Test Taking Skills: The secret is the preparation
High School is memorization and regurgitation. Here you have to think. I remember bombing the first test after studying my brain out. Some of that stuff I swore I’d never seen before. It’s called “applying the principle.” You have to understand the concept well enough to see how it relates to something you’ve never discussed in class. That’s where most kids get killed. Junior, Engineering, Notre Dame
The above quote and the one near the end of the page both come from Been There, Should’ve Done That, ed. by Elisabeth Tyler. This book that I highly recommend, especially for freshmen, is composed of quotes from students in many different colleges and Universities.
Many students feel nervous when they take a test. For the most part this nervousness is due to knowing they have not learned the material adequately and they worry that the teacher will ask about the very things they never learned or couldn’t understand.
1. The First and most important Test Taking Skill is to begin to study when you attend your first class or read your first assignment. If you start early, if you organize the important information, and if you rehearse regularly, you will feel confident and relaxed when it is time to take the test.
2. Know what the test will be like. What material will it cover? Just the last several weeks’ material or the entire semester? What kind of questions will be used? Multiple Choice? True/False? Short Answer? Writing definitions? Essay questions? Will there be problems to solve?
3. Write a list of practice questions that are like the questions that will be on the test. If you write good questions, you may be surprised to find similar questions on the exam. Use your practice questions for a practice test and give yourself the same amount of time you will have for the actual test.
Just because you know what the questions are doesn’t mean that answering them is simple. Some students like to do their own practice test in the room where the actual test will be given. This is especially helpful if you experience test-anxiety. Then go over your own answers. Did you forget any important ideas? How could you have improved your answers? Take the time to rewrite some of the essays. Now you will be much better prepared.
4. When you get the test, start by writing your name on the exam or answer sheets. Do not wait until the end when you might forget. Some teachers automatically give a zero to students who forget to put their name on a test, even if they know whose test it is. That zero will definitely teach you to start by writing your name.
5. Read the Directions very Carefully. Do not just start answering. The directions for a multiple choice section might ask you to pick all correct answers. This doesn’t happen often, but you need to be sure. The essay section might ask you to answer only two of the six essay questions. You will feel like an idiot if you rush through all six and get a poor grade because none of them were well done. READ the DIRECTIONS.
6. Plan Ahead. Before you answer any of the questions, skim the entire test. Notice if it tells you how many points are possible for each kind of question. Create a simple time schedule. You might allow 15 minutes for each of the two essays, 10 minutes for the 10 short answer questions, and 20 minutes for the multiple choice questions. Be flexible but this will give you a feeling of control. It helps to understand how much time you should spend in each area. You might also plan which questions you should answer first. Some prefer to do essay questions first while their mind is clear. Others, fearing they will forget some of the terms they just memorized the night before, need to do short answer or multiple choice questions first. Then they can relax.
7. For essay questions, after you read the question, stop and think. What is the teacher looking for? Do not just write everything you know on the subject. Write a clearly stated answer to the questions that was asked. You might brainstorm a quick list of ideas and organize them into a short outline. You might use a concept map or other visual organizer to organize your ideas. You can usually do this on the back of the test or in the margins. If you aren’t sure, ask ahead of time. Then, with your organization clear, write an interesting introductory paragraph, a short paragraph for each of your three or four main points, and an impression summary or conclusion. Do not ramble on and on. make your points clearly. Give reasons or evidence that support these points. Do not use big words if you aren’t certain you understand them and they really are appropriate. Short sentences that get straight to the point are best, especially for topic sentences.
Your spelling and grammar should be good, your handwriting neat and legible. And of course, your thinking should be outstanding. If, for any reason, you have run out of time, do not just write a few things you know on the subject. Write your outline or concept map or a compare/contrast chart, etc. If you have time left at the end of the test, proofread your essays and make any corrections. It may not seem fair, but grading an essay is somewhat subjective. You will usually find that the students with the best handwriting get a higher grade, even for writing the same information. The handwriting makes the teacher believe you have written a good essay.
If your writing skills are weak, ask if there is a study skills center on campus where someone will help you learn to write a good essay. If there is no such place, you could ask the professor for advice or ask a friend who makes good grades on essay questions to help you learn.
8. For multiple choice questions, be very careful when you see words like, all, everyone, always, none, no one, or never. Ask yourself if exceptions might prove the statement false. Things are rarely true all the time or none of the time. Better answers are more likely to say someone, some people, or sometimes.
The usual advice is not to over-think a question. It is usually smart to go with your first idea unless you are certain it is wrong. If there is no penalty for guessing, then guess on every question. If there is a penalty, it is usually wise to guess only when you can narrow it down to two possible answers.
If you have an answer sheet like this one, you should be very careful. Be sure each answer in the correct space. Students sometimes just go to the next line on the answer sheet without checking numbers. If you skipped one space near the beginning, all the rest of your answers will be in the wrong spaces.
I made that mistake once, the first week of my freshman year. I realized it near the end of the time allowed and frantically tried to erase and move all my answers to the correct spaces but over corrected and they were all in new wrong places. It wasn’t a test for a class. It was a vocabulary test for incoming freshmen.I spoke to the people giving the test and was permitted to take the test again. I completed the second test in half the time and my grade went from 19% to 98%. But I certainly learned a lesson. Check that your answers go in the correct space.
9. Some tests are mainly problems to be solved. This is in math, statistics, physics, some chemistry classes, and biology classes like genetics. The problems are likely to be similar to those you did for homework. Some students like to start with the most simple problems.
It is important to show your work clearly. Many teachers will give partial credit if you set up the problem correctly, if the process was right, even if you made errors in calculation. When you finish a question, ask yourself if the answer makes sense. Could you have put the decimal in the wrong place? if it does not make sense, check your work. Finally, be sure that you have indicated the units if necessary. The answer may not be 27 but 27 miles per hour or 27 centimeters. Many teachers take off points when you leave off the correct unit.
10. If you feel tired or nervous during the test, use one of the relaxation methods. You can stretch your arms and legs. You can tighten muscles and gradually release them. You can practice deep, regular breathing. You can visualize yourself in a beautiful place. Don’t take too long. Smile and get back to your test.
11. After the test, write in your journal. What did you do especially well? What should you have done differently? What did you learn about the tests this teacher writes?
After you get back your graded paper, look it over quickly to see if your teacher made any mistakes in grading. Maybe you did include units in a math problem, not where you did the calculations but further down where you wrote your final answer. If the teacher is answering questions, you might want to ask about something on the paper. Then put the test away carefully.
When you are back in your room, take it out and study it carefully. Make a list to what to do differently for the next test. How will you prepare differently, knowing what kind of questions you did poorly on? How will you use your time differently? What questions will you ask the teacher before the test? Reflecting on our good and bad experiences is a very important part of learning.
Learn from your mistakes: Some profs only post the test scores and never return the actual test. It’s a pain, but ask to review the corrected test in his office so you know exactly what you missed. Otherwise, you’ll repeat the same mistakes the next time. Sophomore, No Preference, Michigan State University
What a shame that so many students throw their tests away without looking at anything but the grade.
There are two pages from other websites you might find helpful:
College Testing Tips This goes into detail about different kinds of tests.