Chapter 13: Test Taking Strategies

Test Taking Strategies

Testing As Part Of The Learning Cycle

Testing is a part of life. Have you ever participated in an athletic event? Completed a crossword puzzle? Acted in a play? Cooked dinner? Answered a child’s question? Prepared a cost estimate? All of these common life situations are forms of tests because they measure how much we know about a specific subject at a single point in time. They alone are not good measurements about how smart or gifted you are—they show only how much you know or can do at that moment. We can learn from how we have performed, and we can think about how to apply what we have learned to do even better next time. We can have fun measuring our progress.

Many of our daily activities are measurements of progress toward mastery of skills or knowledge. We welcome these opportunities for both work and fun. But when these opportunities are part of our academic life, we often dread them and rarely feel any sense of fun. In reality, however, academic tests are similar to real-life tests in the following ways:

  • They help us measure our progress toward mastery of a particular skill.
  • They are not a representation of how smart, talented, or skilled we are but rather are a measurement only of what we know about a specific subject at a specific point in time.
  • They are extraordinary learning opportunities.

Academic tests in college are different from those you took in high school. College instructors expect to see much more of you in an exam: your thoughts, your interpretations, your thinking process, your conclusions. High school teachers usually look for your ability to repeat precisely what you read in your text or heard in your class. Success on high school tests relies much more on memorization than on understanding the material. This is why you need to modify your study habits and your strategies for taking exams in college.

Take a look at the learning cycle  “The Learning Cycle: Review and Apply”. In this chapter, we cover reviewing and applying the material you learn; preparing for and taking exams is the practical application of this phase.


Image result for  “The Learning Cycle: Review and Apply”

Let’s start at the top of the cycle. You have invested your time in preparing for class, you have been an active listener in class, and you have asked questions and taken notes. You have summarized what you learned and have looked for opportunities to apply the material. You have completed your reading assignments and compared your reading notes with your class notes. And now you hear your instructor say, “Remember the exam next week.”

A sense of dread takes over. You worry about the exam and what might be on it. You stay up for a couple of nights trying to work through the volumes of material the course has covered. Learning or remembering it all seems hopeless. You find yourself staring at the same paragraph in your text over and over again, but you just don’t seem to get it. As the exam looms closer, you feel your understanding of the material is slipping away. You show up for the exam and the first questions look familiar, but then you draw a blank—you’re suffering from test anxiety.


Test Anxiety And How To Control It

For many test-takers, preparing for a test and taking a test can easily cause worry and anxiety. In fact, most students report that they are more stressed by tests and schoolwork than by anything else in their lives, according to the American Test Anxiety Association. Most of us have experienced this. It is normal to feel stress before an exam, and in fact, that may be a good thing. Stress motivates you to study and review, generates adrenaline to help sharpen your reflexes and focus while taking the exam, and may even help you remember some of the material you need. But suffering too many stress symptoms or suffering any of them severely will impede your ability to show what you have learned. Test anxiety is a psychological condition in which a person feels distressed before, during, or after a test or exam to the point where stress causes poor performance. Anxiety during a test interferes with your ability to recall knowledge from memory as well as your ability to use higher-level thinking skills effectively.

  • Roughly 16–20 percent of students have high test anxiety.
  • Another 18 percent have moderately high test anxiety.
  • Test anxiety is the most common academic impairment in grade school, high school, and college.

Below are some effects of moderate anxiety:

  • Being distracted during a test
  • Having difficulty comprehending relatively simple instructions
  • Having trouble organizing or recalling relevant information
  • Crying
  • Illness
  • Eating disturbance
  • High blood pressure
  • Acting out
  • Toileting accidents
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Cheating
  • Negative attitudes towards self, school, subjects

Below are some effects of extreme test anxiety:

  • Overanxious disorder
  • Social phobia
  • Suicide

Poor test performance is also a significant outcome of test anxiety. Test-anxious students tend to have lower study skills and lower test-taking skills, but research also suggests that high levels of emotional distress correlate with reduced academic performance overall. Highly test-anxious students score about 12 percentile points below their low-anxiety peers. Students with test anxiety also have higher overall dropout rates. And test anxiety can negatively affect a student’s social, emotional, and behavioral development, as well as feelings about themselves and school.

Why does test anxiety occur? Inferior performance arises not because of intellectual problems or poor academic preparation. It occurs because testing situations create a sense of threat for those who experience test anxiety. The sense of threat then disrupts the learner’s attention and memory.

Other factors can influence test anxiety, too. Students with disabilities and students in gifted education classes tend to experience high rates of test anxiety.

If you experience test anxiety, have hope! Experiencing test anxiety doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or that you aren’t capable of performing well in college. The trick is to keep stress and anxiety at a level where it can help you do your best rather than get in your way.


TFI have a hard time starting to study for a test.
TFWhen studying for an exam, I feel desperate or lost.
TFWhen studying for an exam, I often feel bored and tired.
TFI don’t sleep well the night before an exam.
TFMy appetite changes the day of the exam. (I’m not hungry and skip meals or I overeat—especially high-sugar items like candy or ice cream.)
TFWhen taking an exam, I am often confused or suffer mental blocks.
TFWhen taking an exam, I feel panicky and my palms get sweaty.
TFI’m usually in a bad mood after taking an exam.
TFI usually score lower on exams than on papers, assignments, and projects.
TFAfter an exam, I can remember things I couldn’t recall during the exam.

Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Test Anxiety

There are steps you should take if you find that stress is getting in your way:

  • Be prepared. A primary cause of test anxiety is not knowing the material. If you take good class and reading notes and review them regularly, this stressor should be greatly reduced if not eliminated. You should be confident going into your exam (but not overconfident).
  • Practice! One of the best ways to prepare for an exam is to take practice tests. To overcome test-taking anxiety, practice test-taking in a test-like environment, like a study room in the library. Practice staying calm, relaxed, and confident. If you find yourself feeling overly anxious, stop and start again.
  • Avoid negative thoughts. Your own negative thoughts—“I’ll never pass this exam” or “I can’t figure this out, I must be really stupid!”—may move you into a spiraling stress cycle that in itself causes enough anxiety to block your best efforts. When you feel you are brewing a storm of negative thoughts, stop what you are doing and clear your mind. Don’t practice having anxiety! Allow yourself to daydream a little; visualize yourself in pleasant surroundings with good friends. Don’t go back to work until you feel the tension release. Sometimes it helps to take a deep breath and shout “STOP!” and then proceed with clearing your mind. Once your mind is clear, repeat a reasonable affirmation to yourself—“I know this stuff”—before continuing your work.
  • Visualize success. Picture what it will feel like to get that A. Translate that vision into specific, reasonable goals and work toward each individual goal. Take one step at a time and reward yourself for each goal you complete.
  • It’s all about you! Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to other students in the class, especially during the exam. Keep focused on your own work and your own plan. Exams are not a race, so it doesn’t matter who turns in their paper first. Certainly, you have no idea how they did on their exam, so a thought like “Kristen is already done, she must have aced it, I wish I had her skills” is counterproductive and will only cause additional anxiety.
  • Have a plan and follow it. As soon as you know that an exam is coming, you can develop a plan for studying. As soon as you get your exam paper, you should develop a plan for the exam itself. We’ll discuss this later in this chapter. Don’t wait to cram for an exam at the last minute; the pressure you put on yourself and the late-night will cause more anxiety, and you won’t learn or retain much.
  • Make sure you eat well and get a good night’s sleep before the exam. Hunger, poor eating habits, energy drinks, and lack of sleep all contribute to test anxiety.
  • Chill! You perform best when you are relaxed, so learn some relaxation exercises you can use during an exam. Before you begin your work, take a moment to listen to your body. Which muscles are tense? Move them slowly to relax them. Tense them and relax them. Exhale, then continue to exhale for a few more seconds until you feel that your lungs are empty. Inhale slowly through your nose and feel your ribcage expand as you do. This will help oxygenate your blood and reenergize your mind.
  • Come early and prepared. Come to the exam with everything you need like your pencils, erasers, calculator, etc. Arrive to class early so you aren’t worried about time. Try to avoid the pre-exam chatter of your classmates, as this may contribute to your anxiety. Instead, pick your favorite chair and focus on relaxing.
  • Put it in perspective. Take a minute to think about the three most important things in your life. They may be your family, your health, your friendships. Will you lose any of these important things as a result of the exam?  An exam is not life or death and it needs to be put in perspective.

Health and wellness cannot be overstated as factors in test anxiety. Studying and preparing for exams can be easier when you take care of your mental and physical health. The following are a few tips for better health, better focus, and better grades:

  1. Try mini-meditation to reduce stress and improve focus. Breathe in deeply, count to five, and exhale slowly. Watch your lower abdomen expand and deflate. Repeat five times.
  2. Get sleep! Although some students may stay up until 4 a.m. studying, it’s not a healthy habit and is usually counter-productive. Your mind is more efficient when you get enough quality sleep, so make sure to schedule enough time for rest. If you practice a good study schedule, there is no need for all-night cramming. Stick to your study plan, review for about an hour, and get a good night’s sleep.
  3. Eat well.  Have a healthy meal before your exam. Avoid energy drinks that will give you a temporary energy spurt, followed by a crash.  Stay hydrated.
  4. Don’t try to be perfect. You’ll alleviate a lot of anxiety by learning that just “doing your best” is something to be proud of—it doesn’t have to be perfect.
  5. Reach out for help. If you feel you need assistance with your mental or physical health, talk to a counselor or visit a doctor.



Watch this video from College Info Geek on Test Anxiety: How to Take On Your Exams Without Stress

Test Anxiety: How to Take On Your Exams Without Stress - College Info Geek


Studying To Learn (Not Cram!)

You have truly learned material when you can readily recall it and actually use it, on tests or in real-life situations. Effective studying is your most important tool to combat test anxiety, but more importantly, effective studying helps you truly master the material and be able to apply it as you need to, in school and beyond.

In previous chapters, we set the foundation for effective learning. You learned how to listen and how to take notes. You learned how to read actively and how to capture information from written sources. Now we’ll follow up on some of those key ideas and take the learning cycle to its conclusion and a new beginning.

The reviewing and applying stage of the learning cycle involves studying and using the material you have been exposed to in your course. Recall that we emphasized the importance of reviewing your notes soon after the class or assignment. This review is largely what studying is all about.

Effective studying is an ongoing process of reviewing course material. The first and most important thing you should know is that studying is not something you do a few days before an exam. To be effective, studying is something you do as part of an ongoing learning process, throughout the duration of the term.

