exhausted student

Study Smarter, not Study Harder

In Personal Strategies & Goals, Anecdotes by Steve Sliwa

This is a summary of actual things students can do to study smarter and not just look at the same material for longer. Successful students will choose a subset of these suggestions.

As a parent and former college administrator, I cannot count the number of times I heard the expression “I am going to study harder!” in order to get a better outcome on an upcoming test.

But what does that really mean? I observed students who, in response to the above expression, seemed to actually look harder and longer at the pages in the textbook. Somehow, the student actually expected a different outcome from such a repetitive effort. It reminds me of the saying that the definition of a fool is someone who keeps repeating the same task unsuccessfully and hoping that repeating it will result in a different outcome.

So, my advice to students is that if they want a different outcome, don’t repeat the effort previously attempted. Develop a new set of strategies and tactics. Specifically, start with a list of all the possible tasks one could undertake, and rank them by anticipated benefit. Then, chose the top ones that can be accomplished within the time allocated to studying for the upcoming test. Since everyone learns differently, each student’s ranking will be different as will the estimated time expenditure for each task based on the situation.

One could write a lengthy book on all the tasks students could use to improve their academic performance, and I presume there are already many. Here are my suggestions:


  1. Homework. Thoroughly complete all assignments.
  2. Optional Assignments. Complete all optional assignments suggested by the teacher.
  3. Unassigned Work. Read the unassigned material within the course textbooks, notes, and problem sets available to the student.
  4. Unassigned Homework. Finish any unassigned questions in the texts, notes, and auxiliary materials.
  5. Class Notes. Copy your class notes over into well-organized summaries of the material. People who rewrite their class notes and augment them with additional outside-the-classroom studies generally retain the material better and fare better in exams.

Outreach for Data

  1. Other Teachers and Faculty. Find out what other texts and materials were assigned by other faculty, and review these for similarities and differences. Complete the assigned and optional work for the same course assigned by other faculty.
  2. Get Class Notes from Others. Review the class notes, and look at other students’ class notes.
  3. Just Ask. Ask the professor – either during class or office hours or both – what is going to be on the exam. Carefully note the nuances in the descriptions. Repeat with any teaching assistants.
  4. Tests from Other Sections. Get previous tests by this professor and from other professors for the same course. Take these tests as practice tests in a simulated environment. Analyze the tests for common features, what was hardest, and what questions took the longest in the simulated environment.
  5. Network. Talk to students who took the course before, and ask them their impression of the tests, what to expect, and what surprised them.


  1. Test Prediction. Use the previous steps to develop a predicted test. Sometimes, tests are available in student resource centers. We used to comb through them and observe the trends and directions.
  2. Pattern Analysis. Look for repeating occurrences and favorite topics or questions used by the faculty in their tests. Many professors like to teach something in their exams and not just measure what was already covered. What will it be?
  3. Take Sample Tests. Early in the study process, take the test in a realistic setting with the appropriate time constraint.
  4. Test Preparation Strategy. Based on taking those sample tests, assess any gaps, and develop strategies to use during the test preparation phase.
  5. Special Problems for the Professor. Try to predict exam questions that are important to your professor, and develop a strategy to “knock those out of the park!” These could be the extra credit or discovery questions that are used to separate students from the pack. Also, no matter what the overall score, professors admire students who do well on their ‘pet’ questions, the goodwill of which could be helpful in the future.

Test Preparation

  1. Checklists. Create checklists of materials to be mastered, and assess yourself on the completeness of mastery. Develop a plan and a schedule to improve the mastery of each critical section prior to the exam.
  2. Classify. Divide predicted tests into easy and hard sections. First, develop confidence in the easy questions, and then create a plan to master the hard ones. Look for the pattern when taking the actual test.
  3. Shortcuts. Exams are almost always time-constrained. Developing methods for processing questions quickly is a key requirement for good performance. Prepare shortcuts for key sections of the predicted test. In analytical courses, frequently clever shortcuts can be used for recurring mathematical computations. In other types of exams, outlines, bulleted lists, and sometimes even a clever graphic can be used to great effect. Prepare these in advance, and if needed, commit them to memory.
  4. Exam Study Sheet. Prepare an exam sheet containing useful information, formulae, facts, and relationships. I try to make this graphical and well-organized. Even if the exam isn’t open note, I can recall the material better if I created such a study sheet for the exam. Clearly, if the exam is open note, it will help.
  5. Drilling Tools. Some exams simply require memorization. Prepare index cards with key formulae, chemistry equations, facts, quotes, and data. Drill yourself and members of your study group so that they are easy-to-access during the exam. I have seen students in Organic Chemistry buy and/or develop drill cards as well as stick models to build key molecules prior to exams.
  6. Table of Contents. Even for open-note/open-book exams, prepare tables of contents or indexes so that it will be easy to locate the material that is needed for the particular questions. In timed open-note tests, it’s amazing how many students waste time pouring through their texts and notes looking for something relevant during the exam. Those of us with indexes merely consult our index/table of contents and then turn directly to the textbook or notes page for the relevant information.
  7. Prewrite Essays. Write key essay responses based on the predicted test questions. These paragraphs are especially useful if the exam is open note as you can copy the key paragraphs straight into your answers. However, even for a closed-book exam, prewriting certain key sections will make your essays easier to write and flow together with the facts and language you desire. Some people prewrite their answers and then use a few introductory paragraphs to transition the questions to their answer.
  8. Purchase Study Guides. Buy study guides for the course. Use those for practice exams and study sheets. When growing up, we had Schaum’s Outlines and Cliff Notes, and I allocated a portion of my limited student budget to ensure I had such auxiliary study material for my key course.
  9. Favored Question Prediction. Develop a plan for which questions will be welcomed on an exam. My experience is that one’s momentum builds by answering the ‘comfort’ questions first and then allow the remaining time on the exam to maximize the score on those that are challenging. It helps manage one’s energy and morale during the exam.


  1. Study Groups. Form a study group for the course or courses you are taking. When allowed and/or appropriate, study groups can be used to work on homework together and exchange answers to the toughest problems, predicted exams, and prewritten essays. Help each other see the big picture as well as the details. Everyone can have a different opinion of what is important in the course and what the teacher is likely to ask on the exam. Several times, I participated in a study group that exactly predicted the questions on the exam, and hence, we were all well-prepared.
  2. Divide and Conquer. Trying to accomplish all the things on this list for each exam is difficult, if not impossible. Use study groups to divide and conquer the list, and then exchange insights and preparation material.
  3. Teach It. Arrange to teach the material to someone. It requires a higher level of understanding and comfort to be able to teach the material.


  1. Physical Preparation. Develop a plan for your physical state going into the exam so that you will be at peak performance. Everyone is different, so decide for yourself what level of rest, energy, caffeine, and last-minute study is best for you prior to entering the test chamber. For example, as a student, I avoided an all-nighter before but would study until late, get up early, go for a quick jog or bike ride to raise my heart rate, then study for about 90 minutes starting approximately two hours before, grab a bite of food, and take some caffeine just before entering the room.


It’s important for everyone to develop their own go-to tactics and strategies. But every once in a while, a student should formally consult an extended list like this one and decide if things should be added to their arsenal of tools for an upcoming exam.

Bottomline: Studying smarter for a test, probably, can be best summarized as being able to predict what’s on the test and being in a position to completely answer it within the timeframe given.  

Good luck!

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