The Test is Always Coming

“But the test is in two days and the teacher only told us yesterday!” a student complained last April.

“When did your class start this unit?” I asked.

“Three weeks ago,” the student replied.

“Okay, and how often do you normally have tests in this class?”

“Oh, every few weeks.”


Many students seem to operate out of the belief that there will never be another test unless the teacher announces it. And when the teacher does make the announcement, it is a complete surprise. Thus, these students are caught off-guard and must do all their studying at the last minute.

Of course, as my line of questioning shows, tests are quite predictable. You can be quite confident that, whenever you start a new unit in math, science, history, or a foreign language class, a test is coming. And, at least in high school and college, you can also be confident that you’ll be tested on everything you’re currently learning in a final exam at the end of the semester.

The test is always coming.

The students who are surprised by the announcement of a test are often those whose sole focus is on playing the game of school. They do exactly what they’re asked to do and nothing more. When it comes to schoolwork, they think in terms of “What’s due tomorrow?” rather than in terms of “What else would I have to do in order to remember this a week from now?” Those students who are neither surprised nor unprepared for the announcement of a test have been steadily doing more than what is asked.

Sometimes, of course, the student who complains about the last-minute announcement of a test is exactly the sort of student who normally waits until the last minute to study anyway. Such a student is just trying to play the victim to avoid an uncomfortable examination of his own choices. But that’s not to whom I’m speaking today. I’m addressing the students who would start studying earlier but keep getting surprised. To these students I reiterate: The test is always coming!

Don’t wait to be told. Start studying for the unit test on the day your class begins the unit. Actually, since you usually know what’s next, you can start studying the day before your class starts the next unit. Start with a summary of the content to give yourself an overview. This will make learning the details easier.

As the unit marches on, don’t just do the homework. Also, review the ideas from earlier in the unit. Schedule some spaced repetition of all the key ideas into your homework time. If you haven’t touched something in a week, you’re probably starting to forget it. Go rescue that memory now before it’s completely gone. In classes like math, chemistry, and Spanish, remember that understanding something once isn’t enough. You need to walk the mastery path. You need regular practice.

And if there is no homework, engage with the content anyway. A little bit of studying or a few practice problems can go a long way. This is why we recommend touching every class, every day. Even if all you do is think about the content while you’re walking the dog or waiting for a ride, you’ll be doing a bit of mental recall practice, which is a great way to study when you’re not at a desk.

Lastly, engage with class time and homework as though your #1 goal was learning the material. If you focus on getting good grades, then you’ll most likely just focus on what’s due tomorrow because that’s your next grade. But if you focus on learning, then you’ll naturally do more to prepare for that more distant grade, higher value grade: the test. You know, the one that hasn’t been announced yet, the one that’s probably late next week – the test that’s hiding just over the horizon. Yeah, that one.

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