Study Skills and Test Anxiety

Study Skills Self-Assessments
First, assess your learning style in order to maximize the productivity of your study time. Next, analyze your study environment to find out if you study in an optimal location. Finally, assess your current study habits to find out if they need improvement.

Note-taking Strategies

The Value of Note-taking
Thorough lecture notes are key to successful academic performance. Not only can you review them as you prepare for upcoming tests and exams, but you can also refer to them later when you take advanced courses. Note-taking helps you listen attentively and think critically about the material that your professor presents. In addition, just the act of writing helps to commit information to your long-term memory.

Although professors share information not available in textbooks, they also make connections between concepts you’ve read about in your textbook. If you write notes in class, you will listen attentively and think critically. In addition, you’ll remember more if you write things down. Studies show that if you don’t take notes, you may forget half a lecture after 24 hours, eighty percent after two weeks, and ninety-five percent after one month. Keeping lecture notes provides you with a storehouse of information you can draw upon when you take more advanced courses. Sharpening your note-taking skills now will help you prepare for when a future employer requires you to take notes in a meeting or at a conference.

Prepare for Success
Before you go to class, complete assigned reading, research or other homework. Review previous class notes and prepare to ask clarifying questions. Remember to take the right materials, such as a notebook, pad, pencil, pen or highlighter with you to class. Sit front and center so that you can see and hear the professor and your classmates.

Focus During Class
Participate actively in class activities. Think about how class-work relates to your personal goals. Reflect critically on what you hear. However, if you disagree with a statement, allow the instructor to finish before you ask a question or make an argument.

Watch for Clues
Speakers may subtly emphasize key concepts, but you have to watch closely. Notice repetition as the instructor speaks. Listen for introductory, concluding and transitional words or phrases. Monitor the blackboard or overhead. If the instructor takes the time to write something down, you can be sure it is important. Watch the instructor’s eyes and facial expression, and notice his or her level of interest in the material.

Use an Effective Note-Taking System
Many students find the Cornell System of Note-Taking both fast and efficient. However, there is a variety of different note-taking methods. Whatever system you choose to use, adapt it to suit you. Label and date your notes, and number the pages. As you copy material from the board, make note of key words, diagrams, or pictures that will help you review the materials when you study later. Use standard acronyms or abbreviations so that you are not confused during your review. When material is particularly important, use complete sentences. If visual cues help you, take notes in different colors and use symbols to organize or emphasize concepts. Ask questions to clarify if you feel lost. In addition the instructor may be willing to email you copies of overheads or slides, or allow you to copy them later.

Review Your Notes
Review and edit your notes within 24 hours of each lecture. If you’re using the Cornell Note-Taking System, now’s the time to fill in key words in the left-hand column. Use the key words as cues when you study. As you review your notes, ask yourself, “What makes this important?”

Reading Strategies
York University Counselling and Development Centre’s article Reading Skills for University will help you develop and execute strategies for more effective reading comprehension.

The SQ3R Reading Comprehension Method
Educational researcher Francis Pleasant Robinson developed the SQ3R Reading Comprehension method. He documented the method in his book Effective Study, available in D.H. Hill Library.The SQ3R method helps you organize your reading and retain information more easily. It takes some practice, but this approach eventually becomes second nature.

S = Survey Q = Question R = Read R = Recite R = Review

Survey to ascertain an overview of your reading. Read the introduction for a chapter outline. Skim the chapter headings and read the summary to identify key points. Read any chapter questions, and keep them in mind. You will be more aware of the author’s organization. Main points should stand out more easily.

Question the reading to keep your mind active. Rephrase chapter headings as questions. Make note of your questions as you read. Try to answer the author’s lists of questions at the beginnings and ends of chapters. Use workbooks or study guides for review. Your reading becomes an active search for answers instead of a passive activity. As you perfect the questioning technique, test questions will seem more and more familiar.

Read. Be aware of your reading habits. Seek answers to your questions. Look for main ideas and important details. Notice italicized or bold words. Make sure you know what they mean and how to spell them. Don’t skip tables, graphs, or pictures that can help you remember information visually. Challenge your own understanding of the reading. You look at the material more critically for main ideas and important details, discovering answers to your questions and recognizing what is most important.

Recite what you remember out loud immediately after reading. Stop periodically and try to recall what you’ve read. Recall the chapter’s main headings and the principle ideas under each. You will be able to gauge what you learned and what you still need to work on.

