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Improving Test Performance

Test performance not only reflects how much you studied in the hours and days leading up to the test, but also how well you have been studying throughout the semester. This page offers a variety of study strategies that you can use from the first day of class to improve your test performance over the entire semester. You may find, as you read through this page, that you are already routinely practicing some of these skills, while there may be others that you're not practicing as regularly. It is encouraged that you identify one or two skills you would like to try to routinely incorporate into your study schedule.

1. On average, how many hours per week is it recommended that you study for each hour you spend in class?

  1. 1 hour
  2. 2 hours
  3. 3 hours
  4. 4 hours

There is no right answer to this question; however, it is generally recommended that you spend two to three hours studying outside of class for every hour you spend in class. For a three-credit class, you are spending three hours in class every week. This would suggest that you should plan to spend at least six hours outside of class studying each week. Obviously, some classes will be more difficult than others and some will be less difficult. Study activities include reading the textbook, doing homework assignments, reviewing notes, and studying for tests and quizzes.

2. What strategy do you use for taking notes in your classes?

  1. Write everything the professor says
  2. Write notes in an outline form
  3. Write notes in a modified outline form
  4. Copy everything appearing on slides

One strategy for note taking that has proven to be very useful is the modified outline form, which will be explained later on this page. It’s not possible to write down everything that the professor says. People generally speak at a rate of 150 - 200 words per minute and can only write about 25 words per minute. While it may be useful to copy everything on slides, those are probably only the main ideas of a lecture and additional information will be needed to effectively study for tests.

3. When do you start studying for your tests?

  1. The first day of class or the first day after a test
  2. Two weeks before a test
  3. A week before a test
  4. Two days before a test
  5. The night before a test

While you may not actually label what you are doing as “studying for a test” until a few days or a week before the test, everything you do from the first day of class or the first day after a test is helping you prepare for the next test. Class attendance, note taking, reviewing notes, completing homework assignments, reading the textbook, and reviewing notes and assignments prior to a test all contribute to how you perform on the test.

Connect class work to long-range goals*

Some students love to learn just for the sake of learning, but many more need to believe that what they are doing in class has a purpose in the future. If you are one of those students in the latter group, try to apply what you learn in class to practical situations or your daily life.

Become active and involved in learning*

It is important to make learning an active process as opposed to a passive one. Making a learning situation an active one requires that you actually process what you are hearing or reading. Put it into your own words to make the material more meaningful to you.

Identify preferred learning style*

Different people have different learning styles. Rita Dunn's classification of learning styles includes: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile. David Kolb and Bernice McCarthy identify learning styles as imaginative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic. It is important to try to identify your preferred learning style and use that as much as possible in your study process. This will increase your retention of the material.

Practice patience with the learning process and your progress*

Learning takes time. Yes, there are students that seem to have a photographic memory and never need to study, but that is not true for most people. Students must learn how long it takes to learn material, while allowing adequate time for this learning to take place, to be a successful student.

Use multiple methods for learning*

We learn through repetition; however, that doesn't mean that we only need to study in one way. Students learn best by using a variety of strategies, including reviewing notes, making flashcards, completing homework problems, outlining chapters in the textbook, or studying in groups. The most effective methods used will vary depending on the class. 

Think about what is learned from the “big picture” perspective*

It is important to learn not only the facts, but to understand how these facts fit into the bigger picture. How do the facts you are learning apply to the chapter you are reading and the subject you are studying?

* Phrase quoted from: Walther, D. R. (1994). Toolkit for College Success. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

  • Take good notes
  • Review notes after each class
  • Use SQ3R
  • Get control of your time
  • Begin reviewing a week before tests
  • Test yourself
  • Practice good test taking strategies

All of these strategies contribute to success in college. While practicing one or two of the strategies will probably help to improve your academic performance some, practicing all of these strategies from the first day of class will result in much better academic performance.

Modified Outline

A modified outline is helpful to use as you take notes during class. This requires leaving about two inches on the left side of your page for questions, added during or after class, and taking notes on the right three quarters of the page.

As you take notes, write the topic on the first line and indent supporting details on subsequent lines, using a separate line for each point.

  • Indent supporting details
  • Separate points on separate lines
  • Leave white space
  • Leave a wide left margin


While taking notes, it may be important to develop abbreviations to help you jot down more information quickly. It doesn't matter what system you use for abbreviations but try to be consistent so when you look at your notes a few days after you've taken them, you still understand what you wrote.

