By Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.

For many students, tests have acquired the mythic status of the Hydra, the many-headed monster from the ancient Greek stories. No matter how many heads Hercules the hero cuts off, more grow, threatening his life again. While taking tests poses many different challenges, fortunately there are some fairly simple ways to conquer these challenges – and some secret weapons that students can use to their advantage. Just as Hercules used his wits to confound the Hydra (who, appropriately, lived in a swamp called “Lerna”), so students can use their wits to study creatively and confront the multiple challenges of taking tests. Many students get caught up in the self-fulfilling prophecy: I am bad at taking tests. Yet they do little to change their approach to test taking, and thus, end up in repeated cycles of poor preparation, anxiety, poor performance, and confirmation that they are “bad” test takers. However, taking tests is a skill that can be learned like any other skill.

The following sections introduce preparation techniques and skills that if mastered will help every student to achieve more success when taking tests.

No wrestler would enter a competition with a Hydra or even another wrestler without preparing him or herself physically and mentally. He first step in preparing oneself is to assess your current level of readiness. The student should ask a series of questions to assess his or her physical and mental readiness for test taking:

  1. Am I getting enough regular sleep?
  2. Am I eating well, including lots of ‘brain food’? High protein foods, as well as enough carbohydrates for energy pick-ups, are essential for studying and test-taking. It is not helpful to be dieting strenuously, skipping breakfast, or snacking on junk food. See the secret weapon section for a recipe for brain food.
  3. Am I getting enough exercise of different kinds so that my body stays healthy, my mind stays focused, and I sleep well at night? Regular, daily exercise helps with sleep, overall health, and definitely with concentration. Students who plan to skip exercise to study an extra hour before a test may actually reduce their concentration during the test.
  4. Can I keep my mind from wandering? Students who have difficulty studying at times, and that includes most of us, should develop a meditative phrase that they can repeat to clear their minds of irrelevant thoughts and sharpen their focus.
  5. Do I drink enough water to stay hydrated? Drinking enough liquids, especially water, is critical for brain function. Even mild dehydration can cause mental fogginess, memory slips, and sometimes dizziness. Keeping a glass of water beside them when they study will help students to keep their mental powers high. Students should also not forget to take a water bottle with them on those stressful test days.

Planning ahead for study sessions, organizing a study schedule, and sticking to it is the second most important factor in successful test taking. Students with poor grades should not despair; they can change their scores in a matter of weeks by creating the study schedule that meets their needs for content absorption on three key levels. These levels include: personal energy, speed of retention, and amount of material.

  1. The student should assess his or her moods and energy levels at different times of day, and identify the high energy/high focus periods of day in his or her daily rhythm. Those times are peak study times and should be used to advantage. If the student is always tired and feeling low in the evenings, however, that is a sign that he or she should check diet and sleep schedule and make some adjustments. Waiting to study until he or she is ready to fall asleep puts the student at risk for failing.
  2. The student should complete several study sessions when his or her energy level is at or just below peak levels, and note how many minutes or hours of study it takes to memorize or learn different amounts and kinds of material. For Instance, it may take twenty minutes to learn a list of thirty vocabulary words in Spanish, but an hour for the student to learn and understand the periodic table in Chemistry. Since each student has different rates of learning, each student should assess his or her individual rates for each subject and not base study times on what other students do.
  3. Based on what you learn from the first two steps, analyze the amount of material required for a test in a given subject, and calculate how long it will take you to study the material adequately. You already assessed your personal memorization rates at peak energy levels in steps one and two. Now you can construct a study calendar based on your high energy, high focus times of the day. For example, you figure out that you need to study eight hours for the upcoming history test to remember all the material sufficiently. You have two peak energy hours every evening, but you also need an hour to do math every evening. You would create a schedule allowing one hour of history studying per day for nine days before the test, and stick to the schedule.
  4. Create a buffer of one to two days in every study schedule. What if you get sick? Or something unavoidable comes up? To take the anxiety out of studying for tests, students should create a buffer in the study schedule, and keep it there until the day of the test. The buffer does three things: it keeps stress at bay; it ensures less reduction in test scores due to unpredictable events; and most important, it builds student confidence.

The two major mistakes that I see students make in studying for tests are: a) not estimating correctly the amount of material to be learned or studied, or b) trying to study either all at once, or during low energy, low focus times of the day for them . A student who feels like taking a nap every day after lunch will not benefit much from a study group right after lunch. A student who is usually in bed by nine every night will not benefit much from studying until one a.m. the night before a test. Other family members can help the most with studying at this juncture, by giving the student feedback about his or her perceived energy levels, and by giving the student help with assessing the amount of time he or she will need to study for a particular test. “You seem so tired every night by nine o’clock. Is there another time you could study?” may elicit just the conversation the student needs, in order to explore best times to study.

All students should have a few of these secret ways to improve not only their test-taking abilities, but also their confidence and self-assurance on the day of the test. A positive attitude, relaxed mind-set, and lack of anxiety, as well as adequate sleep do wonders for test scores. I once had to take the Graduate Record Examination the day after a family funeral, in a strange city, after getting up at five a.m. to take the subway to the test location. I knew I would not do as well as I could, due to all the stress and anxiety, so I retook the test about a month later in my home town, when I was able to get enough sleep. I did not study at all in between the two tests. While my English scores did not change too much, my math scores (the subject I tend to be more anxious about) went up two hundred points . While a steady, semester-long practice of healthy eating, exercise and sleep schedule, combined with a well-organized study schedule are the best guarantees of better test scores, the following tips can make a big difference right before a test. Students should try them all to see which ones work best for them.

