“Why Don’t I Always Ace the Test?”

“Why Don’t I Always Ace the Test?”

By: Cindy Wooldridge & Megan Smith

We have frequently received questions from students that go something like this: “I used your strategies and I still didn’t do very well on my exam. What did I do wrong?” We tried to address this a bit in a recent blog post explaining the strategies, and stressing the importance of sleep and avoiding procrastination. But, today we will expand on this issue to explain why it is so complicated to answer both for students and teachers trying to implement the strategies.

Images from Pixabay

Images from Pixabay

Using the strategies is hard – and should be.

One of the things that I (Cindy) tell my students is that either studying can be hard or the test can be hard, which would you prefer? Each of the 6 strategies for effective learning can be a challenge to use appropriately. Spreading out study feels inherently more difficult than cramming the night before. Studying one topic at a time and re-reading notes are easier than mixing things up and practicing retrieval, but the key is that the struggle matters. The struggle is what results in better recall later on. These are sometimes referred to as “desirable difficulties,” meaning that those things that are difficult result in better learning (1, 2).

After talking with my students who have tried to use the strategies without success, I realized that many of them have tried to make them easier. Some students try to just use images they’ve found on google instead of creating their own image to go with the material they’re trying to learn. Some have used “spacing” by studying two days or maybe even a whole week before the test instead of studying throughout the semester. These “cheats” mean that the students are not getting the full mental effort needed to make the strategies effective.

There is no one correct way to use the strategies.

We selected these 6 strategies because there is a lot of evidence showing that these strategies work under many different circumstances. However, we never say exactly how to use them so that people can be flexible when trying to apply them to their unique contexts. We’ve discussed previously how retrieval practice, specifically, does not always work the way that people expect. While it would be nice for us to be able to hand out study schedules and specific materials that should be used at each study session, it’s just not that simple. For almost all of the strategies, they work best when the individual comes up with their own way of using them. For example, we could provide you images to go with study materials, but you are much more likely to remember an image that you come up with yourself.

Because the strategies work best when they are designed by the individual doing the studying, the burden is on that person to do the effortful processing needed to be successful. We cannot create one image or study schedule that would work for every person, and similarly, cannot guarantee that the ones used will “work” the way that a student or teacher hopes.

There are a lot of other factors that can affect performance.

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

One of the issues that we often talk about is how so much of the research in learning science is conducted in the laboratory with strictly controlled materials, but we want to apply that work to the classroom where there are so many other factors that make the research much… messier. In the “wild,” there are lot of extra factors that can affect learning beyond just the way in which someone studies. For example, we have previously talked about the interaction with working memory and sleep, as well as environmental factors such as studying with music and distractions. Simply put, effective studying is complicated. There are a whole host of factors that can help or hinder a student’s performance beyond just the use of the most effective strategies.

Bottom line

If you are trying to use the strategies and are still not as successful as you would like, our recommendation would be to take a step back and think about the ways in which you are studying.

1) Are you putting a lot of effort into your study or does it seem easy?

2) Are you using the strategies the way that we recommend (e.g. creating your own materials)?

3) What does your study environment look like? Are other factors that may be problematic?

4) Are you studying enough? These strategies are more efficient than other methods, but they still require you to put in the (spaced) time.

We hope that you are able to use these strategies to improve your study, but as we’ve said before, there is not a magic pill for learning. Try reading this blog for more detailed suggestions for how to implement the strategies. And good luck!


(1) Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe & A. Shimamura (Eds.), Metacognition: Knowing about knowing (pp. 185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

(2) Mc Daniel, M. A., & Butler, A. C. (2011). A contextual framework for understanding when difficulties are desirable. In Successful Remembering and Successful Forgetting: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert A. Bjork (pp. 175-198). Taylor and Francis.