allows them to stay on top of assignments and deadlines. If students can't find a deadline for a particular test or homework, they can always ask their teacher. This doesn't make them look bad. In fact, the teacher will appreciate the engagement that they are showing by striving to hand in assignments on time.
  • Making a list of daily or weekly goals. When studying for a major test, it's easier to understand complex concepts if they are broken down into simpler components and studied one at a time. Students often see their grades suffer when they study high level concepts without an understanding of the underlying subjects that they cover. By completing daily and weekly goals, students can also incorporate their planner as a tool to efficient study time.
  • Not tackling a task at the last minute. Yes, this is another way of saying, avoiding procrastination. However, it's important to also know that the sooner an essay is completed or homework is done, a great feeling of relief comes over students who avoid pushing work to the last possible minute.
  • Taking breaks. Avoiding procrastination should not mean that students should study for hours on end without any breaks or distractions. A student who has spent an hour or two working on an essay and making sure that it covers all the information required definitely needs a break before they move on to their next task. This not only refreshes their brain but also acts as a reward.
  • Making studying fun. Students should try to see studying as a trip to fascinating new lands and information. The more engagement they find in the subject they're studying, the more likely they are to remember it and put it to good use.

Study Strategies for College Students

College students face different challenges than their high school counterparts. Often, they need to change strategies that served them well in high school because the type of work and study they need to tackle is now different and far more complex. Study strategies for these students include:

  • Avoiding multitasking. This is crucial for college students because many of them are living independently for the first time and may be tempted to become ''Jacks of all trades.'' However, much like procrastination, multitasking prolongs study time, makes studying less effective, and can decrease both the quality and the retention of information.
  • Finding the right spot to study in. Because not all learners are the same, some prefer quiet when they do their studying, while others work best in groups or in a more animated environment. As long as it works, there is nothing wrong with either approach. In fact, studying as a group can encourage retention because students can take on the role of teacher for some of their peers, which can increase their own understanding of concepts.
  • Planning lessons and studying. Students who expect to be able to just wing study time are not likely to succeed in college. They need to plan their day efficiently in order to ensure that they cover all the material they need. They need to plan reading the lesson, reviewing their notes, watching recommended videos that explain concepts, complete questions and quizzes, and finally, write their assignments.
  • Using mnemonics. This will help ensure that the whole brain is engaged in studying and not just rote memorization. It can also come in handy when students are highly anxious about the oncoming test and suffer from a sudden loss of memory as a result. There are many techniques that make use of mnemonics, such as rhymes, acronyms, and visual cues and imagery.
  • Prioritizing quality over quantity. While many freshmen students like to brag about the long hours they poured into studying before an important exam, they are wrongly prioritizing quantity over quality. How many hours that are spent in an all-night study binge are actually spent studying? Not many because students cannot fully concentrate during an all-night session. Instead of binging before the big exam, students are better off chunking up their study time during the day and focusing on the quality of their study time.
  • Using all available resources. Students who learn well by visual cues should watch videos during their study time. Those who like peace and quiet often head to the library, where they can find even more resources on the topic they're studying. The point is to use all available resources when studying for an exam or a test, including peers, the internet, and professors and TAs. Asking a professor about whether supplemental reading will be assessed in an exam, for example, is a great way to find out whether they find it relevant to the content being evaluated.

The Study Cycle and Test Taking Strategies

The study cycle refers to an approach that many students use because it helps them save time and create a pattern for their study time. It includes five steps:

  1. Previewing, which refers to looking at the lesson and noting headings and other concepts in bold, quickly reading summaries, and thinking about questions.
  2. Attending class, paying attention, and taking notes.
  3. Reviewing, which should happen within a day of taking the class and includes reviewing notes and considering if some concepts are still unclear.
  4. Studying, which should be broken down in three to five sessions every day. On weekends, students can review materials from the week and notice connections between concepts.
  5. Assessing, which refers to a self-assessment to discover whether the student understands the material well enough to be able to explain it or teach it to others.

In addition to the study cycle, there are also a number of strategies that can make test-taking easy and stress free. Below, we'll look at some of them.

The Pomodoro Method

A useful tool against procrastination, this method teaches students to put away all their distractions and focus on the material they are studying for 25 minutes straight. Because it is only 25 minutes at a time, most students find this method easy to use. It breaks down longer study sessions into 25-minute sessions wherein students focus on a particular concept or goal.

To use the Pomodoro Method, students can use their smartphones as a timer (and otherwise stay away from them for 25 minutes). Once the time is up, they can take a short (five to ten minute) break during which they can either stretch their legs or have a healthy snack before returning to the next 25-minute session.

Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is a visual technique that can help in a variety of situations, including:

  • Planning and writing essays.
  • Studying for specific exams and tests.
  • Coming up with a presentation or another creative idea.
  • Brainstorming.

So, what is a mind map? It is a literal visual map of a student's notes or ideas laid out in a circle around a concept that the student is trying to organize or understand. It is a great tool for visual learners because it makes use of visual elements, including pictures, colors, and arrows.

Mind mapping does not use full sentences. Instead, it uses keywords that make it easier for students to remember all the key elements of the material they are studying. This makes it easy to include all the required information when writing an essay, for example. It also makes it easy to remember the most important information.

Because mind mapping follows a natural thinking process, it helps students experiencing ''writer's block'' when writing their assignments by allowing their thoughts to flow naturally and translate to written words. This can make studying an exciting process as well.

The SQ3R Method

This method is based on cognitive psychology research and its purpose is to encourage deeper understanding of reading materials.

