Do you get test-stressed? Do you freeze up when taking an exam? Does your teen need help preparing for tests or big assignments?
Dawn Lovas of Ryerson University -- who teaches learning strategies to students -- was this week's expert in our online education forum. If you have any ideas for future forums, please e-mail education editor Kristin Rushowy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: I have alot of questions that I need a professional to answer:
What time of day is best for homework?
A: The time of day that is best for homework varies among individuals: some people are more effective in the morning, while others find they can concentrate better in the afternoon or evening. If you are a full-time student, treat school as a full-time job. This means that your daylight hours should be used productively. Depending on your workload, you may have to do a number of "overtime hours".
How long should working periods be?
A: A general rule is to study for 50 minutes and take a 10 minute break, however you may shorten your study sessions for more difficult material. It's recommended that you don't spend more than 3 hours on one subject at a time. If you have a large amount of work to complete, you may try alternating subjects every couple of hours.
Are breaks a distraction, or a good thing?
Breaks are a necessary part of effective study sessions, but you'll want to avoid activities that you are easily absorbed by (e.g. going on the Internet). Instead, take break with activities that have a definite end (e.g. eating dinner, watching your favourite tv show).
What if it's hard to concentrate, and you can't sit down for more than 15 mins without getting distracted?
To improve your concentration, consider what is distracting you and take steps to eliminate those distractions. For example, if you are being distracted by phone calls, family/roommates, or the TV you may choose to change your studying location to a quieter place in your home or to the library. You may also need to gradually extend your study sessions and set rewards for yourself for completing your work. When you sit down to study, set a specific goal for the task(s) you want to accomplish rather than a goal for how long you're going to study. Use methods for engaging yourself in the material such as writing notes or creating questions.
When is the best time for information to sink in?
The best time for information to 'sink in' is when you're most alert. If you tend to feel most energic in the morning, plan to study your most difficult subjects then.
What's better -- late nights or early mornings?
Again, the time of day that is better for studying is dependent on when you feel most alert. Many people find that if they start off their day with schoolwork, it helps them to gain momentum for greater productivity during the day. Others find that they are able to concentrate best late at night when there are fewer distractions. The key is to determine when YOU study best.
How do you fit in a social life?
With numerous school-related priorities, it may seem difficult to fit in a social life; however, your connections with others are important for managing the stress of being a student. Good planning and boundaries can help you to balance your studies with your social life. There may be particularly busy times during the semester (e.g. mid-terms) that you're not able to socialize much, but you can plan social activities as rewards for completing certain tasks.
What if you don't like schedules?
While scheduling can be an effective time management strategy, it's not something that everyone feels comfortable with. The large number of priorities that you have as a student makes it necessary to enlist some type of system for organizing your time. You may prefer to make weekly or daily checklists and rate each item on your list "A," "B," or "C" according to its priority. Another option is to buy a four-month calendar and write all your test/exam dates and due dates on it. The four-month calendar is best used in combination with an agenda book so that you can set task goals for each week to help you meet those deadlines. Ultimately, you may need to experiment with different methods for managing your time to find one that works for you.
Q: My son is in second-year university. He studies and knows the information, but gets test stressed and freezes up during exams. Also, he has great difficulty doing multiple choice questions. Any suggestions??
A: While some stress or anxiety can motivate us and help us to perform in a testing situation, too much can hinder our ability to access information from our memory. The "freezing up" that you referred to is something that many students experience when writing tests or exams.
For some, it is caused by insufficient preparation and/or studying in a way that doesn't effectively prepare them for the exam. Others may have developed an anxiety response to tests or exams as a result of disappointing or stressful testing experiences in the past. Your son may study for hours and know the information without actually preparing himself to write a test. It is important that his study methods include creating and answering questions about the course material. You didn't mention the program he's taking, but if it's one that involves quantitative courses then it would also be important that he devote a large percentage of his study time to doing practice questions.
Some students find it useful to simulate the conditions of an exam by selecting different types of questions from their textbook, study guide, and homework; and setting a time limit for answering them. Test anxiety can also be managed by focusing one's attention on the present moment rather than what has happened in the past or what might happen; putting the situation into perspective; using deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises; answering easier questions first; brainstorming on more difficult questions; and using positive self-talk. If test anxiety continues to interfere with your son's performance, you may encourage him to meet with a counsellor at his university. Your son's ability to write multiple-choice tests can be enhanced by learning specific preparation and exam-writing techniques. Most universities offer study skills workshops that include writing multiple-choice tests. There is also a tip sheet available at ryerson.ca/learningsuccess/resources.html#test.
