There are many different study methods out there, from the Pomodoro time management system to the Feynman technique of teaching others. Hopefully, you’ve found that some of these methods work for you, but when it comes time to prepare for an exam, is studying actually enough?  Is studying the same as preparing for a test?

Not exactly.

It’s hard to mentally separate the difference between test prep and studying. Studying is a means to an end, the end being the exam. But we here at Pocket Prep have heard time and time again from our members that studying alone isn’t enough.

To be successful in passing your exam, you need to do two things:

  1. Know your s***
  2. Know how to take your exam

They may sound similar, but they are two very different things.

You may be able to explain every single concept you learned blindfolded while standing on one foot, but if you haven’t sat still for three hours while taking multiple-choice after multiple-choice question, there’s a good chance exam day won’t go so well.

Why test preparation and studying are not the same

When used as a verb, defines studying as:

  • to apply oneself to the acquisition of knowledge, as by reading, investigation, or practice
  • to examine or investigate carefully and in detail

Now, think about the word ‘prepare’:

  • to put in proper condition or readiness
  • to manufacture, compound, or compose
  • to put things or oneself in readiness; get ready

Not quite the same. You can acquire knowledge, but are you ready to be formally tested on it? Maybe, maybe not. Our brain is performing different functions when we are actively learning vs. trying to reason or recall information that we have previously learned.

Test day anxiety is real

Many of us have faced that moment where we feel ready, had our breakfast and coffee, and sit down to take an exam only for panic to spread. The test that you have so diligently prepared for is now a source of dread and uncertainty.

You knew your stuff, so what happened?

Knowing your material isn’t enough. Just as you prepared your brain with subject knowledge, you also need to prepare your brain with test mechanics knowledge.

Anxiety is fear of the unknown, often caused by a stressor (in this case: the test). It’s 100% normal to be anxious before a test, but if you know that you have three hours to complete 160 multiple choice questions, AND you feel comfortable with the material, it’ll help ease test-day anxiety.

Here are some test mechanics you should know the answer to before you sit for your exam:

  • Test length
  • Test format
  • Number of questions
  • Subject breakdown by category
  • When/how are scores revealed
  • Post-test registration

Study environment vs. test environment

Our surroundings can have a profound effect on our mental abilities. This especially applies to your test. If you normally study in a cozy living room filled with plants and comfy pillows, taking a test in a stark room with fluorescent lights is going to be jarring.

A famous study by Godden & Baddeley measured the memory recall of divers. They learned a series of words in two natural environments – on land and in the water. They were asked to recall those words both in the environment that matched their learning, and the opposite.

The divers had better recall when their recall environment matched their original learning environment.

That doesn’t mean you can’t vary your study spots, but when it comes to practice tests, it’s a good idea to try a few in a similar environment to your actual test day location.

A person studying on a table with books and a laptop while eating a snack.

Another important consideration for those who may be taking a test remotely is your testing device. Our own project manager Michelle Marlowe learned the importance of this the hard way while sitting for the  PMI Project Management Professional (PMP) exam.

“I realized the biggest test day issue I had was my attention span. I originally took the exam on my 27-inch monitor, as that’s what I’m used to working on. Pearson’s OnVue system scales to however large your monitor is, so my questions were nearly 27 inches wide putting them on one or two long lines. We know the ideal length of a text block for the web is about 80 characters, so this was really hard to read and process quickly.” *

Something as seemingly small as screen size was a major distracting factor. It’s important to think through the entire test-taking process beforehand and care for even the little details.

Practice makes perfect

One way to prepare for the testing environment while still getting some study time is with practice exams. Practice exams are an invaluable tool when you’re preparing. However, it’s equally important to know how and when to use them properly.

Start slow

If you haven’t sat for an exam in a while, don’t start with a full three-hour practice session. It’ll be easier on your mental stamina if you work your way up a little at a time. It’s also important to take note of how you’re feeling after a practice exam. Are you wiped out? Did you lose focus? Base your next practice session on how you felt after the last.

Target practice

Practice exams also help you find your weak spots. When learning the information, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact subject areas you’re not as comfortable with. Taking a practice exam will starkly pinpoint your weakest areas so you can devote time where you need it.

Learn the format

The other obvious benefit of practice exams is the format. Many people underestimate the difference taking a multiple choice exam can have. Suddenly, you’re faced with distractor questions. Everything you thought you knew is put into question as you now have multiple options on the table.

Your brain has to work differently in this situation. Instead of recalling a correct answer, you’re now having to sort through potentially incorrect information and compare it to what you think would be the right answer. It sounds simple, but during test day it can throw people off.

What do I do now?

If you have a set test date or a rough time frame for when you’ll be sitting for an exam go ahead and start making a plan of attack.

  • Where are you taking the exam?
  • What tools will you be working with day-of? (i.e. scratch paper, calculator)
  • What outfit will you wear?
  • How much time do you have and how many questions?
  • What’s the average amount of time you have to answer each question?
  • How can you ensure you won’t be hungry or thirsty during the exam?
  • Is there someone or something that can help you learn more about the testing environment expectations?

Learn, study, practice, repeat.

*Curious about her whole experience and other lessons learned? See Michelle’s post: PMP: How I passed 4 Days After Failing.