Taking Tests

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The art of taking tests... and passing!


While there is no "silver bullet" for students in taking tests, there are a number of techniques and strategies that are appropriate for each type of test. The following section provides tips and suggestions for helping you become a more efficient and effect test-taker.

Preparation


Preparation, as anyone will tell you, is the key to success. If you try to leave everything to the last minute, or keep disorganized notes, you will find that passing each test becomes progressively harder.

So we've put together some key tips for you.

General preparation

  • Make sure you understand everything as it is taught—ask questions of the instructor, or other people in your class. Waiting till a few weeks or even months after the class won't help.
  • Make sure you take good, comprehensive notes.
  • Keep your notes in order (most people find it easiest to separate notes by subject and class). You might prefer to type your notes on to your computer, or to keep them in a 3-ring binder or have a separate spiral notebook for each class.
  • Cross-reference notes from different classes where appropriate. The ability to bring ideas from different subjects together in a cohesive argument is highly sought after.
  • Condense your notes: emphasize a few key points for each topic, and write them down separately—either as a header, or using a flash card. Make sure you can remember the key points.
  • Form a study group with other students in your class. Discuss concepts, facts, data and experiments raised in your class, making sure you understand them.
  • Schedule short but frequent study sessions; it's easier for you to remember information in short learning bursts.
  • Don't plan on learning everything the night before. Your brain will overload and you won't remember half of what you read.

Before the test

  • Get copies of past test papers if possible. Read them through. (If there aren't any available, ask the instructor for some example questions to practice with.) This will help you think in the right manner.
    • Are there certain types of questions which tend to recur regularly?
    • What are the key terms used?
      Look for words like analyze, compare and contrast, evaluate, discuss. Each of them expects a different style of answer.
    • What format are the questions? Multiple choice, essay, etc.
    • How many questions are there, and how much time is given for the whole paper?
  • Practice answering essay questions. This sounds like a lot of work, but practice really makes a difference. Make sure you can get all the pertinent information into a coherent essay within the allotted time.
    For example: If you have to write 3 essays in an hour, spend no more than 20 minutes on each. Practice writing 17-minute essays: this also gives you 3 minutes to read the question, jot an outline and have a quick read-through at the end.
  • Ask your instructor if s/he would look over your practice answers and let you know if you're on the right track. (Don't expect a full workup complete with scoring - just a general idea!)
  • Get everything you need the night before the test so you don't have to scramble to find a pencil or calculator in the morning.
  • Last but not least—don't stay up late the night before! Try to get a good night's sleep, and remember to eat something in the morning!

During the Test


Take a few minutes at the beginning of the test to read through the whole paper.

  • How many questions are there?
  • Do you have to choose between certain questions?
  • Are some questions weighted more heavily than others? If so, make sure you allow more time and give a more detailed answer.
  • Look for the key words in question: analyze, compare, validate, etc.
  • Determine what the question is REALLY asking.
  • Quickly jot down key facts and information that you will need at the beginning of the test, either in the margin or on scrap paper (if provided) so you don't forget them.
  • Work out how much time you have for each question.
    If you run out of time while answering, leave blank space and move on to the next. You can go back and finish it later if you have enough time at the end, but you'll get more marks for attempting all the questions rather than answering a few completely.
  • Answer the easiest questions first. This helps get you thinking along the right lines, and builds confidence.

Remember—you CAN do it!

Reminders

  • Either leave your cellphone at home or switch it off.
  • Bring a watch—you don't want to be guessing how much time is left!
  • Don't forget to write your name or any other identifying information on your paper—there's nothing worse than earning a high grade but not being able to claim it!

Strategies


Multiple choice

Yes, we all know that this is one of the easiest forms of test. It's known to students by many names, including "multiple guess". But there is still some strategy involved. For example, some multiple-choice tests REMOVE points for wrong answers. So it's not always just a case of no revision and "take your best guess" on the day.

Here are some things to think about.

