Test Taking Strategies


Below are some useful tips and strategies to help you with your studying - check it out!

Preparing for exams begins the first day of class!

On the first day of class your professor passes out the syllabus that explains what each class period will focus on. Look at the syllabus and notice:

  • How many tests are scheduled for the term and how far apart are they - one midterm/one final, three midterms/1 final. This information helps you assess how much information will need to be learned for each exam.
  • Ask your professor questions about exams on the first day of class so that you can adjust how you study for the class:
    • What kinds of exams are given - Objective, Essay, Multiple Choice, True/False, or Varied?
    • How many of each type of question if varied?
    • How much time is given to take the exam - the entire class period, half the class period...?

With this information you can set a realistic schedule for each class breaking down the readings and tasks in appropriate blocks for maximum learning efficiency. For example, if it is a course that only has two exams, one midterm and one final, you have a number of weeks to learn the material and your schedule for this class should:

  • Break down reading assignments in two/three parts each week
  • Allow time for daily review of notes and highlighted areas of text for better recall
  • Allow for time to create term and defnition cards as a memory aid
  • Time for study group discussions
  • Create test questions to help you actively think about the exam: use your notes, comments made in the margins while reading, turn the text subheadings into questions. Practice essay exams can cover large sections of information compared to practicing with objective tests that are detail specific.

If a number of tests are scheduled then you have a shorter amount of time to study for each exam and your schedule should reflect this. This also means the tests will demand more memory skill and recall of details.

  • You may have to read entire chapters per study block
  • You should immediately set up study groups and delegate chapters to each group member for outlining
  • Create study tools for recall. It is essential that daily review of notes and tools take place for better recall and association of material. With a short time between exams you must find ways to associate the material and consistently connect it to the previous day's lecture. You need to do more than recognize what is being asked, you must be able to identify it and give specific details (often times dates, names, places, examples).


The Day of The Exam

  • Get to class a few minutes early so that you can settle in and not feel rushed.
  • Before you start the exam, look at the entire test. How many multiple choice, short answer, and essay are there on the exam? For example, say it is a 60 minute test and there are 20 multiple choice, 10 short answer (fill in), and one essay (needing two examples). How much time will you need for each section? You need to schedule at least 5 minutes to write an outline for the essay, 30 seconds per multiple choice, and one minute per fill in. That gives you 25 minutes for the essay which usually carries the most points.
  • Start the exam, go through and answer all that is familiar. If you get to a multiple choice question that you are unsure of the answer, put a check mark next to it and move on. The key is to answer as many as you can in a set amount of time for maximum points. The more you answer the more confident you will become. Go from question to question - do not go backwards - you will answer those you are unsure of at the end of the exam if there is time left.

It is wise to answer the multiple choice first because these questions hold varied information that may answer the fill in and/or give examples for the essay.

Objective Tests - These are exams that demand one correct answer.



The Multiple Choice Exams

Many students fail multiple-choice exams because their expectations are that the questions will be straightforward and easily recognized. Most professors develop multiple-choice questions by synthesizing material from more than one source creating a dual layered question demanding analysis of the question rather than rote memory.

  • Read the question
  • If the question is long, underline the subject and verb to help you focus appropriately
  • Read each possible answer without bias. Do not stop and think about the answer - just read each answer
  • Now, focus on the answer you think is correct. If there is more than one (should only be two at the most) reread the question and make sure you understand the words and what they mean in the question. Look at the answers again and decide. If you can't, put a check next to it and move on. Do not stop and waste three minutes on one multiple-choice question that by itself is only worth maybe two points.
  • Evaluate whether the answer choices are giving general or specific information. If you can think of an exception for the specific statement then the general statement is usually correct.
  • Read the question carefully and underline negative (not, never, neither) or affirmative words (always, all only). This usually signifies that the answer must be specific fact rather than a general statement.
  • If you have time at the end of the exam, go back and answer those questions that you placed check marks next to. Do not change the answers to those already completed!
  • Periodically check to make sure the scantron question number matches the test number. It is very easy to get distracted and start marking the wrong test question. Stay alert!



True-False Questions

  • Look for open and closed words in the question. Open words like -often- or
  • -usually- are found in true statements whereas closed words like -never- and
  • -always- are often found in false statements.
  • Pay attention to statements with two clauses - both must be true in order to be the correct answer.



Subjective Tests

These are exams that are opinion based but answers may vary from student to student dependent upon examples used or details given.

