“I don’t know why I did so poorly on the test. I did the reading, and I knew it all!”
This is a common complaint from students who are overwhelmed by challenging reading material (AP Biology, for example) or just large quantities of reading that needs to be done each week (like in AP European History). Students who go into a test feeling confident, but tend to underperform on their tests, often discover (when they come in for an academic support session) that they don’t remember/understand the material as well as they thought they did.
Why is that? Because for most students, the initial reading of the text, and perhaps re-reading notes taken, is the end of studying. The student feels successful if, upon reviewing their notes, they recognize everything. The problem is that recognition is not the same as recall, and recall is the key skill needed during a reading based test. What once worked for students when they were younger (just reading the text) is not necessarily enough as the material gets more difficult. And when that happens, we need to change strategies.
Students need to recognize that studying effectively doesn’t just mean reading and re-reading. It means:
-understanding the big picture, rather than just memorizing individual facts.
-applying what you already know to what you are learning
-identifying where you are confused, and knowing how to deal with that
-and, most importantly, testing yourself, repeatedly, and ideally in a manner similar to how you will be tested by your teacher
How can students make sure that all of these things are happening before their tests? Two acronyms: SQ3R or the more modern PQRST.
SQ3R stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, Review
PQRST stands for Preview, Question, Read, Summarize, Test
Both of these acronyms point to the same actions, so pick whichever one you prefer. We’ll use the PQRST acronym as we discuss each step.
P is for Preview
Previewing is about getting the big picture of the chapter by scanning and skimming.
Scanning means finding the important words and ideas in the chapter and understanding those ideas well. It means taking advantage of your understanding the structure of the chapter.
How do you find those ideas? Well, there are a few clues:
-bolded terms are generally pretty important. Pay attention to those.
-the name of the chapter, sections, and subheadings will give you a lot of information about the structure and important ideas in the chapter. These can often be found in the table of contents or the first page of the chapter.
-Review questions at the end of each section (or at the end of the chapter) will clue you in to important ideas to look for in the chapter
-Diagrams, tables, timelines, and other images can also help understand what ideas the author is highlighting in the chapter
-Skim the chapter
Skimming means reading quickly, and in particular, not getting bogged down in details. Don’t worry, you are going to read carefully later! Right now, your only job is to read very quickly and understand the main points of the chapter and each section. Don’t read every word. Move your eyes across each page and let what seems important to you jump out at you.
Now, if you are really and truly curious about something you read that you don’t understand, I’m not going to tell you not to dig in (making personal connections with what you are reading can help understanding and retention!) But now is not the time to get frustrated because you aren’t getting everything. Right now, you are just getting the lay of the land, and coming away with the big ideas.
Why is this step important?
Because if you don’t understand the big picture of the chapter, you are going to have a hard time figuring out how all these individual facts that you are expected to learn are connected. When you understand the larger story or purpose, individual facts make more sense and they are easier to remember.
Previewing a chapter in a high school textbook should take 10-15 minutes.
Q is for Question
This step is about asking questions about the chapter.
Right now, you’ve got a very superficial, big picture understanding of what the chapter is about. Now it’s time to start asking yourself about what kind of information the chapter is likely to talk about, and turn those into questions.
How do we create these questions? Here are some ideas
-Read the title of the chapter, and the titles of the sections and the subheadings. What do you think you are going to learn from each? Those can be questions. For example, say you are reading a chapter about “The Bronze Age”. Here are some questions about that that might occur to you:
-What came before the Bronze Age?
-What came after the Bronze Age?
-How long did the Bronze Age last?
-Why did the Bronze age end?
-What is bronze?
-Why is it called the Bronze Age?
-What is so important about bronze that an entire age of human history was named after it?
What questions occured to you as you previewed the chapter? Write those questions down.
The more questions the better! To generate lots of questions, try to ask a Who/What/Where/When/Why/How question about each idea you came across in your preview. You won’t be able to come up with one of each for every concept, but the effort forces you to explore what you do and don’t already know about each concept. Try to come up with at least one question per subheading.
Check out this article that discusses another method of asking questions using sticky notes.
R is for Read
OK, now, armed with a big picture and lots of questions, we’re ready to read. Unlike in the Preview section, this is close reading, careful reading. But this is not aimless reading. We have two objectives to keep us focussed and engaged as we read.