  • Is there only one correct answer per question or do some questions allow two or more correct answers?
  • Check whether you will be penalized for wrong answers.
  • If there is no penalty for wrong answers, make sure you answer every question. If you have to guess, at least take an educated guess!
  • Try to determine the correct answer first, before looking at the answers supplied. This acts as a double-check, and helps prevent the endless mind-changing and second-guessing that usually accompanies these tests!
  • Read all the choices before choosing your final answer.
  • On difficult questions, try to eliminate definitely wrong answers (cross them out on the question paper, if permitted). This may help you see the correct answer.
  • If you know that at least 2 of the supplied answers are correct, "all of the above" may apply.
  • Finally, check your paper. Did you answer everything you wanted to? Do the question and answer numbers match up? (You don't want to give the right answer to the wrong question!)


True/False

It's very easy to misread the question on these tests. Read it carefully before picking your answer, and don't hurry!
  • Pay attention to qualifiers and superlatives such as always, never, must, every, best, worst.
  • If any part of the question is false, then the entire statement is false.
  • Just because part of a statement is true doesn't necessarily make the entire statement true.
  • Will you get penalized for wrong answers? If not, you should answer every question even if you have to guess.
  • There tend to be more True answers than False on these tests. (Don't rely on this though!)
  • Don't waste time looking for patterns in the questions.
  • Don't second-guess yourself: keep your first answer unless you are sure you're wrong.


Short Answer

These are usually testing knowledge rather than understanding (that's what essays are for!) Prepare for short-answer tests by using flashcards and memorizing specific facts and key details.

  • Make sure you answer all parts of the question; some require more detail than others.
  • If you don't know an answer immediately, leave it and go back afterwards. A later question may jog your memory.
  • Pay attention to grammar—these aren't one-word answers unless you are specifically told this is acceptable and the wording implies a very short answer (e.g. the question asks "What year did the French Revolution begin?").
  • Use your knowledge of the course—the instructor should have covered everything in class.
  • Use the formal terms, or terms the instructor used. Don't use your own words if there's an "official" word for it.
  • If you don't have time, or can't remember everything, write down something anyway as you might get partial marks.
  • Use short, concise sentences. You need to condense the information into the space available.
  • If you're not sure about a specific detail, offer a more generic answer rather than risk being wrong (e.g. "The Vietnam War began in the late 1950s" rather than take a chance on "The Vietnam War began in 1959").


Essays

The essay papers always seem harder. Whether it's because you have to put more thought into each answer and structure them correctly, you never write anything in longhand any more, or you think your spelling and grammar aren't up to scratch, these type of tests always cause more jitters.

If you prepare properly, the worst that will happen is hand cramp from trying to get all your thoughts down on paper within the allotted time.

  • Read the question carefully. Make sure you know exactly what it's asking.
  • Jot down a brief outline before you start writing. Structure is always important, and this stops you wandering off on a tangent.
  • Make sure you answer the question. We can't emphasize this enough.
    If it's asking you to "Evaluate the following argument" don't spend all your time saying whether you think the argument is right or wrong - you're not being asked for your opinion on the TOPIC, it's asking you how good the ARGUMENT is.
  • Give a summary of your argument/reasoning in the first paragraph, then use the rest of the paper to bring out each salient point in detail.
  • Focus on one main idea per paragraph.
  • Try to refer back to the question every 2-3 paragraphs. This helps keep you on track.
  • Provide specific evidence if possible. Always provide something to back up your arguments - preferably data or a quote from a recognized source. (What your best friend said last week probably won't count.)
  • Develop the argument logically. State each point, provide supporting evidence, and write a suitable conclusion. The conclusion should have been proven throughout the paper and should contain the same central idea as your introduction.
  • Try to use transitional phrases to make your paper flow more easily; it also stops you jumping around from point to point.
  • If you aren't sure about a specific date or amount, generalize. So rather than writing "sometime around 1990" try "in the late 20th century" instead.
  • Make sure you write legibly and use full, grammatical English sentences. Avoid abbreviations, slang and "txtspk" unless you are using them to make a specific point.
  • Try to leave some time at the end to read through your essay. Make sure you've covered the key points; check your spelling, grammar and punctuation.
  • If you don't have enough time to finish (or start) a question, write an outline of your argument and theories. You will still get some marks for this. Anything is better than nothing.

After each test, take a break. Don't start thinking about your test strategy immediately. Wait a day (if possible) or a couple of hours, then start thinking about your preparation and strategies. Look for your weaknesses, and try to plan how to strengthen them for next time.