The acronym SQ3R stands for:

  • Survey: This refers to reviewing the material by noticing visual cues of importance in headers, images, and bolded words. Students gain an idea about what the material is about.
  • Question: After the preview of information, students can stop and think about whatever questions they may have about the material. For example, they can try to ask questions about the header titles and whether they find them useful or interesting.
  • Read: Students then read the materials keeping in mind the work they put in during the two previous steps. This should be an active reading session in which the questions asked before hand help students focus on their reading.
  • Recall: This is also known as recite, and refers to students verbalizing their answers to their initial questions as they move through the material. However, students who find it easier to answer in writing can also write their answers down. The purpose of this step is to promote a personal and individualized understanding of the content.
  • Review: At the end of the reading session, students should review the material by repeating the main ideas in their own words. This demonstrates the complete understanding of the material.

The PQ4R Method

This method is very similar to the SQ3R method but it has an extra step. It is usually used to learn new information in depth.

Since we have already introduced the SQ3R method in the previous section, we're only going to expand on the extra step of the PQ4R method below. The six steps of the PQ4R include:

  • Preview: Identical to the Survey step of the SQ3R method.
  • Question: Identical to the Question step of the SQ3R method.
  • Read: Identical to the Read step of the SQ3R method.
  • Reflect: This step is missing from the previous method. It refers to students taking time to reflect on what they have been reading and asking themselves salient questions, such as why something is important for them or the exam they're studying for and what else they may need to know. This step is akin to active listening because students are engaged in what they are reading.
  • Record: Identical to the Recall step of the SQ3R method.
  • Review: Identical to the Review step of the SQ3R method.

Student studying while reviewing notes

Time Management Tools

Having looked at some specific strategies that students can use to plan out their day, let's also consider some time management tools that can help students organize themselves.

Planning the Day

Planning the day needs to take into account both needs and things that need to get done, like studying. The best way to plan a day is to make a schedule template. This can be in the form of what is known as ''time blocking.'' Here's an example of this technique:

  1. Creating clear timeframes for each activity.
  2. Setting time aside for important projects.
  3. Building time off into the schedule for personal hobbies and fun.

Understanding Bad Habits

Before a schedule can be developed, students need to first understand how they are currently managing their time and how some of their bad habits (like procrastination) are affecting their abilities to meet deadlines and study effectively.

Students should make a list of the most common distractions and disruptors of their study work and come up with ways to eliminate them. Once they do that, not only will their study effectiveness improve, but they will also be able to better enjoy their time away from schoolwork.

Setting Goals

Setting goals is integral to studying effectively. However, most students set goals the wrong way. This means that they focus only on the big goal and do not visualize how they can get there. Setting goals without having a plan on how they can be achieved is setting up for failure.

For example, when confronted with having to complete a 5,000-word assignment, a student can easily be overwhelmed and find themselves doing an all-night research and writing marathon that may still mean that they do not hand it in on time and will receive a poor grade. However, if the same student sets out to do research for a few days and then write five hundred words every day for the ten days before the deadline, they will likely hand the assignment in on time and receive a better grade.

Setting Actionable Tasks

Setting goals and setting actionable tasks are intrinsically linked. When the student in the above example decides to plan their goals in advance and break them down in manageable chunks, they have created actionable tasks or tasks that are doable during their given timeframe.

Actionable tasks allow students to stay on top of their schoolwork and achieve goals. Without them, it is easy to become overwhelmed and fall back on procrastination and bad habits.

Understanding the Planning Fallacy

The planning fallacy states that we constantly assume that we are going to be able to perform a task in less time than it would realistically take us. It is a psychological concept that is related to the fact that we tend to be overly optimistic about our ability to perform and complete tasks.

Students need to keep this fallacy in mind when dealing with time management and constantly ''catch'' themselves when they find themselves cramming too many activities or tasks in a day. Avoiding this fallacy and striving to stay realistic about what they can achieve in a day will help students effectively make use of both their free time and their study time.

Understanding the Sleep/Wake Cycle

Another important part of time management is taking advantage of the body's natural cycle. Individuals are more alert at certain times of day than at others, and students should plan study activities around the times that they are naturally more able to concentrate for longer periods of time.

Normally, the body and the brain are more active during mid-morning to mid-afternoon. They are less active during evenings and overnight. This is also why pulling an all-nighter before that important test is likely to not yield the best results on top of leaving students sleep-deprived and anxious.

Taking Breaks

Finally, students need to understand the timing and need for productive breaks. These should be organized after periods of prolonged active study and give students not only a way to step away from their desk, but also offer their brains a reward for having worked hard.

Ideally, students should give their brains and eyes a break from screens and go outside. Having a healthy snack and going for a brisk walk are great ways to disconnect from work and refresh the brain while nurturing the body.

Setting Goals for Success

As we have seen in the previous sections, setting goals is what defines individuals because they are what their habits are. The best strategy to achieve success is to develop the right routine and habit that can help students achieve best study practices and actions that they want to do more of and make part of their lives.

Goals for success can refer to having a good morning and sleep routine. Being disciplined about how much sleep students get can help them wake up early and have a productive day. Having a relaxed evening routine that incorporates planning actionable tasks for the following day can also set up students for a good night's sleep.

Success also comes from being aware of how much time is spent on each activity. Watching a schoolwork-related video on YouTube can seem like a good idea, but it often results in idly watching a string of ''suggested'' videos that have little to do with schoolwork but drain away a whole hour.

Using apps and organizers that help track time and manage study periods and time in general is another way to set up for success. But, ultimately, it is the commitment and desire to succeed by changing behaviors and making the right choices that will give students long-term, continuous success.