Five Ways to Improve Your Student’s Test Performance

iStock_000016399390XSmallAcademics can be challenging, especially when students are presented with a wide variety of learning topics.  The challenges can be even more difficult when the learner is constantly tested for knowledge, which is the unfortunate trend in today’s public curriculum.  Regular testing is particularly difficult for those students who become apprehensive about testing and who put pressure on themselves to perform.  And although there is no shortcut to learning and understanding the material, there are a few behaviors that students can develop that will help them to reduce their stress, to improve their learning retention, and to allow better recall and performance on the test.

  1. Study over the course of several nights. Time management is a significant strategy that positively influences testing performance. One approach is to study sections of the material over the course of several evenings rather than cramming all the material into one night.  Much as your stomach has difficulty digesting a whole pizza, your brain can be overwhelmed by large amounts of new material.  The brain needs time to break down the new knowledge, associate that knowledge with recall cues, and to store the knowledge into memory, so delivering that knowledge in smaller chunks makes the process more efficient and effective.  A pizza, for example, if eaten all at once is limited in how much is used for powering your body in the form of calories and nutrients.  The excess is either stored away where it is difficult to use later (fat) or wasted.  Knowledge delivered via large doses—often referred to as the firehose—also offers very little retention of value and it is either stored in the brain where it is difficult to retrieve or the knowledge is wasted.  On the other hand, if you eat a couple of slices of pizza in one sitting, your body uses the nutrients that it can handle to maintain good health.  You can eat more slices of pizza later when your body is ready for it…when you’re hungry again.  Knowledge works the same way.  Study a concept, whether it’s quadratic equations or the British tariffs in the late 1700s, and ensure you’ve got a good grasp on those ideas before moving on.  Your mind will process the information and make it easier to recall later if it learns the ideas in smaller amounts.
  2. Study at a desk in a quiet room. A desk offers an organized area for the learner to spread out books and papers, and to write in the same way that they would in the classroom environment. Studying on the bed is not a good idea.  Your brain knows that the bed is where it shuts down to sleep, so you can only imagine the conflict that goes on when you try to study on your bed.  Having a quiet area is also important.  The brain has a certain capacity to perceive and process information, which is to say it can only process so much information at a single time.  That information not only includes the study content of a lesson, but an evaluation of the surroundings, which is a part of our basic survival instinct.  Any noises, smells, and changes to the visual environment are immediately judged by the brain to assess its threat level…it’s part of the fight or flight mechanism.  So the more distractions, the more the brain is working on threat evaluations and the less it is working on the algebra homework in front of the student.  The answer is to have a quiet learning environment free from distractions so that the student can focus on the task at hand.  Which leads me to …
  3. Turn off the electronics…all of them. Perhaps the single biggest distraction from learning is the smart phone. These pocket-sized marvels grant the user access to a tremendous amount of information and entertainment, but they also open the door to social distractions that non-millennials cannot even imagine. Imagine putting green beans and chocolate on a plate in front of a five year old (or in front of you) and it’s snack time. Which do you choose?  Be honest; most people will choose the chocolate, but we all know the green beans are better for us.  Students are faced with the same choices when the chemistry book is sitting next to the iPhone.  Every alert on the phone fires off dopamine in the brain, which is a reward and pleasure hormone, offering a choice to the student of whether to continue studying chemistry (aka, green beans) or to satisfy their brain’s pleasure center and check out the latest tweet or snap (mental chocolate).  Research shows that students who put their phones away for two weeks prior to final exams show a significant academic performance improvement over those students that continue to use their phones during the same period of time.
  4. Practice the problems and essay writing. Imagine if a basketball player never practiced her free throws. Instead, she watched a couple of basketball games on a video to see how others did it…you know, to get the big picture.  A basketball coach would never stand for this being the only way to prepare for the big game.  Academics are no different.  Practicing the problems, whether it’s solving where the projectile lands for a physics class or writing out a comparison of contemporary politics with William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, gives the learner essential experience for the exercise they will be expected to perform during the exam.  Reviewing notes or reading the highlighted part of the book is not enough for learning performance.  Practice, practice, practice.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep. This bit of advice is often overlooked, but is critical to a learner’s success. Although the reasons for sleep are not completely understood by science, we know that one of the major functions of sleep is to allow the brain time to make sense of the previous day’s events.  The brain organizes thoughts, emotions, and psychological events, and attempts to link similar events together in order to allow recall at a later time.  These processes take a lot of time, thus a learner needs a lot of sleep.  By studying the night before a test rather than the day of, students afford their brains the opportunity to file away the information in an organized and coherent fashion that is more suited for recall during a test.  My daughters sometimes get tired of hearing me say this, but it’s true: Well rested, well tested.

Alex Casteel is a Doctor of Psychology with an emphasis in technology and learning.  He is a professor at Grand Canyon University and an owner/agent at Casteel Real Estate Professionals.