If you’ve already signed up to take the test this June, you’ve probably already been studying. Lots of companies offer services to help you pass the test, and even more websites dole out advice on how to study. Much of what passes for wisdom in test taking, however, is wrong. Your high school teacher may have encouraged you to find a quiet, uncluttered place to study. According to decades-old research, your high school teacher was wrong. What seems intuitive might actually create more frustration for you on test day.
- Study. Take a practice test. Repeat. Although “cramming” may feel like you’re filling your brain with information to release at test time, several recent studies suggest that testing yourself improves memory retention more than studying the same information over and over. Students who wrote “retrieval practice” tests, essentially free-form essays about what they remembered from reading a scientific passage, dramatically outperformed those who simply kept rereading the same information. According to these studies, having your brain take an active role in organizing information and identifying the gaps in your knowledge allows for better retrieval. This information retrieval may not just come in handy at test time, but may provide for better memory access over time, too.
- Mix it up. The idea of “focus” might suggest that choosing one subject and studying it in depth in one place will make information stick better. Scientists have long found that the opposite is true: studying in different environments and mixing up your material creates a deeper, longer-lasting effect on the brain. While it may seem intuitive to group all the same material together, scientists believe studying the same information in different places allows the brain to retain knowledge more deeply. Researchers call this effect “desirable difficulty,” which means the harder it is to learn something, the harder it is to forget.
- Go for a walk. Older conceptions of the brain as a passive receptacle have recently given way to a vision of the brain as an organ that can be exercised and stretched like the muscles in our body. It’s no surprise, then, that many studies point to a link between a healthy brain and physical activity. A recent British study established a relationship between those students who exercise regularly and those with the best test scores. Physical exercise improves “executive function,” what scientists call the brain’s basic control over processing, organizing, and recalling information. Executive function allows you to focus on tasks and do what’s needed at a particular time. In one study, people in their 70s who began a mild exercise program saw results in their executive function, proving it’s never too late to increase your physical activity.
- Forget the all-nighters. Do you remember the chemistry test you crammed all night for as a freshman? Probably not. Scientists say sleep has an active role in the brain’s encoding of memory, and studies point to better information retention by those who get a good night’s sleep between studying and taking a test.
- On testing day, forget your phone and focus on the test. One experiment published inCurrent Biology found that eliminating distracting tasks between studying and taking the test made a big difference in test scores. Instead of answering e-mail or working before taking your test, refresh your memory and then take your test.
- Feed your brain. Long-term studies suggest a balanced diet improves memory and thinking ability. Foods rich in folic acid, such as whole-grain cereals, lentils, spinach, and oranges, improve information processing and memory recall. But what about drinking an energy drink the day of the test? Studies show that caffeine increases brain activity, and common energy drink ingredients like guarana and ginseng may slightly improve reaction times and test scores. But CFA certification itself is a kind of desirable difficulty—what makes it worth doing goes beyond the morning fix. Like diet and exercise, it’s a long-term investment.