Studying Every Day

Studying begins after each class or assignment when you review your notes. Each study session should involve three steps:

  1. Gather your learning materials. Take time to merge your class notes with your reading notes. How do they complement each other? Stop and think. What do the notes tell you about your material? What aspects of the material are you unsure about? Do you need to reread a part of your text? Write down any questions you have for your instructor and pay a visit during office hours. It is better to clear up any misconceptions and get your questions answered soon after you are exposed to the material, rather than to wait, for two reasons: (1) the question or doubt is fresh in your mind and you won’t forget about it and (2) instructors usually build their lessons on material already presented. If you don’t take these steps now, you are setting yourself up for problems later in the course.
  2. Apply or visualize. What does this material mean to you? How will you use this new knowledge? Try to find a way to apply it in your own life or thoughts. If you can’t use the knowledge right away, visualize yourself using the knowledge to solve a problem or visualize yourself teaching the material to other students.
  3. Cement your knowledge. If you use the two-column note-taking method, cover up the right side of your notes with a piece of paper, leaving the questions in the left column exposed. Test yourself by trying to answer your questions without referring to your notes. How did you do? If you are unsure about anything, look up the answer and write it down right away. Don’t let a wrong answer be the last thing you wrote on a subject because you will most likely continue to remember the wrong answer.

Studying in Course Units

At the end of each unit, or at least every two weeks or so, use your notes and textbook to write an outline or summary of the material in your own words. (Remember the paragraphs you wrote to summarize each class or reading? They’ll be very helpful to you here.) After you have written the summary or outline, go back and reread your outline from the prior unit followed by the one you just wrote. Does the new one build on the earlier one? Do you feel confident you understand the material?

Studying before the Exam

At least a week before a major exam, ask yourself these questions: What has the instructor said about what is included in the exam? Has the instructor said anything about what types of questions will be included? If you were the instructor, what questions would you ask on an exam? Challenge yourself to come up with some really tough open-ended questions. Think about how you might answer them. Be sure to go to any review sessions the instructor or your section leader holds.

Now go back and review your outlines. Do they cover what the instructor has suggested might be on the exam? After reviewing your outlines, reread the sections of your notes that are most closely associated with expected exam questions. Pay special attention to those items the instructor emphasized during class. Read key points aloud and write them down on index cards. Make flashcards to review in downtimes, such as when you’re waiting for a bus or for a class to start.

More Tips for Success

  • Schedule a consistent study and review time for each course at least once a week, in addition to your class and assignment time. Keep to that schedule as rigorously as you do your class schedule. Use your study time to go through the steps outlined earlier; this is not meant to be a substitute for your assignment time.
  • Get yourself in the right space. Choose to study in a quiet, well-lit space. Your chair should be comfortable but provide good support. Remember that libraries were designed for reading and should be your first option.
  • Minimize distractions. Turn off your cell phone and get away from Facebook, television, other nearby activities, and chatty friends or roommates. All of these can cut into the effectiveness of your study efforts. Multitasking and studying don’t mix.
  • If you will be studying for a long time, take short breaks at least once an hour. Get up, stretch, breathe deeply, and then get back to work. (If you keep up with your daily assignments and schedule weekly review sessions for yourself—and keep them—there should be almost no need for long study sessions.)

Studying in Groups

Study groups are a great idea, as long as they are thoughtfully managed. A study group can give you new perspectives on course material and help you fill in gaps in your notes. Discussing course content will sharpen your critical thinking related to the subject, and being part of a group to which you are accountable will help you study consistently. In a study group, you will end up “teaching” each other the material, which is the strongest way to retain new material. But remember, being in a group working together doesn’t mean there will be less work for you as an individual; your work will just be much more effective.

Here are some tips for creating and managing effective study groups:

  • Think small. Limit your study group to no more than three or four people. A larger group would limit each student’s participation and make scheduling of regular study sessions a real problem.
  • Go for quality. Look for students who are doing well in the course, who ask questions, and who participate in class discussions. Don’t make friendship the primary consideration for who should be in your group. Meet up with your friends instead during “social time”—study time is all about learning.
  • Look for complementary skills and learning styles. Complementary skills make for a good study group because your weaknesses will be countered by another student’s strengths. When a subject requires a combination of various skills, strengths in each of those skills are helpful (e.g., a group with one student who is really good at physics and another at math would be perfect for an engineering course). Finally, a variety of learning styles is helpful because each of you picks up differing signals and emphases from the instructor that you can share with each other, so you will not likely miss important points.
  • Meet regularly. When you first set up a study group, agree to a regular meeting schedule and stick to it. Moving study session times around can result in nonparticipation, lack of preparation, and eventually the collapse of the study group. Equally important is keeping your sessions to the allotted times. If you waste time and regularly meet much longer than you agreed to, participants will not feel they are getting study value for their time invested.
  • Define an agenda and objectives. Give your study sessions focus so that you don’t get sidetracked. Based on requests and comments from the group, the moderator should develop the agenda and start each session by summarizing what the group expects to cover and then keep the group to task.
  • Include some of the following items on your agenda:
    • Review and discuss class and assignment notes since your last meeting.
    • Discuss assigned readings.
    • Quiz each other on class material.
    • “Reteach” aspects of the material team participants are unsure of.
    • Brainstorm possible test questions and responses.
    • Review quiz and test results and correct misunderstandings.
    • Critique each other’s ideas for paper themes and approaches.
    • Define questions to ask the instructor.
  • Assign follow-up work. If there is any work that needs to be done between meetings, make sure that all team members know specifically what is expected of them and agree to do the work.
  • Rotate the role of moderator or discussion leader. This helps ensure “ownership” of the group is spread equally across all members and ensures active participation and careful preparation.


