The Right Way to Prepare for a Test vs the Common Way

We all have bad memories of exams where we think we did alright, but when we get our paper back, it's 10-20 points lower than expected! You see obvious mistakes, and questions that you got stuck on seem so much simpler now. If only you could figure them out during the exam! It all comes down to one simple reason:

We prepare for the questions

but we don't prepare for the situation in which we solve them.

Before an exam, we solve questions in a much easier environment:

1) There is no time limit

2) Someone can explain it to you (professor/tutor/friend)

3) You can look at solutions if you get stuck

But in an exam, all three advantages are taken away. This adds stress which affects your performance, even if you know all the answers. But biggest change is that you never practiced how to figure things out by yourself when you are stuck. After weeks of practicing with support around you, you are suddenly on your own. Imagine a tennis player practices for 20 years under a top coach and perfects all his shots, but never plays a single match. If he goes straight to Wimbledon, he is most likely not going to do well. He will have trouble dealing with stress and keeping a focused mindset as he is not used to playing in this situation.

Here's the secret to my 4.0 GPA:

I always studied as if I was in a test

The key is to remove access to all advantages even while studying. Make it so it's just you vs. the question. That way you not only practice solving questions, you practice solving questions in an exam setting. This next level of preparation is the only way to getting a grade on the exam that reflects your level of knowledge.

So next time you are preparing for a test, go through all three stages to be fully prepared:

1) Study as usual: review concepts, go through examples etc.

2) Solve questions without looking at the solution (I have picked questions for doing this that cover all concepts. They can be found inside my summary notes for each chapter)

3) Do two to three complete exams - a past paper/one of my practice midterms (will be uploaded soon) - and do it with a time limit.

For students in my tutoring program, I eliminate the first stage almost entirely. As soon as a chapter is explained, the students start to solve the questions on their own. This allows us to find out the actual weaknesses are (and what concepts may need to re-explained). This method has enabled my students to achieve a near-100% pass rate for both physics 1 and physics 2 over 5 years and nearly 250 students in total.

Try to follow this method, whether with a tutor, with a study group, or by yourself.

Changing your preparation to be similar to the exam is critical to performing well on tests. Practice past exams/model tests as if they are real tests, and you will see a major improvement in your grade.