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How to study and take tests

Midterms have arrived, and you are sweating them out, wondering if you can not only survive this two-week period but also overcome mental exhaustion to remember at least 80% of the material on the test. If you've followed the other tips we've provided so far, then you should have no problem handling your notes and preparing for upcoming tests.

How Are YOU Intelligent?

If you don't know already, you need to figure out the ways in which you are most intelligent. Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences states that humans have 8 different ways in which they can be intelligent: Body Movement, Intrapersonal (understand your self well), Interpersonal (interact with others), Language/Verbal, Logic/Math, Musical, Natural (strong understanding of nature and environment), and Visual/Spatial. To find out your top three Intelligences, take's Multiple Intelligences Assessment. Once you find out your top three Intelligences, go to the LiteracyNet Multiple Intelligences Practice page to learn more about how to use your top three Intelligences in taking notes and studying. You can also use the Intelligences in other aspects of your life once you get comfortable and familiar with them.

How to Study

To study efficiently, you must know how you learn best. In short, we all learn best in a few different ways--seeing, listening, or doing. Usually we learn in combinations of the three, which is why professors try to incorporate all three if possible--think of your math class where the professor explained a calculation verbally (Auditory Learning), did the calculation on the board (Visual Learning), and had you copy the calculation into your notes (Tactile/Kinesthetic Learning).

But everyone learns in different ways depending on the material and the learning environment itself. To be a highly successful learner (and not just in college), you must determine how you learn best and use that/those "styles" for studying the material you have gathered from class lectures and readings:

Auditory Learners

If you learn by listening, consider reading your notes and text highlights aloud to yourself--hearing the information can help your mind recall the information more easily. If you are also a social learner, then talking about the material in a study group can help you process the material. When you take your test, you will engage yourself in internal dialogue as you search your mind for the information, so having conversations about the content might give you a little extra help on your tests. Don't forget to tap into your other intelligences, too--if you are a musical person, then implement music in your studying and learning. If you are intelligent in Nature, then try to implement noises from nature in your study sessions, or maybe try to associate certain noises with certain types of information.

Visual Learners

If you learn by seeing, then try to implement visuals as much as possible when you take notes during lectures, class discussions, or text readings. Use your visual style to organize your notes by making charts, graphs, and mind maps that visually explain connections between ideas and facts and time periods and historical figures. The more colors and images you can use, the better your brain will retain the material and the more likely you will be able to recall the information more easily. Don't forget to tap into your other intelligences, too--If you are intrapersonally intelligent, then visualize the information in your own mind, almost as if you are trying to recreate the visual charts, graphs, and mindmaps in your own mind. If you are visually intelligent, then use as many more visuals as possible to tap into that intelligence. If you are verbally intelligent, then implement words in your graphs and mindmaps but use different colors to represent different types of information--for example, use black for people's names, blue for dates and locations, red for actions or battles or wars, and green for growth or the lack thereof.

Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners

If you learn by doing, then create small craft projects that illustrate concepts on the test, make mini-presentations in Prezi or PowerPoint that require you to arrange your notes and text information, or perform small plays that allow you to feel and work with the notes and information. If you are a logic/math person, then implement logical activities in your studying and note taking. If you are a body movement learner, then add movement to your study sessions--study while standing, sit in comfortable positions but give yourself walking breaks periodically, move while you take notes and study. If you feel like you think better while you are moving, then make sure you sit in the front row of the classroom or along the edges or an aisle so you a) won't feel cramped and b) will be able to move fairly easily.

Taking Tests

For midterms, final exams, and any other type of test you must take while in college, you must ultimately provide the instructor with all you know about the topic. No longer will simple answers be acceptable; you must impress us with your knowledge and your ability to not only recall that information but also present that information. Many of my students do not earn as many points as they could have because they do not tell me EVERYTHING they know about the material on tests. If you know more, then why not include it? You earn points based on what you know, not your charm. We have various methods for assessing your knowledge, though most fall into or include the same basic types of test questions:


Typically, these test questions, which you've been taking since birth, provide a stem question and three to five options from which you must choose the most correct answer. Always the implication is "most correct answer" because some answers seem correct but are not as correct as another. These types of tests measure only the most basic grasp of knowledge, usually forcing you to regurgitate back memorized facts and information. How can you succeed on these tests? Pay careful attention to any proper nouns (names of specific people, places, and ideas) and dates in your notes or text book. If you are taking some sort of general assessment, such as ACT or SAT, then your "notes" will consist of various vocabulary words. One method for tackling these tests involves cutting the obvious wrong answers so you have only possible answers, which you must then cut to only the probable answers. Quick: The Vice President of the United States is: a. Newt Gingrich b. George W. Bush c. Hillary Clinton d. Joe Biden e. Barack Obama. If you have no idea, cut out the answers you know are not right, then narrow down your options to those that could be right. If you have only two left and you can't decide which answer is correct, then choose the answer that seems, for some reason, "most correct." Not that you'll run into Matching test questions, but if you do, they , too, are multiple-choice questions, only they are a bit easier to manage because you simply narrow down your options by first choosing the most obvious correct answers and then narrow down.

