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Study Skills










Many instructors make it a point not to test students on material that hasn’t come up in class.  Although there probably will be a lot of material in the reading assignments that’s inessential (both in terms of the main thrust of the course and in terms of what you will be tested on) this is less likely in lectures.  When instructors speak, they do a lot of the work for you.  They select what they feel is important and give the material an organized structure.  Your job as a note-taker is to get down as much as you can.  Decide later what you really need to focus on. 




  • Skim you notes from the previous class.  Good teacher have some continuity from one class to the next.  So should you.  Come in to with topics fresh in mind.
  • Do the reading!  Lectures and discussions usually coincide with a specific reading assignment – an economics handout, a chapter in a physics textbook, several poems in a l literature course..  If you are already familiar with the new vocabulary and the basic thrust of the material, following the lecturer will be much easier.
  • Get to class on time.  This may seem painfully obvious, but it bears repeating.  When you arrive late, it may take you several minutes to get settled.  Even more unsettling is the sense that you have missed the beginning of whatever argument the teacher is making.  Another reason to get to class on time: often, teace5rhs put information on the board before class.  If you write down this information before class starts, it will not distract you during class.
  • Bring you textbook, class notes, and additional reading assignments that the teacher may refer to during class.




In general, it is a good idea to make a regular habit of exchanging notes with a friend – particularly with a meticulous friend.  See what he has written down and decide whether it seems important to you.  Your classmates can be your biggest resource.  Explaining the material each other is an excellent way for both of you to ensure that you really understand it.  Nothing forces you to think through what you have learned like having to explain it to someone else.   







It can be difficult to keep up with what the lecturer is saying.  These tips will make it easier on you:

  • Listen for a synopsis at the beginning of the lecture and a summary at the end.
  • Use abbreviations or some form of shorthand.
  • Listen for clues.  Often, teachers repeat important points, say
  •  them slowly, or  return to them later.
  • Pay attention to handouts.





As opposed to taking notes in lectures (when your main goal is to record the material being present to you), taking notes while you read involves a more active intelligence and constant questioning.  You need to think critically and interrogate what you read, continually asking questions of it and of yourself.  Do not rewrite the test in your notes or highlight or underline half of every textbook page.  These practices do you little good.



  • Ask yourself why you are reading the assignment.  Well, you want to learn something, and you hope to demonstrate what you have learned either in a paper or on a test.  If you are working on a test, what kind of test will it be?  This question dictates, to some extent, what material you will pay most attention to.  What kind of answers will you be asked to give eventually?
  • Figure out the main point of the assignment.  How does this reading fit into the course as a whole?  Skim the chapter, looking at section headings and key vocabulary.  Chapter in textbooks may be weighed down with details, but usually there are just a few main points.  If you can, write them down before you read carefully; otherwise, be sure to do so afterwards.
  • Make a list of important terms and concepts.  It may seem weird, but these concepts often are found in the preface and instruction of novels and nonfiction books, and in the table of contents and chapter summaries of textbooks.
  • Get a sense of what you are reading before you read it.  The point of studying is not the thrill of surprise but the practical process of getting the material.  So try reading first and last chapters, first and last paragraphs in each section, and first and last sentences of each paragraph.
  • Ask yourself what you already know about the material.  You might know quite a bit.  Write this down.  Think about your assumptions before you begin the reading.  Again, the point is to enhance your engagement with the text.  You do not want to be a passive recipient, a shellfish in a tide pool as waves of text wash over you.  You probably know that you can read entire books cover to cover and retain very little of what you have read.  You are better off preparing the playing field.





  • Look for answers to the basic questions: who what, when, why, and how.  Check yourself after you read.  Can you give succinct answers to these questions?
  • Ask yourself which information is important.  This is the difficult task.  Pay attention to bold words and graphs (not necessarily the specific data in the graph, but the idea – a point important enough to deserve a visual aid – that the graph is meant to illustrate).  Read the end of chapter questions beforehand and be on the lookout for information that helps you answer these questions.  Pay attention to anything that provokes a reaction from you.  This may be something you do not understand or something with which you disagree.  Or, it may be something that suddenly clarifies a cloudy issue.
  • Do not highlight masses of text.  You have done very little processing or evaluating if you have highlighted half the page.  Read ahead and then look back at what strikes you as the meat of the argument and the essential details.  
  • Try to paraphrase and condense the information.  But do no go sentence by sentence, because without a larger context, you do not know what is important yet.  Read a paragraph or section and then write down the main points in you own words.  When you write these down on a separate sheet of paper in your own words, you are engaging the material more fully.
  • Consider how new material relates to information you already know.  Do not just take your notes and stick them in a binder until test time.  Once you have processed new information, take a step back and see how it relates to the information that preceded it.  Updating and reconsidering your notes is better than just reading them over and over again at the end of the term.









