What Research Tells Us About Commonly Used Test Prep & Note Taking Strategies

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On the eve of our first ever winter workshops—Middle School Booster (for that mid-year study skills tune up) and Secrets of Successful Note Taking (because the time is now to learn how to take effective notes)—I find myself especially concerned about the study techniques we’re seeing students use that are just not working for them.

high school students

Time and again, we see students uncertain about which (if any) of the study strategies they’ve learned in school will actually make a difference in their test grades. In particular, these past two weeks, I’ve been helping 11th and 12th graders rethink the way they take notes and prep for tests. Some of the problems I am seeing include:

  • Copying text word for word (rewriting the textbook doesn’t work)
  • Writing down information and terms they don’t understand and can’t explain
  • Making bullet point lists of random facts
  • Taking notes that make no sense and re-reading them
  • Having pages and pages of highlighted packets
  • Struggling to find quotes from novels for papers after finishing a book and failing to take notes while reading (try doing that with The Grapes of Wrath!)
  • Using notes from other students that don’t make sense
  • Being confused about how to identify key points.

Looking back at research over the last five years on how best to retain information (much of which SOS4Students incorporates into its workshops and coaching), there are some clear takeaways about what works and what doesn’t.

What DOES NOT work:

  • Highlighting (not useful without any other notes)
  • Re-reading
  • Mnemonics, a memory device that aids in the retrieval of information (for example, ROYGBIV is a mnemonic for recalling the colors of the rainbow. This approach works for some people and some types of information—thus it’s effective “sometimes.”) 
  • Writing out complete summaries of information
  • Visual narratives of the information (this one actually surprised me).

What DOES work consistently:

  • Rehearsal and review of material over an extended period with note cards
  • Repetition of information to solidify it in working memory
  • Connecting information to what you already know (creating context/narrative)
  • Chunking information (especially that which is novel for you and for which you have little context).

Note taking strategies are essential life skills for all students. There is also evidence that writing notes by hand improves retention and eliminates extraneous information. If nothing else, it certainly takes away one of the main distractions for many students who type their notes!

Did you know that some professors are banning computers in their classes except for those who have approved accommodations? They are probably on to something with regards to focus and retention.

We Are Here to Help

As we look ahead to the upcoming winter workshops and our summer workshops (registration for which will start next month – more on that soon), let us know how we can support your family this semester. There are still 4+ months to go! Call us at 510-531-4767 or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with any questions.

Winter Workshops from SOS4Students

Each 3.5-hour workshop takes place on February 8, 2020 at Lafayette Library (Oak Room) in Lafayette, CA. Act now, though, slots are filling fast. Register today to ensure your student has a spot:

Middle School Boostermiddle school booster 01Middle School Booster is the perfect opportunity for students in grades 6 through 8 to improve self advocacy, time management, project planning, and basic note taking. 
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9th - 12th Gradesnote taking winter 01Secrets of Successful Note Taking demystifies the note taking process for high school students in grades 9 to 12. Students learn techniques to take effective notes from texts and presentations and how to utilize them for papers and tests.
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