As we approach end-of-school-year tests and final exams, we were curious to know if there were any special tips and tricks for effective study habits to impart to high school and college students who might be feeling under pressure. Especially this year, amid virtual learning and online test taking, are there ways that students can stay focused and retain the material they’re studying? In short, what do effective study habits under Covid look like, and what if you have ADHD? 

We asked educators and mental health professionals to share their best advice for helping students get through finals this year, and received some surprising results. The good news for distance learners is that online tests taken at home on a familiar computer might actually get you a better grade than traditional in-school tests. Why is this? When we feel familiar and at ease with the physical tools needed for an assessment — and are free from distractions — , we are at our best for test-taking success. 

Study Tips in General

The studying process should be as active as possible, says Katharine Hill (they/them), learning specialist, at UpNext in Brooklyn, N.Y.  Students should avoid simply re-reading information. Rather, students should seek to interact with the material by:  

  • rewriting key details in their own words; 
  • quizzing themselves; 
  • conducting analysis rather than just memorizing; and 
  • spacing out their practice on multiple days and in several environments.

Studying in the same modality is also important, says Anna Moss, founder of Mind the Test LLC, a tutoring company that empowers learners by teaching test prep and academics paired with lifelong research-based study skills in Wilmington, Del.

If a test will be on the computer, students should take practice tests and otherwise prepare on the computer. If a test will be pencil-and-paper, students should do at least some preparation with a pencil and paper. By matching studying conditions to testing conditions, students can ensure they do their best on the test. 

Virtual Test-Taking Tips

Although digital tests are — in principle —- the same as actual tests taken in the classroom, they still come with their own set of challenges. Instead of a handy pencil, eraser, and ballpoint pen, students must ensure they have a computer/laptop, Internet access, and any other necessary online tools or programs downloaded into their system to take the tests. 

Online test takers may have an advantage, though. 

“Many students score better online and find it to be much easier to keep track of time, as well as lower-stress,” says Moss, who is also an SAT and ACT tutor. “Studies have shown that the brain recalls information best when testing conditions are similar to study conditions. Students have traditionally had to work hard to harness this benefit: For example, some students would wear a scented lotion while studying and wear the same scent on test day in the hopes that the familiar smell would trigger memories.” 

Now that students are able to study and take the test at home, they should theoretically benefit from this memory boost. In addition, test anxiety is a big problem for many students. Moss predicts that taking a test at home on a familiar computer may lessen this feeling.

Needless to say, the dynamics of digital exams remain a challenging and bewildering experience for many students. Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, an admissions, test prep, and tutoring consultancy in Burlingame, Ca.,  suggests the following tips for taking digital/online tests:

  1. Understand the test process as outlined by the teacher: Should the test be taken at an appointed day and time? Is it allowed to take the test at your own time provided you do not exceed the deadline for submission? Would you need to download any software or app to take the test?
  2. Find a spot with an adequate internet connection: Taking the online test is pressure enough. Do not put added pressure and anxiety on yourself because of intermittent or faulty internet connectivity. Choose your “spot” wisely. While you’re at it, check your computer or laptop. It may be wise to reboot your system before taking the test to ensure that no bug of any sort will bother you during the test time.  
  3. Manage your time: Be cognizant of the time allotted for the test and decide how much time you need to complete each question. If you have attention conditions such as ADHD, use extended-time accommodations to take a break, move around, and re-focus. 
  4. Study in chunks: For students with attention conditions such as ADHD, absorbing content in short bursts is helpful, so go over the recorded lectures and watch them one chunk at a time. Online learning has the great advantage of lectures being available on demand. You can go back over lessons from previous weeks. You can also go over them whenever the optimal time is for you to learn. 
  5. Rest:  After studying and reviewing your notes, take the time to relax and get focused.

In addition, Moss says that students should make sure to familiarize themselves with the technology in advance. She strongly recommends studying and taking practice tests on the same computer and the same Internet connection as the real test, and cautions against studying on a student Chromebook and taking the test on a parent’s work laptop. 

Challenges to Online Test Taking 

The atmosphere of an assessment affects how students perceive it. If students are worried they may not take a virtual test as seriously, they can benefit from reviewing the syllabus or role of the test in the credit they’ll receive for the course, says Hill. 

Virtual tests might allow a student to review all answers before submitting or conversely, a student may not be able to return to responses. This is why it’s critical that students know the setup of any test before starting it. 

And just because a test is online doesn’t mean you can use paper to help. Hill says a student may want to set up a Post-I note or other reminder to slow down, check work, or to tell them how much time they have left on a timed test.

Billy Roberts, owner of Focused Mind ADHD Counseling is a licensed therapist in Columbus, Ohio. He says that two of the biggest challenges to online test taking compared to in person test taking are distractions and online learning fatigue. 

The first major consideration is lowering distractions when studying and test taking. The best way to lower distractions is to consider the five senses and take an inventory of possible distractions. 

For example, some people do really well with white noise machines to block out sound or minimizing desk clutter. In addition, self-care has an impact on your mood, so taking additional steps to sleep well, get sunshine, and stay active are all important to balance out fatigue with online learning. 

Advice for Students with Attention Disorders (ADHD) and Online Test-Taking 

Taking any test online opens up distractions and temptations to students. When students have to block out distractions and force themselves to focus on the test, this active inhibition uses up working memory, leaving less brain power available to answer the actual test questions. Essentially, it takes up a brain’s RAM

This working memory depletion can result in lower test scores. Moss suggests perhaps a test can be set up so that students can not open up a new tab to browse the Internet, or a parent can sit with students to help them keep focus.

Conclusion

For anyone with ADHD, these considerations are paramount for online test-taking and can mean the difference between an A+ or a B-.. To improve online studying and test taking, however, any student can  benefit from increased self-care and distraction management. Familiarity and reducing distractions and temptations are the best ways to ensure that students do their best on any type of assessment whether digital or analog. When a multiple-choice test is coming up, prevent the brain from having multiple choices for attention. 

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