Special Advice to Students:

1. Use multi-sensory studying and memorization practices. When we study, we tend to focus on the visual, but actually, other senses can help us study even more effectively.

  • Kinesthetic study practices use movement to assist memory. Try writing vocabulary words in sand or a pan of dry rice. Or use a large paintbrush and write those hard to spell biology words with water in huge letters on the side of the house or the sidewalk. Large motor movements connect to a different part of the brain, and can help with memory formation. Some students may benefit from walking or dancing as they recite words or formulas that must be memorized. These methods are especially useful with students with dyslexia or learning disabilities.
  • When studying history passages, or other content areas that are not simple memorization, use smells as cues. Read the history passage while sitting on a freshly cut lawn, or while stirring a cup of hot-spiced cider with cinnamon. Then link the memory of the smell to the passage you want to remember by noting where you were and what scent you were breathing in when you studied. Imagining you smell that scent again will help with recall of the passage. Better yet, every time you pass a newly cut lawn and take a deep breath, your mind revisits that passage you learned sitting on the lawn. Smells trigger a primitive part of the brain that accesses memories without having to go through analytic or verbal thought. By linking to these ancient memory messengers, we strengthen verbal memories.
  • Create audiotapes of passages, formulas, or vocabulary you need to know, and then play them over and over, whatever you are doing. One spring I needed to learn Wolof, a West African language, in one month, for a work trip to rural Senegal. I was only able to have three lessons with a Wolof speaker; the rest I learned by creating tapes, sometimes straight out of the dictionary. I played them while driving, while working in the garden, and while washing the dishes. By the time I went to Senegal, though I was far from fluent, I could construct simple sentences from memory, carry on conversations, and had a vocabulary large enough to work with people who did not speak French or English. I credit the tapes, and the visual imagery that I associated with certain words, whether it was lettuces in the garden, or images of the road I was driving while I was learning the words, with helping me to remember.

2. Exercise, Exercise, Exercise. While we think of exercise as a way to strengthen the body, it also strengthens and clears the mind. Some kinds of exercise are especially good for improving concentration and memory. Try these:

  • Yoga – if practiced at least once or twice a week, and always on the day of a test, yoga can do a great deal to help the test-taker with calmness, evenness of energy, good posture, and increased blood flow to the brain. Yoga practice also improves concentration over time, as well as providing many health benefits.
  • T’ai Chi and the other martial arts help students focus energy levels and use breathing to achieve calmness. Students with test anxiety will benefit from any of these traditional practices.
  • Walking vigorously and running also induce a meditative state that improves a student’s ability to focus and concentrate. During the week before a test, set yourself a problem or task at the beginning of a walk or run, and then without attempting to think about it, let it float in the back of your mind. Try the problem at the end of your exercise period, and you may find that your mind has solved it unconsciously!

3. Support the peace warrior in preparing for test days. While war imagery is generally not positive, students should support themselves as peace warriors when facing challenging tests, and not fight themselves . A positive, self supportive attitude is critical for success. Students must be aware of negative self-talk (“I didn’t study enough; I know I’m going to fail; I’m just not smart enough) and shut it down. Instead, students should take excellent care of themselves, and give themselves plenty of positive self-talk as they gird themselves to do battle with those challenging tests. Try the following self-care tactics:

  • Study two days before a test, instead of one. This practice, shared by a psychology professor, helps deeper memories to form, and also allows a good night’s sleep right before a test. Review briefly right before the test to help your memory readiness and boost your confidence.
  • Use memory aids and mnemonic devices for last-minute memorization (see references below).
  • Exercise moderately the morning of a test.
  • Drink plenty of water or other non-caffeinated drinks, and take a water bottle with you to the test.
  • Eat a good breakfast with plenty of protein and non-sugar carbohydrates for a slower, steadier, release of energy. Make the following recipes ahead of time as brain boosters before the test and for breaks during longer tests.

Brain Booster Snack: Mix together equal parts almonds, cashews, pine nuts, sunflower seeds, dried apples, dried apricots, and unsweetened banana chips (Please make sure you are not allergic to any of these ingredients.Shake or stir together and bag for portable snacks, especially on heavy study and test days.

Super Cookies: Make your favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, but reduce the sugar by ¼ cup, and add ½ cup dried rolled oats, ½ cup raisins, ½ cup chopped walnuts, and ¼ cup coconut flakes. Mix well and add from 2 Tablespoons to 1/3 cup milk for extra liquid as needed. Bake as usual. Use for study snacks and sparingly as snacks for breaks during long tests.

Popcorn seasoned with real butter and Brewer’s Yeast instead of salt boosts your mental health, and makes a great study snack, especially for study groups.

In the end, students may realize that the Hydra they face is of their own creation – the heads represent anxiety, procrastination, fear of failure, lack of planning, a lack of confidence, and negative self-talk, among others. Hercules cleverly sealed the necks of the Hydra after he cut off each head so that they could not grow again. Students can also make sure that their monsters do not grow back, by continuing to practice good study habits, and encouraging the warrior within themselves with positive self-talk, good food, exercise, sleep, and plenty of advance campaign planning.

Gelb, Michael J. 1998. How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. New York: Random House, Inc.

Lorayne, Harry. 1990. Super Memory, Super Student: How to Raise Your Grades in Thirty Days. U.S.: Harry Lorayne, Inc.

Montgomery, Robert L. A Great Memory. (Book tape) Mt. Laurel, New Jersey: Learn, Inc.

Robinson, Adam. 1993. What Smart Students Know: Maximum Grades, Optimum Learning, Minimum Time. New York: Three Rivers Press.