test prep
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3 Power Tools for Brain-Powered Test-Prep

When it comes to testing, you might feel like your students experience some bizarre memory loss, and forget all they have learned. Or perhaps you question if they ever learned it in the first place? Either way, it can be frustrating for them, and for you. Supporting students’ brains to be at peak performance for an assessment IS possible.

This month’s newsletter focuses on three key approaches to build high-performing test-takers.

The Research

When it comes to testing, students never over-perform (showing more than they know). However, students often under-perform (scoring lower than they actually know). The ultimate goal of any test-prep strategy is to allow the brain to be at its best – so students can perform up to their knowledge level.

Why does it matter what study strategy students are using? Because not all test-prep strategies are created equal. Some are FAR MORE effective than others. Students who use better test-prep strategies perform better on the test (Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015). Thus, it is not surprising that students’ GPA and study skills are also strongly correlated (Gurung & McCann, 2012).

Combine that with research suggesting only a minority (23-37%) of students are using highly effective study techniques (ie. spacing and retrieval) and you quickly see we have a problem (McCabe, 2011; Morehead, Rhodes, & DeLozier, 2016). Students continue to use ineffective strategies like “cramming” the night before an exam or simply re-reading text (Susser, & McCabe, 2013).

Here is the good news: students are listening to you – their teacher. Over 75% of students report learning a study strategy from their teacher (Wissman, Rawson, & Pyc, 2012). It is time for students to get upgraded advice from you on how to prepare for exams. We are here to help.

This month’s newsletter focuses on three approaches to build high-performing test-takers.

  1. Better content retention with RETRIEVAL
  2. Better brain state with PRE-WRITING
  3. Better test-day strategy with BRAIN DUMPS

From each of these three areas, we will highlight multiple strategies you can teach your students NOW to start boosting their learning (and scores). Focus your efforts on these three, and students are more likely to demonstrate an accurate assessment of their learning.

Learn Content Better with Retrieval Practices

Staring at notes or re-reading a textbook does very little to improve test scores or learning (Bartoszewski & Gurung, 2015). And yet, these ancient strategies continue to dominate students’ test-prep time (Dirkx, Camp, Kester, & Kirschner, 2019). Stop the cycle of bad study habits by teaching students strategies that really make a difference come test day.

There is substantial evidence to support the use of retrieval practices to enhance learning AND improve test scores (Karpicke, 2012). A retrieval practice is any strategy that engages the brain in recalling information. A pure retrieval exercise is done without the support of a textbook, notes, or other aid. Retrieval practices can be done at the end of every class period, at the beginning of the next class period, and periodically before an assessment.

Add an extra boost to your retrieval exercises by having students recall with a classmate. When students talk about what they have learned it reactivates their memories and solidifies the learning (Sekeres, et al., 2016).

Practical Ways to Use Retrieval

There are dozens of retrieval strategies that have been shown to boost student learning and performance on assessments. Most can be completed in just a few minutes with very little preparation needed. Here are some examples:

  • At the end of a lesson on segregation, have students write down three things they learned about the impact segregation had on education nationwide.
  • The day after a lesson on biomes, have students start the day writing down as many biomes as they remember.
  • After your unit on 3-D shapes, have students talk with a partner about the differences between lateral area, surface area, and volume.
  • Give students a practice test on the novel your class is finishing.
  • As students leave your Spanish class, be at the door with a handful of flashcards. Their “ticket-out-the-door” is to use the word/phrase on the card in a sentence.

Challenge yourself to diversify the level of questioning with retrieval practices. It can be easy to stick with low level factual recall. Hold students capable of analyzing, synthesizing, and applying knowledge as well. Also, resist the urge to use retrieval practices as part of students’ grades. Most of them can be used for the sole purpose of improving learning.

With any retrieval practice, remember to build in an “error-correction” safeguard to ensure students are retrieving the correct information. This could be answers on the back of flashcards, ways to self-grade their practice test, or hints hidden at each learning station.

Clear the Mind with Pre-Writing on Test Day

When students feel the pressure to perform well on an assessment, their worries (or anxiety) compete for working memory (a critical brain function for learning and recall) and leads to poor performance (Beilock, Kulp, Holt, & Carr, 2004). Therefore, staying calm in a testing situation is critical for the brain to be at its peak performance.