Types of Tests

All tests are designed to determine how much you know about a particular subject at a particular point in time. There are many ways to understand how tests and exams fit into academia and college culture. One way is to ask what purpose the tests (also called assessments) serve. For example, what is your professor trying to achieve if they give you a survey-type test on the first day of class? How might the purpose of that test differ from that of, say, a practice quiz given before a midterm? And what is the purpose of a midterm?

Obviously, each survey, quiz, practice test, midterm, and final exam can serve different purposes. Depending upon the purpose, the assessment will fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Pre-assessment
  2. Formative assessment
  3. Summative assessment

Pre-assessments: Tests in this category are used to measure the beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, and skills that you have when you begin a class or before you begin working on a new topic. With pre-assessments, your professor gathers baseline data to use at a later time to evaluate change—that is, by comparing former knowledge or skills against what you learn in class.

One approach to pre-assessment is for a professor to ask students at the start of the term to describe a term or concept that’s foundational to the course. Then, later in the course, the professor revisits that data to determine how the instruction changed your understanding of the same concept. Comparing what you know or believe before and after a course or lesson is a productive way to gauge how successful your learning was and how successful the teaching was.

Formative assessments: Tests in this category are typically quizzes, unit tests, pop quizzes, and review quizzes from a textbook or its Web site. Their main objective is to make sure you know the fundamental material before moving on to more challenging topics. Because these quizzes usually don’t count much toward your final grade, many students think they are not very important. In fact, these quizzes are very important, particularly to you; they can help you to identify what you know and what you still need to learn to be successful in the course and in applying the material. A poor result on a quiz may not negatively affect your final grade much, but learning from its results and correcting your mistakes will affect your final grade, on the positive side, when you take midterms and finals!

Summative assessments: Tests in this category are the assessments that students are most familiar with: midterms and finals. They are used by the instructor to determine if you are mastering a large portion of the material, and as such, they usually carry a heavyweight toward your final grade for the course. Because of this, summative assessments can be stressful, but they can also be an effective measurement tool.

Test Formats

Tests vary in style, rigor, and requirements. For example, in a closed book test, a test taker is typically required to rely upon memory to respond to specific items. In an open-book test, though, a test taker may use one or more supplementary resources such as a reference book or notes. Open-book testing may be used for subjects in which many technical terms or formulas are required to effectively answer questions, like in chemistry or physics.

In addition, tests may be administered formally or informally. In an informal test, you might simply respond in a class to questions posed by the instructor. In a formal test, you are usually expected to work alone, and the stakes are higher.

Below is a sampling of common test formats you may encounter. If you know what kind of test you’ll be taking, you can tailor your study approach to the format.

Common Test Types

There are three common test types: written tests, oral tests, and electronic tests. Let’s look at the kinds of things you’ll be expected to complete in each test type.

Written tests can be open book, closed book, or anywhere in between. Students are required to give written answers (as the name of this test type implies).

  • Paper tests are still the most common type of test, requiring students to write answers on the test pages or in a separate test booklet or answer sheet. They are typically used for in-class tests. Neatness and good grammar count, even if it’s not an English exam. Remember that the instructor will be reading dozens of test papers and will not likely spend much time trying to figure out your hieroglyphics, arrows, and cross-outs.
  • Open-book tests allow the student to consult their notes, textbook, or both while taking the exam. Instructors often give this type of test when they are more interested in seeing your thoughts and critical thinking than your memory power. Be prepared to expose and defend your own viewpoints. When preparing, know where key material is present in your book and notes; create an index for your notes and use sticky notes to flag key pages of your textbook before the exam. Be careful when copying information or formulas to your test answers, because nothing looks worse in an open-book exam than misusing the material at your disposal.
  • Take-home tests are like open-book tests except you have the luxury of time on your side. Make sure you submit the exam on time. Know what the instructor’s expectations are about the content of your answers. The instructor will likely expect more detail and complete work because you are not under a strict time limit and because you have access to reference materials. Be clear about when the test is due. (Some instructors will ask you to e-mail your exam to them by a specific time.) Also, find out if the instructor allows or expects you to collaborate with classmates. Be sure to type your exam and don’t forget to spell-check!

Below you’ll find a table of the most common question types in written tests:

Question TypeDescription
Multiple choice (objective)You are presented with a question and a set of answers for each question, and you must choose which answer or group of answers is correct. Multiple-choice questions usually require less time for test-takers to answer than other question types, and they are easy to score and grade. They also allow for a wide range of difficulty.
True False
You are presented with a statement, and you must determine whether it is true or false. True/false questions are generally not predominant on tests because instructors know that, statistically, random guesswork can yield a good score. But when used sparingly, true/false questions can be effective.
You are presented with a set of specific terms or ideas and a set of definitions or identifying characteristics. You must match each term with its correct definition or characteristics.
You are presented with identifying characteristics, and you must recall and supply the correct associated term or idea. There are two types of fill-in-the-blank tests: 1) The easier version provides a word bank of possible words that will fill in the blanks. 2) The more difficult version has no word bank to choose from. Fill-in-the-blank tests with no word bank can be anxiety-producing.
You are presented with a question or concept that you must explain in depth. Essay questions emphasize themes and broad ideas. Essay questions allow students to demonstrate critical thinking, creative thinking, and writing skills.

