It’s test time. Your syllabus and professor don’t even have to remind you. You’re on edge…and so are your classmates, and you’re already preparing to trade your friends for the love affair with your coffee pot. Test time. There it is again. How can such a short phrase inspire such frantic, zealous panic?

By Cindy Bennett on Thursday, Nov 30, 2017

Fortunately, you can maximize the control you have in a testing situation by studying proactively. In other words, don’t wait until you know there is a test; the entire course is your study session. Just as runners build up for a marathon run, good students study from the beginning of the course. “The beginning of the course? What about all of the cool kids who take tests after all-nighters. Everybody does it. Can’t I?”Truthfully, no one will stop you from studying last minute, and sometimes, you may have no other choice. However, the more you learn over the entire course, the less surprising an exam will be. An exam tests your proficiency in a given subject. The word “surprise” is nowhere in that description. Therefore, the surprise that many students experience as they contemplate which funny joke to write at the end of the test to hopefully gain their professor’s approval is one that theoretically should never cross their minds. But all too often, exams meant to test our knowledge resemble the mystery thrillers that keep us up all night when we’re not rekindling our relationships with Starbucks.

The following tips will help you to become a more proactive learner. However, everyone finds their own study flow, so adapt these strategies to fit your needs until you become a savvy studier.

Plan Your Accommodations Early

Throughout the College Success Core, we’ve stressed the importance of planning ahead. Preparing for exams is another reason you need to start planning your accommodations as early as possible. Talk with your DSO, or engage with your professor as soon as you know you will be taking a specific course. Establishing the setting of your test and the method by which you will take it ahead of time will eliminate devilish details and allow you to concentrate solely on studying.

Consider the Entire Course as Your Study Session

Don’t think of lectures, your learning time, as being unrelated to your exams. Lectures are filled with material that will be on the exam. Prioritizing the course and keeping up with readings, assignments, and attending class at all costs will maximize the knowledge you take in. study time is not learning time. It is review time. If you have situated yourself for success, your study stress will not skyrocket. Although the pictures from last weekend’s extravaganza were just posted on Facebook, class hour is not zone out hour. Professors are hired for their passion to expand knowledge, so spending time with them is a unique opportunity to gain the perspective of an expert in the field of your course. Similarly, homework is structured preparation for an exam, so treating homework like study hour will help you to complete it seriously and provide you with numerous tools for your study session toolbox.

Learn your Optimal Study Setting

What is the best place to study?

If you are a student who is disrupted by background or low-level noises, the quiet of a library, an empty lounge or a single dorm room will work for you.

What is the best time to study?

The best time to study varies with each student, as our brains are wired differently. When is your brain at its peak performance? When are you most alert? If you are not sure, practice. What are mornings like for you? Afternoons? Evenings?

What are your best study conditions?

Some students find that listening to quiet music as they study helps. Some students like to be bundled up or in their sweats or pajamas to study, others like to keep themselves cool. Some students like to study lying down, while others must be sitting at a desk. Some students study well in groups while others like to study alone. Which works for you?

Organize Your Learning

One reason I dreaded studying was that I spent most of my time gathering the resources necessary to study. This black hole habit often ended with a lot of frustration and only half the materials I needed to truly understand the content. The follow-up textbook flipping and mad Googling transitioned the concentration from reviewing material to finding material. Establishing a system for each course at the beginning will allow you to quickly house all resources your professor provides. Now, at the beginning of each course, I create a folder on my computer, and link it with the cloud. The blue screen of death smells midnight coffee brewing and only crashes computers when they are most depended upon. Back up your data immediately so you don’t have to create a backup plan with your professor. Based on the syllabus, I create sub folders representing readings and assignments. If a professor sends a link to a supplemental resource, I bookmark it in the course folder in my internet browser. If possible, download all readings and resources ahead of time. If not, establish a “now” habit. Prevent the infamous “I can do this during 30 seconds of time tomorrow,” and organize the resource immediately.

Become best friends with your calendar

My calendar and I are inseparable. As soon as I receive an assignment (especially group assignments), I block time on my calendar. Blocking time will prevent you from scheduling too many meetings in the wake of exam week. Set up weekly homework hours. Input your professor’s office hours and any pre-organized study sessions through the tutoring center. You certainly don’t have to attend all of these opportunities, but it is much easier to do so if you have already placed that information in your calendar. If you choose to visit your professor, you can change the event classification from “free” to “busy,” and prevent yourself from double booking the extra help.

Freshen Your Learning

Reading your textbook and notes will eventually become tiring. Therefore, spice up the study session by referencing your favorite learning tools. If there are definitions you must memorize, make flash cards. Search for online quizzes to test your knowledge. Did the Wikipedia article click with you? Refer to the bookmark. Take any sample quizzes your professor has offered. If you have not been assigned end-of-chapter questions as homework, consider them a practice test and do them anyway. Read your notes out loud to hear them in a slightly different way. Claim the comfy chair in the library early one morning so no one else takes it. Attend study group. By couching your material in various forms, you are more likely to learn which method is the most helpful for engraining the subject into your long term memory.

Take the Extra out of Credit

If you are lucky enough to receive a rare extra credit opportunity, consider it mandatory. By earning extra points, you are taking more control of your grade and giving yourself a bit more wiggle room on that exam.

Reward yourself

When I was an undergraduate, Facebook chat was the thing. And for me, it was often too much the thing. Therefore, I developed an easy reward system for myself. Depending on my workload, I told myself that I could reply to my Facebook chat messages after reading a few pages or after reviewing 10 note cards. This system worked for me, and a similar reward system can really help you to stay on task. Allocate a post studying chocolate bar. Cue up the Netflix for relaxation after reading. Just be careful, because some reward systems can become distracting. Developing a successful strategy takes practice just like studying, and you may have to try out a few reward systems to truly understand the positive effect of taking breaks. However, experimenting with reward systems will not only be fun, but beneficial for giving your brain time to process all of your course material.

Pay Attention to your Body

Behavior during exam week rarely resembles that of all other weeks. I often get less sleep during exam week and eat a lot of impulse junk food. Ironically, dropping the habits that keep us healthy feels like it contributes most to our success. Yet, we test best under the same conditions that we learn the material. Allocate yourself the number of hours of sleep that leave you refreshed in the morning. Carve out time to eat healthy meals and to exercise. And schedule time to join a club, hang out with friends or even to take a quiet walk to escape your desk for a little while.


As you apply these tips for studying, you will notice what works for you and what doesn’t. While you are recovering from a midterm or a final, think about the strategies you used too much and those you should have used more often. Then make some goals for the next course. You may find it easier to reflect by yourself or to bounce some ideas off a friend or mentor. Either way, figuring out your strengths and weaknesses will help you to create good study goals for the future.