Toughest Exam Question: What Is the Best Way to Study?

Here’s a pop quiz: What foods are best to eat before a high-stakes test? When is the best time to review the toughest material? A growing body of research on the best study techniques offers some answers.

Chiefly, testing yourself repeatedly before an exam teaches the brain to retrieve and apply knowledge from memory. The method is more effective than re-reading a textbook, says Jeffrey Karpicke, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University. If you are facing a test on the digestive system, he says, practice explaining how it works from start to finish, rather than studying a list of its parts.

In his junior year of high school in Cary, N.C., Keenan Harrell bought test-prep books and subjected himself to a ‘relentless and repetitive’ series of nearly 30 practice SAT college-entrance exams. ‘I just took it over and over again, until it became almost aggravating,’ he says.

Practice paid off. Mr. Harrell, now 19, was accepted at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, a college he’s dreamed of attending since the third grade. He scored 1800 (out of 2400) on the SAT, up 50% from 1200 on the PSAT, a preliminary test during his sophomore year.

Taking pretests ‘felt like hard work,’ Mr. Harrell says, but seeing steady increases in his scores boosted his confidence. Practice tests also help with test-taking skills, such as pacing, says Paul Weeks, vice president of educational services for the ACT, which creates and administers college-entrance exams.

Sleep also plays a role in test performance, but in two unexpected ways. Review the toughest material right before going to bed the night before the test. That approach makes it easier to recall the material later, says Dan Taylor, director of a sleep-and-health-research lab at the University of North Texas in Denton. And don’t wake up earlier than usual to study; this could interfere with the rapid-eye-movement sleep that aids memory, he says.

A common study habit ‘the all-nighter’ is a bad idea. Although 60% of college students stay up all night at some point in school, the practice is linked to lower grades, says Pamela Thacher, an associate professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., based on a 2008 study of 120 students. It also impairs reasoning and memory for as long as four days.

Everybody knows you should eat breakfast the day of a big test. High-carb, high-fiber, slow-digesting foods like oatmeal are best, research shows. But what you eat a week in advance matters, too. When 16 college students were tested on attention and thinking speed, then fed a five-day high-fat, low-carb diet heavy on meat, eggs, cheese and cream and tested again, their performance declined. The students who ate a balanced diet that included fruit and vegetables, however, held steady, says Cameron Holloway, a senior clinical researcher at the University of Oxford. The brain requires a constant supply of energy and ‘has only a limited backup battery,’ he says.

While many teens insist they study better while listening to music or texting their friends, research shows the opposite: Information reviewed amid distractions is less likely to be recalled later, says Nicole Dudukovic, assistant professor of psychology at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.

In her research, college students categorized and made judgments about pictures of more than 100 items. Then, they were tested on a new mix of pictures and asked to recall which ones they had already seen and how they had categorized them; half the time, they were also asked to listen and respond to a set of rhythmic sounds. When the students were tested later, they were more likely to remember correctly what they had studied without distractions.

‘Students do have this belief that they can do it all and they aren’t really being distracted’ by music or sounds from a noisy cafe, Dr. Dudukovic says. But while the sounds may ‘make them feel more relaxed,’ she says, they won’t help them ace the midterm.

Bryan Almanza says he did poorly on the PSAT as a high-school sophomore because he didn’t know how to prepare. He got too little sleep the night before and ate only a bowl of cereal for breakfast. On the test, some hard physics questions made him nervous and distracted, says Mr. Almanza, 18, a senior at Campbell High in Smyrna, Ga. ‘I’m going to fail,’ he remembers thinking at the time. A test-prep program at his school taught him to get plenty of sleep, eat a good breakfast and pace himself on the test. By staying calm, optimistic and focused, he raised his score significantly on the SAT.

Tips on Conquering Test-Day Jitters

Even when students are fully prepared, anxiety can be another burden on test day.

An estimated 35% of students are so nervous before high-stakes tests that it impairs their performance, says Richard Driscoll, a Knoxville, Tenn., clinical psychologist who has researched text anxiety.

To help ease fears, Julie Hartline, lead counselor at Campbell High School in Smyrna, Ga., helped start a three-week program last year to teach juniors anxiety-reduction techniques.

One calming tactic that has been shown to improve scores is to teach yourself in advance to think differently about the test, Dr. Driscoll says. Envision yourself in a situation you find challenging and invigorating; a soccer player might imagine scoring a goal, or a mountain climber might envision herself topping a ridge, he says. Then switch your mental image to the testing room and imagine yourself feeling the same way. With practice, you’ll be able to summon up more confidence on test day.

Also, reducing ‘novelty and stress on the day of the exam’ can prevent choking under pressure, says Sian Beilock, a researcher and author on cognitive performance. If you are taking the exam in an unfamiliar place, visit the room in advance.

