You Studied But Still Did Badly on the Test — What's Up?

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Surprised by your test scores? It turns out that how you study can leave you with the false impression that you’re more prepared than you actually are. Take a look at these three common errors you might make while studying (along with ways to stop those bad habits!)

1. Failing to Test Yourself

You read the material, go over all of your old work, and it all makes sense to you in the moment, so you figure you’re good to go. But the problem is, this only prepares you to understand solutions that you've already solved. This does not prepare you to tackle new problems or to recall the answer without having it right in front of your eyes. While it’s great that your notes make sense to you, could you recreate them from scratch if you had to?

Many studies have shown that retention increases significantly if you're tested repeatedly. Quiz yourself or get a friend to quiz you. Then review what you missed, and try again. The act of testing forces your brain to recall information and exercises your ability to do so. Simply reading over your notes won’t do the trick.

2. Avoiding Subjects that Make You Uncomfortable

When looking over your notes to review, you might see some things which you remember already, and which you feel confident in your knowledge of, and you might also see the occasional black hole of confusion – a topic you didn’t really understand or found frustrating. And without intending to at all, as you review, you focus almost exclusively on the topics that make sense to you while glossing over subjects that you aren’t very comfortable with.

It’s human nature. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. You convince yourself that those little black holes are smaller than they really are. It's a certain type of confirmation bias – you focus on the notes that make you feel like you understand the material and ignore the ones that don't.

But the reality is, unless you look those black holes right in their swirling dead eyes and force yourself to try again, you will be blindsided by it on the test. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other students in the class for help, or arrange a time to meet your teacher and go over it. The point is: spend more time on the uncomfortable bits, not less.

3. Solving Backwards

If you are preparing for a science or math test and much of your studying consists of working problems backwards from their solution until you figure out a way to get the right answer, then you’re in for some trouble when it’s time to take the test.

This usually begins with the best of intentions: You try the problem, check the answer, discover it’s wrong, then the backwards work begins. This is often accomplished in one of two ways:

  • You try different (and often incorrect) methods until you stumble upon the correct method and get the right answer (think of throwing things at the wall until something sticks). You eventually come up with the right answer via the right method, but because you tried so many different methods, it can be hard to keep straight in your head which one worked and why. When you approach a similar problem on the test, your instinct might be to start trying several different methods again, but now you have no way to verify which is the correct one.
  • You creatively devise an incorrect method which yields the right answer (think of forcing a square peg into a round hole). Instead of trying several different methods, you deliberately manipulate the numbers in almost-but-not-quite correct ways until the correct answer emerges. The problem with this strategy is obvious: You have not actually figured out how to solve the problem correctly at all. This certainly won’t help you do math correctly going forward!

To avoid falling into this trap, make a point of not checking the answer unless you are confident it is most likely correct already (as opposed to guessing how to do the problem, then checking the answer to see if your guess was right). If you find yourself wanting to check the answer because you don't know if you did the problem right, stop yourself and review the steps to the problem first.

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About the Author

Gayle Towell is a freelance writer and editor living in Oregon. She earned masters degrees in both mathematics and physics from the University of Oregon after completing a double major at Smith College, and has spent over a decade teaching these subjects to college students. Also a prolific writer of fiction, and founder of Microfiction Monday Magazine, you can learn more about Gayle at gtowell.com.