December is a paradox for students. On the one hand, holiday programs and parties
jostle for space on the calendar while decorations and holiday music burst from
classrooms into the hallways. Holiday cheer is everywhere, and invites everyone to be
swept along in its joyful wake. The other side of the December coin for students is the
end-of-semester exams. While it is tempting to shove the reality of exams under a pile
of empty ornament boxes and crushed eggnog cartons, facing reality with an exam
prep plan lends a sense of control that also results in better exam grades.
Get started ASAP
An early start to exam prep is the secret to success. It takes time to work through all
the material you learned during an entire semester, and giving yourself the gift of time
will lessen the stress you feel as test day grows closer.
You probably know a great deal of the material to be covered on tests already. The
trick is to sort through what you know very well, what you almost understand, and what
information you have yet to master. Many students fall into the trap of continuing to
study what they already know while ignoring information that they still need to get
down pat. Continuing to study familiar material makes students fall under what is
called “The Illusion of Knowing,” It is the false feeling of being prepared for a test when
in fact there is a stack of facts the student is failing to address, and those unaddressed
facts are sure to be on the test, meaning the student falsely felt prepared for a test.
Start by Self-quizzing
To avoid the illusion of knowing and to brush up on familiar facts, plan some self-
quizzing sessions. Self-quizzing will help sort through what you already know, what you
almost know, and what needs to be worked through so you understand well enough to
be tested on it.
As you go through the material, devise a system to note for yourself which of the three
categories the information falls into. Highlighting is a great way to accomplish this
goal. Choose one color for facts you almost know and a different color for information
that will take more work to understand. Self-quizzing can be done in a study group,
with a parent or mentor, or alone. The key is to make an effort to recall the answers,
but not get bogged down on any one question. The goal for the self-quizzing stage of
studying is to whittle the stack of facts down to a manageable pile that needs either
just a bit of work to understand or a new study method to help you grasp it while
setting aside facts that you already know.
Old quizzes and tests make great self-quizzing fodder. So do the vocabulary lists and
chapter review questions at the end of your textbook chapters. If you don’t still have
old tests and quizzes, ask the teacher if you could get copies. Most teachers are
delighted their students want to study and will be glad to cooperate. If chapter study
guides have been given out, those are another great place to start.
Tackle the pile of nearly mastered items
From the self-quizzing, create for yourself a list of items you can almost remember, but
that need just a bit more work. Handwriting study cards or lists can assist with learning
those items in two ways. Pull in some multi-sensory strategies here by quietly saying
the vocabulary words, dates, or locations to yourself as you write them on the blank
side of the 3x5 card. Consider color coding the information with one color for each
category. This breaks up the boredom of writing card after card and it gives preliminary
information about what category the fact fits into. For history, categories might be
people, events, dates, or nations while math categories might be formulas,
vocabulary, or process steps. On the back of the card, either write the precise definition
that will be on the test, or better yet, paraphrase the definition yourself. Paraphrasing is
a strong study technique in itself because one must understand what is being said to
paraphrase! Perhaps both your paraphrase as well as the test definition could go on
the back of the card. Quietly read aloud the front and back of the card to yourself,
thinking deeply about it as you listen to your own voice.
Once you have your stack of cards for almost-mastered items, quiz yourself on them.
Go through your cards, and giving good effort to trying to remember the answers.
Make two piles, one for what you cemented in your brain by making the cards, and the
other for things which need further study. The Four Card Pile Method is a great one to
use with the cards you need to continue to study.
New study methods for tough-to-remember concepts
By now you have reviewed the material from old tests and quizzes, worked on the
subject matter you were close to mastering, and are left with a short list of items you
struggle to recall. It is good to think about why these items are difficult to recall.
Check with an online dictionary to be sure you are correctly pronouncing longer, harder
vocabulary words. Not accurately reading vocabulary words or names is frequently at
the heart of confusion for dyslexic students. Listen to an online dictionary pronounce
the word correctly, then listen again as you repeat the word until you know it
automatically. Writing the words out with breaks between syllables and pronunciation
hints above will help you correctly read each word - a key to test success!
Not understanding some parts of the chapter material can be a reason it is hard to
recall. All of us struggle to remember clearly things that we don’t fully understand. If
you are wrestling with a process, perhaps in science, try making a drawing of the steps
of that process, and labeling the components. If your nemesis is an event from history,
tackle the most important parts on either a timeline or a graphic illustration working
through the key elements of the event, drawing a picture for each step of the event
along with either speech bubbles or a caption. Freeing yourself to creatively illustrate
aspects of the chapter rather than relying solely on words can allow you to look at it
differently, sparking understanding.
Memorizing lists with a mnemonic device is an oldie-but-goodie study method. You
can make up a word using the first letter of each item on the list, such as the word
“HOMES” to help remember the names of the five Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario,
Michigan, Erie, and Superior). Remembering the spelling of tough words can be made
easier with a sentence whose words start with the letters spelling your tough word.
The spelling of “arithmetic” can be easily remembered with the sentence, “A rat in the
house might eat the ice cream.”
Taking some evenings to self-quiz and work on whittling down the stack of need-to-
learn items for each subject can make a real difference in the results from end-of-
semester tests. Starting early and using the right study tools and strategies can make
December a month of both holiday and test success celebrations!