How to Be a Better Test Taker
Updated By Staff Writer on October 19, 2020
For some, tests are a simple matter of sitting down, checking the right answer, and turning it in for a good grade. For many of us, though, it’s not quite that simple. Either we’re anxious, or we’re under-prepared, or we just don’t know the best test-taking strategies. Whatever the reason for bad test performance in the past, what you need to know is that the “smart” kids don’t always have it easy, and they’re not the only ones who can ace a test. With the right preparation, some test taking tips, and a little hard work, so can you.
PREPARING FOR THE TEST
The key to confidence in anything is preparation, and tests are no different. The better prepared you are for the test, the more confident you will be in your answers, and the calmer you will be. So be sure you set yourself up for success by using some of the following tactics.
KNOW HOW YOU LEARN
Studying material is how you make sure it makes it into long-term memory—where it needs to be if you’re going to take it with you going into the test. The problem is, everyone learns a little differently. You might be a visual learner who needs to see things to make sense of them. Or perhaps you’re an auditory learner, and missing a lecture means missing a lot. Or if you’re a kinesthetic learner, you might have trouble remembering things unless you can do them yourself. Identifying the way you learn is key to knowing how best to study. Reading a book over and over won’t help a kinesthetic learner much, just as seeing a process doesn’t do as much for an auditory learner. You can make the most of your study time by tapping into your most effective learning method and gearing your study materials toward it.
MAKE A PLAN
Once you’ve pinned down how you learn, you need to plan out how, when, and what you’re going to study. Put together a study plan that clearly outlines what topics you’ll review and when, and how you’ll practice the material. The “when” is especially important, as you’ll need time to effectively encode these concepts into long-term memory. So set yourself a study time, and stick to it.
FIND A BUDDY
Sometimes, the best strategy for learning a topic is to study it with others. Being able to discuss topics and work together to understand them opens up different parts of the brain than when we study alone. Also, when one person understands the topic better, they can share their wisdom with the group. Besides, it helps break up the monotony of studying alone.
If the teacher or professor decides to give you any sort of leg up in the study process, take advantage of it. They’re the ones who know the test, so if they’re recommending you spend your study energies somewhere, there’s probably a reason. And if they don’t give you a study guide, don’t be afraid to ask questions about what kind of material will be on the test.
REST & EAT
It’s important to come to the test with your body prepared, as well as your mind. Don’t worry about cramming the night before, as it won’t net you as much benefit as a night of solid rest. Eat a good meal before the test (one with protein for brain food), and then try to maintain a level head. More on that part below.
For a lot of us, test-taking causes anxiety. You prepare as best you can, but as soon as you sit down for the test, you get queasy, your head hurts, and you’ve forgotten everything.
In fact, it’s a scientifically recognized phenomenon: students who produce more stress hormones do worse on tests. That means the more you psych yourself out, the lower your grades are going to dip.
If you want to take tests better, you’re going to need to fight back against that anxiety. One technique for doing this is positive self-talk. As silly as it might sound, repeating uplifting mantras like “You’re ready” and “You can do this” can help your body stabilize cortisol levels and counteract the effects of anxiety.
Reappraising the situation can help, too—part of the reason we become so stressed is because we notice the symptoms of stress chemicals in our own body, like sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat. But there are other times we experience those feelings, like playing a sport, watching an exciting movie, or holding hands with someone for the first time. Reminding yourself that these can be symptoms of excitement can help remind you that you’ve prepared well, and you’re set to perform excellently on the exam. So instead of letting these symptoms stress you out, tell yourself that you’re just really excited.
If those techniques don’t work, then try this one: just before the test, spend 10 minutes writing about your feelings as they apply to the test. Put it all on paper, so it’s out of your head and out of your working memory. These thoughts will no longer take up the space your brain needs to think about and answer questions. With practice, you’ll be able to stabilize your anxiety and focus on the task at hand.
TAKING THE TEST
Now for the moment of truth. The thing is, tests aren’t just about knowing stuff. There’s a method to it, and knowing the method is often the difference between a passing grade and a failing one. Here are some tips for how to do better on tests that will help you succeed to help you make the most of the examination methods we use these days:
Read all instructions carefully
Work by elimination on hard questions, removing options you know are incorrect
Leave yourself time at the end to review, and be sure all questions are answered
Answer easy questions first, but be sure to go back and answer ones you skipped
Stay positive—confidence in your ability and answers will improve your accuracy
Plan essay responses, and outline them if you can (rather than just writing immediately in a single draft)
Sometimes multiple choice tests will give questions that provide an answer to a previous question; don’t be afraid to use it to your advantage
When in doubt, go with your first impression
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