• Cathy Keller

Are you doing Practice Tests this weekend? You should be!

AP and IB Exams start in a little more than a week (depending on when your subject is scheduled), and a lot of students are probably spending the weekend re-reading notes, highlighting important points, etc.

Is that the best use of their time? All they need to do?

Research says no.

A team of psychologists ranked common study practices, including cramming, distributed practice (reviewing repeatedly over a long period of time), taking practice tests (including activities like quizzing yourself with flash cards or Quizlet), sleeping between study sessions, etc.

Two methods emerged as the clear winners. Practice tests and distributed practice.

Practicing recall, it turns out, was the MOST effective method of mastering vocabulary, which is a necessary precursor to the kind of analysis, application and deep thinking required by the AP and IB Exams. You can’t do analysis if you aren’t using the vocabulary and evidence of your subject, or it ends up being what I call “I.B. B.S.” IBBS means you use a lot of fancy words with no real substance. Shakespeare called it “a tale full of sound and fury, told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” I’ve been teaching a long time, and BELIEVE ME when I say teachers and graders know this when we see it. CONTENT MASTERY MATTERS on these tests.

Practice tests can be as simple as quizzing yourself with notecards, using an app like Romulus Test Prep (for AP Euro, APUSH, AP World, AP Gov), IScore5 (for AP Psych), or online notecards like Quizlet. I have found that students who create their OWN quizlets retain the information a lot better than students who study from quizlets others have created. The act of creating the notecards gives you better context and synthesizing the information helps you to retain it.

The more you practice ”free recall” (trying to retrieve all you know) the better. Multiple choice questions and true false questions provide answers from you to choose from, but free recall forces your brain to try to retrieve information without prompting.

I also suggest doing a full practice test, which are available in Princeton Review, Barons and AP Achiever type review books. Set a clock, and try as best as you can to duplicate actual testing conditions. Some teachers will offer opportunities to do a full practice test at school. TAKE THEM UP ON THIS! is a great resource for test prep. Each AP subject has thousands of multiple choice questions, a lot of practice essay prompts, full practice tests, etc. At $12-22 a subject (some schools can subsidize this cost).

For IB Exams, a lot of old papers are available online. Look them over and outline your response, write a practice introduction, do some practice math problems, etc.

Another key tip is to not do a practice test right after a study session. Try to sleep in between. That will be a better judge of how well you know the material as you will overestimate your ability if you are trying immediate recall.

Now, it’s not too late in the year for distributed practice, but we are quickly moving into cramming territory. If you are going to spend 5 hours studying, your brain will remember information better if you do one hour a day over 5 sessions than if you do 5 hours straight in a row. (The point isn’t to do one hour a day, just that should spread your studying out over a long period of time.)

The study also shows that SLEEPING between study sessions helps your brain to encode information, which helps with memory. So pulling all-nighters is probably not a great plan.

All of this means you WILL DO BETTER WITH A PLAN. You need to take a practice test to figure out your weaknesses, chunk up the units for your exam into sessions, plan some sleep between sessions, take more practice tests while you study, rinse, repeat, until exam day.

You can read the study I referenced here. I think it’s a worthwhile read for anybody looking to improve their study techniques. It’s long, though, so maybe focus on the Exam prep now and read this over the summer. I’ve hit the highlights above :)


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