To many students, the term "test preparation" means the same as "cramming." The image that quickly pops into mind is that of the frantic student shuffling through piles of notes and books, hurriedly skimming through barely-familiar textbook chapters, and trying to force a thousand details into his brain.

Test preparation needn't be so traumatic. But first the student must accept that effective test preparation cannot be accomplished the night before--or perhaps just a couple of hours before-- a major test. The process itself should follow four definite phases.
1. Determining the format...
The student should first try to get a measure of the test itself, its format or basic make-up. This is especially important for the first test in a course. Most teachers will describe the nature of the test and what it covers, but if you feel you don't really know what to expect, you have every right to ask the instructor for somewhat more detailed information, either during the class or during their office hours. (Be sure to first check the printed syllabus for the course or any first-day handouts you received; many teachers describe their tests in these handouts, along with the weight of each test in determining your grade.) Some of the questions you have the right to ask and teachers should be willing to answer are listed below. (Most teachers will be impressed and pleased that you are concerned enough to ask them.)
  • What type of objective items will be used: matching, true-false, multiple-choice?
  • How many essays will we have to answer?
  • Will we have to answer all essay items, or will we be allowed to choose from a list of items?
  • What textbook chapters does the test cover?
  • How long will we have to take the test?
  • Will we be allowed to use the text or notes on any part of the test? (Some teachers allow students to use textbooks or notes for essay items; chemistry teachers may allow the use of the periodic table of elements.)
  • If the test involves any mathematics, can a calculator be used?
2. Analyzing previous tests...
As a teacher, I was always amazed at how quickly and casually students went over their returned exams. In many cases, they just quickly glanced at the grade and were ready to return the test to me. There is a wealth of information in your graded tests that can make the next tests much easier to prepare for.
If the test you are about to take is not the first in the course, you should spend some time going over the previous exams you have taken from this teacher. (Some teachers let you keep your old exams; others take them up and keep them in their office. If your instructor holds on to the tests, you still have the right to review them at a later date, either in their office or under some other supervised conditions.) Your evaluation should include two main points.
First, what did past tests really cover? Your teacher may tell you that his test items come fairly equally from the text and class lectures, but a close analysis may indicate that almost all of the material came straight out of the book. If that is the case, you need to approach the task of reading your assignments and highlighting the text very seriously. On the other hand, as you look over the test, you may see that almost all test items emphasized new information discussed in class or the "spin" or perspective the teacher gave in class to the material in your reading assignments. In that case, you need to work hard at taking good classroom notes and emphasizing that material more in your review before a test.
Secondly, look closely at the items you missed. Is there a trend of some kind apparent in them? Did you have a problem with the questions that covered textbook material? If so, you need to improve the approach you take to doing your reading assignments. Do you do poorly on true-false items or some other type of objective test item? Maybe you need to polish your test-taking skills on objective items. Are essay questions your downfall? Study this linked lesson on essay test writing and discuss this matter further with your teacher so you have a better idea of what they expect on essay items.
Use what you have observed about the old tests to identify how you need to improve your approach for the one that's coming up.
3. Reviewing effectively..
You should not wait to start your review the night before the test. Frequent brief reviews are much more effective than one long study session the night before. Learning cannot always be hurried along. Get in the habit of taking a few minutes each day to look over notes, skim important sections of your textbook, or memorize small segments of information. Construct flash cards out of 3 by 5 note cards and pull these out of your purse or pocket for a quick review when you have a few minutes to kill. This is one of the best uses available for the little 5 or 10 minute gaps we all have in our day while waiting for something else to begin--time that most people normally waste.
Also, set aside time once a week or so to pull out your course material and go over it to try to see connections and relationships. As discussed in the memory unit, it's important to process the material in such a way so that you can "build" a network of information that becomes much more permanent and accessible than hundreds of bits and pieces of detail that are stored in your working memory. Thirty minutes to an hour a couple of times a week spent in such an effort can make learning the material relatively painless.
You should, of course, spend some time reviewing right before a major exam, and you might find the following tips useful:
1. Study in periods of 20-30 minutes, followed by a short break for leisure activity. Research indicates that concentrated mental effort is at its peak at the beginning and near the end of a period of mental activity. You can maximize your learning by creating a series of such periods, with several beginnings and endings, instead of laboring through a lengthy session of an hour or more and having to struggle to stay focused and alert.
2. Try transforming material you are studying from one form to another: convert verbal material to a chart or sketch as described in the lesson on mind-mapping, read highlighted textbook material aloud so you can hear it as well as see it on the page, take a series of related facts and write a paragraph on them. Such reinforcement using a different "channel" for learning increases the likelihood you will remember the material.
3. Try to predict likely test items. One of the most effective strategies you can take is to make out your own test, trying to make it fit the format described by your teacher. This strategy forces you to think like a teacher and look at the material from a different perspective. If your test is going to be all essay, you will discover that some complex material lends itself well to an essay item, while more isolated bits of information would be better suited to objective or matching questions. Research has indicated that students who attempt to predict test items score significantly higher grades than their counterparts who didn't try to put themselves in their teacher's shoes and look at the material from a test- making perspective.
If you get in the habit of frequent periodic reviews and use some of the techniques described above, you will soon learn that effective test preparation is more a reinforcement of course material than a relearning.
4. Establishing a test plan...
Test preparation continues into the exam period itself. Once you have the test in hand, it is important to follow these steps:
1. Listen carefully to special instructions from the teacher and read instructions on the test itself very carefully. Many a student has regretted not reading the all-important "omit one" or "answer only three of the four essays."
2. Determine which section of the test you should attempt first. If the essay section of a test is worth 60 or 75%, it might be wise to do the essays before the other section.
3. Establish a time plan for the test. Based on the number and type of questions you have to answer, you should set up a rough schedule. For example, if you are given 90 minutes to take a particular test, you might devote 20 minutes to each of the three essay items, 20 minutes to the 25 multiple-choice items, and 10 minutes for a "cushion" to polish, edit, or check over your answers for careless mistakes. The objective here is not to put a stopwatch to your work, but to monitor your time so you can use it wisely.
In summary ...
You can improve your performance on tests by using a system that emphasizes frequent reviews, an awareness of the format of the test, analysis of your previous exams, and, of course, effective review strategies. With such a system, the frantic, last minute cramming session can become a relic of the past.