Review what you have read to determine your strengths or weaknesses at comprehending the material. Look at each chapter heading and think about the information. Review chapter summaries to see if you can recite them. Revisit your notes from both the book and classwork on the same topic. Review at least once a week. Immediate review of information facilitates retention, but periodic review throughout the semester will help you not only remember, but also learn the information.

Test-Taking Strategies
Preparing for an Exam
Establish good study habits early. Use your planner to map out your semester, then plan weekly and daily goals. You won’t need to cram because you prepared early. Read before each class.

Review your notes after class or later that evening in order to retain what you’ve learned. Review material from each class cumulatively each week. Begin to review intensively one week before the exam. Visit your professor at least once before the week of the exam. This connection will help you understand the course objectives and show the professor that you are serious about his or her course. Find out what type of exam the professor will give and what the exam will cover. Your professor probably won’t tell you exactly what to study, but can probably guide you to the main ideas. Find out if your professor makes sample exams available.

Preparing for a Multiple Choice Exam
Be careful not to fool yourself into believing that you don’t need to study. Study for a multiple-choice exam as you would for an essay exam. Be prepared to recall information–don’t rely on the answers choices.

Preparing for an Essay Exam
Identify concepts and their relationships to each other. Don’t worry about the details at first. Make a general outline and gradually make it as compact as possible. Later, add details to each concept. Develop your own practice questions and write the answers. This will help you both to grasp the information and to practice formulating answers.

Test-Taking Tips
Plan to arrive early. Be sure to check your test taking material prior to leaving for the exam. (Showing up for an exam late or without a pencil is a sure way to focus unfavorable attention on yourself.)

  • Read the directions, and underline key words that indicate how you should record or word your answers.
  • Answer easy questions first.
  • Budget your time. Survey the test to determine the type and number of questions as well as where in the test you will begin. Check your progress every 15 or 20 minutes.
  • Be aware that you may have problems remembering from time to time. If this happens, move on to the next question and come back to the one that gave you problems.
  • Ask for help interpreting test questions you do not understand.
  • Be aware of what you may be telling yourself about the test. Such statements as “I’m failing, I didn’t study for this, and the test is too hard for me” are sure ways to increase anxiety.
  • Do not concern yourself with what other students are doing.

Answering Exam Questions

Multiple Choice

  •  Pay attention to qualifying words like always or never.
  •  Do not look for patterns.
  •  Read through the questions and all the answer choices.
  •  Estimate the alternatives.
  •  Look for clues in grammar or tense
  •  Guess if you don’t know the answer.
  •  Work backwards. Read the answers, then the question.
  •  Choose the best alternative, because more than one answer may be correct.

Matching requires you to recall information. Items on the left usually match responses on the right.

  •  Ask if you can use alternatives more than once.
  •  Do not match if you are not sure.
  •  For each item in the left column, try to think of the answer before reading the choices.
  •  Choose the best answer and mark the answer sheet according to the directions.
  •  Completing those answers you know are correct first.
  • Avoid changing answers.

Unlike the multiple choice and matching questions, fill-in-the-blank questions require you to supply the appropriate word or number to complete the question.

  •  Look for clues in grammar or tense.
  •  Use common sense.
  •  Choose the best word.
  •  Pay attention to the length of the blank or to the number of blank lines.
  •  Read over your answers to make sure they sound right.

Short Answer

  •  Pay attention to grammar.
  •  Answer in the context of the course.
  •  Use terms the instructor used.
  •  If you are having a problem, answer by giving an example.
  •  Provide more detail if you have time.


  •  Pay attention to qualifying words like always or never.
  •  Remember that the answer is false if any part of the question is false.
  •  Do not look for patterns.
  •  Guess if you don’t know. Statistically, tests tend to have more true statements than false ones.
  •  Stick with your first answer unless you are sure you are wrong.


  •  Read the question.
  •  Re-read to find important information.
  •  If there are multiple answer choices, estimate your answer.
  •  Apply logic. For example if 2 + 3 = 5 then 5 – 2 = 3.
  •  Watch for careless errors.

Essay questions call for analysis. Your instructor wants to know how well you apply course material and class discussion to the essay question.

  •  Read directions carefully. For example, do you have to answer every question or just three out of five?
  •  Re-read questions. Think about the meanings of key words like describe, explain, contrast, or compare.
  •  Outline your answer.
  •  Include an introduction, middle, and conclusion in your essay.
  •  Include details.
  •  Be general when you aren’t sure of the exact detail. For example, if you are not sure of the date, write “late fifteenth century” rather than 1493 if the correct date is 1492.

