One of the keys to achievement in academics is understanding HOW to study, not just what to study. The most successful students are generally adept at studying and test taking. The following information should help you improve in both areas.
First of all (perhaps most importantly), DO NOT stay up all night before your exam studying. Think of the time spent studying and the sleep sacrificed as a trade off. The more you study, the more information you will learn. However, the lack of sleep may lower your ability to concentrate and increase the likelihood of making mistakes. You may also reduce your ability to think logically through complex theories. The night before a test, it is best to study until you start to feel tired, and then stop. Before bed, take AT LEAST 30 minutes to do something else you enjoy and helps you relax. Watch an episode of TV, go on a walk, or read a magazine. If you go to bed immediately after studying, you will feel more anxious about the test. You may dream of the test, and possibly scramble the material you had studied. This is why it is not a good idea to save all your studying the night before a test. It will only cause stress.
Another helpful tip is to maintain a clean studying environment. Neat and orderly surroundings creates a setting for neat and orderly thinking. Clear papers of your desk and pick up your room, or go to your local library to study. Don’t study while watching TV. TV will reduce the quality of any studying you do by dividing your attention. Some people study well with music, but others don't. Find what works best for you. Generally it is best to eliminate external stimuli so you can devote all your attention to the subject at hand.
When it comes to how to study the material, it often depends on the subject. In math, physics and chemistry, the best way to study is to do as many practice problems as possible, and then check your work for mistakes by checking the answers to these problems. Do not just study the solutions to these problems, it is imperative to do the work yourself. Just reading the book has little benefit in math and physics in particular. Make sure you do the sample problems integrated into the text while you are reading, so you enhance your understanding of the subject by practice. Also, for all subjects in science, look at the diagrams, and read the captions. They were integrated in the text for a reason! Often the diagrams and captions are more understandable conceptually than the primary text. This is especially true if you are a visional learner.
Finally, one of the best ways to prepare for exams is to take practice exams or old exams. It is not uncommon for professors to reuse questions from old exams. Even if they don’t the problems on new exams will often be similar to those on the old exam. If your professor does not give old exams, sometimes you can find old exams for archived classes. For example, under resources I provide a link to archived UCSD biology course web pages. Other schools and other departments may also offer such services.
These are just a few of the test taking techniques I discuss with students when tutoring. Often when I work with a student I can see where they are having difficulty and help them improve their study techniques personally. This will not only assist them in the subject I am tutoring, but will help the student develop proficiency in all academic courses as a whole. I honestly believe that one of the biggest reasons some students do better than others primarily has to do with their study and test taking techniques and not their innate intelligence. If you improve your study techniques as well as your understanding of the particular subject, you will consistently do better in classes and will increase your confidence in regards to taking tests.