All of us at one point have to review or study for a test; but how do we know that our time is actually being used productively? How should we study to get the most out of our time? 

The answer is related to how your brain works and how your brain functions to actively recall information. However, there are tips and methods that work for most people. To get these methods, we talked to AISB’s math, science, and English teachers.

First, how does the brain recall information?

The part of the brain that is involved with memory recall is called the hippocampus. It’s located in the center of the brain and helps your brain remember things. Memories are stored in your hippocampus. For you to be able to remember things, that information needs to be sent to the prefrontal cortex: the front part of your brain.

The hippocampus communicates with the prefrontal cortex through a series of neural pathways: tubes that link your hippocampus to your prefrontal cortex. The more you use this pathway, the more connections are created between neurons in your brain, which makes the memory clearer.

Memory recall works in a similar way, by recalling information multiple times over a period of time. It allows those neural pathways to become clearer and it makes it easier for you to remember things on a test. This allows you to focus more on answering the question instead of spending time remembering the correct process to use. There are several ways to help out your hippocampus in recalling information, in the form of cues.

There are two important things that can help cue your brain with recalling information. One is the environment around you and the other is the use of pictures, and sets of information. Your brain has an easier time remembering pictures and sets of information as opposed to long numbers and words. This can be taken advantage of while studying for a test or reviewing for an in-class essay.

To improve your ability to use cues, it is better to study in a testing environment with no distractions. Not only does it help you concentrate and not be off-task, but it also helps your brain learn the terms better. The environment helps you be able to remember them more easily during a test.

“The advice I would give is something that a lot of sports people would hear from their coaches, which is you play as you train” —AISB Science Teacher Luke Scholtes.

You should also try to answer practice questions that are similar to the ones that you would receive on the test so that you are familiar with them. This allows your brain to make more neural connections. Plus, help you refresh your memory on terms as well as strengthen your understanding of the information.

It is also important to get adequate sleep after studying so your brain has time to process the information. While you sleep your brain works on synthesizing and moving memories from short term to long term. If you don’t get enough sleep not only are you not getting enough time to sort through these new memories of information. But also focus and concentration are impacted with a lack of sleep.

So, it might not be the best idea to stay up all night reviewing for a test. It might not help as much as you think.

What is the best way to study for a math test?

In math, the best way to study for an upcoming test is through repetition: trying several practice problems for your brain to learn how to do each problem.

This reinforces your thinking and allows you to learn about the method, and how it works. This reinforced thinking also helps you grasp the concept and it allows you to then be able to answer the level 7-8 questions more easily.

AISB Math Teacher Gustavo Echeverry explains that “normally those problems (level 7-8 questions) are attached to something that you already know…Those problems are not necessarily challenging, but could be different [from something you’ve seen before]. But in the end, they apply the same ideas you already know.”

That’s why practice problems are useful. It increases your ability to recall what to do, and improves your recognition, allowing you to spot what to do in a problem.

You should study the types of problems that you will be seeing on the test. So it would be ideal to study both word problems and algebraic problems with only numbers. If it’s a geometry test, work on problems with shapes and models. A great resource for problems would be your math textbook.

And when it comes to studying in groups, you should work with a group that can help you understand the process. It shouldn’t be about who gets the answer first but how each person got to the answer. You might learn new methods that you could try to check your work or use if your method doesn’t work. The more resources you have, the better.

There are also some things that you should be aware of when taking the actual test. If you get stuck, you shouldn’t just waste your time trying to figure out that one question. Instead, you should skip it, and keep going so that you at least answer the other questions.

Maybe later on, you remember what you need to do and you can go back but don’t waste your time. Time is something that is very important and that you shouldn’t waste on a test. Just make sure that when you finish you look over it. Make sure that you answered all of the questions.

What is the best way to study for a science test?

In science, you need to be able to remember terms and what they mean. One way to go about this is by making a set of flashcards that have the word on one side and the definition on the other. This is a good way to test yourself and reinforce vocabulary.

As AISB science teacher Mr. Scholtes explains, “By associating something visual or kinesthetic with what you are trying to remember, it can really help. Your brain is really just a series of connections and pathways; if you have those pathways leading to something new it will make it easier to remember that thing.”

So adding pictures, drawing something, or creating an image in your mind that is associated with the term will help you remember what it means. Because your brain can remember that more easily.

You could also break the word down in the back of the card. For example, with the word “exothermic”, “exo” is out and “therm” is heat. So together it’s “out-heat,” which is what an exothermic reaction is: it emits heat.

Keeping a small booklet or list of common latin prefixes and suffixes could help you decipher what a word means if you forgot. Also, the more information that you add to the back of the flashcards the better understanding you will have of the term. This also helps your brain form more neural connections and reinforce your ability to remember the information.

You should be so confident with the vocabulary that you can define the words within 1-2 seconds. When you are confident with that then you can focus on the questions on the test, not spend too much time recalling the definitions.

As Mr. Scholtes explains, “If you practice enough (the steps to solve a certain problem), it becomes second nature. You’re not using as much cognitive energy—the energy that your brain is using, to remember how to do something and you can focus on what the question is asking you.” 

What is the best way to prepare for an in-class essay?

The best strategy for an essay would be to have an outline of what you are going to talk about pre-planned. So that when you start writing it in class you aren’t starting from scratch.

One crucial aspect when it comes to preparing for writing in-class essays, according to AISB English teacher Mr. Chuck Adams, is “knowing the structure of the type of writing you’ve been asked to do.” He explains that “You don’t want to worry about how you are going to organize your thoughts.”

You should go in knowing how you’re going to organize your ideas, so you’re not wasting time thinking about this when you could be writing. You should know your main points but not worry about writing the entire thing beforehand. This can put more pressure on you, as you might forget what you wanted to talk about.

In English, Mr. Adams says “You’re really looking for literary devices and literary choices.” He explains, “Not only pointing them out, but also going in-depth and analyzing the effect that they have on the reader.”

Mr. Adams also suggests being intentional about your quotes—making sure to use quotes that help illustrate and prove your point.

What about in essays where you don’t know the prompt? If you have access to a notecard it would be useful to write down important quotes from sources that you have looked at in class. Mr. Adams also recommends to “take down notes on the key highlights from the unit you’re studying,” such as important vocabulary that might be used in the prompt.

Similar to tests, when you are writing in-class essays, you shouldn’t be stuck on one specific portion of the essay. If you can’t come up with a good hook for your introduction, you can skip that and move on. Come back later when you know what you are going to write. You should give yourself time to revise and correct any silly mistakes that you might have made when you wrote it the first time.

What is the best way to review things for long-term retention?

All of these methods work for short term memory retention—meaning you learn the information for the test and stop reviewing afterwards. While that helps you with the test, on a long-term scale, more likely than not you’ll probably forget how to do a problem or what a term means.

The way to help you remember longterm is by interacting with the material even after you finish with the test. Maybe you use the principles you learned in the last unit in math for the new unit. This will help you retain the information and be able to recall it later on.

If you keep applying the information that you learned, then you will convert that information to your long term memory. That’s why if you forgot how to do something, you have an easier time relearning it. The neural connections are there, just not so clear.

These methods may not work for some people but maybe for others. We all learn differently and remember things differently. It’s important to try several options and find what works best for you.