When you sit down and begin studying for a test, you likely lay out all your notes, lectures, quizzes and homework assignments in front of you and – in doing so – realize that there’s a lot of material you’re going to need to cover. When faced with this realization, some students crack down and power through the material, in the process insuring that no details are left unexamined. If you can effectively study this way, that’s great, you’ll probably show up for the exam knowledgeable and highly prepared.

But most students will not learn well when they attempt to study every single detail. Sometimes this is because they get tired and distracted and never make it all the way through the material. Sometimes they do make it through, but the sheer amount of information crammed into their heads inevitably leaks out before the actual test has been administered. For these students it is far more beneficial to take a targeted approach – to separate out what’s important to study from what’s not, and in doing so create a list of topics from which they can prepare.

Whether you’re a high schooler, a graduate student, it’s consequently always important to be able to recognize key material and focus most of your energies there. Here are a few tips for differentiating between materials of different values:

  1. Use the three column approach

    One of the best ways to differentiate between material is to start the studying process by drawing three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, list off all topics that will be covered on the exam that you know well. In the second column, list those topics that you understood at one point but have since forgotten. Finally, in the third column, write down the topics that you never learned or understood. When you sit down to study, focus primarily on items listed in the second column. Ignore the first one completely and concentrate on the third only if you have sufficient preparation time.

  2. Study to the lecture

    Exams at many different levels of education will cover material from both classroom lectures and from textbook readings. While a teacher may say that the textbook content is just as important as what is taught in class, the reality is that the subjects covered in the classroom setting are more likely to appear in depth on a test. After all, a teacher will talk about those topics in which he is most comfortable or interested – and he will likely write his tests with a similar bias in mind.

  3. Spot trends in the class

    Teachers can be just as predictable as the rest of us. They can repeatedly harp on certain subjects more than others, for example, and they can write tests that are similar year after year. On this note, assessing the main themes of your course as a whole and the focuses of your teacher in particular can often help you narrow in on the information that is most important to study.

Hopefully these tips and approaches can help you begin differentiating between crucial and non-crucial material when preparing for a test. Although it is always theoretically best to walk into an exam knowing every possible detail, in reality this is often not possible. Consequently, we want to have the ability to focus on the material that matters most.