How to Study for College-Level Exams, Part 1

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One of the best parts of homeschooling high school is that you can spend more time on subjects that interest you. Whether or not you plan to take college-level exams, it’s useful to know what makes college-level knowledge different from high-school level knowledge, as well as how to study for subject-specific tests. In this article, we will look at ways to deepen high school study, as well as how to study effectively.

What’s the difference between high school and college learning?

College level knowledge differs from high-school knowledge just as a Rembrandt painting differs from a child’s pencil sketch. A student who has learned American history, for example, at the high-school level may be able to provide a rough chronology of major events and the people who participated in them.

When the student understands the subject at college level, he or she will know not only the chronological outline, but also many of the details which paint an interesting and memorable picture. He will also understand the underlying causes of events, and be able to apply that understanding to analysis and interpretation of current events.

Most homeschoolers have long since discovered that an interest-driven study will progress much farther and faster than the boring chapter-a-week textbook routine. If you have a passionate interest in any subject, academic or not, chances are you have acquired a lot of knowledge about that subject. If the subject is academic, you may be ready to take a CLEP without any further study!

If it’s baseball, bugs, or sewing, you may not be able to take a CLEP, but you can probably identify and use the ways in which you acquired the information needed to fully understand your subject. Let’s look at some ways you can broaden and deepen knowledge to college-level.

Ways to deepen high school learning to college level

“Few have been taught to any purpose who have not been their own teachers.”
Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

Learn through immersion

To immerse in a subject is just what it sounds like — it is to delve deeply into all aspects of what you want to learn. For example, when I became interested in quilting, I went to the library. I checked out books on the history of quilting, books on techniques of quilting by hand and by machine, books on textile art, books on color theory, and . . . well, you get the idea. If it was in any way related to the process of designing and constructing quilts, I read it. I also bought several quilting magazines and subscribed to the one which seemed to provide the most useful information and most beautiful photographs, began attending a local quilt guild, and joined an online discussion list on art quilting.

What was the result of this immersion in my topic? Aside from the thorough enjoyment of the process, I very quickly arrived at the point where I could design and construct graphically pleasing quilts using the techniques which most appealed to me. Because I understood the principles of the subject, I was not confined to following other people’s patterns or using outdated techniques. I had made the subject my own to the point where I would be comfortable teaching the skill to others.

You can immerse in subjects you enjoy

How does immersion apply to academic subjects? Very easily! It works best if there is at least some natural interest in or talent for a subject. All the CLEPs I have taken have involved literature, writing, or history, as I have never been able to muster the willpower to study anything math-related on my own.

Begin with a subject you enjoy, or have just studied at the high-school level, and take the sample test found in the CLEP Official Study Guide published by The College Board, the creator of AP, SAT, and CLEP tests. The book contains a sample exam for each of the tests, as well as other helpful test preparation information.

The study guide states that you are ready to take the exam if you get half or more of the sample questions correct. I prefer a larger margin than that, but for a subject you don’t want to spend a lot of time with, it’s worth a try.

How to study challenging subjects

The tools you’ll need for studying will vary by subject, but audio or video courses from The Great Courses can serve as the backbone of your study (we have used many of them, and they are excellent). Used college textbooks can be a decent resource for outlining the scope and sequence of a subject. You can find used texts in many places, including local thrift shops and college bookstores.

Once you have your text or other comprehensive resource, start locating other books, periodicals, tapes, videos, and online resources to aid your study. We use the teen / adult-student-oriented TimeFrame Timeline  to record major people and events and fix them within the context of history. Once you’ve gathered resources, you’re ready to immerse in your subject, just as I immersed in quilting.

Depending upon how interesting your topic is, and how much you know when you begin, you might spend anywhere from an intensive month or two to several years. For literature, which I consider a fascinating topic, I have kept literature anthologies in all our bathrooms for years. It’s an easy way to become familiar with a subject in a few minutes a day over a long period of time. Other subjects can be approached the same integrated-with-life way.

If you need to earn credit for a subject you don’t find intrinsically interesting (although almost anything is interesting when approached with an open mind), you can use the same study techniques used by desperate freshmen on college campuses all over the world. I’ll cover those techniques in Part 2 of How to Study for College Level Exams.

Janice Campbell

Janice Campbell writes and speaks about homeschooling, using lifestyle of learning approach influenced by Charlotte Mason, classical learning, and the Thomas Jefferson method. Her books and resources, including Excellence in Literature, Transcripts Made Easy, and Get a Jump Start on College, reflect Janice’s focus on twaddle-free, active learning (she did have boys, after all!).