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Academic Support, Oak Creek Campus: Study and test-taking strategies

Learn about tutoring (and more) at the Academic Support Center in A100 D&E at the South Campus.


These tips are courtesy of Darlington-Templeton Technical College. For more information, you can access their website.

How to Study in Five Steps

Step 1: Where do I study?

If you find yourself repeatedly being interrupted by outside distractions such as friends, phone calls, or pets, you need to find a way to curtail or even remove these annoyances completely. An easy way for you to see how much time and energy you do drain off from your study time via these interruptions would be for you to take an accurate baseline observation of your study times for one week. This means that each time you study, you should write down how long you worked, what subjects you covered, where you studied, how many and what kind of interruptions you had and how much work you actually accomplished. Once you have this information, you can use it to analyze your study habits. You may discover for example, that you managed to read more or do more problems at a particular time of the day. Whatever the results are, you now have some concrete evidence on where you weak points and your strong points truly are and you can then decide what you want to change

Step 2: How comfortable do I want to be when I study?

All of us know the theory that the best study position is to be seated in front of a bare desk in a straight back chair. Sometimes this works well, but often it doesn't. Most of us have trouble staying in one position for a long time without getting tired - and muscle fatigue will interfere with concentration. Common sense will tell us that it is important to be comfortable in order to study but not too comfortable. Lying on your bed, for example, can encourage falling asleep. We suggest changing position often enough to avoid muscle fatigue and perhaps even learning a couple of exercises to relax neck and shoulder muscles during long periods of study. 

Step 3: How do I get settled enough to begin work?

Before you set out for the library or settle yourself in your study corner at home, check over you assignments and your materials to make sure that you have all you need. All too often students waste valuable time because they have to find pencils, a particular notebook, or a book that just isn't at hand. We suggest that you make a habit of keeping your homework materials and books together in one special part of your room or apartment rather than scattering things wherever they happen to fall from your hands. In addition, designate a particular spot and make it a practice to utilize that area for study at all times. If you only take study materials with you to this study area, you can set up an association in your mind between that spot and studying which will make it progressively easier for you to sit down and start working. You are making a good habit for yourself.

Step 4: It sure is hard to concentrate!

If you are like most students, you probably find it difficult at times to concentrate on a particular task for very long. Your mind may wander. You may even have trouble becoming settled enough to attempt to study. Although there is no magic solution for this, application of some simple behavioral techniques may be very helpful. Again, the first thing to do is to figure out what is happening when you "don't concentrate". Are you daydreaming about things that are happening in your social life? Are you instead worrying - that is, running over and over lists of things you have to do and thinking about how far behind you are? Are you simply doing other things - like reading the newspaper or writing a letter instead of getting down to the homework? Once you have pinpointed what you are doing instead of working, try and work out a way of controlling yourself. This is generally a very individual thing since you know the most about yourself. However, we can suggest some examples that you can use as a guideline.

Begin by making a contract with yourself. This means that you tell yourself what you want to do, when you want to do it, and how you will reward yourself for doing it. Sometimes finishing homework is a reward in itself, but other times it really helps to promise your self something more tangible - like a soft drink, an ice cream cone, a phone call to a friend, etc. You might, for example, say to yourself: "Tonight at 7 o'clock I will go to the library and I will study Spanish and math. I will try to study for 50 minutes and then take a ten minute break, but if I find my mind wandering, I will get up from the desk and walk out into the hall, calm myself down, and then return to studying." You should then work out a reward system for yourself contingent upon your needs and your earning potential. If you do sit for the desired amount of time, you should reward yourself according to you system. The reward should be an immediate one - one that you can give yourself as soon as you finish studying. A reward such as a movie next week may not be as powerful as even a bit of a candy bar now!.

Step 5: What if I just procrastinate a lot?

We suggest some of the following counter-measures for procrastination:

  • List all of the things you have to accomplish and check them off, as they are finished. This is a way of rewarding yourself because you can see that tasks are actually being done.
  • Try piling your books and notebooks on a desk or nearby table so you can see the pile getting smaller as you go through it until the desk or table is cleared.
  • Do those subjects you don't enjoy as much first so you can look forward to doing your favorites (such as Human Biology).
  • You can also set mock deadlines for writing assignments so that you have a rough draft done before the day the work is actually due. This gives you time to edit your paper and even rewrite sections if you choose. This also makes you think ahead about a paper and helps you avoid regrets about how terrific an idea could have been if you had time to work on it.

Ten traps of studying

"I Don't Know Where To Begin"

Take Control. Make a list of all the things you have to do. Break your workload down into manageable chunks. Prioritize! Schedule your time realistically. Don't skip classes near an exam -- you may miss a review session. Use that hour in between classes to review notes. Interrupt study time with planned study breaks. Begin studying early, with an hour or two per day, and slowly build as the exam approaches.