Q: What kind of test is better for testing knowlege -- multiple choice or what? Multiple choice seems too easy sometimes. Also, my son sometimes has "open book" exams at university. I don't see the point of those. He doesn't even bother to study for those.
A: All test formats assess students' knowledge, but some experts argue that certain formats do not adequately access higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis, and evaluation (see www.esf.edu/erfeg/endreny/courses/LevelsofKnowledge.htm for more information on levels of knowledge). Multiple-choice tests are an efficient way to check factual knowledge, and well-written questions can assess more complex levels of knowledge.
While it is possible to answer some questions correctly by guessing, well-developed multiple-choice test skills cannot substitute for knowing the information. Many students actually find multiple-choice tests to be more difficult because they require them to differentiate between similar answers and there is no opportunity for partial marks. Open-book exams tend to move beyond simply requiring students to recall information that could be easily accessed in their books. In most cases, if they do not understand the information they will not have enough time during the exam to learn the material well enough to apply it to the questions, or to determine which concepts to apply. As a result, the open book format can be quite effective at testing students' higher order thinking skills.
Q: I don't have any children in university or even high school, but they will be writing the province's standardized tests next year. How do I prepare them? Isn't it more stressful for younger children to write tests?
A: Tests can be stressful for children, as they are for students of all ages. Your interest in helping your children to prepare is one step toward reducing the stress that they may feel. There are a number of things that you can do to help your children prepare for the tests, and consequently create a foundation for good study skills. First, I recommend speaking with your children's teachers about what activities you can do at home to help them prepare for the specific tests that they'll be writing. Second, continue to show interest and involvement in their schoolwork. Discuss their homework with them, ask them questions, and model a curiosity for learning. Third, help them to establish a regular routine for completing homework and managing their time well. Finally, encourage your children to take the tests seriously, but avoid showing anxiety about their test scores. Instead, accentuate their effort, hard work, and progress.
Q: Why do people get worried about exams? Isn't it because they aren't prepared?
A: As I mentioned in an earlier response, stress can be a signal that more preparation is required for the exam; however, it is not the only reason that students feel stressed about exams. Some people experience exam stress because they have extremely high performance expectations that may be unrealistic in a situation where they have to juggle a number of priorities. Others become paralyzed by stress because they are focused on how their own abilities compare to those of their classmates.
The pressure to perform well on exams may be significant for students who need to make up for lower results during the semester. In reality, it would actually be a mistake to eliminate all stress during exam time, because it is useful and necessary for you to perform at your optimum level. Stress can be a motivator, but using it to your advantage requires that you be able to keep it at manageable levels.
Q: I'm in first-year university and I love it so far. I'm doing okay on my weekly assignments, getting Cs and Bs, but now I'm sure I bombed my midterms. There's so much to read for each class and my mind can't focus on it. I try to read the textbook but I go blank. The next day I can't remember what I read. I like classes but it's all the reading I find really hard. I'm not sure what to do now because I have exams again in December.
A: One of the greatest transitional challenges for first-year university students is learning a large amount of information in a relatively short period of time. Your enjoyment of your program puts you in a good position, as it will make the hours of reading easier to endure.
Struggling to remember what you've read may be the result of reading passively. Depending on your learning style, you may benefit from writing study notes, discussing the information in a study group, drawing diagrams or flow charts of key concepts, highlighting major points, and/or creating questions in margins. The SQ3R method, which stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review, engages you in the material and is useful for improving your reading comprehension. You can read about this method at http://www.ryerson.ca/learningsuccess/resources/TS4.htm. You'll also want to focus your energy on 'understanding' key concepts, particularly those that your professors emphasize in class, rather than attempting to memorize all the information in your readings. In addition, break up your readings into logical sections and ensure that understand each section before moving on. Take a short break after every hour of studying and try to do your more difficult readings when you are most alert. Most importantly, add time for review into your daily schedule and be sure to review your lecture notes or readings within 24 hours for optimal long-term retention.
When you get your midterms back, take some time to analyze the types of questions that were asked to determine if you concentrated your studying on the appropriate information. Consider why you answered some questions incorrectly and how you studied for questions that you answered correctly. You can improve your exam-writing skills by learning from each test that you write. It's not too late to make a difference in this semester, but with exams quickly approaching you'll need to act now. Speak to your professors or T.A.'s about strategies to help you succeed in your courses and create a study plan for final exams. Find out what kind of academic resources are available at your university and take advantage of those supports right away.
