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Cramming Doesn’t Work. These Proven Test Prep Strategies Do.

Spring is here! Time for wonderful things, like sunshine and greenery . . . along with some potentially stressful things, like exams. We all know that students’ anxiety levels generally spike around testing time, which isn’t great for anyone involved (including teachers). And, in the face of upcoming stressors, students will often opt for study strategies that aren’t actually very effective.

However, there are some things that you can do to help your students prepare—and succeed—throughout exam season. Better yet, the tips we share here will still be useful when they’re adults! Read on for our roundup of effective test prep strategies that can help your students change their approach to exams, which will help their grades and their attitudes.

The Big (Mistaken) Assumptions

When it comes to study strategies, teachers often assume one of two things:

  • That their new classroom is full of students who have already figured out the methods that work for them (especially if they’re in late middle or high school)

  • That students come to school with an innate, unchangeable amount of scholastic ability

Both of these assumptions are wrong. No matter where a student’s abilities in a given subject are at any one moment, there is always room for improvement. Even students who tend to do well in school run the risk of giving up as soon as things become difficult if they don’t receive encouragement to keep a growth mindset as they move along.

The Remedies

Most students will tell you that the best way to study for a test is to cram. And, yes, last-minute intensive studying might earn a good grade . . . but it doesn’t make anything stick. Unfortunately, students’ learning tends to drop off remarkably quickly after the crammed-for test is over. Fortunately, there are ways to lead students down a much better path:

  • Give students other study strategies to choose from. (We’ll get into this in a moment.)

  • Start using those strategies in low-stakes situations early in the year. Get your students used to different approaches to learning and studying that can continue to serve them when exam time rolls around. It’s basically the classroom equivalent of a program like Couch to 5K (a spaced approach that can help new runners slowly gain the strength and endurance to run a 5K race in 9 weeks).

The Techniques

Below, we list a few study strategies that can help your students better prepare for exams. You can follow the link for a full post on each subject, or check out the bullets to jog your memory if you’re already familiar.

  • Spaced study and retrieval practice lets students get a little rusty before recalling certain information or skills again. You can encourage students to do this in a few key ways:

    • Introduce the idea that retrieval practice—forcing yourself to try and recall things from your memory when it’s hard (or even impossible) to do so—is much better for their studying than re-reading.

    • Make spaced practice a part of your regular curriculum

    • Reinforce earlier knowledge within your review materials and test questions throughout the year.

  • Guided practice helps students walk through the steps of a mental process or subject with support before they go it alone. This can gradually give way to more independent practice. Here’s how to make it happen:

    • At the beginning of the year, when knowledge and skills are still brand new, you can offer more structure – say, giving students a full list of study topics for an upcoming test, or offering worked examples for them to review. Alternating practice questions and worked examples is a great technique, too. You can also use formative assessments in class and encourage students to practice doing them on their own.

    • As skills develop, you can move to approaches like review questions that guide students less directly, but give them an opportunity to test their knowledge and reflect on how well they’re doing. In general, you want to move students along a path from direct instruction, to guided practice, to independent practice monitored by you, to truly independent practice.

    • As students move along that path, encourage them to strengthen their metacognitive skills by reflecting periodically about what strategies are helping them find success as they learn.

    • By the time exams roll around, the goal is for students to be familiar with the processes they need to prepare, so that you can give them some general review materials and be there as a resource if they have questions.

  • Homework can be an incredibly helpful tool for learning, but you’ve got to approach it correctly. Some key things to remember:

    • Use homework as an opportunity for spaced practice. Include some new material, but always connect it back to older knowledge.

    • Think of homework as a way to practice for exams throughout the entire year. Include topics that are sure to show up when it’s time for testing.

The Benefits

When you put the techniques above to work in your classroom, you’ll not only help your students succeed for exams. You’ll also reduce their anxiety, build capacity for metacognition, encourage independence, and make the process far more enjoyable.

Once you help them realize that they’ve actually been preparing for a test all year, the burdens of cramming and stressing out over re-learning old material are lifted. As teachers, it’s an opportunity for us to help them see the connections between everything they’ve been learning and doing—a perspective that will support their development long after school’s out for the summer!

Wondering how these techniques might help your own development as a teacher through continuing education? We’ve got your answer—but it’s a far cry from traditional CE! The CTTL’s newest endeavor, Neuroteach Global, helps teachers infuse their classroom practices with research-informed strategies for student success—in just 3-5 minutes a day, on a variety of devices.