How to Improve One's Grades: "Study Harder!"

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Last updated: 02 Oct, 2016
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Posted: 30 Sep, 2012
by Sliwa S.
Updated: 02 Oct, 2016
by Sliwa S.

As a parent and former college administrator I can’t count the number of times I heard the expression that “I am going to study harder!” in order to get a better outcome on an upcoming test.

But what does it really mean?  I have observed students who in response to the above expression seemed to actually look harder at the pages in the textbook (and sometimes even longer).  Somehow the student actually expected a different outcome from such a repetitive effort.  It reminds me of the parable that can be paraphrased that the definition of a fool is someone who keeps repeating the same task unsuccessfully and hoped that repeating it would result in a different outcome.

So my advice to students is that if they want a different outcome they should not just repeat the effort previously attempted, but they should develop a new set of strategies and tactics.  Specifically start with a list of all of the possible tasks one could undertake and then rate them by anticipated benefit.  Then chose those at the top of the list that can be accomplished within the time allocated to studying for the upcoming test.  Note everyone learns differently and each task should be ranked differently for each student as well as determing the estimated time expenditure for each task for the particular course and situation.

One could write a lengthy book on all the tasks students could use to improve their academic performance, and I presume there are many, but here are a few tasks from my list:

  1. Thoroughly complete all of the assignments.
  2. Thoroughly complete all of the optional assignments.
  3. Read the unassigned material within the course textbooks.
  4. Complete the unassigned questions in the texts, notes, and auxiliary materials.
  5. Find out what other texts and materials have been assigned by other faculty and review these for similarities and differences.  Complete the assigned and optional work assigned by other faculty for the same course.
  6. Class notes:  Review the class-notes.  Get other students’ class-notes.  Copy the class-notes over into well-organized summaries of the materials.
  7. Ask the professor (either during class or during office hours or both) what is going to be on the exam.  Carefully note the nuances in the descriptions.  Repeat for any teaching assistants.
  8. Get previous tests by this professor.  Get previous tests from other professors for the same course.  Take these tests as practice tests in a simulated environment.  Analyze the tests for common features, what was hardest, and what questions took the longest in the simulated environment.  
  9. Looking for repeating occurrences and favorite discovery issues used by the faculty in their tests.  Many professors like to teach something in their exams and not just measure what was already covered.  What will it be?
  10. Talk to students who took the course before and ask them their impression of the tests and what to expect and what surprised them.
  11. Try to predict what are the likely exam questions that are important to your professor and develop a strategy to "knock those out of the park!"  These could be the extra credit or discovery questions that are used to separate students from the pack.
  12. Use the previous steps above to develop a predicted test or tests.  Take the test or tests.  Develop test taking strategies based upon your predicted test.
  13. Divide predicted tests into easy and hard sections.  First develop confidence in the easy questions and then develop a plan to master the hard ones.  Look for the pattern when taking the actual test.
  14. Prepare short-cuts for key sections of the predicted test.  In analytical courses there are frequently clever short-cuts that can be used for recurring mathematical computations.  In other types of exams outlines, bulleted lists, and sometimes even a clever graphic can be used to great effect.  Prepare these in advance and, if needed, commit them to memory.
  15. Prepare an exam sheet of useful information, formula, facts, relationships.  I try to make this graphical and well organized.  Even if the exam isn’t open notes, I can recall the material better if I have created such a study sheet for the exam.  Clearly if the exam is open notes it will help.
  16. Prepare index cards with key formulae, chemistry equations, facts, quotes, and data.  Drill yourself (and members of your study group) so that they become easy to access during the exam.  I have seen students in Organic Chemistry buy and/or develop drill cards, but also stick models to build key molecules prior to exams.
  17. Even for open notes/books exams, prepare tables-of-contents or indexes so that it will be easy to locate the material that is needed for the particular questions.  In timed open notes tests it's amazing how many students waste time pouring through their texts and notes looking for something relevant during the exam.  Those of us with indices just consult our index/table-of-contents and then turn directly to the textbook or notes page for the relevant materials.
  18. Write key essay responses based upon the predicted test questions.  These paragraphs are especially useful if the exam is open notes as you can copy the key paragraphs straight into your answers.  However, even for a closed book exam having pre-written certain key sections will make your essays easier to write and flow together with the facts and language you desire.
  19. Buy study guides for the course.  Use those for practice exams and study sheets.  When growing up we had Schaum's Outlines and Cliff Notes and I allocated a portion of my limited student budget to insure I had such auxiliary study materials for my key courese.
  20. Form study groups.  Exchanged problem answers, predicted exams, pre-written essays, etc.  Help each other see the big picture as well as the details.  Several times I participated in a study group that exactly predicted the questions on the exam and, hence, we were all well prepared.
  21. Create checklists of materials to be mastered and assess yourself on the completeness of mastery.  Develop a plan and schedule to improve the mastery of each critical section prior to the exam.
  22. Develop a plan for which questions you will welcome on an exam.  My experience is that one’s momentum builds by answering the ‘comfort’ questions first and then allow the remaining time on the exam to maximize the score on those that are challenging.
  23. Arrange to teach the material to someone.  It requires a higher level of understanding and comfort to be able to teach the material.
  24. Develop a plan for your physical state going into the exam so you will be at peek performance.  Everyone is different, but what level of rest, energy, caffiene, and last minute study is best for you prior to entering the test chamber.  For example, when a student, I would avoid an all-nighter before but would study until late, get up early, go for a quick jog or bike ride to get the heart-rate raised, then study for about 90 minutes starting about 2 hours before, grab a bite of food and take some caffeine just before entering the room.

Bottomline:  Studying harder for a test probably can be best summarized as being able to predict what's on the test and being in a position to completely answer it within the time frame given.  Good luck!

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