Phyllis Nissila

Pre-Test Strategies

chalkboard with "anxiety" written on it
“Anxiety” by HAMZA BUTT is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Q: When should you start preparing for the first test? Circle…

  1. The night before.
  2. The week prior.
  3. The first day of classes.

If you answered “3. The first day of classes,” you are correct. If you circled all three, you are also correct. Preparing to pass tests is something that begins when learning begins and continues all the way through to the final exam.

However, it can be difficult to find the time to prepare for a test when it still seems like a distant ship on the horizon. Because of this, many students find themselves cramming for weekly exams, mid-terms, or finals, the day before they have to take them. It’s important to remember that the brain can only process an average of 5-7 new pieces of information at a time. Additionally, unless memory devices are used to aid memory and to cement information into long term memory (or at least until the test is over tomorrow!) chances are slim that students who cram will effectively learn and remember the information.

Additionally, a lot of students are unaware of the many strategies available to help with the test-taking experience before, during, and after. For starters, look at the list below and mark the types of strategies that have  helped you so far.

EXERCISE 30-1

Pre-Test Taking Strategies

PART A:

Put a check mark next to the pre-test strategies you already employ.

____ Organize your notebook and other class materials the first week of classes.

____ Maintain your organized materials throughout the term.

____ Take notes on key points from lectures and other materials.

____ Make sure you understand the information as you go along.

____ Access your instructor’s help and the help of a study group, as needed.

____ Organize a study group, if desired.

____ Create study tools such as flashcards, graphic organizers, etc. as study aids.

____ Complete all homework assignments on time.

____ Review likely test items several times beforehand.

____ Ask your instructor what items are likely to be covered on the test.

____ Ask your instructor if she or he can provide a study guide or practice test.

____ Ask your instructor if they give partial credit for test items such as essays.

____ Maintain an active learner attitude. For example, when reading your notes or study materials, do you highlight key words and think of possible text questions?

____ Schedule extra study time in the days just prior to the test.

____ Gather all notes, handouts, and other materials needed before studying.

____ Review all notes, handouts, and other materials.

____ Organize your study area for maximum concentration and efficiency.

____ Create and use mnemonic devices, like images, codes, or key words, to aid memory.

____ Put key terms, formulas, etc., on a single study sheet that can be quickly reviewed.

____ Schedule study times short enough (1-2 hours) so you do not get burned out.

____ Get plenty of sleep the night before.

____ Set a back-up alarm in case the first alarm doesn’t sound or you sleep through it.

____ Have a good breakfast with complex carbs and protein to see you through.

____ Show up 5-10 minutes early to get completely settled before the test begins.

____ Use the restroom beforehand to minimize distractions.

____ Access resources from the Disability Resource Center to make sure that you have the necessary accommodations (for example, help with reading, writing, or extra time) for your test.

PART B

By reviewing the pre-test strategies, above, you have likely discovered new ideas to add to what you already use. Make a list of them.

Mid-Test Strategies

Here is a list of the most common–and useful–strategies to succeed on your college exams.

How to make the most of your time:

  • Scan the test, first, to get the big picture of how many test items there are, what types there are (multiple choice, short answer, true or false, matching, essay), and the point values of each item or group of items. If you are taking an online test, scan to see where the timer is, whether the test lets you go forward and backward through the pages, and how many pages there are. If you can skip ahead, it might be a good idea to check out the whole test before you begin.
  • Determine which way you want to approach the test: Some students start with the easy questions first, that is, the ones they immediately know the answers to, saving the difficult ones for later, knowing they can spend the remaining time on them. Some students begin with the biggest-point items first, to make sure they get the most points.
  • Determine a schedule that takes into consideration how long you have to test, and the types of questions on the test. Essay questions, for example, will require more time than multiple choice, or matching questions.
  • Keep your eye on the clock or timer.

