What Are Some Science-Backed Study Tips to Help Ace a Test?

By Michael Rush
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Photo Courtesy: Alexis Brown/Unsplash

Test-taking is never fun, but it’s something everyone has to deal with in life. However, it can be even less fun and more stressful when you do not have effective study habits.

You can change that today, however, with these smart study tips based on research that takes into account the biological, psychological, emotional and physical realities of being human. By putting some or all of these tips into practice, you should see drastic improvements in your study sessions and test scores.

Study When You Are Sleepy

Have you ever noticed that when you go to sleep worried or stressed, you tend not to sleep well? That’s because your brain continues to work even while your body is resting. Use this to your advantage.

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Do some studying when you are sleepy so that your brain can process the information while you doze. Try to avoid bringing your materials in the bed, though. Your brain needs to be able to associate your bed with sleep, and confusing the two could give you insomnia.

Listen and Learn While You Sleep

Have you ever woken up and something that was confusing the day before was suddenly crystal clear? This happens because your brain can make clearer connections when it’s not distracted. The good news is that you can harness this ability for your own advantage.

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Record yourself reading out the facts you want to memorize. When you go to bed, play them back. Set the recording on a loop so it will repeat until you wake up. As you hear the information being repeated, it plants itself in your brain.

Bust a Move

Everyone knows that exercise can improve health, help a person lose weight and tone the body. It can boost a person’s mood, improve their self-esteem, clear the mind and decrease stress. However, did you know that it can also improve your cognitive function?

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Just a half-hour of your heart pumping can improve the speed at which your brain processes information. Go for a run, speed walk around your neighborhood, do a workout DVD, hit the gym or just dance around your room a bit before you start studying for an extra boost.

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Quiz Yourself

Flashcards have been around for years, and with good reason — they work. They require you to interact with the information as opposed to just reading it from a book or piece of paper. If you use them repetitively, your brain quickly connects the question with the answer.

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To use this method, buy a pack of notecards. Put a question or vocabulary word on one side and the answer or definition on the other. Quiz yourself with these cards regularly until you are confident in the answers.

Talk to Yourself

Hearing and seeing something are good ways to store information in your brain. When you put the two methods together so that you see something and hear it at the same time, you increase the chance of remembering it exponentially.

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Trying reading out loud from your study materials to boost your learning experience. Sure, it feels awkward, and you certainly don’t want to do it in public, but it will pay off in better retention, and it can also be used to catch mistakes in written assignments.

Take a Break

Studying non-stop may seem like a good way to prepare for a test, but it can actually be the opposite. Just as your body needs time to rest, so does your mind. You should take a break during your study sessions every hour to hour and a half. Get up, move around, stretch or just relax.

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Plan longer breaks, too — as much as a day or two each week. Hang out with friends, do a brainless activity, or read a book that has nothing to do with school. Your brain will thank you for giving it the time it needs to process.

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Listen to Music

Music can do some amazing things to your brain. Listening to it activates memory and language centers, and it’s been found to improve a person’s ability to learn. If you turn on some background music while studying, you improve your chances of both understanding and memorizing the information.

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While there is no set type of music to listen to, it can be hard to pay attention to books when your favorite music is on. Try to choose something that isn’t distracting — classical is, well, a classic.

Get Good Sleep

It’s always important to get a full night’s sleep, but especially so when test time is near. Studying all night may seem like the best choice for learning what you need to know, but the brain tends not to function so well without sleep.

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It’s hard for your brain to recall all of that information you worked so hard to remember when it’s digging through mental fog. Plus, a lack of sleep causes moodiness and leaves you more susceptible to stress and illness — neither of which you need when trying to pass a test.

Give Your Study Space a Makeover

Take some time to tweak your study environment. Clear away any clutter, as it can be distracting and drain your mental energy. Be sure that you have good lighting and any supplies you might need close by.

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Use smell to your advantage, too. The scent of lavender has a calming effect on people, so try a lavender candle or oil when you study. It can decrease stress and improve memory. Also, consider keeping some bright colors around. Colors like orange and yellow can help stimulate the brain.

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Avoid Distractions

It’s incredibly hard to study when your phone keeps going off or Facebook notifications pop up. When it’s time for a study session, turn off your phone and all notifications on it. You can let family and friends know you will not be available during study time so no one worries.