Important Words in Essay Questions
The following terms appear frequently in essay questions. You should know their meanings and answer accordingly. This list is adapted from C. Bird and C. M. Bird, Learning More by Effective Study, Appleton Century Crofts, New York, 1945, pp. 195-198.)

Look for qualities or characteristics that are the same. Emphasize similarities in your essay.

Stress dissimilarities or differences in your answer.

Express your judgment about the merit or truth of the factors or perspectives in the question. Analyze carefully and discuss positive and negative points.

Give concise, clear and authoritative meanings for words or concepts.

Recount, characterize, sketch, or relate in sequence or narrative.

Draw, chart, or plan, to answer the question visually. Label a diagram. Add a brief explanations or descriptions when appropriate.

Examine, analyze carefully, and give both pros and cons. Be complete and offer examples to support your claims.

Write in list or outline form, making points one after another.

Carefully appraise the problem, citing both advantages and limitations. Emphasize the appraisals of authorities and, to a lesser degree, your personal evaluation.

Clarify, interpret, and spell out the material you present. Give reasons for differences of opinion or of results, and analyze causes and effects.

Use a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example to explain or clarify a problem.

Translate, give examples of, solve, or comment on a subject, providing your judgment about it.

Write an itemized series of concise statements.

Organize main and subordinate points, omitting minor details. Stress arrangement or classification.

Test Anxiety

Test Anxiety Self-Assessment
In order to determine whether you have test anxiety, answer the following questions:

  • Do I know the material well enough when I take a test?
  • Am I so anxious during tests that I can’t concentrate?
  • Am I unable to recall material I know?
  • Do I work so fast that I make careless mistakes or misread questions?
  • Does anxiety often interfere with my performance so much that my grade does not reflect how well I really know the material?

Self-Assessment Evaluation
If you answered no to question one, you do not have test anxiety. You have justified anxiety, either because you have not studied enough or because you are trying to learn material that is either too difficult or too advanced for you. If you answered yes to number one and no to the other questions, you do not have test anxiety. If you answered yes both to number one and to any of the other questions, you have test anxiety.

What is Anxiety?
In general, anxiety is any physical or mental reaction that occurs when you perceive you are in danger. The physical symptoms of anxiety may include shaking or trembling, sweating, increased heart rate, nausea, tense muscles and diarrhea. If you experience symptoms of anxiety, you are not weak, afraid or a bad person. These symptoms occur when your body secretes adrenaline to allow you to deal with the danger. Because you aren’t running away or fighting, your body uses up excess adrenaline in these physical symptoms. Research has shown physical symptoms of anxiety do not interfere significantly with your ability to do well on a test.

Mental symptoms of anxiety may include going blank or racing thoughts. When you go blank your mind refuses to recognize or recall material during a test, but readily recognizes or recalls it before or after the test. Going blank interferes with your ability to do well on a test. Going blank is the mind’s way of handling a situation it perceives as threatening. Your mind is much less likely to do this when you maintain a sensible perspective. In general, try not to exaggerate the test’s importance or the impact its results will have. Most tests have only a miniscule effect on the course of one’s life.

Students who experience racing thoughts during tests are unlikely aware of this problem’s interference with their ability to do well. If you have racing thoughts you may feel your brain goes a hundred miles an hour trying to recall everything you studied, apply it to the test questions, look for tricks, search for information or meanings you might have overlooked, question your answers, read as rapidly as possible, worry about your grade, worry about others who have somehow finished already and are leaving, and work even faster so you can get done before time runs out.

Techniques for Coping with Test Anxiety
Apply these strategies one by one. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to apply all of them at once. Focus on improving and coping, not perfection.

  • Prepare. Know the material well.
  • Do not over-study. Once you know the material, do not raise your anxiety level by obsessing over it.
  • Avoid caffeine before the test.
  • Slow down. Use breathing techniques to help when your mind is racing.
  • Plan on not knowing. Avoid the expectation that you will know all the answers.
  • Answer the easiest questions first.
  • Read questions carefully so you understand what they are asking.
  • Be patient. When an answer won’t come to mind immediately, relax.
  • Avoid distractions.
  • Use helpful self-talk and visualization.
  • Don’t watch the clock.
  • Work at a steady, productive pace.
  • Look ahead in the test only if it helps you manage your time.
  • Don’t let your brain start working on the next problem before you finish the one you’re working on.
  • Ignore the students beside you. How fast they work is irrelevant.
  • Ignore students who finish before you do.
  • Stay focused. Don’t let your mind wander or worry.
  • Ignore physical symptoms of anxiety. They will not interfere with your performance.

For more information about Study Skills and Test Anxiety, check out this page from Georgia Southern University.