Subjective tests are usually more general in nature than objective tests but specific facts and organization are expected. Recall rather than memorization is the skill used to answer these types of exams. It is better to understand the general concepts of the issue with a few well-learned details than a large repertoire of unorganized material that seem unrelated when presented.

When preparing for essay exams you should write down the main topics discussed in the assigned chapters of the texts and presented in your notes. Make sure you understand the general concepts of each topic (know the who, what, when, where, why) and provide at least two examples. Recite the material out loud in your own words to ensure recall and comprehension. Reread and review those areas in the text where there is limited understanding and comprehension.




Short Answer

  • These are similar to essay questions in that you should take a few seconds to write out the example or terms you want to use in the answer. If it is a fill in, you should move through them fast, answering those that you easily recall. Often times the answers can be found in the multiple choice area but you do not want to spend too much time trying to figure out the answer. Keep in mind how much each question is worth in points and how many points you will lose if you take too much time on one question.




Essay Exams

  • Carefully read the question. Break the question into parts so you know what you need to answer for full credit.
  • Note what type of question is being asked - compare and contrast, analyze and comment...
  • Take the time to create an outline on your answer sheet so that even if you don't complete the essay the professor can see where you were going and may give you points. Although you are taking a few minutes away from answering the essay, it will increase your chances for a more coherent answer with examples that flow and an essay that makes sense. Use the parts of the essay to help create the outline - this will help with organization and keep you focused on topic.
  • Follow your outline and begin the essay. Write straight through and do not vary from the outline. You took the time to write it out so trust it. If you try to change the direction of your essay, you end up with arrows etc. and a difficult to read finish. The easier your essay is to read and the better it flows, the easier it will be for your professor to follow your train of thought thus a better grade.
  • Reread the directions and make sure you answered the entire questions. And if you still have time, reread your essay and correct spelling and grammar errors.




The Exam Isn't Over When You Turn It In

Taking the exam is only the first part to knowing what you know. The second part comes with the handing back of the exam. At this time you have the prime opportunity to see what you knew and learn what you didn't. You should always go back and find out why you missed particular questions, what type of questions they were, did you answer the whole questions or only part, then definitely find the correct answer and write it out so you know you know it. This is especially useful if you will be taking a comprehensive final. Make sure you talk with the professor about how you can improve in a particular area or ask why they worded the question the way they did.




Test Anxiety

What is it?

Most students experience some level of anxiety but it is when it interferes with test performance that it is deemed excessive and labeled test anxiety. Test anxiety is often defined in physiological terms: sweaty palms, going blank, butterflies in the stomach...

But if it goes beyond the physiological and consistently interferes with performance then you may want to seek additional assistance from the College Counseling Center to gain a better understanding of its origin and how to cope with it.

What are ways to reduce it?

  • Assess your study skills and develop areas that are weaker to ensure successful learning efficiency
  • Be prepared. The more time you give yourself to prepare and learn the material the more confident you will feel the day of the exam.
  • Keep organized and on task. Keep to a schedule so that you know internally that you gave yourself enough time to study. Don't cram!
  • Get enough sleep starting two nights before the exam.
  • Keep hydrated
  • Exercise to eliminate stress
  • Eat well balanced meals. Make sure you eat breakfast or lunch before the exam with at least 20 minutes to digest. Do not eat greasy foods or drink caffeinated drinks they will upset your stomach.
  • Stay relaxed.

Test Anxiety and the day of the exam

  • Give yourself enough time to get to the exam and find a comfortable seat. Get your writing utensils out and blue book and scantron if needed. Take a couple of minutes to close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths.
  • Do not discuss the material with other students who may sway you to think you don't know the material.
  • Do not bring your class materials with you. Going through the test information will only make you nervous.

Test Anxiety and taking the exam

  • Remember your test taking strategies - review the exam...
  • Occasionally stretch so that your body stays relaxed.
  • If you go blank then put your pencil down, sit up straight, take two or three deep breaths, then pick up your pencil again and begin. If you don't immediately recognize the question then go to the next.
  • Stay positive and remind yourself that you studied appropriately and that you know the material.
  • Remind yourself that some anxiety is normal and that you know the material
  • Don't pay attention to others movements or if they turn in their exams before you. You do not get points for being the first one to turn in your exam.




Pauk, Walter. How to Study in College. (2nd ed.), Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, New York
Ellis, David B. Becoming A Master Student. (11th ed.), Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, New York
De Sellers, Dochen, Carol, Hodges, Russ. Academic Transformation (1st ed.), Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey
Crawford, June. A College Study Skills Manual: Ten Tips for Academic Success, Cambridge Strafford, Ltd.


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