If you are still feeling anxious, set aside 10 minutes beforehand to write down your worries, says Dr. Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. She and a fellow researcher tested 106 ninth-graders for anxiety before their first high-pressure exam, then asked half of them to spend 10 minutes writing down their thoughts right before the test. The anxious kids who did the writing exercise performed as well on the test as the students who had been calm all along. But anxious students who didn’t do the writing performed more poorly. Expressing one’s worries in writing, Dr. Beilock says, unburdens the brain.



首先,在考试前反复测试自己,这样能够教会大脑从记忆中找回及运用知识。普渡大学(Purdue University)心理学助理教授杰弗里·卡匹克(Jeffrey Karpicke)说,这种方法比重读课本更有效。如果你正面临一次有关消化系统的考试,练习解释消化系统是如何工作的,胜于温习它的各个组成部分的名称。

北卡罗莱纳州卡里市(Cary)的基南·哈勒尔(Keenan Harrell)在高中最后一个学年买来准备考试的书籍,让自己蒙受了接近30个SAT大学入学考试系列练习的“残忍和重复”的折磨。他说:我一遍又一遍地做卷子,直到几乎对此生厌为止。

这样的练习是有回报的,现年19岁的哈勒尔被北卡罗莱纳大学教堂山分校(University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill)接收,这是一所他自小学三年级起就梦想着要上的大学,他的SAT考试得了1800分(满分2400分),比PSAT(高中二年级时的预考)的1200分的成绩提高了50%。

哈勒尔说,做预备测验感觉很辛苦,但是看到成绩的稳定提高鼓起他的信心。美国大学入学考试委员会(ACT)主管教育服务的副主席保罗·威克斯(Paul Weeks)说,考试练习还有助于提高考试技巧,例如节奏的控制。

睡眠对考试成绩也有影响,但是有两种意想不到的方式。北德克萨斯大学(登顿)(University of North Texas in Denton)的睡眠与健康研究实验室主任丹·泰勒(Dan Taylor)说,考试前一晚在上床前复习最难的内容,这种方法让人之后更容易回忆起这些内容。不要比平常更早起床学习,这么做会妨碍有助记忆的快速眼动睡眠。

一种常见的学习习惯──熬通宵──不是好方法。纽约州坎顿市(Canton)圣劳伦斯大学(St. Lawrence University)的心理学副教授帕梅拉·塔切尔(Pamela Thacher)根据2008年对120名学生的一项调查表示,尽管60%的大学生上中学时都有过熬夜的经历,但考试分数降低与这种做法是有关系的。

每个人都知道在大考那天必须要吃早餐,研究结果显示高碳水化合物、高纤维、消化慢的食物如麦片是最好的。但在考试前一个星期吃什么东西也很重要。牛津大学(University of Oxford)的资深临床研究员卡梅伦·霍洛韦(Cameron Holloway)说,有16名大学生先接受了注意力集中度和思考速度的测试,然后吃了五天含大量肉、蛋、奶酪和奶油的高脂肪、低碳水化合物的食物再接受测试,他们的测试成绩就下降了,而那些吃均衡食物的学生(包括水果和蔬菜)的测试成绩却能保持稳定。霍洛韦说,大脑需要持续供应能量,而且“只有有限的后备电池”。

许多青少年坚称他们边听音乐或给朋友发短信边学习效果更好,相关研究得出的结论却是与之相反的:康涅狄格州哈特福德(Hartford)圣三一学院(Trinity College)的心理学助理教授妮可口杜杜科维克(Nicole Dudukovic)说,在分心的情况下所复习的内容在事后能被回忆起来的可能性相对较小。



18岁的布赖恩·阿尔曼扎(Bryan Almanza)是佐治亚州士麦那市(Smyrna)坎贝尔高中(Campbell High)的毕业班学生,他说,自己高中二年级时的PSAT考得很差,因为他不知道该为考试做哪些准备。考试前一晚他睡得太少,考试当天只吃了一碗谷类食物作早餐。考试中,一些物理难题让他紧张分心。他记得当时自己就在想:我会不及格的。后来学校里的考试准备课程教他要有充足睡眠、吃好早餐及考试时调整好节奏。由于能够保持镇定、乐观和集中,他的SAT考试成绩有了大幅度提高。



田纳西州诺克斯维尔(Knoxville)研究考试焦虑症状的临床心理学家理查德·德里斯科尔(Richard Driscoll)说,估计有35%的学生在重大考试前都很紧张,进而影响了考试时的发挥。

为了帮助学生缓解恐惧情绪,佐治亚州士麦那市坎贝尔高中的辅导员朱莉·哈特兰(Julie Hartline)去年开办了一个为期三个星期的课程,教低年级学生减轻焦虑的技巧。


芝加哥大学心理学副教授、从事认知性能研究并写有专著的思安口贝洛克(Sian Beilock)说,同样,在考试当天想办法减少新奇感和紧张的情绪可以防止自己在压力下透不过气来。如果你在不熟悉的地方参加考试,可以提前去考场看一看。



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