Improve Your Test Scores; No, You Don’t Have to Study Harder

Posted By Terri Williams on June 13, 2017 at 7:06 am
Improve Your Test Scores; No, You Don’t Have to Study Harder

It’s typically a good idea to have a variety of resources when studying for an exam. However, instead of devouring every piece of information, the key to academic success may lie in how those resources are used. A new study by Stanford University researchers, which was published in Psychological Science, reveals that being strategic can help college students get higher test scores.

The study came about as a result of observations by Patricia Chen, lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow in the Departments of Psychology and Pediatrics at Stanford University. Chen noticed that despite spending significant amounts of time studying textbooks, homework assignments, and other resources, some obviously intelligent students struggled to achieve good test scores and high grades.

For the study, Chen and colleagues divided participants into two groups. One group received an “exam reminder,” while the other group received the reminder and also performed a strategic resource use exercise. In two different studies, the group that participated in the exercise got better test scores.

Benefits of an intervention

Why did this intervention exercise make a difference? “The intervention guided students through the psychological process of approaching their resource use strategically during learning.” Chen tells GoodCall®, “Basically, it walked students through the thoughts that highly self-regulated, strategic learners apply when they are preparing for their exams.”

It was a four-step process:

  • Think about the upcoming exam format.
  • Decide which learning resources would be used to master the content (textbooks, lecture notes, online references, teacher office hours, or peer study groups).
  • Establish why each of the chosen resources would benefit their learning.
  • Plan in advance when, where, and how they would use these resources to study.

“These mental steps initiate the metacognitive strategic awareness that we refer to as being ‘self-reflective’ about learning,” Chen says. “Our findings show that going through these mental steps in the intervention motivated students to clarify how they would use their learning resources to study effectively.”

Studying strategically and test scores

It was also important for students to understand what it meant to study strategically.

“Exercising strategic awareness (or what is termed ‘metacognitive self-regulation’) involves figuring out what the class setting demands, optimizing one’s study approaches to the specific exam format, monitoring the effectiveness of various learning approaches, changing approaches when an approach is unproductive, and reflecting on performance feedback,” Chen explains.

In the first study, students scored an average of 3.45 percentage points higher; in the second study, students scored an average of 4.65 percentage points higher.

But this type of strategic thinking can also be applied to other areas of an individual’s life.

“Exercising strategic forethought before jumping into action is a valuable ingredient for success – and efficiency – in any form of goal pursuit,” Chen says. She believes that health and fitness goals, professional goals, and virtually any other area could benefit from the application of these principles. “I believe that strategic thinking in this manner helps people to channel the way they direct their efforts towards their goals more efficiently, saving them time and wasted effort.”

For example, if an employee wants to learn a new work-related skill, Chen offers the following advice. “The employee could strategize the various resources that are available to her to master that skill (such as online courses, other colleagues who have mastered the skill, workshops, and so on), and consider how to most effectively build her skills with the resources available.”

Dr. Allison Buskirk-Cohen, the chair of the psychology department at Delaware Valley University, also believes it’s important to study strategically, and tells GoodCall®, “Cramming a bunch of information into your brain isn’t helpful – the human memory system is organized around meaning, so students need to determine why information is important and establish multiple connections to it.”

Buskirk-Cohen recommends that students set goals that are short and attainable. “This might include writing an outline for a paper or creating flashcards for a textbook chapter,” she says. “Goals enhance performance because they direct our attention to information that’s relevant to our goals.”

Buskirk-Cohen offers the following four tips:

  1. Students need to focus on the steps necessary to achieve their goals.
  2. Their plans should be flexible so that if a particular studying technique isn’t working, they can change it and try something new.
  3. They must continue to monitor themselves and make adjustments as needed.
  4. They also should celebrate successes – even minor ones – to keep themselves feeling positive about their progress.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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