Essay Checklist


Before you turn in your paper, run a quick mental check to make sure you've covered everything.

  • Does the first sentence of my answer refer back to the question AND show how I will develop my answer?
  • Are my major points clear?
  • Have I supported my major points with facts and examples?
  • Have I interpreted examples and facts to give my own opinion?
  • Does the paper flow easily from point to point, or does it jump around with no transitions?
  • Did I answer the question?
  • Did I include a conclusion?
  • Does my conclusion match views in my opening paragraph?
  • Is my handwriting readable?

Anxiety


Pre-Test Anxiety

It's easy to confuse lack of preparation causing difficulty with real test anxiety. The most common sign of test anxiety is freezing up during the test... when you know the answer but can't get it out. Maybe the words suddenly stop making sense, even though you know the topic inside-out. Maybe you know that you know the answer, but just can't remember it. Or maybe you're having problems learning anything in preparation for the test.

Symptoms of pre-test anxiety generally fall into 4 categories. You may experience only one of these, or many; some people are never affected physically but feel like an emotional wreck, while others find behavioral issues are a problem.

  • Physical - Headaches, difficulty sleeping, excessive sweating, shortness of breath, extreme body temperature changes, nausea or diarrhea, rapid heart beat, and/or dry mouth.
  • Emotional - Anger, disappointment, depression, excessive crying or laughing, feelings of fear, feelings of helplessness.
  • Behavioral - Fidgeting, pacing, avoidance, substance abuse (whether that's caffeine, alcohol, or OTC/prescribed/illegal drugs).
  • Cognitive - Difficulty concentrating, feelings of dread, comparing yourself to others, difficulty organizing your thoughts, racing thoughts.

If you recognize some of these signs, these general strategies may help.

General strategies
  • Give yourself adequate preparation time.
  • Avoid "cramming."
  • Try to create questions as you read.
  • Always pay attention if your instructor says key words like:
    • "This is important"
    • "This will be on the test"
    • or writes something on the board.
  • If you don't have time to cover all the topics, concentrate on the most important areas.

    If you don't understand the basic theories, for instance, it won't help you to revise their advanced applications.

Thought processes

Our thoughts create a large part of our stress and anxiety. They just keep running round and around in your head, getting worse each time.

Sometimes the thoughts are obvious—like "There's too much to learn, so I'm going to fail!"

There are some test preparation ideas and time management suggestions which can help, and we're sure you know to relax and give yourself a break sometimes.

Sometimes, though, the thoughts aren't quite so easily resolved. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • If I don't get a good grade, I'm going to fail this class.
  • I keep myself to high standards (or my family/friends expect me to do well).
  • I'm the only person in this class who doesn't understand this section.
  • I've always done well before; anything lower than [an A, a B] is unacceptable.
  • I've been ill/had personal problems, and I'm falling behind... I'll never catch up.
  • I'm not used to handwriting papers. I'll never manage without a spell check.

Reducing the anxiety

Look at the list above. Note the ones which are familiar to you, and let's think about them. How true are they?

Thought Truth
If I don't get a good grade, I'm going to fail this class. The class is based on more than just one test, even if it is the final. It's unlikely that one bad test will cause you to fail, but if you're worried, speak to your instructor in advance. He or she might be able to offer some suggestions. You might be able to do an extra credit assignment. You might be able to repeat the class if necessary.
I keep myself to high standards (or my family/friends expect me to do well). Motivation is good, but you can't always work to other people's expectations. You know yourself best - make realistic goals for yourself, based on what you know you can do. Everyone will have a bad day, or a class that seems impossible.
I'm the only person in this class who doesn't understand this section. This is unlikely. The chance of you being the only one is very small indeed. But if you know that someone seems to understand it much more, have you thought of asking for help? Most people are thrilled to be able to help someone else.
I've always done well before; anything lower than [an A, a B] is unacceptable. Despite our best intentions, it is not always possible to get the grade we want. Sometimes a class is much harder, sometimes you have trouble keeping up, sometimes you just have problems remembering the information. Try not to stress yourself too much. Make realistic goals.
I've been ill/had personal problems, and I'm falling behind... I'll never catch up. If you've had medical or personal problems, speak to your advisor or your instructor as soon as you can. They will work with you to find a way for you to cope.
I'm not used to handwriting papers. I'll never manage without a spell check. This one is hard! Spelling is something you can't improve overnight, but many spell check corrections were actually typos. Start keeping track of actual errors you make, even when emailing, and try to correct yourself.
If you're worried about the actual writing, start making notes by hand. Write some practice papers... longhand. Practice makes perfect!