Oral Tests or Presentations are a discussion type of test. They are also subjective: there isn’t just one correct answer to the test questions. The oral test is practiced in many schools and disciplines in which an examiner verbally poses questions to the student. The student must answer the question in such a way as to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject. Usually, study guides or a syllabus are made available so that the students may prepare for the exam by reviewing practice questions and topics likely to be on the exam. The instructor can (and likely will) probe you on certain points, question your assumptions, or ask you to defend your point of view. Make sure you practice your presentation many times with and without an audience (your study group is good for this). Have a clear and concise point of view and keep to the allotted time. (You don’t want to miss delivering a killer close if your instructor cuts you off because you weren’t aware of the time!)

Electronic Tests or Online Tests are most commonly used for formative assessments, although they are starting to find their way into high-stakes exams, particularly in large lecture classes that fulfill a graduation requirement (like introductory psychology or history survey courses). The main advantage of online tests is that they can be computer-graded, providing fast feedback to the student (with formative tests) and allowing the instructor to grade hundreds of exams easily (with summative assessments). Since these tests are computer-graded, be aware that the instructor’s judgment is not involved in the grading. Your answers will be either right or wrong; there is no room for partially correct responses. With online tests, be sure you understand the testing software. Are there practice questions? If so, make sure you use them. Find out if you will be allowed to move freely between test sections to go back and check your work or to complete questions you might have skipped. Some testing software does not allow you to return to sections once they are “submitted.” Unless your exam needs to be taken at a specific time, don’t wait until the last minute to take the test. Should you have technical problems, you want to have time to resolve the issues. To avoid any conflicts with the testing software, close all other software applications before beginning the testing software. Electronic tests in the classroom are becoming more common as colleges install “smart classrooms” with technology such as wireless “clicker” technology that instructors may use to get a quick read of students’ understanding of a lecture. This testing method allows for only true-or-false and multiple-choice questions, so it is rarely used for summative assessments. When taking this kind of quick quiz, take notes on questions you miss so that you can focus on them when you do your own review.

Complete Section #3 Below: ACTIVITY: Test your Test Knowledge Crossword


Test-Taking Strategies

You have used all the study skills you learned in this course. You listen in class, take clear notes, read your textbook, compare your textbook and classroom notes, and review regularly. You have brought your test anxiety into control. Your upcoming test is now an opportunity for you to show what you have learned What else can you do to ensure success on a test?

Before the Test

  • Use your study skills as you go.
  • Research the test’s structure and scope.
    • What is the test format?
    • What chapters does it cover?
    • How many questions are on it?
    • What is the time limit?
    • What materials are allowed?
    • Is a study guide provided?
    • Are practice tests available?
    • What percentage of your final grade is the test?
  • Collect and organize the resources you need to study.
    • Classroom notes
    • Textbook notes
    • Master set of notes
    • Study guides
    • Practice tests
    • Handouts
    • Slides or presentations
  • Study over several sessions
    • Make a study plan for several days before the exam
    • Have a clear goal for each study session
    • Study in 45-60 minutes chunks and then take a break
  • Make study aids
    • Create flashcards
    • Make a study guide
  • Make a practice test
    • Predict test questions
    • Practice answering essay questions
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Have a healthy breakfast
  • Be sure you have all the necessary materials
    • Pencils
    • Erasers
    • Pens
    • Answer sheets/test booklets
    • Calculators
  • Arrive early and relax

During the Test

  • Scan the test first to see what it covers

    • This often reduces anxiety and boosts confidence
    • Identify the point value of each test section
  • Write down what you know
    • If you are trying to remember things like formulas, definitions, lists, etc., flip your test over and write down everything you are trying to remember. This will clear your brain, allowing you to focus 100% on the exam, rather than using part of your attention to remember specific information.
  • Plan your time
    • Now that you have scanned your test, how much time should you spend on each section?
    • This can often reduce anxiety and keeps you from unnecessarily rushing
    • Check on the time often to make sure you are on track. Slow down or speed up as necessary.
    • Work on high point-value questions first
  • Read the instructions carefully
    • Don’t assume you know what the instructions are. Be sure!
  • Answer the easy questions first and skip the harder ones.
    • Go through the test and answer all of the ones you know first.
    • Skip the ones you are unsure of. There are often clues later in the exam or another question that will spark your memory.
    • Stay positive by not getting down about a question you don’t know. Skip it and return to it later.
  • Read each question carefully!
  • Answer everything. Don’t leave anything blank, even if you have to guess.
  • Don’t rush!  Use all the time available. There are no points for finishing first.
  • Check your work for accuracy.
    • Check to make sure you have answered all parts of a question.
    • Check your answer sheet every 10 questions to make sure you aren’t mismarking.
    • Only change an answer if you are SURE you made a mistake.  Your first instinct is most likely correct.

After the Test

  • Reward yourself for a job well done!
  • Stick with your study schedule
    • We have a tendency to take a break from our studies after an exam, often resulting in being behind the next week.
  • Use the test as a learning tool
    • What did you well?
    • What can you do differently for the next test?
    • What did you learn about this instructor’s testing style and how will that impact your study plan?
  • What patterns do you notice about your test-taking?
    • Did you lose points for not answering all parts of the essay?
    • Did you not read questions or instructions carefully?
    • Do you need to focus more on dates, vocabulary, formulas, etc.?
  • Review your test carefully and fix all errors so you don’t make the same mistakes again.
  • Apply the feedback to the next test


Strategies For Specific Question Types

You can gain even more confidence in your test-taking abilities by understanding the different kinds of questions an instructor may ask and apply the following proven strategies for answering them. Most instructors will likely use various conventional types of questions. Here are some tips for handling the most common types.