"I've Got So Much To Study . . . And So Little Time"

Preview. Survey your syllabus, reading material, and notes. Identify the most important topics emphasized, and areas still not understood. Previewing saves time, especially with non-fiction reading, by helping you organize and focus in on the main topics. Adapt this method to your own style and study material, but remember, previewing is not an effective substitute for reading.

"This Stuff Is So Dry, I Can't Even Stay Awake Reading It" 

Attack! Get actively involved with the text as you read. Ask yourself, "What is important to remember about this section?" Take notes or underline key concepts. Discuss the material with others in your class. Study together. Stay on the offensive, especially with material that you don't find interesting, rather than reading passively and missing important points.

"I Read It. I Understand It. But I Just Can't Get It To Sink In"

Elaborate. We remember best the things that are most meaningful to us. As you are reading, try to elaborate upon new information with your own examples. Try to integrate what you're studying with what you already know. You will be able to remember new material better if you can link it to something that's already meaningful to you. Some techniques include: 

  • Chunking: An effective way to simplify and make information more meaningful. For example, suppose you wanted to remember the colors in the visible spectrum (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet); you would have to memorize seven "chunks" of information in order. But if you take the first letter of each color, you can spell the name "Roy G. Biv", and reduce the information the three "chunks". 
  • Mnemonics: Any memory-assisting technique that helps us to associate new information with something familiar. For example, to remember a formula or equation, we may use letters of the alphabet to represent certain numbers. Then we can change an abs tract formula into a more meaningful word or phrase, so we'll be able to remember it better. Sound-alike associations can be very effective, too, especially while trying to learn a new language. The key is to create your own links, and then you won't forget them.

"I Guess I Understand It"

Test yourself. Make up questions about key sections in notes or reading. Keep in mind what the professor has stressed in the course. Examine the relationships between concepts and sections. Often, simply by changing section headings you can generate m any effective questions. For example, a section entitled "Bystander Apathy" might be changed into questions such as: "What is bystander apathy?” "What are the causes of bystander apathy?” and "What are some examples of bystander apathy?"

"There's Too Much To Remember"

Organize. Information is recalled better if it is represented in an organized framework that will make retrieval more systematic. There are many techniques that can help you organize new information, including:

  • Write chapter outlines or summaries; emphasize relationships between sections.
  • Group information into categories or hierarchies, where possible.
  • Information Mapping. Draw up a matrix to organize and interrelate material. For example, if you were trying to understand the causes of World War I, you could make a chart listing all the major countries involved across the top, and then list the important issues and events down the side. Next, in the boxes in between, you could describe the impact each issue had on each country to help you understand these complex historical developments.

"I Knew It A Minute Ago"

Review. After reading a section, try to recall the information contained in it. Try answering the questions you made up for that section. If you cannot recall enough, re-read portions you had trouble remembering. The more time you spend studying, the more you tend to recall. Even after the point where information can be perfectly recalled, further study makes the material less likely to be forgotten entirely. In other words, you can't over study. However, how you organize and integrate new information is still more important than how much time you spend studying.

"But I Like To Study In Bed"

Context. Recall is better when study context (physical location, as well as mental, emotional, and physical state) are similar to the test context. The greater the similarity between the study setting and the test setting, the greater the likelihood that material studied will be recalled during the test.

"Cramming Before A Test Helps Keep It Fresh In My Mind"

Spacing: Start studying now. Keep studying as you go along. Begin with an hour or two a day about one week before the exam, and then increase study time as the exam approaches. Recall increases as study time gets spread out over time.

"I'm Gonna Stay Up All Night 'til I Get This"

Avoid Mental Exhaustion. Take short breaks often when studying. Before a test, have a rested mind. When you take a study break, and just before you go to sleep at night, don't think about academics. Relax and unwind, mentally and physically. Otherwise, your break won't refresh you and you'll find yourself lying awake at night. It's more important than ever to take care of yourself before an exam! Eat well, sleep, and get enough exercise. 

Taking tests: general tips

Tests measure how you are doing in a course. Usually test scores are the key determinants of your course grade. Doing well on tests requires test-taking skills, a purposeful positive attitude, strategic thinking and planning, and, naturally, a solid grasp of the course content. This page contains tips that apply to all types of tests.

Preparing for tests

Familiarize yourself with the test. Ask the professor how long it will be and what kind of questions will be on it. Ask your instructor which concepts are most important, which chapters to focus on, and what you will have to do on the test. Also ask for some sample test questions, and whether there is a copy of a similar test on file in a library. Look over the tests you have already taken in the course to predict what you will need to prepare for. Your aim is to determine both the content of the questions and the type of memory and intellectual skills you will be asked to use. Examples of these skills include:

  • Remembering specific facts, details, terms and definitions. 
  • Comparing, contrasting, and otherwise interpreting meaning in the information studies. 
  • Applying principles and theories to solve problems (that may not have been covered explicitly in the course.) 
  • Predicting possible outcomes given a set of variables. 
  • Evaluating the usefulness of certain ideas, concepts, or methods for a given situation.

