How good are you at taking tests? Does exam time fill you with dread, or are you confident in your ability to demonstrate your learning?
On average, students spend about 30% of their time in class, 60% studying outside of class, and 10% taking tests. But that 10% counts for a lot. Unlike high school, it is common for college courses to have a large percentage of the final grade based on test scores.
Some people are naturally better at taking tests than others. However, there are some skills and strategies that everyone can learn that can help to improve your scores.
Below are 30 different strategies that you can use to improve your test-taking performance. Which could help you improve? Put a check mark by those that you are pretty good at. Put a star by those that you could do better at.
30 Strategies to Improve Your Test-Taking Performance
1. Find out as much as you can about the format of the test before you take it. Selecting the correct answer from a list (multiple choice, matching) is sometimes easier than constructing an answer from scratch (short answer, essay, fill-in-the-blank), but both are valid ways to test your knowledge.
2. Make sure you bring the required materials to the test — something to write with, scratch paper, calculator, formula sheet, etc.
3. Avoid a last-minute review of your notes just before going to take the test, unless you have created a list of the most important ideas to review. Reviewing random parts of your notes can actually make it harder for you to remember other things that you have already studied. Usually the best strategy is to prepare well before the test, then relax for a few minutes before going to take the test.
4. Arrive a few minutes early to take the test. It is better to have a few minutes to relax than to be rushing in after the test has begun.
5. Make sure to pay attention to any last-minute instructions that the professor gives. It is not unusual for a professor to make last-minute changes, give corrections, or offer other important information.
6. Before you start the test, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and relax your muscles. Say to yourself, “I can do this.” Repeat this procedure any time you feel anxiety building up during the test.
7. Start by writing your name on the test, and, if needed, on your Scantron. Always use your first and last name and always use the same version of your name.
8. Always read the directions. It’s tempting to just jump in and assume you know what the instructions say, but sometimes there is valuable information there.
9. If you are permitted to write on the test, jot down in the margin any key facts, formulas, or definitions that you might forget so that you can look back at them when you need them.
10. Whenever possible, glance through the whole test before you begin. Notice if there are different parts, how many questions there are, etc. If you have a limited amount of time to take the test, quickly plan out about how long to spend on each question or on various parts of the test. If different questions have different point values, spend the most time and effort on the questions that are worth the most points.
11. Depending on your personality, you may prefer to work straight through the test from beginning to end or you might do better skipping around. Try both and see which works best for you. If you skip around, do the easiest questions first. This will help build your confidence and remind you of things you know, so that you’ll be able to tackle the more difficult questions. Either way, focus on one question at a time — don’t let your mind wander to other parts of the test.
12. Read each question carefully; if permitted, underline key words that will help you understand the question. Pay special attention to words like “not,” “except,” and “but” that can completely change the answer. When writing out the answer to a question, make sure it is actually what the question asks, not the first thing about the topic that pops into your head. Make sure to answer everything the question asks for if it has multiple parts.
13. If you’re completely stumped on a question, leave it and go on. Stewing over it can ruin your confidence and waste your time. See if anything else in the exam triggers your memory. Remember that you can usually miss a few questions and still do well on the test.
14. If a written answer is required, write neatly. If you know your handwriting isn’t very good, slow down. If the professor has to struggle to make out what you are saying, you are less likely to earn full credit, even if your answer is correct.
15. Keep in the back of your mind the fact that
the test was written by a professor who is
trying to test your knowledge. Approach each question with the thought “what does the professor want to find out if I understand?”
16. On a test involving story problems, make sure that your final answer makes sense. If you get -2 bushels of apples, 0.45 people, or a caterpillar that is 20,000 inches long, check your math!
17. If the test format allows it, show your work. When solving a problem, show your calculations; when answering a question, write down some of your thinking. Many professors offer partial credit if you are on the right track—but they can’t give you anything if all you put down is a wrong answer.
18. When writing essays, jot a quick outline on the side of the page to organize what you will say. If you find you are running out of time, it is better to cover more parts of the question briefly than one part of the question thoroughly.
19. When taking multiple choice tests, try thinking of the correct answer before looking at the options given. Then make sure to read all of the options before choosing one.
20. When taking multiple choice tests, cross off answers that you are sure are wrong (if you are allowed to do so). This can help you to visually narrow it down.
21. When taking multiple choice tests, if you are told to select the only true or only false statement, mark each statement as T or F at the side (if permitted). Otherwise you can easily lose track.
22. When taking multiple choice tests, don’t change your answer unless you remember something new that you hadn’t thought of before. Your first instinct is usually correct.
23. When taking multiple choice tests, look for answers that are opposites — one of them is likely to be the correct answer. If there is one answer that is significantly different from the others, it is most likely incorrect. Watch out for “all of the above,” “none of the above,” etc. They are often the correct answer (but not always).
24. When marking answers on a Scantron, double check every time you fill in a bubble. It is easy to make a mistake and miss points on a question that you actually knew the right answer to.
25. Make sure to avoid any appearance of cheating. Rest your eyes by closing them or looking up, not around. Try to position your test so that it isn’t easy for others to look at what you’ve written.
26. If you feel that there might be an error on the exam, bring it to your professor’s attention. If the test is in class, walk up to the desk and ask if there is any chance that the question is in error. If you’re in the testing center, write a note on the test or see the professor afterward. Make sure to avoid an accusing attitude — professors are human and do make mistakes, but you are human too and may not understand the question because you don’t know the material well enough.
27. Don’t worry about other students finishing the test before you do. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they have done better than you. Remember, there are no extra points for finishing first.
28. Resist the urge to quit as soon as you are finished. If you have extra time, review your answers before you turn your test in. Check for “dumb mistakes” that you didn’t mean to make or questions that you forgot to answer. Watch out for questions on the back of pages, especially the last page. However, don’t over think a question and start changing your answers without a good reason.
29. Once a test is over, let it go. You can’t do anything until it’s been graded, and pestering your professor for the grade won’t help. Tell yourself you did the best you could and put your energy into something else.
30. After a test has been graded, analyze your
mistakes. If a test is not returned to you, ask your professor if you can see it. Most professors don’t mind letting you look at a test in their office and are willing to answer questions if you aren’t able to figure out what you did wrong. Use what you learned to do better on the next test. If you are allowed to do so, keep the test for later studying.