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It may be necessary at times to use the internet for studying, but it can be extremely distracting. Try ensuring that the only tabs you have open are those relevant to your studying.

Try Yoga

Yoga is not only good for the body but it is also excellent for the brain. When you practice yoga, your brain is loaded with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a chemical that improves your mood and decreases anxiety. Dopamine and serotonin are both feel-good chemicals, and they increase when the stress hormone cortisol decreases.

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Moreover, studies show that parts of the brain actually grow in size thanks to yoga. It also promotes cortical folding, which helps you process information and keeps your memory sharper.

Meditate

Meditation has similar positive effects on the brain to yoga. By meditating for even just a few minutes before you study, you should experience a boost in attention and a reduction in anxiety.

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Before you jump into your studies or a test, take a few moments to meditate. You might close your eyes and visualize a calm place or just work on letting go of all your thoughts for a moment. It will ease your nerves and should help your brain store and recall information better.

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Start Early

One of the worst things you can do to yourself is to wait until the night before a test to start studying. Compared to studying in smaller units of time over a week or month beforehand, cramming everything in at the last second isn’t as effective.

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If you’re in college or even high school, you likely received a syllabus and schedule at the beginning of the class. Use it to your advantage. Start studying as early as you possibly can so that you can do little by little instead of all at once.

Have a Plan

Have you ever sat down to study and simply had no clue where to start? Maybe you began to study thinking it would only be an hour or so only to find the sun soon rising. Some people even study to the detriment of other things that should be prioritized.

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If any of this sounds like you, try making a study schedule to keep yourself organized. Pick the times and days when you study in advance to discipline yourself into getting into study mode — and then getting out of it when it’s time to move on.

Make It Manageable

Trying to read and memorize three whole chapters of information and lecture notes in one sitting is not an effective study method. Instead, you should break the information into smaller, more manageable chunks.

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For instance, you might try only studying three sections of one chapter at a time before moving onto the next. If you have 30 definitions you need to memorize, try committing only five to memory at a time. Breaking things into smaller chunks is much less stressful and more effective than trying to remember it all at once.

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Use the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique has been around since the 80s, but it has been adapted to fit different people and situations over time. The basic idea is to focus on one task for 25 minutes, take a three to five-minute break, and then do another 25-minute pomodoro. After four pomodoros, take a 15 to 30-minute break.

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You can use this method for studying as well. By setting a rhythm for your study session, you make it easier to study longer even as you give your brain the breaks it needs to retain information effectively.

Set Up a Reward System

It does not matter if you’re eight or 80, everyone loves a reward, and you can use that fact to your advantage. By setting up a reward system, you’ll be more motivated to study. The what and when, of course, are completely up to you.

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Some examples of rewards are to take yourself for a treat or enjoy a nice hot bubble bath after a week of keeping your study schedule. You might also reward yourself every time you ace your test, maybe with a night out at the movies with friends.

Make It Personal

Ultimately, the best study technique is the one that works for you. People are different, so what works for your best friend may not be what works for you. It may take some experimentation to figure out your ideal approach, but it’s time well spent.

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If studying with a large group helps you retain information the best, find a study group. If instead dancing around in your pajamas while you recite definitions into your hairbrush works for you, go for it. The bottom line is that you need to find what works for you. Just don’t be afraid to mix it up or try something new on occasion.

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Try a Mix of Topics

When you study the same thing for a long, extended period, your brain goes on autopilot. This can be helpful for memorization, but it can hurt your ability to problem-solve. Try mixing things up instead.

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Studying for a history test? Mix vocabulary words up with war facts. Math? Mix in a few different kinds of problems. Doing so not only keeps your brain sharp but also makes the process a little less boring.

Pen and Paper

Electronic devices are useful and convenient, but they’re not always the best option for studying. Sometimes paper and pen just cannot be beaten by modern technology. This is especially true with memorization.

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Research suggests that the act of writing something out helps it stick in your memory much better than when you type it out instead. That does not mean you have to write out full paragraphs or copy entire chapters from your textbook, of course Just an outline or some bullet points can improve your chances of memorization.

