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Study Skills Tips from a Valedictorian

By Laura Whitmore

Do you believe that study skills gurus are born and not made? I can assure you that you can learn and practice study skills if you are willing to try. Follow these simple tips that I used to graduate first in my class and you are sure to see a boost in grades.

Part A: Studying Starts Long Before the Teacher Announces a Test is Coming

They say “change is inevitable.” Well, so are tests. It is important to prepare for the next test before you even know when the next test is. What it comes down to is this: do you KNOW the material? How can you KNOW the material?

Here is what I did to make sure I understood what I was being taught:

1. Ask Questions

If there was something the teacher was going over that I didn’t understand, I wanted to get clarity on it right then and there. I would raise my hand and ask a question on exactly what I was wondering about. I didn’t care what my peers thought of me. I didn’t care if the teacher got annoyed. I knew if I didn’t get immediate clarity, it would be harder to pursue the answer later on and could result in additional confusion as we built on that topic.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You may not feel “cool” in the moment, but I would argue that is the coolest move you can make. It tells your peers you are comfortable in who you are. You may help them feel more confident and comfortable asking their own questions. I honestly believe that my peers respected me more for asking questions. I became a leader in my classroom because of it.

2. Take Good Notes

When it came to notes, I tried to keep it simple. I would write down the most important points or things the teacher said that really stood out to me. If they emphasized something or made a point to tell us to “write that down,” I would put an asterisk next to it. Anything the teacher wrote on the board I would copy down, including graphs and charts and pictures. I found illustrations were super helpful when I studied the concept later on to understand what it meant.

Sadly, note-taking is a dying art. Many teachers just pass out their own notes to the students. This isn’t doing you any favors. You NEED note-taking skills in college. I would recommend re-writing your teacher’s notes in your own handwriting and in a way that makes sense to you. Remember, you are not getting a grade on your notes. They don’t have to be neat and everything doesn’t have to be spelled correctly. They just have to make sense to you. When you write something down yourself, it also helps commit it to memory.

3. Do ALL Homework Assignments

Think of homework like the prerequisite for quizzes and tests. It is a tool to help you learn the important things for each unit. I don’t think there was ever a point in time where I didn’t complete a homework assignment. Not only did I see it as a tool to help me better understand the material, but it was also an easy grade to boost my course average.

If you don’t do the homework, how are you going to fully understand the material?

Part B: Preparing for the Quiz or Test

Studying for an upcoming quiz or test is as much about making sure your basic needs are met as it is making sure you understand the content.

4. When Studying, Make Sure You’re Comfortable

In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the bottom (and biggest) row of the pyramid addresses basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. When I studied, I made sure that I had snacks on hand. I wore comfortable sweats. I usually got a good night’s sleep because I went to bed and got up at the same time every day. I also played sports and worked out, which helped me get the jitters out so that I could sit and study for longer periods. These things helped me be comfortable to ensure optimal focus.

If your basic needs aren’t met, then it will be more difficult for you to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. Did you get enough sleep? Are you hungry? Did you get adequate exercise? Self-care is super important so that efficient studying can occur.

5. Commit Things to Working Memory

First, I would read over my notes a few times. I would even break it up into smaller segments or chunks so that I wasn’t trying to memorize everything at once. After reading part of my notes a few times, I would cover it up and then try to recite it or write it down. Then, I would compare what I got with what the notes said and notice anything I missed or got wrong. I would put an asterisk next to the things that I still struggled with memorizing so that I could double down on those things. Once I was able to recall everything from memory a few times, I knew I had it down. Then, I would go back to it later (in a couple hours or so) and quiz myself on it again. Then, I would do it the next morning before the test.

You can practice these steps with flashcards instead, if you prefer.

6. Practice Math Problems

Math is so procedural that it was less about studying the notes for me and more about actually doing the problems again. I would cover up problems in my notes and try them, then check to see if I got the right answer. If I didn’t, I would pinpoint my mistake by figuring out what line of my work looked different from the notes. I found that practicing the example problems our teacher gave us was the most effective way for me to study, as the teacher made sure to highlight examples that varied and resulted in differing scenarios/outcomes. I anticipated that the teacher would give us problems on the assessment similar to the examples they showed us in the notes. I was always right.

If you’re struggling with this when you’re studying because you still don’t understand how to do the problems, that is a sign that you may need additional support. Consider getting a tutor or taking more initiative by asking a classmate or the teacher for help. Do this well in advance of any upcoming test. If you realize you can’t do these problems the day or two before a test, it may be too late.

7. Take Breaks

Depending on what I was studying, I would spend 20 minutes to an hour studying and then take a 10-15 minute break. I didn’t set a timer. I just took a break when I felt like I was losing steam or focus. I found that taking a break helped me be more productive; I was able to recharge so that I could focus again.

8. Choose an Environment that Is Free From Distractions

I had a desk up in my room and would go there to study. I would let my family know that I am going to study so that they wouldn’t bother me. Also, I wouldn’t have a cell phone on me.

If that’s the biggest piece of advice that I could give to you, it is to leave your cell phone in another room or put it on “Do Not Disturb.” You will end up having to study for way longer if you are distracted and interrupted often. You can check your texts during breaks!

9. Study Until You Feel Confident

If I didn’t feel confident and like I had everything down, when I went into a test, I would feel anxiety and a lack of control. I knew when I had the material down.

Study until you feel like you’re in control. This will help alleviate most of your anxiety during the assessment.

10. Get Sleep

This goes along with #4, but sleep is so important the night before an assessment! If I didn’t feel that I had everything down, I would still prioritize sleep over cramming. I would go to bed the same time I always did and then wake up early to study some more.

Let your body and brain get sleep. This is a chance for your brain to process what it has been learning. Without enough sleep, you are more apt to make careless mistakes and have memory lapses on test day.

Part C: During the Test

11. Don’t Panic

Even after all the preparation, there were problems on the test that would still catch me off guard. However, I recognized that this is just part of the process and it was normal to not know everything right away. I would calmly mark any questions I was stumped on to come back to and finish the test first. Finishing the other problems and knowing I got those correct alleviated my anxiety and allowed me to go back to the difficult problem with a clear mind and new perspective. Because I didn’t panic, I was often able to figure out the problem later on.

Taking a test is as much about psychology as it is about content knowledge. Practice test-taking in a proper frame of mind. There is no need to panic. If you stay calm, you are giving yourself the best chance at success.