How to prepare for an exam


If you think the best way to study for an exam is to cram, think again. Here's the right way to do it, according to psychologist Dr. Cynthia Green, author of Total Memory Workout.

How to prepare for an exam

Ever get nervous that you’ll ‘freeze’ during an exam? We get nervous or don’t often give ourselves enough time to study. Learning how to prepare for an exam and how to deal with anxiety can help us become better test-takers.

  • Reduce anxiety by taking deep breaths, counting backwards, or visualize something peaceful and calm.
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, work your way around it. Recall everything you can about what the question is asking, organize that information, and eliminate alternatives to narrow your focus and find the answer.
  • One of the best ways to prepare for an exam is to adopt good test taking habits. Parents should teach their kids good test-taking habits, such as:
  1. Get adequate sleep the night before an exam
  2. Eat well
  3. Organize ahead of time
  4. Build extra time into their schedules—say, 15 minutes every night—to better prepare for a test and use a study guide to break down the information into easy-to-remember segments. This gives their brains more time to rehearse and commit the information to memory.
  • Cramming is not how you want to prepare for exams. Cramming for a test can be overwhelming—it’s too much information for our brains to keep track of. If you must cram, place limits on what you’re trying to retain. If you cram too much, you may be able to remember some of the information for a test, but you won’t commit it to long-term memory.

STACEY: I’m Stacey Tisdale for Do you know the most effective ways to study for a test? Do you have to cram, or is it better to have a system? Here to help students and parents of students everywhere. Dr. Cynthia Green, psychologist and author of Total Memory Workout. Thank you so much for joining us. Now what are some of the reasons that we have so much trouble remembering things for tests, even after we study?

CYNTHIA: One of the things that happens is that we simply get nervous. Secondly, we don’t often leave ourselves enough time to prepare for tests.

STACEY: Now what are some of the things we can do to reduce anxiety during test taking?

CYNTHIA: Well, one of the things is just to practice some of, what I call emergency techniques to reduce our anxiety.

STACEY: Please share!

CYNTHIA: Some things like training yourself to take deep breaths, to count backwards from twenty, or even to have a visualization where you can, you know, practice beforehand imagining something that makes you feel peaceful and calm so that you can have that image, something that you find relaxing, and you can go to that place to help yourself calm down.

STACEY: So what are some of the steps that people can do if they’re, you know, in the test situation, they’re really, realize that they’re having one of these melt-downs and anxiety attacks and they’re not having that recall, what do you suggest people do in that moment?

CYNTHIA: If you are faced, for example, with a multiple choice question and you’re not really sure how to answer it, then to really work your way around the question, to figure out what you do remember about the question, to try and eliminate alternatives so that you can narrow your focus. Try to remind yourselves of what the main point is around a question, and to organize the information in that way, to work your way back to the answer.

STACEY: Are there specific things that parents can do to help their children when it comes to getting prepared for tests?

CYNTHIA: One of the best things, I think, we can do as parents to help our kids is to teach them good test taking habits. Learning how to take a test is also learning how to be prepared, in terms of getting adequate sleep, eating well, dealing with stress effectively, and finally organizing ahead of time. So, for example, some things I’ve used with my kids throughout their life is to tell them, when they know they have a test, to build into their schedule when, you know, that test is coming up about fifteen minutes a night, every night, to work on preparing for that test, and to work with a study guide also for that test. So they’re breaking that study guide down and learning a piece of it every night, and using the last couple of nights before the test to rehearse all the information.

STACEY: When I think back to college and high school, I remember cramming for those exams, cramming that information. I think I actually thought, you know, if it’s right up there, up top, newly in my brain, it’ll be right there. Talk to us about cramming.

CYNTHIA: The problem with cramming is that we can overwhelm our brains. That sometimes, it’s just too much information to really effectively keep track of. What I would suggest, if someone really has to cram, is that they try to distill down that cramming to what they really are going to need to know for that test, so that they at least place some limits for what they’re trying to attain.

STACEY: Great advice, Dr. Cynthia Green, psychologist and author of Total Memory Workout, thank you for joining us.

CYNTHIA: Thank you.

STACEY: I’m Stacey Tisdale for

meet theexpert
  • Dr. Cynthia R. Green

    Dr. Cynthia R. Green Psychologist, Author Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D. is a nationally recognized expert on memory fitness and brain health. She founded The Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in 1996, and is the author of several self-help books. more about this expert »

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