Need to Ace a Test? Study Strategically

You busted your hump studying for an exam, getting started weeks in advance and staying up all night reviewing the readings and drilling with flashcards. That’s why you’re shocked when your score is posted—a “C”?!

A lot of students study hard for exams but don’t get the results they want, according to Stanford University’s Patricia Chen. But your disappointing test scores might have nothing to do with your effort or intelligence—they might be linked to a failure to study strategically.

Study Strategically pbs rewireStudents who work hard without a plan in place often don’t do as well as they think they will, Chen said to the university.

“Blind effort alone, without directing that effort in an effective manner, doesn’t always get you to where you want to go,” said Chen, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford.

Why strategy is the key to tests

Have you ever been overwhelmed by a big project and found that just sitting down and thinking through how you might tackle it made it feel a lot more manageable? (This is called “metacognition,” btw.)

Chen and her research team found that this concept also applies for students preparing for exams. Taking stock of all the study resources available to you and mentally planning out how you’ll use them could make you a stronger test-taker.

To determine this, the researchers sent half of an intro to statistics class a mental exercise to complete a week before an exam. These students were asked to think about what they thought might be on the test and what kinds of resources they’d use to study for it. Then they were asked to explain why each resource they chose would be useful to their studying strategy.

In two separate studies the researchers conducted, students who completed this metacognition task before their exams outperformed their classmates who didn’t. Across the two studies, students who were asked to strategize before their exams ended up with a class score that was an average of a third of a letter grade higher than those who didn’t.

Study Strategically pbs rewireThe researchers found that students who planned ahead used their study materials more effectively. They also said they felt more control over their learning and less negative about exams to come.

Researchers said this points to the importance of using study materials strategically rather than using more of them.

Strategy improves performance at any task

Not a student? Chen suggested the team’s strategizing strategy can and should be applied to other areas of life, including learning new skills at work, losing weight and parenting. Anything, really, that requires a planful approach.

“Actively self-reflecting on the approaches that you are taking fosters a strategic stance that is really important in life,” she said. “Strategic thinking distinguishes between people of comparable ability and effort. This can make the difference between people who achieve and people who have the potential to achieve, but don’t.”

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.