Multiple-Choice Questions

  • Read the instructions carefully to determine if there may be more than one right answer.
    • If there are multiple right answers, does the instructor expect you to choose just one, or do you need to mark all correct options?
  • Read each question carefully and try to answer it in your head before reading the answer options.
    • Then consider all the options.
    • Eliminate first the options that are clearly incorrect.
    • Compare the remaining answers with your own answer before choosing one and marking your paper.
    • If you are stuck, treat the remaining answers as True/Fale statements. This often helps pick the correct answer.
  • Look for clue words that hint that certain option answers might be correct or incorrect.
    • Absolute words like “never,” “always,” “every,” or “none” are rarely found in a correct option.
    • Less absolute words like “usually,” “often,” or “rarely” are regularly found in correct options.
  • Be on the lookout for the word “not” in the stem phrase and in the answer choice options; it is an easy word to miss if you are reading too quickly, but it completely changes the meaning of the possible statements.
  • Skip difficult questions.
    • There are often clues in later questions. Or, you may recall information that you had forgotten
  • Go back and answer all the questions.
    • Do not leave any questions blank, unless there is a penalty for wrong answers (this is often on standardized tests like the SAT and LSAT but rarely on college tests.)

True-or-False Questions

  • Most of the tips for multiple-choice questions apply here as well.
  • Be particularly aware of the words “never,” “always,” “every,” “none,” and “not” because they can determine the correct answer.
  • Answer the questions that are obvious to you first. Then go back to statements that require more thought.
  • If the question is stated in the positive, restate it to yourself in the negative by adding the word “not” or “never.” Does the new statement sound truer or more false?
  • If you still are unsure whether a statement is true or false and must guess, choose “true” because most tests include more true statements than false (but don’t guess if a wrong answer penalizes you more than one left blank).

Matching Columns

  • Start by looking at the two columns to be matched. Is there an equal number of items in both columns? If they are not equal, do you have to match some items in the shorter column to two or more items in the longer column, or can you leave some items unmatched? Read the directions to be sure.
  • If one column has a series of single words to be matched to phrases in the other column, read all the phrases first, then all the single words before trying to make any matches. Now go back and read each phrase and find the word that best suits the phrase.
  • If both columns have single words to be matched, look to cut down the number of potential matches by grouping them by parts of speech (nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, etc.).
  • As always, start by making the matches that are obvious to you, and then work on the ones that require more thought. Mark off all items you have already used so you can easily see which words or phrases still remain to be matched.

Short Answer Questions

  • Short answer questions are designed for you to recall and provide some very specific information (unlike essay questions, which also ask you to apply critical thinking to that information). When you read the question, ask yourself what exactly the instructor wants to know. Keep your answers short and specific.

Essay Questions

  • Essay questions are used by instructors to evaluate your thinking and reasoning applied to the material covered in a course. Good essay answers are based on your thoughts, supported by examples from classes and reading assignments.
  • Careful planning is critical to answering essay questions effectively. Note how many essay questions you have to answer and how difficult each question seems. Then allocate your time accordingly.
  • Read the question carefully and underline or circle keywords.
    • Watch for words that describe the instructor’s expectations for your response (see the table below.)
    • Use other parts of the exam, like multiple choice, to help you recall vocabulary or specific information.
  • If time allows, organize your thoughts by creating a quick outline for your essay. This helps ensure that you don’t leave out key points, and if you run out of time, it may pick up a few points for your grade.
    • Jot down the specific information you might want to use, such as names, dates, and places.
  • Introduce your essay answer, but get right to the point. Remember that the instructor will be grading dozens of papers and avoid “filler” text that does not add value to your answer.
    • For example, rather than writing, “In our study of the Civil War, it is helpful to consider the many facets that lead to conflict, especially the economic factors that help explain this important turning point in our nation’s history,” write a more direct and concise statement like this: “Economic factors help explain the start of the Civil War.”
  • Write neatly and watch your grammar and spelling.
    • Allow time to proofread your essay. You want your instructor to want to read your essay, not dread it.
    • Remember that grading essays is are largely subjective, and a favorable impression can lead to more favorable grading.
  • Be sure to answer all parts of the question. Essay questions often have more than one part. Remember, too, that essay questions often have multiple acceptable answers.

Words to Watch for in Essay Questions

WordWhat It MeansWhat the Instructor Is Looking For
AnalyzeBreak concept into key partsDon’t just list the parts; show how they work together and illustrate any patterns.
CompareShow similarities (and sometimes differences) between two or more concepts or ideasDefine the similarities and clearly describe how the items or ideas are similar. Do these similarities lead to similar results or effects? Note that this word is often combined with “contrast.” If so, make sure you do both.
ContrastShow differences between two or more concepts or ideasDefine the differences and clearly describe how the items or ideas are different. How do these differences result in different outcomes? Note that this word is often combined with “compare.” If so, make sure you do both.
CritiqueJudge and analyzeExplain what is wrong—and right—about a concept. Include your own judgments, supported by evidence and quotes from experts that support your point of view.
DefineDescribe the meaning of a word, phrase, or conceptDefine the concept or idea as your instructor did in class—but use your own words. If your definition differs from what the instructor presented, support your difference with evidence. Keep this essay short. Examples can help illustrate a definition, but remember that examples alone are not a definition.
DiscussExplain or reviewDefine the key questions around the issue to be discussed and then answer them. Another approach is to define the pros and cons on the issue and compare and contrast them. In either case, explore all relevant data and information.
ExplainClarify, give reasons for somethingClarity is key for these questions. Outline your thoughts carefully. Proofread, edit, proofread, and proofread again! Good explanations are often lost in too many words.
IllustrateOffer examplesUse examples from class material or reading assignments. Compare and contrast them to other examples you might come up with from additional reading or real life.
ProveProvide evidence and arguments that something is trueInstructors who include this prompt in an exam question have often proven the hypothesis or other concepts in their class lectures. Think about the kind of evidence the instructor used and apply similar types of processes and data.
SummarizeGive a brief, precise description of an idea or conceptKeep it short, but cover all key points. This is one essay prompt where examples should not be included unless the instructions specifically ask for them. (For example, “Summarize the steps of the learning cycle and give examples of the main strategies you should apply in each one.”)

