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Learn to learn: tips for the test

Techniques such as the ‘hard start’ can be transformative for students

Test tips

There are a number of ways we can help students prepare for exams. 

Watch the below video for an overview before reading on. 

One of the best techniques is the “hard start” approach.

Students begin this technique by quickly looking over the test once they get it. They should make a little tick mark by the hardest problems.


This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.


Next, they should pick one of those hard problems and get to work on it. But they should only work on this problem a minute or two, just until they begin to feel like they’re getting stuck.

At that point, they should stop and look for easier problems. The easier problems will help re-boost their confidence.

Back to basics

When students ultimately go back to the hard problem, they can make surprising progress. 

The “hard-start” technique works because it allows students to use their brains in two different ways at the same time – a sort of double processor.

When the focused mode (the state your brain is in when it’s intently focused on trying to solve a problem) is working on the easier problem, the diffuse mode (the thinking the brain does when we’re in a more relaxed state) is working in the background on the other, harder problem.

Students can use the “hard-start” technique for both tests and homework. One of the most valuable aspects of the technique is that it helps students to practise disconnecting and moving on to problems they can solve.

Aiming for disconnect

Disconnecting can be one of students’ biggest challenges on tests – they can run out of time even though there were other, easier problems that they could have solved.

A last word of advice is that when students get nervous, they can end up breathing from the upper part of their chests. This is “shallow” breathing and it doesn’t give enough oxygen. Students can end up panicking, not because of the test but because they aren’t getting enough oxygen.

Deep breathing can help prevent this problem.

Deep breathing

To do deep breathing, students should put one hand on their belly. Their hand should move out when they breathe in. They should try to imagine their breath as a sail that also expands their back.

In the days before a test, students should stand sideways in front of a mirror to try deep breathing out for 30 seconds or so, so they get used to it.

Remember, the best test preparation is to practise actively during studies.

This article is part of a series by Professor Barbara Oakley called Learning How To Learn (L2L). A list of all the chapters will be available at this link from 16 April.

Notes by Professor Barbara Oakley and ESIC Business and Marketing School. Videos reproduced with kind permission of the Arizona State University and Professor Barbara Oakley.

For more information, see Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying; A Guide for Kids and Teens.

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