How to deal with difficult questions:

  • If you can mark on the test, put a check mark next to items you are not sure of just yet. It is easy to go back and find them to answer later on. You might just find help in other test questions covering similar information. If you are taking a test online, check the settings to make sure you can go back to earlier questions. Some online platforms also allow you to mark questions so you know which ones you need to come back to.
  • You do NOT have to start with #1! It you are unsure of it, mark it to come back to later on.
  • If despite all of your best efforts to prepare for a test you just cannot remember the answer to a given item for multiple choice, matching, and/or true/false questions, employ one or more of the following educated guessing (also known as “educated selection”) techniques. By using these techniques, you have a better chance of selecting the correct answer.
    • It is usually best to avoid selecting an extreme or all-inclusive answer (also known as 100% modifiers) such as “always,” and “never”. Choose, instead, words such as “usually,” “sometimes,” etc. (also known as in-between modifiers).
    • If the answers are numbers, choose one of the middle numbers. If you have options such as “all of the above,” or “both A and B,” make sure each item is true before selecting those options.
    • Choose the longest, or most inclusive, answer.
    • Make sure to match the grammar of question and answer. For example, if the question indicates a plural answer, look for the plural answer.
    • For matching tests: count both sides to be matched. If there are more questions than answers, ask if you can use an answer more than once.
    • Pay close attention to items that ask you to choose the “best” answer. This means one answer is better or more inclusive than a similar answer. Read all of the response options.

Minimizing stress and other distractions:

  • If you have a documented disability, make sure your instructor is aware of this, and check in with them to make sure they have remembered your accommodations if they relate to test-taking. If your accommodations are not being met, it’s important to let the folks at the DRC know so they can advocate for you.
  • Sit where you are most comfortable. That said, sitting near the front has a couple of advantages: You may be less distracted by other students. If a classmate comes up with a question for the instructor and there is an important clarification given, you will be better able to hear it and apply it, if needed.
  • If you are taking a test at home, make sure you are in a quiet, comfortable place. If your home is not so quiet, you could book a study room at the library during the time of the test. You could also go to your college’s computer lab. The computers are usually faster, and they often have headphones that you can use. If you take your test in a public space, sit in a corner or in a location where you won’t be distracted by people moving around or talking.
  • Wear ear plugs, if noise distracts you.
  • Bring water. This helps calm the nerves, for one, and water is also needed for optimum brain function.
  • If permitted, get up and stretch (or stretch in your chair) from time to time to relieve tension and assist the blood to the brain.
  • Bring something sweet and chewy like gum or candies. Chewing can help alleviate anxiety and sugar stimulates the brain.
  • Remember to employ strategies to reduce test-taking anxiety (covered in the next lesson)

Post-Test Strategies

In addition to sighing that big sigh of relief, here are a few suggestions to help with future tests.

  • If you don’t understand why you did not get an item right, go to your instructor’s office hours to ask them about it. You could also email your questions. The important thing is to ask! Asking shows initiative and can be especially useful for quizzes that contain information that may be incorporated into more inclusive exams such as mid-terms and finals.
  • Analyze your results to help you in the future. For example,
    • See if most of your incorrect answers were small things such as failing to include the last step in a math item, or neglecting to double-check for basic errors in a short-answer or essay item.
    • See where in the test you made the most errors: beginning, middle, or end.
    • Also analyze which type of questions, true/false, multiple choice, essay, etc.
    • Also pay attention to  which topics you  missed. This will help you pay closer attention to those sections in the future.
    • Evaluate your study strategy. Was it helpful? Is there anything you could improve?

EXERCISE 30-2

Part 1: Look through the recommendations in this chapter. Make a two-sided list:

  • On one side, write which strategies you already use for pre-, mid-, and post-tests.
  • On the other side, write which strategies you could start using.

Part 2: Look through the syllabi for your classes. Choose one exam and write a study plan for it.

Licenses and Attributions:

CC licensed content, previously shared:

Nissila, Phyllis. How to Learn Like a Pro! Open Oregon Educational Resources, 2016. Located at: https://openoregon.pressbooks.pub/collegereading/chapter/lesson-6-1-pre-test-strategies/  CC-BY Attribution.

Adaptions: Changed formatting, removed one exercise. October 2021: Changed Exercise 30-2. Added language for inclusiveness and cultural appropriacy.

“Anxiety” image by HAMZA BUTT is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Phyllis Nissila is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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