Have Some Coffee

If you’re looking for a good excuse to hit the new coffee joint on the corner or spend even more money at Starbucks, here it is: Having one or two cups of coffee can boost your attention and keep you more alert.

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You do not have to have caffeinated coffee to enjoy this benefits. Even decaf can wake up your brain. Just don’t drink it too late in the afternoon, or you might not sleep that night. As noted previously, good night's sleep is imperative to cognitive function.

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Take Your Vitamins

Vitamins are essential for keeping the body healthy all the way from skin to the internal organs, including the brain. For one thing, a healthy body keeps the blood pumping and oxygen flowing, both of which impact the brain.

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Vitamins also help you fight off sicknesses and build immunity. When our bodies are sick, nothing — including your brain — works at full capacity, so eating a healthy diet really can improve how well you study. Vitamin pills can also help, although nothing beats getting vitamins straight from the foods themselves.

Get Mnemonic With It

Sometimes, all it takes is a silly phrase to help you remember something. Just about everyone that learned PEMDAS in school still recites, "Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally" to remember the order of operations. Weird? Yes, it was. Effective? Definitely. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to forget.

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When you’re attempting to memorize difficult items, try creating a mnemonic phrase for it. Try to find something that rhymes or makes you laugh. If you cannot think of one, chances are high that you can find one on the internet.

Spaced Practice

Spaced practice is the act of breaking study topics down to focus on small bits of information for a set number of days. Let’s say, for instance, you’re studying cells in biology. Rather than packing in everything at once, spend a couple days going over mitosis and another two on meiosis.

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After you move onto the next table and complete your two days, review both tables prior to moving onto the third. If you’re having trouble with any of them, go back and study that subject again before moving on.

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Start Soon After the Lecture

After a long day in class, the last thing anyone wants is to go home and review the lecture they just heard. Nonetheless, this is one of the most effective ways to memorize what you just learned.

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Studies show that reviewing lecture notes within a few hours of the actual lecture while it’s still fresh helps solidify the information in your brain. Just take a moment to read your notes once or twice to boost your learning and recollection

Use a Variety of Materials

People learn and retain information in different ways. Some people recall information that they heard better than the information that they saw, while others may learn better through watching demonstrations. If you can identify how you learn, you can adjust your study methods accordingly.

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If you are not quite sure how you learn best, try a variety of materials on the same information. For instance, read your notes, watch a video, listen to a lecture and draw out the process. Chances are that one or more of these ways will stick with you.

Try Pre-Testing

Sometimes, the best way to prepare for a test is to take a test. By taking a different test on the topic you’re studying, you can see what you already know and the areas where you need more practice. It helps you determine where to focus your attention the most.

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No matter the topic, you can likely find a test for it online. If you cannot, create your own test based on your notes and information in your textbook. By putting yourself into a test-taking situation early, you also help reduce any nerves you might experience on exam day.

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Paraphrase and Relate

It’s not enough to simply memorize information. If that’s your only focus, you may pass your test — or not — but that information will likely not stay with you for long. You also need to understand it if you want to keep it with you for years — or even just the semester.

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Understanding information straight out of the book is not always an easy task. Instead, you need to find a way to simplify the information. Try to summarize what you read first to demonstrate a basic understanding of the topic and then apply it to something else in your life to make it really sink in. This will make it much easier to recall that information when you need it.

Hang Notes and Facts Everywhere

A great way to memorize information is to have it hanging up in places you go throughout the day. While your boss may not appreciate you littering his walls, you can easily hang them up in your personal space, whether you live on or off-campus.

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Write out things you want to remember on notecards or paper and hang them above your desk, on your bathroom mirror, above your kitchen sink, and on your fridge. You might also consider putting some notecards in your wallet. Seeing the information often helps you to commit it to memory.

Try a Group Study Session

Just as people learn better through different mediums, some learn better in silence and solitude, while others learn better in a group setting. If the latter is you, look for study groups you can join or consider starting one. While it’s okay to ask your best buds, be sure that you can actually focus on studying when they’re around.

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Even if you learn better alone, a study group can be helpful. You can gain a better understanding of the topic by asking one another questions and carrying on discussions. You might also pick up important facts you missed during the lecture.

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