Q: My daughter attends Ryerson University and always does poorly on tests/exams, despite studying. I think she doesn't study effectively. Can you help? -A concerned mother.
A: As you've noted, studying doesn't necessarily lead to a strong results on tests or exams. Your daughter's methods for studying may not be conducive to her particular learning style, the types of courses she is taking, or the format of her tests/exams. Fortunately, there are a number of academic support resources available for your daughter at Ryerson, including free study skills workshops and individual learning strategy consultations. For her more difficult courses, she may consider getting a tutor through the Tutor Registry or using one of the free tutoring drop-in centres that are available in some faculties. For more information, go to www.ryerson.ca/learningsuccess.
Difficulty with tests can also result from a learning disability, but this is the case for a very small percentage of students. If you or your daughter suspect that she might have a learning disability, you may encourage her to connect with the Access Centre. If her struggles result from test anxiety, she could benefit from meeting with a counsellor in the Centre for Student Development and Counselling. These supports are offered through Student Services at Ryerson (www.ryerson.ca/studentservices), and other universities have similar services.
Q: I do very poorly on tests although I study and understand, but I just panic when the test day arrives ... How can I relax and be successful?
A: If you are in university or college you may benefit from meeting with a counsellor in your student services area. A counsellor can help you to determine the root of your panic and develop specific coping mechanisms and prevention strategies. In high school, the guidance department provides a similar service.
Consider whether your studying methods are preparing you to write the test. Knowing and understanding the material is a great start, but testing yourself with different types of questions in different orders can help you to develop your exam-writing skills. If you feel that you are studying well, try to identify the reasons for your panic and consider whether they are realistic. You can help yourself to relax by getting organized the night before the exam and 'reviewing' your notes. Avoid trying to learn new material within 24 hours of your test/exam. Get a full night of sleep because sleep deprivation will interfere with your memory, concentration, and problem-solving abilities. Try to get some exercise before your exam, even if it's a 15-minute walk. Get to your exam early, but avoid talking to other anxious classmates because their anxiety can be contagious. When you go into the exam room, find a seat where you feel comfortable away from distractions (e.g. the door).
Before beginning your test, take a moment to focus on your breathing, thoughts, and feelings. Check with your counselling department for workshops or resources on muscle relaxation, meditation, and breathing exercises that can help you to prevent and reduce panic. Focus your attention on one question at a time, and move to easier questions if you get stuck. When you've completed the questions that you're more confident about, return to the difficult questions and brainstorm what you know about the topic on scrap paper. Most information gets stored in your memory in connection with other information, so brainstorming can trigger some memory cues that will help you to access the information. Keep your attention on your work and try not to be concerned with the pace that others around you are moving at. If you find yourself starting to panic, take your attention off of the test for a moment and take ten deep breaths. Some anxiety during a test can benefit your performance by helping you to focus and stay motivated, but too much anxiety needs to be managed.
Q: How come some university classes have assignments through the semester and just one final exam? Some programs have exams all the time.
A: University classes are structured differently according to the purpose of the course and the concepts that need to be learned. While some engineering courses may have more tests, courses in the arts or social sciences usually require a significant amount of writing. In a program like engineering that is more focused on quantitative work, testing is one efficient way to assess whether you've acquired the knowledge and skills outlined in the courses' learning objectives. Some people might argue that certain programs are more difficult than others, but each program comes with its own set of challenges. The key to being successful in university is to identify the skills that you need to get through your program and try to develop those skills in each course.
Exam time can be stressful when you have several courses to study for in a short period of time, but with good planning and an effective study schedule it is possible to study effectively and achieve strong results.
Q: This happens to me a lot: my mind goes blank during a test. Why does it happen and is there something I could do?
A: Going 'blank' on a test can be caused by lack of preparation or ineffective preparation. Performing well on tests requires long-term preparation that includes attending class, keeping up with readings and homework, and creating study notes; and short-term preparation that includes review and self-testing. Consider whether your current study methods are preparing you well enough for your tests. Determine the types of questions that you tend to blank out on (e.g. problem-solving, multi-part, application) and be sure that your studying addresses those areas. Be sure that your review involves doing a variety of practice questions so that you can become comfortable producing answers in different ways and in different orders.
If you find that you can answer questions well before the test, but then are unable to answer similar questions on the test you may be experiencing test anxiety. In this case, you will need to adopt some strategies for bringing your anxiety down to manageable levels. Check out my other responses for some tips for managing anxiety. If test anxiety continues to be a problem for you, I would recommend that you make an appointment with a counsellor at your university/college/high school.