-to answer all of the questions you came up with in the “Question” step
-to be able to summarize the chapter, each section, each sub-section, and each paragraph after you’ve read it.
-to identify where you are confused so that you can dig deeper.
When you read something, you have to keep your purpose for reading firmly in mind. Otherwise, it’s easy to lose focus/”zone out”. You know what I’m talking about: your eyes are moving down the page, but the words aren’t registering. You realize after reading a page or two that you have no idea what you just read. That kind of reading is what we need to avoid by reading with a purpose. Your primary purpose is to be able to explain the point of each paragraph. Then, at the very minimum, you’ll realize you lost focus after just a paragraph (rather than after a page or two).
As you read, you should be writing. This is another way to make sure you are staying engaged as you read. You can write
-the answers to the questions you wrote down earlier
-other questions you come up with
-important facts or words you want to remember
I recommend Cornell notetaking. Notes in the margin of the text can also be helpful, but be sparing in your highlighting and underlining.
S is for Summarize
Once you’ve read a subsection, a section, or the chapter as a whole, it’s time to make sure you understand what you’ve read. You do this by summarizing the text. I strongly recommend this is done in writing (after all, writing is doing!) If you took notes using Cornell note-taking, you can write your summaries in the left-hand column next to the notes about that subsection or section. Writing an outline is also a good way to summarize.
After you’ve written your summary, look back at the reading to see if you remembered all of the important details. If you’ve missed anything, add it to your summary.
Why is this step important?
- It gives you another opportunity to notice when there is something you’ve missed or don’t understand.
- It forces you to synthesize the individual facts into an overarching story, which will aid your recall.
- It is practice for what you are going to need to do on your test (recall)
My experience is that students often assume that if they read the material carefully, they will be able to recall it on a test. The truth is that you need to practice the skills that you are going to be tested on. If your recall is going to be tested, then your test preparation must include recall practice.
T is for Test
Practice the way you are going to perform. That is, when you practice, you want it to be with the same level of effort and of the same skills that you want to excel at on your test.
But when I ask students if they’ve tested themselves before a “fact-based” class like history or biology, I usually get a blank stare. If a teacher doesn’t give the student a study guide, the student typically feels lost!
So how should students be testing themselves before the test? There are lots of ways. The most important way is by going back over the chapter title, section titles, and subsection titles, and recalling their summary for each of these. This should be done multiple times, over multiple days.
Students should also be answering practice test questions. Where can you find these?
-At the end of a section in the chapter, or the end of the chapter.
-In a test prep book like Barrons or Petersons
-Google “Practice test questions for [topic]” and you’ll find practice tests other teachers have made, quizlets students have made, and more. You can also find old AP test questions (essay and DBQ’s) online. Look for those that deal with the topic your current chapter deals with.
-Get together with a couple friends and create practice questions to test each other with.
Sure, these questions are not going to necessarily be exactly like the questions your teacher asks. That’s OK! Put yourself in a variety of testing situations, and you’ll be able to use the information you’ve learned flexibly.
A few more tips:
-Studying the right way takes PLANNING. If you are overwhelmed by your other classes, and start studying two days before the test, you aren’t going to have time to go through this process, let alone give yourself several days. Test preparation begins with planning, and that should start the day after the last test. So if you have a test on Friday, and the next test is in two weeks, you should have planned out what you are going to do on a day-to-day basis starting Saturday in order to get the result you want.
-In your plan, make sure that you do the Preview, Questions, Read, Summarize far enough in front of the test to ensure that you have enough time to Test yourself for a few days before the test. For example, for a class in which you have a test every week, ideally you’ll be done with PQRS by Monday, which may mean going through these steps before the class even starts the chapter. That’s OK!
-You can do PQRS for the whole chapter at once, or do it section by section. For a longer timeframe, section by section works well. But you should aim to do PQRS for a given section/topic before if it is covered in class. Going into a lecture already having learned the material means you’ll be able to be much more engaged. You’ll already know where your points of confusion or your questions are, so you’ll be ready to hear the answers to your questions in the lecture (or just ask them at the right time).
If you aren’t having the kind of success you’d like to have, it means you need to be preparing for the class in a different way than you are. Try the PQRST study system out, and I’m sure you’ll see greater success.
Looking for support for a student who needs mentoring with their study skills? Give us a call at 858.551.2650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org!