Below is another video from College Info Geek called 10 Ways to Avoid Making Stupid Mistakes on Exams.

10 Ways to Avoid Making Stupid Mistakes on Exams - College Info Geek


Practicing Academic Integrity On Exams

Throughout this book, we have focused on the active process of learning, not just on how to get good grades. The attitude of some students that grades are the end-all in academics has led many students to resort to academic dishonesty to try to get the best possible grades or handle the pressure of an academic program. Although you may be further tempted if you’ve heard people say, “Everybody does it,” or “It’s no big deal at my school,” you should be mindful of the consequences of cheating:

  • You don’t learn as much. Cheating may get you the right answer on a particular exam question, but it won’t teach you how to apply knowledge in the world after school, nor will it give you a foundation of knowledge for learning the more advanced material. When you cheat, you cheat yourself out of opportunities.
  • You risk failing the course or even expulsion from school. Each institution has its own definitions of and penalties for academic dishonesty, but most include cheating, plagiarism, and fabrication or falsification. The exact details of what is allowed or not allowed vary somewhat among different colleges and even instructors, so you should be sure to check your school’s Web site and your instructor’s guidelines to see what rules apply. Ignorance of the rules is seldom considered a valid defense.
  • Cheating causes stress. Fear of getting caught will cause you stress and anxiety; this will get in the way of performing well with the information you do know.
  • You’re throwing away your money and time. Getting a college education is a big investment of money and effort. You’re simply not getting your full value when you cheat because you don’t learn as much.
  • You are trashing your integrity. Cheating once and getting away with it makes it easier to cheat again, and the more you cheat, the more comfortable you will feel with giving up your integrity in other areas of life—with perhaps even more serious consequences.
  • Cheating lowers your self-esteem. If you cheat, you are telling yourself that you are simply not smart enough to handle learning. It also robs you of the feeling of satisfaction from genuine success.

Technology has made it easier to cheat. Your credit card and an Internet connection can procure a paper for you on just about any subject and length. You can copy and paste for free from various Web sites. Students have made creative use of texting and video on their cell phones to gain unauthorized access to material for exams. But be aware that technology has also created ways for instructors to easily detect these forms of academic dishonesty. Most colleges make these tools available to their instructors. Instructors are also modifying their testing approaches to reduce potential academic misconduct by using methods that are harder to cheat at (such as in-class essays that evaluate your thinking and oral presentations).

If you feel uneasy about doing something in your college work, trust your instincts. Confirm with the instructor that your intended form of research or use of the material is acceptable. Cheating just doesn’t pay.

Examples of Academic Dishonesty

Academic dishonesty can take many forms, and you should be careful to avoid them. The following list from Northwestern University is a clear and complete compilation of what most institutions will consider unacceptable academic behavior.

  1. Cheating: using unauthorized notes, study aids, or information on an examination; altering a graded work after it has been returned, then submitting the work for regrading; allowing another person to do one’s work and submitting that work under one’s own name; submitting identical or similar papers for credit in more than one course without prior permission from the course instructors.
  2. Plagiarism: submitting material that in part or whole is not entirely one’s own work without attributing those same portions to their correct source. You can read more about plagiarism in Chapters 2 and 14.
  3. Fabrication: falsifying or inventing any information, data, or citation; presenting data that were not gathered in accordance with standard guidelines defining the appropriate methods for collecting or generating data and failing to include an accurate account of the method by which the data were gathered or collected.
  4. Obtaining an Unfair Advantage: (a) stealing, reproducing, circulating, or otherwise gaining access to examination materials prior to the time authorized by the instructor; (b) stealing, destroying, defacing, or concealing library materials with the purpose of depriving others of their use; (c) unauthorized collaboration on an academic assignment; (d) retaining, possessing, using or circulating previously given examination materials, where those materials clearly indicate that they are to be returned to the instructor at the conclusion of the examination; (e) intentionally obstructing or interfering with another student’s academic work; or (f) otherwise undertaking an activity with the purpose of creating or obtaining an unfair academic advantage over other students’ academic work.
  5. Aiding and Abetting Academic Dishonesty: (a) providing material, information, or other assistance to another person with knowledge that such aid could be used in any of the violations stated above, or (b) providing false information in connection with any inquiry regarding academic integrity.
  6. Falsification of Records and Official Documents: altering documents affecting academic records; forging signatures of authorization or falsifying information on an official academic document, grade report, letter of permission, petition, drop/add form, ID card, or any other official University document.
  7. Unauthorized Access to computerized academic or administrative records or systems: viewing or altering computer records, modifying computer programs or systems, releasing or dispensing information gained via unauthorized access, or interfering with the use or availability of computer systems or information.


