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Study Skills Lecture Notes
Test Taking

Before a Test link to here link to index

What is the best way to prepare for a test? What tips do Math 20 students from previous terms have to share? Let's categorize the tips by time frame: helpful daily habits, preparing the day before the test, and last-minute cramming.

Helpful Daily Habits

Making your notes as helpful as possible. Include in your notes all the after-class comments and reflections, and all the new insights you gather when reading the textbook, doing homework, and talking with friends. That way all these "best parts of what I learned" are in one place (your notes) so that you only need to go to one place to study before the test.

Remember the importance of studying in a group. Explaining a math topic to someone else helps you really learn it! Having a math topic explained to you by someone other than the instructor also helps.

When doing homework, keep track of the problems you missed. Students who only miss a few problems just list these in the comments of their notes. For example, "Before the midterm retry §5.4 # 21." Students who have trouble with more problems benefit from putting the problems on index cards. Then this deck of "flashcards" can be used to retry and review these problems often.

As the test approaches, augment your homework with practice tests and cumulative review problems provided by the instructor or in the textbook. Save at least one practice test for the day before the test.

As the test approaches, work with your study group to write your own practice test. Don't look at any other practice test when you do this! Only look at homework pages. It is helpful to think for yourself about which ten or fifteen problems would best represent the math topics you will be tested on. The problems you pick will probably look a lot like the problems your instructor picks!

As your instructor to bring some silly books to the test. We have all experienced the "delayed insight" where an answer appears in our brain as we leave the classroom or the math building. Have this happen before you turn in your test! If you finish early, read something very non-math for a few minutes to clear your brain. Then look at your test again.

Preparing the Day Before the Test

The day before the test review your notes (and homework problem flashcards, if you made those). Hopefully, the after-class comments in your notes already tell you which topics and example problems need extra review.

The day before the test write a cheat-sheet. Even if the test does not allow you to use a paper or index card of notes, preparing the cheat-sheet is a great way to study. You will need to decide which math topics are the most important or most difficult. You also review those topics as you decide what reminders to write on your cheat-sheet.

Set aside a time to take a practice test you have not yet attempted. Take this practice test in an environment as much like the classroom as possible. Make note of which problems you miss, and study those a few hours later.

The day before the test get enough healthy food, exercise and sleep. Be good to your brain, so it can be good to you. During the week before the test, pace yourself as you study. By the time you get to the day before the test you should be doing less studying than earlier in the week and more brain care.

Last-Minute Cramming

The morning of the test, or during some free time just before the test starts, try to memorize your cheat-sheet. If you are not allowed to really use it, prepare a those acronyms or equations with highest priority to "download" onto the top of your scratch paper before you even read the test. If you are allowed to use it, you will know where to look on it when you need it.

The morning of the test, or during some free time just before the test starts, look over the problems you missed on the practice test you saved for the day before. Be careful not to wear out your brain with too much math before the test! Looking at your cheat-sheet and the problems you missed on the practice test should be all the last-minute studying you need.

Either just before the test starts or during the test, eat something. (Check with your instructor about whether food is allowed in the room, or if you should eat in the hallway.) Some students believe certain foods help with short-term concentration. Ginger and caffeine have both demonstrated this benefit in scientific studies. You might also eat something that is relaxing, not stimulating.

During a Test link to here link to index

For many students the time limit is the most stressful part of a math test.

Taking a math test when you are worried about the time limit is a five stage activity.


If the test is closed-book and closed-notes then begin the test by "downloading" what last-minute facts you crammed into your brain onto the scratch paper. Write any geometry formulas, unit conversion rates, KHDUDCM, etc. that you might forget later.

Skim the test. Mark the quick and easy problems. Ask for clarification if you do not understand what any problem is asking.

Quick Problems

Do the quick problems first. If a problem turns out to be tricky or long, leave space on your scratch paper and keep going.

Keep track of the problems you skip. Either use marks by the problems or be careful with an answer key.

Valuable Problems

Some math classes have tests in which not all problems are worth one point. After you are done with the quick problems, prioritize problems worth the most points per part of the problem.

For example, a two-part problem worth 10 points gets higher priority than a four-part problem worth 15 points.

You have now finished all the problems you hope to answer correctly.

Fake-it Problems

Among the problems you cannot get correct will probably be some "fake-it problems". In this type of problem you almost know how to solve it, but not quite. For example, perhaps you know how to do unit conversion problems but forgot how many feet are in one mile.

Write a quick excuse and do the best you can. A student who writes, "I can't remember, so pretend 6,000 feet = 1 mile" and continues will get a lot of partial credit.

Write Something Problems

Finally, write something for the remaining blank problems, hoping for partial credit. You can wait until your time is almost up, but be sure to put something for each problem. For example, if you did not have time for a big puzzle-like area problem, at least sketch how you would break up the shape into pieces to add or subtract. Write the relevant formulas and/or unit conversion rates. Demonstrate that you know what tool from your math toolbox will be needed, even if you cannot do all the work.

After a Test link to here link to index

What study skills happen after a test?

The big issue is whether you used all of the resources to prepare.

In Math 20 you have lots of resources:

If you did not use these resources well then you must decide what habits to fix or develop.

If you did try to use those resources then ask yourself how the resources failed to prepare you. The resources you have the most control over are your notes and homework. Here is how to fix these up after a test.

First, fix the test problems you missed.

Second, list the topics that caused you grief. Many students get most problems wrong because of careless mistakes. But some problems show you that lack fluency in a topic. Hopefully, when you fixed the test problems you finished learning those topics!

Third, pretend to teach someone (or something—stuffed animals work too) about those topics. Pretend to lecture! Even include an example problem for each topic.

Fourth, improve your notes using what you learned trying to teach the topic.

Finally, make flashcards or a problem list so you can check before the next test if you retained fluency with those topics.