Ø      Find out what kind of material being tested.  Is it mostly from the textbook? From outside reading? From lectures? Labs?  Will the test have material from past exams?

Ø      It also helps to know what kind of test it will be.  If you ask these detailed questions of your teacher, do it in a way that is neither aggressive nor obsessive – you are simply trying to find how to best make use of your study time. 

  • Will the questions test your knowledge of facts or analytical skills?
  • Will the format be multiple choice, short answer, or essay?
  • Will you be able to choose which questions you wish to answer (e.g., “Answer three of these five questions”)?

Ø      Look at copies of old tests if possible.  Tests from previous years may be available in the library, or you may know someone who has taken the course in the past.  These will help you to get a sense of the kinds of questions asked.

Ø      Know you teacher’s opinions on the issues in the course.  You do not need to repeat back everything you have heard in the lecture.  In fact, you may take an opposite position.  But it is important, in an essay, to be able to anticipate the objections to your arguments and to address them.




Ø      Attend review sessions.  Come prepared with a list of questions so the session will not be a waste of your time.

Ø      Be able to say something about the main points of the course.  If it is a final or midterm exam, look back on t previous tests, which can be good indicators of what to expect.

·        What are the basic themes?

·        What are the most essential terms?

·        What are the big issues?

Ø      As you review your notes, ask yourself the questions you asked while reading.  If you do not know the answers, make a list of information you need to find out.

·        What is this related to?

·        Why did this happen?

·        What happened because of this?








Ø      As you prepare for the exam, condense your notes to the essential.  Try to get everything you absolutely need to know onto one sheet and then make it your duty, as a bare minimum, to own that material.




Ø      Some people work better on their won, some in groups.  It may be that you study most effectively with a partner or two.  If this is the case, pair up with a classmate or form a small group.  Study on your own first.  Then come prepared with questions to quiz each other.  Trade stacks of questions; keep at it until you can all answer each other’s questions and explain the answers.




Ø      Review before you go to bed, then go to sleep with the material still fresh in your head.  Your brain still works while you are asleep.  Get a normal night’s slieep if you can.

Ø      Review casually in the morning.  You are not going to do serious learning or quizzing at this point.

Ø      You can try to cram a few last-minute things you have not memorized right before the exam.  These materials will fade quickly, so write them down in the margin as soon as the text begins.




Hey, sometimes is happens when you simply did not give yourself enough time.  If you have to cram, you need to make concessions.  Optimum learning is not really the point; optimum test taking in unfortunate circumstances is.

Ø      Here is where it really helps to know something about the test.  What is the professor likely to focus on?  What kinds of questions will be worth the most?  You might have to ignore large chunks of material that you deem least likely to appear on the test, or least important if they do.

Ø      Recite, recite, recite.  Use flash cards.  At this point, you are trying to jam as much into your memory as you can.

Ø      Do not be hard on yourself.  You should have done it sooner, you should not have put it off, you should be in better shape – but you will do that next time.  For now, you just have to do the best you can and salvage a good grade from an imperfect situation.




In theory, tests measure what you have learned.  In practice, tests often measure how well you take test.  Unfortunately, there is not perfect, practical way to measure learning.  Tests are a fact of life.  So for better or for worse, learning how to take tests well is extremely beneficial life skill.  How well you take tests involves how well you have prepared, how well you understand the test, and how well you perform in the test room, under pressure with the clock ticking.


General Test Taking Tips


Ø      Whether or not you feel calm, approach the test calmly.  If you have crammed some last-minute information into your short-term memory, calmly write it down as you begin.

Ø      If you simply are not calm, try to use your nerves.  Your adrenaline can keep you on edge and heighten your awareness.  Do not spend time and energy worrying about being nervous.  Tests are performances and, as in any performance, your nervous energy can be our fuel.  However, the goal is a controlled burn, not an explosion. 

Ø      Scan the test before you attack the first question.  See what kinds of questions you have ahead of you.  Ideally, you will have time to give every question the attention if requires.  Realistically, you may not.  Some questions are worth any more points than others.  An experienced test-take will recognize this and factor it into the decisions he or she makes during the course of the test.   

Ø      Read the general directions and the directions for each question.  So many mistakes occur when test-takers do not read the directions.  For example, sometimes you are only required to answer some of the questions.

