Tips for Exam preparation: A Principal’s Advice to Students

Remarks to students, 12.8.10.

Exams are next week: how many of you are looking forward to taking exams?   I hope the answer is many of you, because I believe that when a well-prepared mind engages with a well designed test, fireworks can happen inside our minds.   I had many experiences of feeling more intellectually stimulated, engaged, creative and innovative, when taking a well-designed exam than during almost any other time.    My mind leapt to new insights and perceptions, made more connections and inferences, and discovered and constructed original solutions or approaches to vexing problems.   I loved taking exams.

But you do need to be well prepared to be successful.    Some suggestions for you to be better prepared.

1.  When you study, don’t just read: write!   Too often we think we are studying when we let our eyes drift over the words in our notes, our textbooks, and our study guides.   That isn’t enough; we must write to remember and develop better understanding.    My freshman year of college I struggled with my midterms, and was quite disappointed with the results.   Come finals, I chose to do something I had never done before: I simply rewrote, word for word, every note I had taken during lecture– and when I went to take my exams I was flabbergasted with how much more I recalled and how much more confident and authoritative I was addressing the questions.    Recopy notes, or write about your notes and texts:  what are the most interesting, more original, most surprising, most confusing, most important, most controversial ideas or informational nuggets in the texts you are studying?  Write these out, and you will be better prepared.

2. Study in groups. When this works well, it is awesome; when it doesn’t work well, it can be a disaster.   The opportunity is great, but effective execution is essential.    When you do it well, the result will be better understanding and retention of key factual content and key interpretations , better anticipation of what will be on the test, and far more breadth of wisdom in how to answer those questions.

Here is my suggested strategy for group study:  gather 3-6 students, no more, together for a couple of hours: be clear up-front that this is serious study time.     Have food available: this is very valuable! Bagels and cream cheese (not donuts or candy) is my recommendation.   Spend thirty to fortyfive minutes brainstorming what you think will be asked on the test: review previous tests, study guides, textbook unit tests, and any other materials to guide you.  You might have each member of the group individually write up 3-4 questions, and then share them with the group for discussion and feedback as you generate the best (and what you think are most likely) test questions you can identify.

Then, having established the best set of potential questions you can determine, spend 90-120 minutes answering them.   You might talk about them, one at a time, taking turns having a group member be the note-taker, and talk as widely, deeply, and inclusively as you can about how to answer these questions.    If you didn’t come up with good, challenging, and representative problems in the first round, this round might fall flat.    Sometimes it works better to divvy the questions up, have each of you individually answer them in writing, then share the answers out loud for discussion and expansion.

The discussion benefits you two ways: as someone speaking and sharing your suggested answer, you yourself are gaining far more comprehension and retention of those ideas because the best way to deeply understand and remember ideas is to explain it to someone else.    Second, by listening to others, you will get new ideas and perspectives to bring to bear on the question you might never have thought of, and by using this broader set of ideas in your answer on the exam, you will perform better than you would have alone!

3. Exercise and sleep. This is common-sense and universally advised, but it bears repeating.   Exercise in particular is so valuable, and take the time to walk every 30-45 minutes around the block or up some stairs.  You might even try to do very light exercise, on a treadmill or exercise bike at low rates for instance, while you are studying.

4.  Move around. When you are trying to learn, master, and memorize ideas or facts, do so while moving from spot to spot.  At each spot, focus on learning one idea/fact/topic, and do so while looking around and taking in your surroundings.  Do this inside or outside your house or anywhere you might be.    If possible, repeat, returning to the same location for the same nugget.    Our brains are more like those of squirrels or pigeons than we realize; they are deeply wired to associate learnings with location.   Squirrels memorize the location for their acorns so they can return to them months later; if we associate a physical location with an idea, it is imprinted in our brain, so that all we need to do is remember the location and the acorn buried there will return to mind in all its detail and specificity.

5. Connect smells to learning. This may seem bizarre, but as Proust taught us with the madeleine, memory and smell are deeply, powerfully intertwined.    You might try sucking on a particularly flavored altoid mint while you study a difficult subject, and then, (with the permission of your teacher!), suck on that same flavor mint while you take your exam.   Medina, is his terrific book Brain Rules, tells us that research has demonstrated this works.

One more tip, not about studying but exam-taking.    When you encounter a question which entirely stymies you– one you think you have no idea whatsoever how to answer– just begin writing.   Begin to fill that white space with something, anything.  You might try just rewriting the question, and then free associate to anything at all you do remember about the topic at hand– even if your ideas have no direct relationship to the question at hand.    What you will find, more often than not, is that ideas are connected to other ideas; ideas follow each other like a long train of widely varying units, and by beginning to write words and ideas you do know, the connected ones that you have forgotten begin to emerge in your mind and on the paper.   Just get the train of ideas moving, and what you are looking for will come along before too long.