Short Answer

Short Answer test questions consist of either fill in the blank or True-False questions. Fill in the blank questions can be difficult because you have all the options in the world at your disposal, but don't treat these questions like MadLibs where you can fill in blanks willy-nilly, however you want. Use the surrounding information in the sentence to give you clues for what word should go there. If the word "a" appears before the blank, then you know that the word in the blank should start with a consonant; if the word "an" appears before the blank, then the word should start with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). I write "should" because sometimes professors will not be aware of their grammar usage and will not adhere to Standard American Written English, so be careful. Your best bet will be using the rest of the sentence for clues.

True-False questions are quite difficult even though, at worst, you should get half of them correct--with only two answer options, your odds are 1:2 of choosing the correct answer with just a blind guess. Again, as you did with Short Answer tests, you should also use the sentence to determine your answer. Look for words like "always" or "never" or maybe some small mistake like "John Biden is the Vice President of the United States." Most professors who use True-False are sneakier than that and tweak the statement to emphasize other information they wanted you to know. In my ENGL 1101 class, I want students to have a full understanding of ethos, so if I wanted to use a True-False sentence, I might try "Aristotle wrote that an orator's ethos should present both knowledge about the subject and benevolence toward the decorum." Look for small items to trip you up on these questions, assuming that your professor gives tricky tests. If not, then use your studying and information retention and recall to mentally check the facts in the statements before choosing your answer.

Essay Tests

Of all tests, essay tests fully assess your ability to not only retain knowledge but also present it clearly in an intelligent format. All your skills are required because you must discuss the essay topic and use every bit of information from class notes, lectures, and text readings to defend your answers. People think essays are merely restatements of information, and sometimes they are, but essay tests typically require more than verbal vomit; they demand that you argue your point, presenting your answer as though defending it in a court of law. Do you have enough evidence? Yes, if you learned the material more than mere memorization will provide. How deeply do you grasp the concepts presented in class and the text? Do you have only a superficial understanding so you can spout off names and dates or have you internalized the information so you can discuss it like an informed, educated adult?

Some General Tips on Taking Tests

The human brain is split, psychologically, into three sections: the reptilian, the limbic, and the cerebrum. The reptilian part focuses on basic survival needs--heart beat, breathing, hunger, thirst, and adrenaline. The limbic part focuses on emotions, and the cerebrum focuses on logical thought and information storage and retrieval. When you enter a test situation, ideally, your brain will operate from the cerebrum part. However, if you have stress about the test, and the first few questions worsen the problem--"What the? These weren't on the study guide! OMG!"--then your brain will downshift into operating from the limbic system, responsible for emotional response. Your brain can no longer retrieve information stored there, which will heighten your emotional response more, which means your brain has further difficulty finding answers to the questions, which intensifies your fears more until finally your brain downshifts again, this time into the reptilian part, responsible for survival. Your heart rate has increased, your breathing has shallowed, and your palms are sweating. You want to Christmas tree this test and get the #@!! out of that room! Your fight or flight mechanism response to the increased adrenaline has kicked in, and you can basically forget seeming intelligent on the test.

You've seen them. Maybe you've BEEN that person. But you don't have to be. Just as your brain downshifts, it can also upshift if you take action and nourish your brain. Your brain needs certain elements to maintain optimum function--oxygen, protein, water, and light--so some ways to keep your brain information ready on tests include:

  1. Breathing. Professors are typically not CPR certified, so if you stop breathing in class and pass out, they will not be able to resuscitate you. :-) Slow, deep, cleansing breaths deliver oxygen to your brain better than quick, shallow, terrified breaths, which is why when you feel fear, you should focus on slowing and deepening your breathing. Think yoga with out the moans or chants.
  2. Stretching and massaging muscles, if needed. Sometimes rubbing your shoulders or neck can get blood flowing a bit more. Sometimes stretching your legs under the desk or table, or stretching your back or neck, or massaging your hands (especially on essay tests) can move the blood through your system quicker, resulting in more OXYGEN getting to your brain.
  3. Eating a high protein breakfast or lunch, depending on the time of your test. We know that eating too much food makes us sleepy. Know why? Your body has a limited amount of blood to apply to all your body's functions, so when we eat too much, our body sends blood to the digestive system to get it moving and shaking in processing the nutrients in the food. The blood concentration leaves the brain so more oxygen can be used in digestion, so the brain feels a bit sleepy. A carb-heavy meal has the same effect because carbs require more energy for digestion.
  4. Drinking water helps because the body in general needs the hydrogen and oxygen (seeing a pattern here?) in water to perform its daily duties. In addition, the brain is quite fluid, possibly needing more moisture than any other part of the body, so make sure you drink plenty of water before taking tests (but not so much that you have to go to the bathroom during the test).
  5. Getting light into the brain. How? Um, well, pretty much through your eyes. The ideal is sunlight, but if that won't work, then any light will do. Take a moment to allow light to enter your eyes. Don't strain, don't focus on absorbing light; simply open your eyes wider, relax them, and let the light enter. Also helpful is looking up and to the left because apparently the light enters the part of the brain responsible for emotions, and if test anxiety hits, you want calm emotions.

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