Overview all the work to be done and schedule time to do it. On the basis of your familiarity with the test, make a list of all the tasks you must complete to prepare for it. Assign priorities to your study tasks according to the topics you expect to be most important on the test. In scheduling your test preparation, try to stick to your own routines. There are handouts on time management at the UT Learning Center. 

Avoid the "escape syndrome." If you find yourself fretting or talking about your work rather than studying, relax for a few minutes and rethink what you are doing; reappraise your priorities and if necessary rethink your study plan to address your worries and then start working!

When faced with unread material keep in mind your study plan, how much time you have, and what you need to get out of the reading. Divide the material into parts, looking for the organizational scheme, and decide what can be omitted, what can skimmed, and what needs to be read. Set time limits for reading each part and stick to them. The following techniques might help you get through your reading: 

  • Skim all of the material first (except the parts you have decided to omit) so you will have at least looked at everything before the test. Take notes on what you skim. 
  • Emphasize key sentences, and concentrate on understanding the ideas. Ask yourself the questions who, what, where, when and how. 
  • Recite the material to yourself immediately. (Self-testing at the end of each part can enhance recall even without later review.)

Review actively. Integrate notes, text, and other information onto summary sheets by diagramming, charting, outlining, categorizing in tables, or simply writing summaries. Try to create a summary sheet for each study session, or for each main idea, or for each concept. Use all your senses as well as your sense of humor when writing your summary sheets to make them meaningful. 

Practice doing what you will be doing on the test. Answer unassigned problems and questions in the text or anticipate test questions by asking, "If I were making up this test I would probably ask...," and then answer your question. Remember, the best way to prepare for any test is to practice doing what you will have to do on the test. 

Study with other well-prepared students and attend any review sessions. Such sessions are to clarify the material; don't expect them to repeat lectures or give additional information.

Taking tests

Be prepared emotionally and physically as well as intellectually. Get into a "fighting" attitude, emotionally ready to do your best. Stay away from others right before the test ‚ anxiety is highly contagious. Focus on what you know rather than what you do not know; reinforce your strengths and arrest your weaknesses. Get enough rest the night before the test, eat well balanced meals and exercise regularly ‚ prepare your brain for optimum functioning by keeping your physical resources well maintained. Avoid fasts; do not take any stimulants you are not used to, and if you are used to them (i.e., coffee or soft drinks), keep within moderate amounts. 

Arrive at the test room early enough to arrange your working conditions and establish a calm, alert mode. Select a seat where the lighting is best (frequently in the front of the room) and where your view of other students will be minimal. 

When you receive your test use the back to jot down all the information you might forget, but first, ask whether you can write on the test form. 

Preview the whole test before trying to answer any questions. Make sure your copy has no missing or duplicate pages. Ask the instructor or proctor to clarify any ambiguities. Read the directions carefully. 

Plan your time. Allow the most time for the questions, which offer the most points, and leave time at the end to review. 

Start with the easy questions to build confidence and gain time for harder questions. Work the entire test, and put down an answer for each questions even if you must guess (unless there is a "correction for guessing"). 

Do not panic if you see a question you did not anticipate. Use everything you know to analyze the question and create a logical answer. Go for partial credit when you know you cannot get all the points: If you have studied, you are bound to know something. 

Read the question as is. Avoid overanalyzing or oversimplifying, or you will end up answering a question that exists only in your mind. Answer the question the test-maker intended: interpret the test within the scope of the course.

Analyzing returned tests

If you receive your test back to keep, rework your errors to find out why the correct answer was correct.  If you do not receive your test back, visit your instructor's office to take a look at your answer sheet and the questions you missed.
Look for the origin of each question--text, notes, labs, supplementary reading, etc. 

Identify the reason you missed questions. Did you fail to read it correctly? Did you fail to prepare for it? Was the test at a more difficult level than you prepared for? Did you run out of time? 

Check the level of detail and skill of the test. Were most of the questions over precise details and facts or were they over main ideas and principles? Did the questions come straight from the text or did the test-maker expect you to make sophisticated transformations and analyses? 

Did you have any problems with anxiety or blocking during the test?

Tutoring and Academic Support locations

Downtown Milwaukee Campus:

Tutoring Services (office), C286 | Computer Center, M273 | Math & Science Center, C271 | Writing Center, C258

Regional Campuses:

Mequon Campus, A282 | Oak Creek Campus, A100 D&E | West Allis Campus, Room 249