In summary

Try to remember the true thoughts, not the worrying stress-inducing ones.

Whenever one of these anxious thoughts crosses your mind, try to remind yourself that there are alternatives. A bad grade, or a lower grade than you wanted, is not going to ruin your life forever. Courses can be repeated. Missing coursework or tests can be made up.

If you're still worried, or just want to speak to someone in confidence, UAB offers a free counseling services for all students.


Anxiety During the Test

What does test anxiety feel like?

Although it varies from person to person, the most common symptoms are:

  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetting information that you previously learned
  • A sudden headache
  • Feelings of tension, a rapid pulse or sweating
  • Frustration

What can I do?

It's not uncommon to suddenly feel panic during a test, but you can use certain techniques to bypass it and get yourself back on track.

Be prepared

Make sure you have a sweater or long-sleeved shirt with you in case you get cold. Bring some water, if it's permitted, and a spare pencil. Arrive early enough to choose the seat you want—somewhere you'll feel safe and won't be distracted.

During the test:

  • Put your pencil down, close your eyes, and take 5 deep breaths. Hold each one for a count of 5.
  • Consciously try to relax any tense muscles—roll your head, stretch your arms, arch your back.
  • Play a soothing piece of music in your head.
  • Tell yourself, "I can do this."
  • Remind yourself of other daunting goals that you reached.
  • Focus on just one question at a time. Don't worry about the others.
  • Picture the reward you promised yourself for finishing well.

You can even just resharpen your pencil—anything that gets your mind back in focus (and doesn't distract the other students, of course!).

Final Exams


Final exam week can be fun if you are prepared. If you plan ahead, most of your studying will be complete before finals arrive. Review the information listed below, download and complete the final exam information form at the end of this information, and begin preparing for your finals right now. Don't wait until a week before the exam to start studying!

Early preparation

Begin preparing for the your final exam on the first day of the term. Lecture notes, assigned text pages, and homework problems are part of the preparation.

As test day approaches, you should know how much time you will need to review, what material the test will cover, and what format the test will take.

Three things will help you study well: good communication with your instructor, effective time management, and organization of materials:
  1. Ask your instructor.
    Talk with your instructor about the content of the exam. Ask for additional help with difficult concepts or problems.
  2. Manage your time wisely.
    Make a new schedule for the week before and during finals. This time is unlike any other time during the semester.
  3. Sharpen your study habits.
    You should have materials to effectively review what is likely to be on the exam. Use study groups or a partner to share information.
Planning your approach

Physical preparation

  • Maintain your regular sleep routine.
    Don't cut back on your sleep in order to cram in additional study hours. Remember that most tests will require you to apply the concepts that you have studied, and to do so effectively, you must have brain power available.
  • Maintain your regular exercise program.
    Exercising is an effective stress reducer and provides positive and needed breaks from studying.
  • Eat well.

Mental preparation

  • Know your material.
    If you have given yourself adequate time to review, you will enter the classroom confident that you are in control.
  • Practice relaxing.
    Use relaxation techniques like taking deep breaths and closing your eyes and thinking about places that make you happy.
  • Use positive self-talk.
    Make positive statements such as "I have attended all lectures, done my homework, and prepared for this exam. Now I am ready to pass this exam!"

Taking the test

  • Analyze, ask, and stay calm.
    Read all the directions so that you understand what to do. Ask for clarification if you don't understand something. Be confident. Don't panic! Answer one question at a time.
  • Make the best use of your time.
    Quickly survey the entire test and decide how much time you will spend on each section.
  • Answer the easy questions first.
    Expect that you'll be puzzled by some questions. Make a note to come back later.
  • If you finish early, don't leave. Stay and check your work for errors.

Partially adapted from Your College Experience, 4th Edition, Gardner and Jewler, Wadsworth Thomason Learning.