Readers, please share other advice you might have on best study practices for our students as they anticipate exams.

[Cross-posted on]


  1. Chris Wejr said:

    Jonathan, your post provides some great strategies for test prep. My question to you is: do you think that taking tests is the best way to assess our kids? Do you think that students should be looking forward to exams? If exams were great for getting the fireworks in our minds going, why do adults not do this beyond school? I know you are a fan of Wagner – how does exam-taking fit into his ideas?

    I know you state that you enjoyed taking exams but I absolutely hated them. The best thing about my Master’s Program was that I could demonstrate my learning through presentations, debates/discussions, papers, etc and not have to do a single quiz or exam.

    I know your post is not about whether exams are effective for learning but it may open up a good conversation around this topic.

    I also realize that we are often forced to give exams and part of our job is to help our students succeed within the system.

    One thing I like about this site is it often challenges my thinking. I would love to hear people’s thoughts around this.

    Thanks for making me reflect!

    December 10, 2010
  2. Hi Chris:

    Love your comments. A few thoughts in response:

    1. Yes, in a certain sense I was stipulating implicitly the status quo of examinations in offering this advice. I think education should change dramatically in many ways in the coming years, but my students (and millions of others) still need to take their exams next week and I might as well try to help them as best I can in the meantime.

    2. I try to be a both/and, all things in moderation kind of guy. I am very passionate about PBL, exhibitions, published student work, digital portfolios, and think all these tools should be a much larger part of how we assess student learning. But I also think, as I say above, that a well designed test can be a valuable, intellectual, learning experience. I also think it can be a good way, not the only good way, to assess how well kids have learned to think about complex topics.

    3. I think that we can help students look forward to exams if we design them better. I don’t know if you have seen my students on video speak about the CWRA test, ( but you can hear them be very excited about the experience of taking that test and they recommend it highly to other students.

    4. I was especially conflicted, in what I wrote above, about the “smell” discussion. I don’t want students taking tests that reward students for their memorization skills, I want them to take tests that prioritize thinking skills. So the advice there for memorizing will become mostly moot when we have consistently better tests, and I think that for the most part, better tests are open-book, and “open-Google” tests, where students have the skills to seek, find and use information to answer challenging, rich questions. I wrote about this recently here on CP when I wrote about “Open Info Access Testing.”

    5. I think Tony Wagner is aligned with what I am saying here. I think he is appalled by tests which call for regurgitation or rote application of formulas. He has expressed great reservations about AP testing; he has praised highly High Tech High’s PBL approach. But he, like me, endorses the CWRA and has praised both the PISA tests and the IB test philosophy, because they are much better constructed tests, tests which require students to demonstrate higher order thinking and problem-solving.

    6. I am intrigued, and a bit stumped, by your question about why if exams are so great, why we as adults don’t do them. Many adults do love crossword and other types of puzzles, which are a form of “tests,” perhaps. I think there are times when we as adults have a challenging assignment and a time limit, and have to sit down and figure it out and get it done, and some of us find we thrive in those moments. But those are only partial parallels. Interesting.

    December 11, 2010
  3. Lyn Hilt said:


    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I know so many of us are conflicted about the importance placed on standardized testing and the undue stresses it can sometimes cause teachers and students. I continue to try to help my teachers see the value in using our state standards as a guide for bringing alive a world of interesting content and learning for our students without having them feel completely overwhelmed by the demands of a too-packed curriculum and high-stakes tests. When state testing time rolls around in the spring, a lot of schools hold testing pep rallies and make a big to-do about the assessments. We definitely do not. If we’ve been working hard to help develop each student as a learner, the scores on the mandated tests will reflect that.

    Reading through your list, it seems as though your suggestions could be applied to improving learning outcomes for students at any time, not just at exam time!

    I agree with Chris that the current structure of high-stakes assessment is not the most effective way to evaluate our students’ learning. I’d love to see my state experiment with varied types of assessments. Our reading, math, and science exams do ask students to craft writing responses to open-ended problems, but for the most part, students fall victim to the “bubbles” and are asked lower-level thinking questions.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking post!

    December 12, 2010
    • thirupathi said:

      thank you for your valuable tip& advice we

      May 11, 2012
    • LENGAU THEMBA said:


      November 13, 2012
  4. Monica Calligaro said:

    Another tip,

    Get up early, eat breakfast, sharpen your pencil!

    December 14, 2010
  5. […] I’ve written before about effective group study among high school students; it does have to be disciplined, and perhaps supervised at first, for the good practices to become internalized.   But among the things we need to be teaching kids, and ensuring they learn, is effective collaboration, and study is a great, real world, place to put this particular teaching and learning. […]

    February 13, 2011
  6. krithika said:

    i wANNA TO STUDY…………

    September 3, 2011
  7. Neerja Mishra said:

    not good……. rather it is awesome ,superb and mindblowing..very much helping for preparing for exam..

    November 14, 2011

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