By Pat Bowden, published August 8, 2017.
The best time to learn the material needed for a test is well before the day, with a few follow-up revisions during the days immediately prior to the test. Being fresh and rested before a test is also helpful. Take a look at 3 Ways to Look After Yourself: Food, Exercise, Rest for some tips on optimising your wellbeing.
A useful tool for learning is the Pomodoro technique which is both a learning aid and a technique to avoid procrastination. Training your brain by using the Pomodoro to concentrate without distractions is a big help for quicker learning. Many people have also developed strategies to improve their memories, such as the Memory Palace and using memory joggers of familiar things to remember unfamiliar terms, formulae and processes.
Do you learn well by writing the material out by hand in your own words, perhaps several times? Research shows that handwriting helps with memory better than taking notes or studying using a device with a keyboard. So find that pencil and paper and think about the words as you write them. Watch your hand forming the letters and numbers. Feel the pen in your hand and smell the paper. Listen to the slight scratching sounds as you write. Researchers theorise that involving more of our senses helps us remember.
If you are only allowed one or two attempts at the tests or quizzes in your course, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of the material before you attempt the test. Learning How to Learn describes the benefits of testing (including self testing) and how revisiting material several times leads to more complete understanding. Sometimes you will believe that you understand a topic, until you need to answer a question about it. Asking yourself questions or explaining it aloud can both be great ways to find out just how much (or how little) you know. If there are any practice problems, do them all, over and over again if necessary until you master them. It’s perfectly fine to look up answers at this stage to help your understanding, but it’s important that you spend at least a few minutes trying hard to solve a problem yourself before looking up the answer.
Study by Reviewing and Explaining
What if you have tried a practice problem or re-read a section several times but still feel you haven’t grasped it fully? Chances are, you have missed a more basic concept along the way. You may need to review earlier material in the course to see if you understand it and can explain it to yourself in your own words. Feel silly talking to yourself? Close the door and teach your mirror, your dog or your teddy bear. Ask a good friend or family member if you can teach them the topic while you cook, garden, or do the dishes together. Join or create a study group and make sure you spend most of the time discussing the subject, not simply socialising. Bouncing the concept off someone else is an excellent way to really check how well you know it because chances are you will be trying to answer questions you hadn’t thought of on your own.
If this technique shows you have large holes in your knowledge, don’t despair. Clarifying what you don’t know is the first step towards learning what you need to know. Jot down things that you need to work on, then go and put in some concentrated study in those areas. Put your Pomodoro to work and see how much you can master in 25 minute bursts.
When Doing the Test
The above ideas are presented to give you a solid grounding so when you attempt the test, you are feeling confident that you know the work. What happens, then, if you read the test and don’t have a clue how to answer?
Firstly, don’t panic. If you have watched the videos and done the reading, you will have some knowledge of the material. Take a deep breath or two and read through the whole test. No doubt you will find some questions you can answer so do these first while your subconscious brain works on harder problems in the background. Next, read the unanswered problems again and you’ll probably realise that some that stumped you on the first reading aren’t so hard after all, so answer these now.
Finally, work on the really tricky questions. By this time, you are likely to be feeling more confident and you may be surprised to discover that you know more than you thought on the first reading of the test. If it’s multiple choice, you can often rule out some of the options straight away, so your chances of choosing the right answer have already increased.
Online Tests and Quizzes
With online learning in the privacy of your own home, there can be the temptation to open up the quiz, then open the video transcripts in a separate window to find the answers. Why could this be a problem? Apart from the feeling of cheating by simply looking up the answers, how useful is this in the long run? Will you have a solid base to build on when you are doing further study in the field? If the information is needed for a future career, will you be able to remember it? Chances are, you won’t, if you have spent your time looking things up as you go. Sure, in many job situations you will be able to look information up as needed, but having what you need already in your head gives you a jump start.
Many courses on Coursera now have an unlimited number of attempts at their quizzes, but usually you can’t re-do the quiz within 8 hours. This gives you a chance to go back and review the lecture videos and readings to look for points you may have missed earlier. Remember, though, not to leave it until the last minute. Even though deadlines are generally less rigid in many online courses than in other types of study avenues, it’s best not to rely on beating a tight deadline in case of unexpected problems. What if there is a blackout or the site goes down? For some other time management ideas, take a look at How to Find Time to Beat that Course Deadline and How to stick to the Task and Finish.
Quizzes and tests on other online learning platforms may only give you one or two attempts so it is crucial to know the material well before you attempt them.
A Final Thought
While people learn in different ways, there are several basic tools that are all worth trying, such as the Pomodoro technique, handwriting notes and explaining things in your own words. Have you found these or other ideas useful? Tell us in the comments section below.