How to Study for the CSW (Or any other Exam)

Wine 2In the past few weeks, I have received dozens of emails from people asking “How do I study for the CSW?”  It’s a good question, and one that I thought I’d address here on the blog as it seems so universal.  By the way, most of the inquiries I get have to do with the CSW, but having been a professor for decades, I know that these study techniques will work for any knowledge-based set of material…even other wine certifications!

I think the problem stems from people confusing “reading” with “studying.”  Reading is a good first step, but it’s only the beginning.  Studying is so much more….so here’s my advice on how to “really study.”  By the way, if you are looking for the easy way out, you are NOT going to like me!

My Advice…How to Study for the Certified Specialist of Wine (or any other) Exam

Learning, unfortunately, takes time. Unless you have a have photographic memory, learning requires repetition, active study techniques, and concentration.  Here are few simple tips to help you get the most from your study time.

Read and Take Notes:  Reading alone does not do much in terms of long-term learning for most people. Do you remember that little jingle about “people only remember 10% of what they read?” It’s actually less than that. If you want your study session to result in long-term memory, you need to take notes while you study. Read your study guide section by section, taking notes all the while. Then, clean up those notes and use them as your study material for the last few months or weeks leading up to your exam.

How to study 1Study Actively:  One of the reasons that taking notes is so effective for most people is that writing involves more energy and more of the senses than just reading or listening. The more energy and senses that are involved in studying (or any activity); the more new material will make it to your brain’s “recording disk.” While it might feel silly, reading out loud or reviewing your notes out loud is one of the best ways involve more of your senses in your studying.  Writing, a kinetic activity, also increases memory.  Instead of staring at maps, draw them. Instead of just reading over your notes, copy them over.

Don’t just Memorize – Strive for Understanding: There are two ways to memorize:  by rote (mechanically) and by understanding. Telephone numbers and computer passwords are better learned by rote.  However, anything that needs to be understood must have some meaning behind it. The more association you can elicit for an idea, the more meaning it will have; the more meaningful the learning, the better one is able to retain it. This is the main reason why travelling is such a good way to learn wine…once you’ve driven from Greve to Montalcino, its easy to remember the distances and directions…you totally understand it (and will never forget it, most likely, if you tried to drive yourself)! While you might not be able to travel to every wine region you are studying, you can try to find the context behind the facts.  You can do this by comparing and contrasting, noting similarities in ideas and concepts, tying new ideas to something you already know, and trying to put new information in its proper place in a larger system of ideas, concepts and theories.

Rephrase and explain:  Anyone who has ever taught a wine class knows that one way to really learn something is to teach it.  Teaching requires us to organize and explain material, which just happen to be two of the most important facets of learning. To use this concept in your study sessions, experiment with stopping every five minutes to try and rephrase and explain the material.  This is also a great way to stop your mind from wandering. Remember, if you can’t explain something quickly and succinctly, you don’t really know it well.

how to learn slideUse Spaced Repetition:  Memories fade away rapidly when not reviewed or used. The curve of forgetting is like a playground slide; we forget most of what we learned within the first 24 hours after studying, from there the curve of forgetting proceeds much more slowly.  To combat the “24-hour brain dump,” try to fit in a study session every day, even if it is just ten minutes (although an hour a day is better). The more times around the learning circuit, the longer lasting the impression will be.

Simulate the Required Behavior: When studying for an examination, the most effective approach is to closely simulate the behavior you’ll ultimately be required to perform. What this means is that one way to effectively study for a multiple choice test is to take multiple choice practice tests.  However…what’s even more effective is writing your own test questions. Writing test questions after studying a section of material is also a great way to keep from getting bored or losing your concentration.

I hope these these study techniques – even if you only use one or two, will help you in your studies.  If you have any questions or comments, let me know!!  Good luck with your studies!!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

12 Responses to How to Study for the CSW (Or any other Exam)

  1. Martin, Reta says:

    Thank you!


  2. bubblyprof says:

    Hi Barbie – Thanks so much for the comments – they’re a great addition to the article. And I’m so pleased to have a cognitive psych expert weigh in !! Cheers, Jane N.

  3. Jessica R says:

    Thanks for this post – every single point is exactly on-point!!! I’m in the business of both learning and teaching (I’m a graduate school and I tutor to help support myself), and I fully believe that not enough attention is paid to study methods anymore. As a child, I regularly used all these methods IN SCHOOL (we didn’t call it “studying,” we called it “learning”). As I grew up, I never needed to learn study skills because they had become habit. (As a matter of fact, the first time I heard of people learning study skills I was very confused about what they were doing!)

    I’m not studying for a wine certification exam (I just study wine for fun!), but I am studying for my PhD qualifying exam so I will keep all these tips in mind!!!

    I love this website; what an amazing resource! It’s the best I’ve seen on the internet.

    • bubblyprof says:

      Hi Jessica – Wow!! Thanks for the note!! I agree that the first lesson to be taught should be study skills! And, from what I see from my students (and myself) – it seems that many adults appreciate a refresher course in “how to study” as well. And then there are those folks like you and me who like to “learn about learning” and “teach about teaching.” Love it!!

  4. SJV says:

    Getting ready for the Court Second level…thank you for this article.

  5. Thank for this article, Miss Nickles, and especially your grape profiles. I am pondering whether or not to retake my Certified Sommelier exam in March (was going to wait a little longer, but a Facebook friend of mine – we’ve never met – is flying here to Chicago to take it). I would -love- to pass it with her, but I am truly doubting myself right now.

    • bubblyprof says:

      Hi Douglas – Thanks for the note and you are very welcome!! As for the Exam…go for it!! You know, the pass rate for the CWE is only 12% on the first try…so most people just have to go back to the drawing board and try again. Don’t doubt yourself…its a process, and a wonderful, delicious one at that! Let me know how it goes!! Jane N.

  6. Lushi Song says:

    Hi Jane,I am a wine enthusiast from China and currently taking my wine classes in USA. I have to say that I am still a beginner in terms of the wine world and I also figured out that the information I have to learn is HUGE!!! Thanks for your wonderful website so that I could understand the wine world more clearly and learn more details about the CSW test at the same time!!
    Thank you again!!!

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