Homework & Studying

7 No-Fail Test-Taking Tips

7 simple study tricks to improve test scores for students with ADHD and learning disabilities.

A young girl with ADHD completing a test using testing accommodations
Young girl with dark hair in braids wearing striped shirt and taking a test or writing out homework

Can’t live with ’em, can’t graduate without ’em. We’re talking tests here. Like it or not (not!), tests are an important academic assessment tool.

Your performance on tests demonstrates how well you understand material, your ability to accomplish tasks, and how you absorb and interpret information. Knowing the material is key, but often that’s not enough to ace an exam. Also essential is good preparation, which gets your brain ready and clears the way for calm and confidence. Here, homework help in the form of seven SUCCESS tips to prep you for any test.

Start Early

The simplest way to improve test results is to start studying well ahead of time. This will get material into your long-term memory, where it has staying power. But here’s the key for anyone with ADHD: Don’t try to do it all at once. Instead, break studying down into manageable pieces. Will the test cover three chapters? Review one chapter each night for three nights, then review them all on the fourth and final night. Another perk of starting early is to find out whether you need help before it’s too late (see next tip).

Understand the Test

Ever studied your heart out only to find that you weren’t studying the right material or that you missed a key section? There’s an easy way to prevent this: Ask your teacher for guidance. First, prepare. Outline what you think will be on the test, even if you’re not sure. Review and briefly outline your notes, readings, and homework. Look for a general theme that ties the material together. Show your teacher the outline, explain what you know, and ask if you’ve missed anything.

Ask about:

  • The focus of the exam.
  • If there’s anything not in your outline that you need to study.
  • What you don’t need to study or focus much attention on.
  • The exam format — yes or no, multiple choice, or short-answer questions. If it’s an essay exam, the focus is probably more conceptual. If there’s a fill-in-the-blanks section, you’ll need to memorize dates and terms.
  • Specific terms you need to know. Afterward, verify that the definitions you found are correct.

Create the Right Environment

Knowing where and when you study best is as important as the studying itself. Do you need total quiet or do you need stimulus? If silence works, get earplugs, and find a place to study with minimum distractions — away from siblings, TV, and other noise. Shut off your phone and the Internet. If you do better with some background music and stimulus, put on a CD or the TV, go to a library, or try alternating blocks of study with other activity. Are you a morning person or an evening person? Study during your most productive time of the day.

Also, energize yourself with the right balance of protein, for sustained energy, and carbohydrates, for immediate energy. While studying, snack on high-protein foods like nuts, beef jerky, and cheese, and good carbs (which can also help to keep anxiety at bay) like high-fiber fruits (apples, oranges) and whole-grain crackers and rice cakes. Don’t forget to stay hydrated with plenty of water.

Choose the Right Study Tools

Let the format of the exam guide your study-tool choices. Have a lot of terms to memorize? Make flashcards and quiz yourself right up until the exam. Have a lot of facts and concepts to memorize? Write a review sheet. This is great to refer to, and the act of writing helps you assimilate information. Also, use memory devices like mnemonics. For example, the seven concepts in this article are put into a mnemonic format with the word S.U.C.C.E.S.S. to help you remember them.

Cater to your own needs and style in a creative way. Are you visual? Use colored flashcards and different-colored pens to rewrite or outline key points. If you’re auditory, read and study aloud. Record the in-class review session and listen to it at home.

If outlining is hard, but you can “see” concepts and ideas, make a physical model or draw a concept map. This will help clarify ideas and show how they relate to one another. For example, in history, you might discover, when reviewing your concept map, that events A and B helped cause event C.

Enlist Help

Don’t hesitate to ask for help. This can be as simple as meeting with a teacher (discussed above) or going over ideas with a classmate. You can also use a tutor or coach to help you learn the material, stay on track, and get the job done. However, if you feel you know the material but tend to test poorly, consider tutoring or helping others. This will force you to clarify ideas and will reveal areas of weakness.

Simplify and Skim

If you’re short on time or there’s too much material to go over, work smarter — and simpler. Focus on main ideas and read over chapter summaries. Quiz yourself by checking how much detail you remember that’s not mentioned in the summary. Actively recalling information is a great way to burn it into long-term memory.

Get into the habit of taking detailed class notes, and highlight and star key concepts. Then make an outline from the notes (highlighted and starred points become outline headings). Do the same with everything you read.

Shorten Study Blocks

Remember to take breaks. Stretch, walk around the block, grab a snack, send an e-mail, or pick up a magazine every 30 minutes or so. Keep the breaks short, using a timer if necessary.

Bonus Tip: Use ADHD creativity to your advantage! For example, build models of molecules if you’re studying chemistry. Or create your own heroic story to memorize Civil War facts. Thrive on and reward yourself for your ingenuity. After all, ADHD is often brilliance underutilized and over-scrutinized.

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