A RealWorld student writes:

Professor Martin,

I study very hard for tests, going over and over the material that I have on note cards. But when I get into the test I cannot recall answers for fill in the blank questions and short essay. Do you have any suggestions on what I might do that would help?

Dear Test Stress,

Your “test pressures” are common. Unfortunately, as professors, we’ve set up a system that puts students under constant pressure to perform. Of course, not all of us do this, but definitely most of us.

But just because you’re put under pressure doesn’t mean you can’t respond positively to it. Trust me, the pressure to perform doesn’t stop after you graduate, it only multiplies. The key to handling “test anxiety” and “life anxiety” is knowing yourself and knowing what to expect.

Here are some suggestions to help you take the air out of test pressure. Some of them I used as a student, and others are strategies students have shared with me.

1. Don’t study to remember, study to understand.

They say if you hear it, you’ll eventually forget it. If you read it, you’ll probably forget most of it. But if you hear it, read it, and DO IT, you’ll remember it. I would even take this a step further, DO it and then TEACH it to others. In my opinion, this is the best way to learn and understand anything. Of course, you can only teach by hearing, reading, and doing it first (even if some of your professors haven’t). Understanding comes through application, not meditation.

2. Prepare to take the test the day before.

No, don’t ask your professor to take the test early, just prepare to test yourself early. If the test is going to be on Friday, study as if the test will be given on Thursday. Write down questions that the professor is most likely to ask. You do this by reviewing the material and the notes from class. Try to come up with as many tough questions as you can.

If you still need help, tell the professor or teaching assistant what you’re doing and see if they can’t come up with killer questions to challenge you. Better to crash and burn now then later.

3. Stop studying what you already know.

Repetition may be the mother of skill, but beating a dead horse is animal cruelty. If you know the process of photosynthesis, don’t study it again (review it later). Hammering stuff into your head that you already know is stressful and self-defeating. You mentioned note cards. One thing I used to do is write all my class notes on note cards, and once I mastered or remembered a fact or concept, I discarded the card (put them in my notebook). I only kept and carried the cards I didn’t know (reviewing them every free moment I had). I’m telling you, it’s great to see that stack get smaller (what a rush)!

4. Look at the big picture.

The best way to relieve the stress in any situation, is to keep the task or problem in perspective. Ask yourself, 10, 15, 20 years from now, will this test “really” matter? If it won’t, then why stress out over it?

Think about this, have you ever struggled with a test in high school? Have you ever aced a test in high school? Okay, now tell me how many of those tests (whether good or bad results) have dramatically changed and altered your life forever? See what I mean? It’s okay to take tests seriously . . . but not too seriously!

5. Get the inside scoop.

One of the most effective strategies I”ve ever used in studying for a test is asking the professor or T.A. before the test, “If you were me, how would YOU study for this upcoming test?” You would be shocked on what they tell you when you compare it to how and what you were “going to” study for the test. The key is to give them suggestions (i.e., multiple choice responses), and let them choose.

For example, “Professor X, would you study the notes more or the book; should I seek and use outside resources, study by myself or in a group, study concepts or facts, etc.). I think you get the point. The more you know, the better your chances, and the less stress you’ll feel on test day.

These are just a few strategies, I hope they inspired a few ideas of your own. The key is to know yourself and what to expect. Don’t stress yourself out about something that you’re probably going to forget within the next decade. Enjoy your journey through college (the good and the bad times).

My biggest regret in college is that I didn’t have more fun (I had a little). I graduated with great grades (top of my major), but no one has ever asked me my grade point average after my first job. And to think I used to lose sleep over it. Learn from my mistake.

Take care, and please come visit us again. Live purposefully. God bless.

Living Purposefully — Prof. Martin

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