Ø      Do not spend too much time on questions you know the least about.  You need to budget your time intelligently.  You want to be able to really nail the stuff you know, so do not leave it to the end.  It is a shame (and bad test-taking) to struggle your way through the questions you do not know very well and then not have time to answer the questions you do know. 

Ø      Check the time.  As you finish each question, quickly ask yourself how best to use the time you have left.  You may have to revise your strategy, leave certain, questions for last and spend more time on the questions worth more points.  The best move at any given moment is whatever makes the best use of the remaining time.

Ø      Show your work!  If you make a small mistake on a math test (if you forget a negative sign, for example) and your answer is wrong, but you have applied the correct formula and taken the right steps, you may get very close to full credit.  After all, you have demonstrated that you know how to answer the question; you have just made a small, careless mistake.  If you do not show your work, your instructor has no idea how you came up with your answer and can not award partial credit.

Ø      For a math or science problem, make a logical estimation of what the answer will be before you start to work.  If your answer turns out to be nothing like your estimate (and you feel you know how to do the problem), suspect that you have made a careless mistake and check for it.






Ø      Rephrase the question in your own words.

Ø      If it’s acceptable, raise your hand and ask for clarification on the wording of a question.

Ø      Get something down on paper.  Do not sit and struggle with every single thing you have learned – you will only grow more and more frustrated.  Getting something down on paper can help you think.  Ultimately, only what is on paper counts when you turn the test in.

Ø      If you can not remember something precisely, give your best approximation.  Explain your logic and reasoning.  Teachers often give partial credit, so be resourceful.  Show how you would have solved the problem or answered the question had you remembered the formula or quotation or event.

Ø      If you are running out of time, note this in the test and outline as thoroughly as you can the remaining points you want to make.  You can not get away with doing this on every question, or even more than one, but show that you know the main points, and can put them in a logical order.

Ø      If you are really running out of time, you will have to leave some questions blank.  Do not wait until the very last minute to take this step.  If you have to leave questions blank, do so sensibly, by leaving blank the questions about which you feel least confident.




Even though you may be out of luck, there are a few things to do.

Ø      Say what you would do if you knew.

Ø      Try writing down what something is not, if you really do not know what it is (in the context of the class, of course).  This process of elimination may remind you of something relevant or generate ideas for another part of the test.  You might even hit upon a defining characteristic that is good enough for partial credit.

Ø      Shrug your shoulders, laugh quietly at the injustice of it all, and move on.









When you write an essay, you want to demonstrate that you understand the issue, take a stand, make an argument, consider the alternatives, and conclude.

§         Read the directions carefully, paying special attention to the verbs.  Does the question ask you to summarize, outline, refute, compare, state, trace, describe, criticize, or contrast?  Keep these directives in mind as you write.

§         Take a moment to outline your essay, even if only in the broadest strokes.  An essay question is meant to evaluate not only what you know but also whether you can organize your knowledge compellingly with structure.

§         Make distinct paragraphs.  Paragraphs should be visually separate from one another, and each should follow the standard rules of composition by dealing with one main point.

§         Begin strongly.  Deliver your verdict starkly, then back it up.  End strongly if you can.

§         Write on one side of the page and in pen.  This will make the easier for the grader to read.




§         Keep your answers succinct and factual.  State the answer clearly and , if appropriate, briefly give the reasons.




When you take a multiple-choice test, you have the benefit of knowing that the correct answer is in front of you.  You need to recognize and recall it, but this is much easier than having to understand it or being able to explain it.


§         Read the question very carefully.  To make the exam more challenging, multiple-choice and true/false questions will distract you with answers that are familiar but do no quite fit the question at hand.

§         Try to answer the question on you own, without looking at the multiple choices.  This will help prevent your choosing the first familiar-looking answer.

§         Read all of the choices.  There might be an answer that sort of fits, and then one that fits better.

§         If you do not know the answer, employ a process of elimination.  By eliminating the answers you know are wrong, you greatly increase your chances of guessing successfully.

§         If you have to eliminate some answers but have no idea how to do so, eliminate the extreme answers.  Often, these extremes are incorrect.

§         If there are two answers that look very similar, the correct answer often is one of them.

§         Do not agonize if you can not figure out the answer.  Mark the question, move on, and then come back to it.  Subsequent questions might give you a clue or jog your memory.

§         Multiple-choice questions are not the occasions for existential crises.  Do not overthink the deep implications of a multiple-choice question, deconstructing its meaning.  The questions are usually straightforward.  

§         If the question is just too ridiculously simple, you might be missing something.  Reread the question carefully.