  • Eliminate vowels
  • Use word beginnings
  • Use standard symbols
  • Create your own abbreviations

Reviewing notes after class each day, or at least before you go to bed, will help you to retain and recall more information. At the end of nine weeks, those who reviewed their notes within a day recalled about 75 percent of the information. Those who did not review their notes were unable to recall even 50 percent of the information after one day, and only a little more than 20 percent of the information after nine weeks.

We learn through repetition. When you review your notes, you may want to add additional information you recall from class or add questions in the margins to help you study the material later. You may also find that you don't understand some of the things you wrote, so you may want to ask the professor or a friend in the class to get clarification.


Read the chapter title, introduction, learning objectives, summary, and end of chapter questions. Also review bold face headings and subheadings, graphics, and italics throughout the chapter. This will provide an overview of the chapter and create a mental framework for understanding the chapter more thoroughly as you read.


Prior to reading each section, turn each heading into one or more questions. It will be helpful if you write your questions down so you can refer to them as you move through this process. This step helps one's mind engage and concentrate and creates an active learning environment.


As you read each section, look for answers to your questions. This fills in the information around the mental framework you have created in the previous steps.


After you have finished reading a section and before moving on to the next section of the chapter, go back to your questions to see if you can answer them. If you can't, you may have missed the main ideas in that section and may want to read it again. If you can answer them, you're ready to complete this process for the next section.


Review all of your questions to see if you can answer them. This step helps to refine your mental organization and begin to build your memory and understanding of the material. Following this model as you read chapters is likely to reduce the amount of time you will need to spend studying the chapters the week before the test because you have already begun to learn and memorize the material.

We all have 168 hours in each week, but some people use this time more efficiently than others. As a student, there are many demands on your time. These include the usual daily living demands, such as sleeping, grooming, preparing and cleaning up meals, running errands, and earning money. In addition to the hours required by these activities, being a full-time student requires as much time as a full-time job. Most people have had the experience of being so busy that they haven’t gotten anything done and don’t know what filled the time meant for productive activity.

The next section will give you an opportunity to assess how your time is being used and identify areas you may want to adjust if you are finding that you don't have enough time for some essential activities, like studying.

It may seem like there aren't enough hours in the week to get everything done. That may be true or it may be that you are not using your time as efficiently as possible. To assess where your time goes, complete the "Where Does Time Go?" inventory. Be as honest with yourself as possible. Some of the items are done every day and will be automatically multiplied by seven to show your weekly total. All "Number of Days" can be adjusted depending on how often you do each activity. After you have responded to all the questions, you'll have the opportunity to see how many hours remain during the week for studying.

Most universities recommend that students plan to spend at least two hours outside of class for every hour spent in class. Therefore, if you are taking 15 credit hours, it is suggested that you spend at least 30 hours a week outside of class studying and doing assignments for classes.

If you found by doing the “Where Does Time Go?” inventory in the previous section that you have less that 30 hours a week available for studying, you may want to reconsider how you are spending your time so more can be made available for studying.

If you have more than 30 hours a week available for studying and are using your study time wisely, but are not obtaining the grades you would like, you may want to talk with a counselor about strategies that you might implement to improve your grades.

About a week before a test, develop a test preparation plan

If you've practiced some or all of the techniques discussed previously, you are well on your way to being prepared for any test. It is important to decide how many hours you need to allocate for studying, and how to break those hours up, prior to your test.

Review notes, problems, and textbooks

Include time for reviewing your notes, homework problems, and textbook chapters, as well as other materials the professor may have provided. Begin each study period by studying different material than what you studied first during your previous study period. Also make sure you are not always studying the same material in the middle or at the end of your study period. The "primacy effect" suggests that we will best remember material studied first. The "recency effect" suggests that we will best remember material studied last. Therefore, always studying the same material in the middle of your study period suggests that you will be less likely to remember it.

Concentrate on the main ideas using learning objectives, study questions, and other chapter study aids to help

If test questions will be coming from the textbook as well as class lectures, use the study aides in the textbook chapters to guide you. These aids were created to highlight the ideas the author perceived to be the main points in the chapter. In many cases, your professor will probably focus on these ideas as well.

Take practice tests

Professors may have old tests that you can use to test yourself on current material. If they do, this is an excellent way to prepare for your next test. If you complete the practice test a day or two in advance of your next test, you can focus on the material you missed on the practice test during the study time remaining prior to the upcoming test.

