Study and Test-Taking Techniques From Franklin’s AP Psychology Teacher

Above is a brain with pens, pencils, and art supplies sticking out of it. This illustration is representative of the mental agony that studying and test-taking can involve without the proper strategies. Illustration by Lula Hugo.

When jumping back into in-person learning with a full 8 classes, having academic stamina and discipline can be taxing for many students (me included). I spoke to Franklin’s AP Psychology teacher Greg Garcia about his recommendations and insights on being the best student you can be, supported by real psychological concepts. I know that dialing in and feeling truly productive is difficult for many of us, and I am actually utilizing some of Mr. Garcia’s suggested techniques while writing the very words you are reading. 

To maximize focus and productivity while studying, the first key is to create a productive environment with minimal distractions. “Some people think that they ‘study better’ when they have music playing or having their favorite movie playing in the background,” says Garcia. “While this approach might be good for doing homework, it’s proven that having music on in the background is not as effective for root memorization— such as learning the elements of the periodic table.” He goes on to explain that this happens because having audio media (music, TV, podcasts etc.) on in the background activates what is referred to as selective attention: “You can’t fully process what you’re learning because your nervous systems also have to register and evaluate the music. A common example psychologists use in describing selective attention —and how having music/other distractions takes away from the effectiveness of studying— is describing a scenario in which you’re driving to a new place for the first time and you have the radio on. In many cases, you can’t concentrate on getting to this new place so you end up turning off the radio. It’s the same concept when you have music on while learning a new concept.”

The second key is making sure that you’re comfortable in your study zone. Emotion has a very real influence on the recollection of information. “The stronger the emotional connection, the more accessible the information becomes,” says Garcia. This is why even though having music on can reduce productivity by making your brain process it, it may also create a more comfortable atmosphere for many of us.

Music can also be used to enhance study. It has been proven to be incredibly helpful when you create songs with incorporated information you’re trying to memorize in them. “I had a colleague of mine at the first high school I taught at who really wanted her students to know the names of all the presidents in order. She made a song to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’ featuring all 44 of them —because this was ten years ago.” Using songs to memorize long lists of information is incredibly common when you think about it— ABC’s or “50 Nifty United States” ring a bell? If they do or you can even recite them to this day, they did their job!

Students can also use mnemonic devices to memorize information. These use rhyming and/or alliteration (a series of words that contain the same first letter) and can be set to music or come in groups of three to be all the more memorable. When I was first learning how to play guitar, I used one to remember the order of the strings (EADGBe): Eddie Ate Dynamite, Good-Bye Eddie. 

Studying with a group or buddy is another strategy that many students utilize. This can be very helpful, as long as it feels like the most productive and supportive environment for you. Many find it useful to have someone there to quiz them on a topic, to ask questions, or just have someone else in the room so they are not alone. On the other hand, students who feel distracted by others or simply know that they prefer to work better alone, should do that. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether or not you should have study companions; just do what makes you feel most comfortable. 

Your learning environment isn’t the only factor in optimizing your earthly vessel to perform well academically. There is overwhelming evidence that a good night’s sleep is the most important and effective neurological hack. There’s a myth out there that if you have one big cram session the night before a test, that you’ll remember the information better. According to Mr. Garcia, “That is the absolute WORST thing you can do for effective studying.” He explains, “the human brain doesn’t fully absorb information from the day until it goes to sleep. During one of the four stages of sleep —known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep— the brain dedicates all its energy into processing the information that it encounters during the day and figuring out what regions of the brain that information should go.” The human sleep cycle including REM sleep takes about 90 minutes, with the other three stages of sleep taking up most of that time. With each repeated sleep cycle, REM can take up more and more of the 90 minutes, allowing your brain more time to store information received throughout the day. On how good sleep can benefit the development of skills, Mr. Garcia says, “I should also point out that this approach is also helpful when learning a physical skill. If you’ve ever tried something that requires physical coordination/muscle memory and you struggled with it, try sleeping on it. Then you’ll find that you may very well do better on the task the next day because your brain has properly encoded the new information and stored it so it can be accessed more efficiently.”

It’s also no secret that when you’re exhausted, your brain starts to feel like it’s slowing down and tasks that require a lot of thinking or reasoning feel a lot harder. Explaining what goes on in our brains when this happens, Mr. Garcia says, “Another reason why ‘pulling an all-nighter’ is the worst thing you can do is the fact that your brain begins to shut down when it’s exhausted. There’s a special kind of chemical called adenosine —a byproduct of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) which you might know from biology class— which actually latches onto your brain cells and blocks electrical signals.” 

After you have mastered the Jedi tricks to study for your test, there’s still the actual test to take. Many students experience test anxiety even if they have already studied the material and feel like they know it. Test anxiety can also be worsened further if you’re taking something like the SAT or an AP exam because they hold a greater significance to us. Mr. Garcia explains how the human brain processes stress triggers: “When one experiences test anxiety, it is because a special network of neurons in the human body called the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is activated. The SNS is responsible for redirecting electrical impulses away from the critical thinking areas of the brain so that it can be used for defensive actions.” Any amount of stress can throw off our critical thinking, making analyzing and focusing on academic material difficult.  

“There are four possible behaviors that happen when the SNS is activated … Fighting is definitely one of them —which manifests on a test as irritability, aggressive posturing, and possible explosive outbursts. Flighting —or leaving the situation— is definitely another one. A subject feels existentially threatened by the source of the SNS’s activation so they have to leave the room. In the context of a test, they go outside and collect themselves. But then, there’s freezing where the subject’s body doesn’t know what to do so they do nothing. Fawning is defined as the irrational attempt to placate or appease the source of the SNS’s activation by any means necessary. In the context of test anxiety, this kind of behavior may be described as a student trying to bargain with the teacher so that they don’t have to take the test.” 

With those possible test anxiety responses, it’s important to know yourself and what kind of response your brain tends to have so that you can recognize when it’s coming up and prepare. Test anxiety is incredibly common, but thankfully there are extremely simple and accessible ways to calm yourself. “So the best way to avoid test anxiety is to do any kind of activity that requires the use of your Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) which is responsible for higher reasoning. That can be as simple as counting to ten —it’s even better if you speak multiple languages and alternate your numbers because that activates the nearby Broca’s Area, too which means more electricity is going to your cerebral cortex instead of less— or talking to yourself to calm yourself down or even as simple as focusing on your breathing and slowing it down. In that situation, your Prefrontal Cortex takes over your brainstem —which deals with autonomic functions including the SNS— and orders it to slow down,” says Mr. Garcia, on simple self-soothing techniques and how and why they work for our brains.

Mr. Garcia notes that teachers can have a big hand in reducing test anxiety, and they should do everything in their power to best prepare their students for success. “For example, pop quizzes are harmful to a person’s executive functioning techniques because they are a stimulus that comes out of nowhere and instantly triggers the SNS through a process known as ‘shock.’” Teachers can minimize test anxiety by warning students about upcoming tests and quizzes, helping them feel more prepared. “Additionally, teachers can give broad study guides to students the day before the test so that they can know the basic topics/goals of the quiz so the shock is diminished and it also gives them a foundation for strengthening the connections in their cerebral cortex.”

Conquering tests and studying for them can be difficult, but with the help of a productive study environment and a good night’s rest, anything is doable. The transition back to “regular school” will probably continue to be weird and awkward for some of us, and the best we can do is use strategies we know work for us, and try our best.

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