How to Study for Tests (and why so many students get it wrong)

The vast majority of students don’t know how to study for tests, through no real fault of their own. Middle school doesn’t demand much in the way of organized studying, and yet high schoolers are expected to already have basic study skills in place. Because we leave students to cobble together study plans without any real support, the studying they do tends to be inefficient at best and ineffective at worst. 

On top of this, much of the conventional wisdom about studying is wrong. Don’t believe me? Test yourself:

Imagine a group of science students trying to absorb the information in their anatomy textbook. 

One group takes a traditional approach, dividing their time into four short study sessions, during which they reread the textbook. 

A second group uses a concept mapping approach (favored by so many teachers), organizing information into a diagram where lines connect related facts.

A third group jumps right to testing. Without the textbook in front of them, they give themselves 10 minutes to write down as many details as they can remember. They then use the textbook to grade their first practice test and take a second practice test.

A week later, all three groups are given a short-answer test that assesses their recall of the textbook information and their ability to use the information to draw logical conclusions. Which group performs best?

The Research 

Luckily, we don’t have to rely on our instincts here. When researchers conducted this very experiment, the practice-testers were the clear winners, performing 50% better than the other two groups. Surprised? You’re not alone.

In fact, a growing body of evidence points to a fundamental disconnect between the study practices that make us feel like we are learning and those that actually help us learn. Being forced to recall material without support is difficult and tends to make us more aware of what we don’t know, which may explain why students feel more confident when they use traditional study methods like rereading notes. But, as The New York Times reports, these perceptions can lead us astray:

  “The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’” 

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’”

The Most Common Study Mistakes

This kind of thinking leads students right into the most common study errors that I see in my tutoring practice:

  • Rereading the textbook or notes
  • Creating elaborate study guides 
  • Taking practice tests with the help of supporting materials 
  • Practicing without stopping to evaluate mastery 

Each of these approaches tends to inspire a false sense of confidence in students that can contribute to poor test performance. Unfortunately, when confronted with low test scores, students often double down on the same flawed study methods, pouring in precious time and energy that never yield the intended result. 

The Fix

My goal as a tutor is always to help my students study smarter, not harder – there are only so many hours in a day! So, what should students be doing instead? I encourage all my students to use what I call the Mini-Test Method. I’ve included two variations depending on the test type, but the basic principles are the same for both.

The Mini-Test Method
for Short Answer Exams

  1. Make a list of key topics
  2. Time yourself while you write down everything you recall about each topic. 
  3. Grade your attempts (i.e., review your notes to assess accuracy and thoroughness) 
  4. Repeat at least once, or until satisfied

The Mini-Test Method
for Computational Exams 

  1. Gather one example of each problem type 
  2. Time yourself while you complete the collected problems 
  3. Grade your answers, and write your percentage at the top of the page
  4. Repeat until you are satisfied with your percentage

Why it Works

I appreciate that the Mini-Test Method is in line with the academic research, but I’m more compelled by its success with my actual students. There are a number of reasons that this method is so much more effective for my students than traditional studying. 

To begin with, unlike rereading notes, concept-mapping, or doing computations with the help of a textbook, the Mini-Test Method forces students to practice memory retrieval. This skill gets a bad rap in many education circles (We don’t want students simply regurgitating facts!), but the reality is that being able to recall key facts is the foundation of most higher-order thinking. Because of this, even when it is not sufficient, good memory retrieval is necessary for almost all testing success.

The Mini-Test Method also makes students aware of what they don’t know, closing the gap between perceived mastery and actual performance. I can’t tell you how many students report feeling great going into tests (and sometimes even coming out of tests), only to be disappointed by their actual scores. Although grappling with the experience of “not knowing” can be uncomfortable, it is hugely valuable and should be at the center of any study approach. 

I work with lots of students with ADHD, perfectionism, or testing anxiety, and the Mini-Test Method is great for them as well. Students who struggle with focus often “space out” when reading textbooks. The time pressure inherent in the Mini-Test Method naturally boosts focus and helps students engage. Perfectionistic students often get sucked into creating elaborate study guides, sometimes in an unconscious effort to avoid any practice in which they might make an error, and the Mini-Test Method is a helpful course correction. Students with testing anxiety also benefit from the Mini-Test Method, which can act like a form of low stakes exposure therapy. 

My favorite thing about the Mini-Test Method, though, is that students report that it’s actually kind of fun. Because traditional studying often amounts to passive review, it’s rarely challenging enough to be interesting. The Mini-Test Method, in contrast, “gamifies” studying, encouraging students to grapple with challenges while allowing them to see their mastery creep up between attempts. This same combination of challenge and progress is what makes video games so addictive. It’s an ancient recipe for human motivation. 

A Real Example

I want to end by sharing a story of the Mini-Test Method in action. I had a student whom I’ll call Alan come to me for help with math. Alan learned at a pace that was mostly normal, but he struggled mightily to remember what he’d learned. He had a test coming up on rational graphing, a complex multi-step process that his teacher had already walked him through half a dozen times. Though he understood the ideas with his teacher by his side, nothing was sticking. Frustrated with his inability to make progress, Alan was hoping I’d continue to walk him through the ideas until they sunk in. Instead, I encouraged him to try out the Mini-Test Method. We determined that he needed to memorize 20 different details in order to make it through a rational graphing problem on his own, so for each mini-test, I had Adam write as many of these details down as he could remember. I warned Alan that the first mini-test might be pretty uncomfortable, and he rolled his eyes and told me how many squats he’d just been forced to do at football practice. 

Alan’s first mini-test score was a 2/20. I had Alan correct his answers and work on something else for a while before he made his second attempt. On Alan’s second mini-test, his score shot up to a 17/20. Alan was over the moon. He’d never let himself practice without notes before, because he’d never felt like he was ready. It turns out that crashing and burning on a single mini-test was exactly what he needed to jumpstart his memory machinery. Alan took another mini-test once he got home and earned a 20/20. 

I fully believe that Alan’s teacher could have walked him through the graphing process another ten times without seeing that kind of progress. It turns out that the best way to practice doing something unsupported is to actually do it, unsupported!


If you have any questions about what I’ve written here, would like to share your own thoughts, or are seeking help for your student or yourself, click the “Contact Me” button. I would love to hear from you. 

As always, I want to end by reminding you that the school years are tough even when you have the right information at your fingertips, and that’s okay. Challenge is how we learn and grow, and the smoothest path is not always the richest path. Once we’ve controlled the things we can control, sometimes we just have to trust that our students will be okay and so will we!