For the Student in You: Ace That Test!

As you may have read a couple weeks ago, I am in the middle of a major life transition - leaving the classroom to become a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, or BCBA. Additionally, I am had been studying for the exam to prepare to take it on May 5th! That day has past, and I feel confident in myself as a future BCBA. Therefore, I leave you with some studying tips.

Many of you may be in the same boat as I am - studying for an upcoming, career-altering exam. Some of you are student-teachers preparing for the teaching test, others are in graduate school studying for the endless exams you need to take to show your competencies. Some of you may be teaching students study skills, particularly in high school or beyond. I hope you find this post to be worth your while (which is always my goal as a blogger).

Here are some, evidence-based study tips to improve your confidence to ace that test!

Vary Environments

Several researchers have found that individuals who study or learn information in two different rooms, retain far more information and as a result, do far better on tests than those who study in only one environment. We may think that closing the door to our office at 5 pm every day is the most beneficial way to retain information, but research says otherwise!

Space It Out

The term "spacing effect" first coined by Price Kerfoot, a Harvard professor, refers to presenting and repeating information over intervals of time increasing the uptake of knowledge and retention of skills. This is in opposition to the idea of "binge studying", or studying for hours at a time in one sitting shortly or immediately before the knowledge will be extracted. In other words, study throughout the weeks leading up to your exam, in smaller intervals of time, as well as represent the same materials throughout your study sessions. You will see results!
Click here for further research on spaced practice, published in Psychology and Aging.

Timing Matters 

In a study done by Payne et al. (2011), the impact of sleep was examined on its influence on learning and retaining declarative information. The study found that sleep is most beneficial to memory 24 hours later, if it occurs shortly after learning. This suggest it may be beneficial to study for your exam at night, shortly before sleep, as long as you aren't "binge studying" the night before, as it takes about 24 hours for the benefits to be noticeable. 

Switch Up the Material

Have you ever heard of interleaved practice? Have you ever heard of blocked practice? Chances are you do one of these to prepare for you exams and it's most likely not the most effective choice.

Blocked practice, the more commonly used test prep strategy, is defined as focusing on learning one skill at time. One practices a skill repetitively for a period of time before moving onto another skill and repeating the process. Most people do this type of test prep.

Interleaved practice, on the other hand, involves working on multiple skills in parallel. Take the skills A, B, and C for example. In a block practice session, you would most likely practice these skills like this: AAABBBCCC. An interleaved practice session would look like this ABCABCABC (in series) or ACBABCBAC (randomized). Studies have shown that learners who use the interleaved practice method have an advantage. It is a proven technique t increase one's ability to learn and retain all kinds of skills and knowledge.

Several other studies have found similar results in switching the types of materials. Check out this article for more information on interleaved practice.

Practice Tests

According to several studies, including research done by Kerfoot, described above, presenting materials in a testing format increases the likelihood that the information stored will be retained for the test, and beyond. According to Kerfoot, "when you present information in  a 'test' format, rather than just reading it, long-term retention is dramatically improved.

Different Modalities

While websites like Quizlet and apps like Evernote on our SmartPhones have been created and are often used to enhance our studying skills, research actually supports the opposite. Typing out definitions or using digital flashcards may seem quick, easy, and beneficial, but studies have shown that manually writing out definitions, terms, diagrams, etc. actually improve retention (See this study done by Mangen & Velay, 2010). Suddenly, it makes sense why you had those endless spelling practice pages, huh?

Now, think of what you have done in the past to study for your exams. Have you turned off all music, closed the door to your room, and silently read your textbooks? Maybe you've gone to the library to get some uninterrupted silent reading time in. While we are led to believe that silence is the best way to retain information, researchers say otherwise. At least when it comes to reading. Studies show that reading and speaking aloud improve memory. Translation: Read aloud your texts and flashcards and you will retain more information for that test! (See Macleod, 2010)

Take A Break

In a study done by Lleras & Ariga (2011), participants were tested on various tasks given different conditions. The participants in the condition with 2 brief breaks during the study session had no drop in their testing performance over time. This suggests that taking brief breaks during study sessions actually improves retention and memory overtime.


No big surprise that, as a behavioral specialist, I am supportive of reinforcement. But I mean who isn't? MANY studies support the use of different reinforcement procedures, including providing reinforcement for yourself. A strategy I used during my weeks of studying was setting specific criteria to receive reinforcement, such as completing a stack of flash cards in order to play FarmVille (my weakness).


This strange acronym was coined by Ogden Lindsley. SAFMEDS (Say All Fast, Minute Each Day, Shuffled) are intended to help students become fluent in basic concepts, definitions and/or terms. This makes learning more complex information less difficult. Research has demonstrated that once performance is fluent, an individual is able to retain the information for a longer period of time. This concept was heavily regarded in my behavior analysis courses in my graduate program. For more information on SAFMEDS, check out this great resource.

Additionally, I realized, that the more I understood the concepts, the less I relied on my flashcards and regurgitating definitions. This, without a doubt, aided in my own understanding of the concepts and my ability to apply terms to real-life situations.

Disclaimer: I realize that the above information is very "loose" in terms of behavioral terminology. However, understanding different perspectives with in the field of social sciences is extremely beneficial, especially when such information can be used in our everyday lives.

Cheers to everyone taking the BACB exam (or any exam)! GOOD LUCK!


  1. Rae, so glad to hear the test is over! Can't wait to hear the results! I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks about my language as I write, but I have become increasingly convinced over my career that writing in behavioral terms tends to impede the message, so writing so other people can understand it is something this field needs more of. Great post!


  2. Rae,

    I am glad the exam is behind you! Thank you for sharing your experiences and thoughts with us. I am almost complete with a Masters in Special Ed and am now beginning a Masters in Behavioral Analysis. I am already looking into exam preparations for the upcoming BCBA exam

    Caren Stocks


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