I Made Testing Mistakes So You Don’t Have To

How Not to Take a Test

I have taken a lot of tests that didn’t go well for me, but I am going to tell you the story of one specific test . . . because it was my worst one. During the semester I did all the right things to prepare for a test. I went to class, and I took notes that left me feeling like I understood concepts. (Check out our blog post on note-taking!) I flew through homework like it was the easiest thing. But in the exam? I blanked. I couldn’t remember a single thing. 

Here’s how my test day went: my exam was held in a different building than usual. I got lost getting there and showed up 10 minutes late. Once I was ready to begin my test, I realized that I had forgotten my pencils. I was in a new environment; I was late; I felt unprepared despite feeling like I understood everything before the test. 

When I opened the test, it looked like it was written in a foreign language–I really, truly had just forgotten everything. I tried my hardest to scrape up any memory of material from class that I could as I plowed through the test from the first question to the last. And my score on the test reflected my struggles. 

What went wrong?

Did you pick out what went wrong? Well, to be frank . . . a lot of things went wrong, and we can break them down into a series of steps to success.

Step 1. Know where your test is being given and the format it’s offered in. Is it in-person only? Is it online only? Is it in your classroom or a testing center? Go to the building. Go to the room! If you struggle with finding places, go there twice. Make sure that on test day, the location of the exam is the last concern on your mind.

Step 2. Get to your test on time. Actually, get to your test early. Better 10 minutes too early than 10 minutes too late, right? Check out the Testing Center hours of operation and locations before going as well. Sometimes there can be lines and you’ll want to ensure there’s plenty of time for you to take your test. 

Step 3. Come to your test (virtually or in-person) fully prepared. Know what supplies you’re allowed. Some professors allow you to use a textbook, note pages, calculators, or even the internet. Don’t lose the opportunity to have a little extra help during a test by not knowing what aids are permitted. You can usually find this information out from class, from your syllabus, the test assignment page, or the ChiTester app in your Weber Portal. If in doubt, ask your professor!

Alright, so say you’ve done all of that, but either you’ve still had trouble taking tests, or you’re still nervous about what to do during the test. 

How to Take a Test

Okay, you’re in your test and the paper gets laid down in front of you, or you open up your online test and you’re ready to begin. If you identify with test anxiety like I do, take a look at this great blog post on ways to cope with test anxiety. One way to reduce test anxiety and add predictability to your testing experience is reading through all of the questions before starting to answer them. 

As you read through the questions, don’t try to solve them, but just recognize little things you do remember and some of the things you don’t. Flag any questions that seem like they’re going to require more attention than the others–whether that means flagging virtually through Canvas or ChiTester, making a note in the margin of the test, or circling the question number. You may flag questions such as a particularly tricky math problem, a chemical equation you’re not quite sure you remember the steps to, an essay on a topic you vaguely remember reading about, or anything in between. 

By reading through your test first, you aren’t going to experience any surprises on the next page as you answer the questions. Also, sometimes the content in or answer to one question can help you solve another question! Now you can warm up and lose some of those initial nervous jitters by answering a few of the questions you feel most confident in. 

Once you’ve done that, maybe take a stab at a few of the harder questions before switching back to the easier ones. This gives your brain little breaks in the middle of the test and lets you really put an emphasis on thinking about those harder questions!

How to Approach a Test When You’re Stumped

Sometimes during a test you just feel stuck and need to use your best guess. Whenever approaching problems where you aren’t sure of the answer, try to think about what you do know about the topic. If you’re still stumped, always feel free to move on to another question and return to the original question later. This allows you to think about it subconsciously and will help reduce stress levels. 

Multiple Choice Questions

  • Eliminate known or obvious incorrect answers. Sometimes there will be a plural answer, but the test question asks for a singular answer. Other times there will be clearly incorrect answers, like answers that are in the unit kilometer but the question asks for an answer in the unit miles. Removing these from the pool of answers will increase your chances of guessing correctly. 

  • Critically consider what the question is asking. Does “All of the above” apply to everything? Are there exceptions? The same goes for “None of the above.” 

  • Check for extreme answers–these can sometimes be exaggerations of the truth and may be able to be ruled out. 

True-False Questions

  • Carefully read and analyze the statement provided. Are the words “all,” “always,” “never,” “not,” or “must” included? How does that wording affect the meaning of the statement? For example if a question prompt said “The sky is always blue,” then it would be false because the sky is sometimes red, orange, or yellow. Use your critical thinking skills when approaching these types of questions.

  • Are there phrases that switch the meaning of the question? Pay close attention to negative statements such as “Do you oppose not allowing this bill to pass?” Ensure you understand what the question is asking. 

Fill in the Blank Questions

  • Fill in the blank questions typically contain a sentence with one or more blanks intended for the student to identify the missing word(s) or phrase. Sometimes the length of the blank (“__________”) can hint at the length of the word or phrase, but not always!

  • Look for keywords or phrases in the sentence that can provide hints about the correct answer. 

  • Sometimes the sentence will have an “a” or an “an” that can hint about whether the word or phrase begins with a vowel or a consonant (“a” for consonant, “an” for vowel). 

  • The sentence may also hint at a singular or plural word or phrase, so pay close attention to context clues!

Short Answer Questions

  • Short answer questions usually require one or more sentences to be written in response to a question or prompt. These can be questions asking you to define a concept, explain what happens under certain conditions, or even compare and contrast two concepts. Read these questions carefully to make sure you understand what the professor is asking. 

  • If you are struggling with the answer to one of these questions, try breaking down what you do know about the concept and move forward from there. Be careful not to simply reword the prompt without adding any of your own thoughts to the statement as this can often lead to lost points.

  • Ensure you are writing complete sentences with proper grammar and punctuation. Neatness counts!

Setting Up For Success Next Time

Taking tests can be incredibly stressful, but it is a great time to analyze your understanding of basic concepts from your class and to practice the skills you’ve been learning. Create practice tests for yourself by looking at study guides and incorporating concepts from your notes. Ask your professor what types of questions may be on the exam. You could also consider starting a study group so that you and your classmates could help each other learn the material.

If you would like more support for test taking strategies, schedule an appointment with an Academic Peer Coach and we would be happy to brainstorm techniques catered to your needs.

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