The Best Way to Study for a Standardized Test
At the top of the New York Times website’s “Most Popular” list last week was not a story about protests in Cairo, tiger mothers, or the President’s State of the Union, but an article about the benefits of taking practice exams when studying for a standardized test. The article “To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test,” reported on a study where participants were graded on knowledge retrieval using three different methods:
-Studying the relevant information many times over.
-Diagraming the information they needed to know.
-Reviewing the relevant informant, and then taking a practice test.
A week later, the last group reported 50% greater retrieval of the information.
So should taking practice tests be the focus of your study regimen? Anecdotally, the study rings true to me. Whenever I approached a college exam or standardized test, my first goal was accumulating as many problem sets or practice tests as I could. Then I would go through, do them, and then review the answers I got wrong. There were two key benefits of this approach. One, I spent less time reviewing what I did know, while also staying sharp in the areas I was strongest. Two, it allowed me to develop a sense for the idiosyncrasies of each test. Every test has their particular methods and ways of going about posing different types of questions. Being able to identify and be comfortable with these idiosyncracies is a huge leg up on test dates.
However, I believe this method has its own set of problems. Referring to the other two study methods, the authors reported:
“These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.”
In my experience, basing your study on practice tests can have a similar effect. I remember going into a standardized test where I had primarily studied using practice tests and expected it to be a breeze. Then the first six questions were nothing like what I had seen. My practice tests had given me a false sense of confidence!
My advice: practice tests are a great and underused method of studying. Start off your studying with a few of them to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Then spend time away from the test to develop your weaker areas. As you progress return to these tests to be able to objectively track your improvement. And most importantly, as test date approaches take practice tests in conditions as similar to the real environment as possible!
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