Use chapter headings, other chapter aids, your textbook, and class notes to develop your own test

If your professor doesn't have old tests available, consider making your own test by using provided and created aids. This will take time, but the may lead to performing better on your test.

Create test-like conditions

A critical part of self testing is to take the test under test-like conditions. If you will not be able to use notes or your textbook during the test, don't use them when you take the practice test. Also, try to do the practice test within the time limit you will have on the real test. In this way, you get an idea whether or not you know the material well enough, or whether you need to spend more time studying the material so that you can recall it more quickly.

Arrive on time

Arriving on time will help to avoid the "brain pickers," other students who ask you questions right before the test to that you may or may not know the answer to. This can create needless anxiety.

Do a memory dump

If you believe that there will be a discrete amount of information that you will most likely need to know on the test and you fear you may forget it, write it down on the test as soon as the test is distributed. Then if you need this information, you have it available and do not need to rely on your memory.

Read directions carefully

The directions for a test may seem obvious to some, but to others, there may be valuable information hidden in them. Read the directions carefully to ensure that you understand what you are being asked to do as you respond to the questions.

Budget time wisely

Quickly review the test before you begin and decide how much time you will spend on each part of the test. Pay attention to the weight of each section on your grade and make sure you allow enough time for sections that may take more time or are weighted more heavily in the final test grade. It's never fun to arrive at the last page of the test only to find an essay question worth 25 percent of your grade with only a few minutes remaining to complete the test.

Feeling anxious? Practice relaxation

A number of autogenic relaxation techniques can be useful during a test if you find that anxiety is interfering with your performance. Some anxiety is good because it helps us perform better, but at some point, the anxiety can reduce performance. If you are unfamiliar with autogenic relaxation techniques, you may wish to talk with a counselor in your counseling center to find out more about these techniques.

Look for cues

You can look for two answers that are similar, cues from other questions, grammatical matching between the question and answers, as well as other strategies to give you a hint at correct answers.

Answer all of the questions

Some professors give partial credit, so it is important to answer all of the questions even if you are running out of time and can’t answer them fully.

Do not change answers

Research has shown that it is best to go with our first instinct when choosing an answer to a question, unless you are very sure the answer you have chosen is wrong.

Use all of the time available

If you finish early, go back and review your answers to make sure you haven't skipped a question or made careless mistakes as you responded to the questions.

What study strategies have you tried for improving your grades?

There are numerous study strategies and no single strategy is likely to work best for all of your classes. Strategies might include taking notes on chapters in the textbook as you read them, reviewing your notes each day after class, reworking homework problems under test-like conditions, or testing yourself on the notes you have taken in class. Experimenting with various strategies that seem appropriate for different classes will help you decide which strategies work best for those classes. Your learning style will also have an impact on the study methods that help you learn most effectively. Some people prefer to study alone while others learn better in groups. Some people learn through auditory means and benefit from talking aloud as they study. Some people are visual learners and need to see what they are learning. Think about how you learn best and try to include those learning methods in your study process as much as possible to enhance you learning.

What strategy or combination of strategies have you used most effectively to prepare for tests?

Just as there are a variety of study strategies, there are also a variety of strategies that are useful for preparing for tests. It is important to know if you will be taking a multiple choice, essay, or problem solving test because this will have an impact on the way you study. Study strategies for multiple-choice tests may include reviewing notes after class each day, carefully reading the textbook, taking notes as you read, and making flashcards with specific information you are expected to learn. Studying for an essay exam might include reviewing notes daily, reading and reviewing the textbook, trying to understand the "big picture," and making sure you can support general ideas with specific points. Preparing for a problem solving test may involve reworking homework problems, completing extra problems, meeting with a friend to talk through when to apply different problem solving methods, creating your own test, or taking an old test from the professor under test-like conditions to assess whether you know the material well enough to complete your upcoming test within the time that will be allowed. There are many other strategies out there. Finding strategies that work for you and allowing adequate study time to implement the strategies for each class is key.

What one strategy are you willing to practice until your next test to see if it helps you understand the material?

Many college students arrive at college with inadequate study skills. Most students who go to college were good students in high school and many did not have to study very hard to get good grades. Finding that previous study skills are not working for the first time in a student's academic career can be overwhelming. Choose one strategy at a time to practice. Work on it and, when you become proficient, choose another skill to work on and improve.