Using Test Results

So far, we have focused on how to study for and take tests effectively. This section discusses how to use test results to their greatest benefit. Some of your most important learning begins when your graded test paper is returned to you. Your first reaction, of course, is to see what grade you received and how you did compared with your classmates. This is a natural reaction.

Make sure you listen to the instructor as the papers are returned. What is the instructor saying about the test? Is there a particular point everyone had trouble with? Does the instructor generally think everyone did well? The instructor’s comments at this point may give you important information about what you should study more, about the value of review sessions, and even about possible questions for the next exam.

Although you may be tempted to throw away the exam, don’t. It is a very helpful tool for the next phase of preparing for learning. This is a three-step process, beginning with evaluating your results.

Evaluating Your Test Results

When you receive your test back, sit quietly and take a close look at it. What questions did you get wrong? What kind of mistakes were they? (See Table: “Exam Errors and How to Correct Them”.) Do you see a pattern? What questions did you get right? What were your strengths? What can you learn from the instructor’s comments?

Now think of the way in which you prepared for the exam and the extent to which you applied the exam strategies described earlier in this chapter. Were you prepared for the exam? Did you study the right material? What surprised you? Did you read the entire test before starting? Did your time allocation work well, or were you short of time on certain parts of the exam?

Table: Exam Errors and How to Correct Them

Type of ErrorExamplesCorrective Steps
Study and Preparation ErrorsI did not study the material for that question (enough).Practice predicting possible questions better.
I ran out of time.Join a study group.
I did not prepare enough.Read the entire test before starting. Allocate your time.
Focus Errors or CarelessnessI did not read the directions carefully.Allocate exam time carefully.
I confused terms or concepts that I actually know well.Give yourself time to read carefully and think before answering a question.
I misread or misunderstood the question.
Content ErrorsI studied the material but couldn’t make it work with the questionSeek additional help from the instructor.
I didn’t understand what the instructor wanted.Go to all classes, labs, and review sessions.
I confused terms or concepts.Join a study group.
Check and practice your active reading and listening skills.
Schedule regular study time for this course.
Mechanical ErrorsThe instructor misread my writing.Slow down! Don’t rush through the exam. Take the time to do things right the first time.
I didn’t erase a wrong answer completely (on a computer-graded answer sheet).
I forgot to go back to a question I had skipped over.
I miscopied some calculations or facts from my worksheet.

Based on your analysis of your test, identify the kind of corrective steps you should take to improve your learning and test performance. Implement those steps as you begin your preparation for your next class. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them; if you don’t learn from your successes, it will be harder to repeat them.

Correcting Your Mistakes

The second step in making your test work for you is to correct your wrong answers. The last time you wrote the information (when you took the test), you created a link to the wrong information in your memory, so that must be corrected.

  • For multiple-choice questions, write out the question stem with the correct answer to form a single correct sentence or phrase.
  • For true-or-false questions, write the full statement if it is true; if it is false, reword it in such a way that it is true (such as by inserting the word “not”). Then write the new statement.
  • For math and science questions involving calculations, redo the entire solution with the calculations written out fully.
  • You need not rewrite an entire essay question if you did not do well, but you should create a new outline for what would be a correct answer. Make sure you incorporate any ideas triggered by your instructor’s comments.
  • When you have rewritten all your answers, read them all out loud before incorporating your new answers in your notes.

Integrating Your Test into Your Study Guide

Your corrected quizzes and midterm exams are important study tools for final exams. Make sure you file them with your notes for the study unit. Take the time to annotate your notes based on the exam. Pay particular attention to any gaps in your notes on topics that appeared in the quiz or exam. Research those points in your text or online and complete your notes. Review your exams throughout the term (not just before the final) to be sure you cement the course material into your memory.

When you prepare for the final exam, start by reviewing your quizzes and other tests to predict the kinds of questions the instructor may ask on the final. This will help focus your final studying when you have a large amount of coursework to cover.

If You Don’t Get Your Test Back

If your instructor chooses not to return tests to students, make an appointment to see the instructor soon after the test to review it and your performance. Take notes on what you had trouble with and the expected answers. Add these notes to your study guide. Make sure you don’t lose out on the opportunity to learn from your results.



  • Some stress before a test or exam is common and beneficial but test anxiety is stress that gets in the way of performing effectively.
  • The most common causes of test anxiety are a lack of preparation and negative attitudes.
  • The key to combating test anxiety is to try to reduce stressors to a manageable level rather than try to eliminate them totally.
  • Effective studying happens over time, not just a few days before an exam. Consistent and regular review time helps you learn the material better and saves you time and anguish as exam time approaches.
  • Study groups are a great idea, provided they are thoughtfully managed.
  • In addition to studying, prepare for exams and quizzes by getting plenty of rest, eating well, and getting some exercise the day before the exam.
  • Before the exam, learn as much as you can about the kinds of questions your instructor will be asking and the specific material that will be covered.
  • The first step to the successful completion of an exam is to browse the entire exam and develop a plan (including a “time budget”) for completing the exam.
  • Read questions carefully. Underline keywords in questions, particularly in essay questions and science questions.
  • Being dishonest can have major consequences that can affect not only your college career but also your life beyond college.
  • When you cheat, you are primarily cheating yourself.
  • Working with exams does not end when your instructor hands back your graded test.
  • Quizzes and midterms are reliable predictors of the kind of material that will be on the final exam.
  • When evaluating your test performance, don’t look only at the content you missed. Identify the types of mistakes you commonly make and formulate plans to prevent these mistakes in future assessments.