Study Tips

How to Take Tests

Some students are better test takers than others. Mostly this is because they are better prepared, but test taking strategies also play a part. Here are some guidelines that might help you.

General Guidelines

  1. Begin by quickly reviewing the test. Do you have all of the pages? How many questions? How long do you have? Make a schedule, leaving time at the end to go back and finish up the questions you weren’t able to answer the first time.
  2. Do not insist on completing each question before going on to the next. Some will take longer than others; but don’t spend so much time on one question you can’t answer that you don’t have time for others you could answer. This is extremely important. If you spend a lot of time on one question that you don’t understand there are two negative outcomes—losing time and losing confidence—and you can’t afford either. Instead, stay focused and stay on your schedule.
  3. Go through the entire test answering only the questions you are reasonably confident that you know. This will make you more relaxed and more confident for what lies ahead. Now go through the test a second time working out the answers to the more difficult questions. However, don’t spend all of your time on any one question.
  4. Once you have gone through the test twice, see if any of the questions you’ve answered already contain information that can help you answer others. Sometimes questions are answered in later questions.
  5. Do not cheat. Besides being immoral it is unfair to your colleagues, your professor and to you. If you cheat, you don’t help yourself in the long run.

Specific Advice for Multiple Choice Tests

  1. Read each question carefully and try to answer it before you read the alternatives. If you do and then see your answer as one of the alternatives, you can be more certain that you’ve answered it correctly than just by recognizing an alternative.
  2. But make sure you look at all the answers before choosing. It is important to read all the answers, and not just take the first seemingly correct answer that you see. Remember that the wrong answers are called distracters because that’s what they are. They may well be familiar terms from the course, just not the answer to that question.
  3. Do not spend too much time on any one question. Sometimes the question will seem to have no right answer. You may think that the professor has made a mistake and that there is no correct answer. Maybe, but not as likely as that you just don’t know the answer at the moment. In any case don’t waste too much time trying to answer a difficult question. Leave it blank and you can come back to it later if you have extra time.
  4. If the question asks you something you do not know, see if you can cross out any of the wrong answers before you make a choice. By carefully eliminating answers you know must be wrong, you can increase your chances of guessing correctly. If you only know the answers to half the questions on a multiple-choice test, your score will be 50%. But if you can eliminate one alternative from each of the other questions you could bring your score up to 67%. And if you can eliminate two alternatives on each your score may rise to 75%.
  5. Don’t keep changing your answer. Most research suggests that your first answer is more likely correct than any changes you would make. Change your answer only if you are certain that you made a mistake as in the case where another question provides you with additional information.
  6. After you have finished the test, go back to those questions you left blank. See if you can answer them now. Use all of the rest of the time wisely. Never leave a test early, unless you are sure you have answered every question correctly.
  7. If you still cannot answer a question, guess before you turn in the test. On a four alternative multiple choice test you have a 25% chance of getting an answer right. On standardized tests this amount may be deducted for each wrong answer to penalize guessing; but few class room tests are graded this way.

How to Take Essay Tests

Essay tests require a different kind of preparation than do objective tests. Professors who use essay tests are trying to determine if you understand the material and whether you can apply it rather than if you just know certain facts. You will of course need to know the facts but you must also look for connections and contrasts between these facts. You must know them well enough to do something with them.

  1. Read all the questions quickly before you begin to plan your answer. There will generally be a plan for the test so that it adequately covers the course material. You should understand that plan and know what kind of information needs to be included in each question.
  2. Plan your time. How much time will you have to write each answer? Allow yourself some extra time at the end to make certain that you’ve answered every question and that you’ve numbered, named, labeled and organized the test as the professor has requested before your turn the test in—on time. Don’t make the professor wait just on you—that can’t help your grade.
  3. As you read each question pay close attention to the verbs asking you to do something specific with the course information. (See below for examples.) If you don’t understand what the professor wants, ask for clarification.
  4. Write out a plan for how you will meet the requirements of the question. The more systematic the structure you can provide, the better organized (and therefore more readable) your essay will be.
  5. Plan your answer based on the criteria the professor uses to grade the exam. Is the grade based on organization, content, spelling and grammar, quantity or conciseness? The more you now about the essays are graded the more you can tailor your work to those criteria.
  6. Write a draft. Now you are writing for yourself, to get as much relevant information down on paper as quickly as possible while it occurs to you. Don’t think about handwriting or spelling or complete sentences.
  7. Now write your answer, revising, to make certain that the organization is clear. You will do well to underline and otherwise organize the answer so that it is immediately clear that you have answered it completely and clearly.
  8. Reread the answer slowly. Do more details come to mind? Is there anything you should delete? Have you met all the criteria? Does your essay answer all parts of the question?
Key Verbs in Essay Questions
  • Analyze Break concepts down into parts, identify the parts and demonstrate how they relate to each other to make the whole.
  • Assess/Criticize/Evaluate Clearly state your criteria and determine whether the concepts measure up.
  • Classify Break the concept into categories making certain that you provide a rationale for doing so and that you clearly label the categories.
  • Compare/Contrast Find important similarities and differences between two ideas and indicate why these are significant issues. Emphasize similarities if you are asked to compare, differences if you are asked to contrast.
  • Define/Identify What makes the topic, concept or issue what it is? How is it different from other members of the same category?
  • Discuss/Examine Analyze or evaluate the topic, generating your own significant questions, and going beyond mere summary.
  • Illustrate Use specific examples to clarify the characteristics of the idea.
  • Outline/Review/State Organize main and subordinate points in order to classify the elements or stages of development of the idea, concept, topic, etc.
  • Prove/Validate Provide logical reasons and cite evidence to convince the reader of the truth of the concept.