One study, in particular, offers a solution worth implementing. Before a high-pressure testing situation, some students were given 10 minutes to engage in expressive writing about the upcoming exam (“How do I feel about the upcoming test?”). What difference did it make? Students in the experimental group (10 minutes of expressive writing) scored 17% higher than those who had no expressive writing (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). If that doesn’t capture your attention, perhaps its HUGE effect size of 2.48 will have you using the same leading question the researchers used (“How do I feel about the upcoming test?”).

Although students with test anxiety benefit the most, the study above (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011) shows ALL students benefit from expressive writing done before an exam.

Practical Ways to Use Pre-Test Writing

Here are a few ways to turn strategy into a test-day tradition:

  • Designate a small notebook for students to use as a test-day journal “emptying station” to empty out any worries they are having about the test.
  • Have a tray of scrap paper at the door as students enter on test day. Allow students to write about their worries before the test and then crumple them up and shoot a basket in the trash can.

Once the worries have dissipated, students can say a positive affirmation to boost their confidence AND performance before a big exam (Tod, Hardy, & Oliver, 2011). Phrases like, “I’m ready to show what I know”, “Bring it on test – I’m gonna own you!”, or “My brain is supercharged and ready to show off!” can be said individually or in unison as a class.

Get Un-Stuck Mid-Test with Brain Dumps

Getting to a question that stumps a student can be paralyzing in a testing situation. Knowing what to do when your brain draws a blank can be an empowering mid-test tool to get students over that stump.

One powerful tool to teach your students is called a “brain dump”. Essentially, when students get to a question they are uncertain about, they “dump” their brain of any and all information related to the topic. Stumped by a question about the battle that changed the trajectory of the Civil War? Write down everything you know about the other battles you remember. It is essentially a mid-test retrieval of everything on the topic. Because the “stump” is related to the “dump” there is an increased chance of it being recalled during the brain dump (Rowland & DeLosh, 2014).

Practical Ways to Facilitate Mid-Test Brain Dumps

After teaching your students about the power of Brain Dumps, here are a few easily-accessible suggestions to keep the brain at peak performance on test day:

  • Give students plenty of scratch paper to use for Brain Dumps.
  • Allow students to write on, or in the margins of, the test.
  • Create your assessments to have plenty of space in between each question for students to “dump” their brain.
  • Designate a space at the end of the test entitled: “Everything else I know about this topic that wasn’t asked on the test”. This simple nudge will encourage students to dump their brain and might prompt a clarification of something found earlier on the test. *Tip: Have students scan the test first and then complete this last section BEFORE returning to the first question with their brain’s primed for better recall.

Supporting students’ brains to be at peak performance for an assessment IS possible and you just found 3 approaches to help out.  Now, go make it happen!


Bartoszewski, B. L., & Gurung, R. A. (2015). Comparing the relationship of learning techniques and exam score. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology1(3), 219.

Beilock, S. L., Kulp, C. A., Holt, L. E., & Carr, T. H. (2004). More on the fragility of performance: choking under pressure in mathematical problem solving. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General133(4), 584.

Dirkx, K. J. H., Camp, G., Kester, L., & Kirschner, P. A. (2019). Do secondary school students make use of effective study strategies when they study on their own?. Applied Cognitive Psychology33(5), 952-957.

Gurung, R. A., & McCann, L. I. (2012). How should students study?.

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-Based Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 157-163.

McCabe, J. (2011). Metacognitive awareness of learning strategies in undergraduates. Memory & cognition39(3), 462-476.

Morehead, K., Rhodes, M. G., & DeLozier, S. (2016). Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory24(2), 257-271.

Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. science331(6014), 211-213.

Rowland, C. A., & DeLosh, E. L. (2014). Benefits of testing for nontested information: Retrieval-induced facilitation of episodically bound material. Psychonomic bulletin & review21(6), 1516-1523.

Sekeres, M. J., Bonasia, K., St-Laurent, M., Pishdadian, S., Winocur, G., Grady, C., & Moscovitch, M. (2016). Recovering and preventing loss of detailed memory: differential rates of forgetting for detail types in episodic memory. Learning & Memory, 23(2), 72-82.

Susser, J. A., & McCabe, J. (2013). From the lab to the dorm room: Metacognitive awareness and use of spaced study. Instructional Science41(2), 345-363.

Tod, D., Hardy, J., & Oliver, E. (2011). Effects of Self-Talk: A Systematic Review. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 33(5), 666-687.

Wissman, K. T., Rawson, K. A., & Pyc, M. A. (2012). How and when do students use flashcards?. Memory20(6), 568-579.

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