May 24, 2024

Test-Taking Strategies Guide for Students

From pop quizzes to standardized tests, students face a lot of graded assessments and exams throughout their school years. Help them develop strong test-taking strategies they can use no matter what type of assessment it is. These key skills will ensure they’re able to show what they know when the heat is on!

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Test Anxiety

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No matter how much they prep, some people still panic at the sight of a test paper or screen. It’s estimated that 35% of all students have some form of test anxiety, so you’re not alone. These tips may help.

  • Prep over time. Follow the steps below and spend a little time studying each day, so the right answers become second nature.
  • Practice taking tests. Use a tool like Kahoot or other study resources to create a practice test. Then take it under the same conditions you can expect to face at school. Use the test-taking strategies shown below until they become automatic.
  • Practice deep breathing. When you panic, you stop breathing properly, and lack of oxygen affects your brain. Learn to do deep-breathing exercises, and use them before and even during a test.
  • Take a break. If you simply can’t get your head in the game, ask for the bathroom pass and get out of the classroom for a minute or two. You can even write a note to your teacher to let them know you’re struggling, in case they don’t let students leave the room during tests.
  • Talk to teachers and parents. Don’t keep your test anxiety inside! Let your parents, teachers, and other supporting adults know that tests really amp up your anxiety. They may have coping tips for you or even offer accommodations to help you out.
  • Keep things in perspective. We promise, failing one test will not destroy your life. If test anxiety is disrupting your life (affecting your mood, causing you to lose sleep, giving you physical symptoms like stomach problems or headaches), you might need to talk to someone like a counselor or therapist.

Test Prep Strategies

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The best way to pass a test? Master the skills and knowledge a little at a time, so the right answers are always available to you. That means setting aside some study time each day for every subject. Try these prep tips and ideas.

Take Good Notes

Study after study has shown the importance of actively taking notes rather than passively reading a handout later on. The act of writing engages different parts of the brain, forging new pathways that help students retain information in long-term memory. What’s more, the studies show that the more detailed the notes, the better. Taking good notes is a real skill, and there are a variety of different options. Learn them all, and decide which ones work best for you.

Know Your Learning Style

All students use different learning methods to retain and understand the same information. Some like written words, some prefer to hear it and talk about it. Others need to do something with their hands or see images and diagrams. These are known as learning styles. While it’s important not to pigeonhole students into any one style, kids should be aware of any strengths they have and use them to create appropriate study materials and test-taking strategies.

Create Review Materials

There are so many ways to review for tests! It’s important to take time to find the ones that work best for you. Some people love flash cards; others like to record and listen to their notes, and so on. Here are some common review materials that work well for the different learning styles:

  • Visual: Diagrams; charts; graphs; maps; videos with or without sound; photos and other images; graphic organizers and sketchnotes
  • Auditory: Lectures; audiobooks; videos with sound; music and songs; text-to-speech translation; discussion and debate; teaching others
  • Read/write: Reading textbooks, articles, and handouts; watching video with subtitles turned on; using speech-to-text translation and transcripts; making lists; writing answers to questions
  • Kinesthetic: Hands-on practice; educational craft projects; experiments and demonstrations; trial and error; moving and playing games while learning

Form Study Groups

While some students work best on their own, many others thrive working with others to keep them on track and motivated. Setting up study buddies or groups enhances everyone’s study skills. Here are some tips for forming good groups:

  • Choose your study partners wisely. Your friends may or may not be the best people to study with. If you’re not sure, ask your teacher to recommend a partner or group.
  • Set up regular study times. These can be in-person or online via virtual spaces like Zoom.
  • Create a study plan. “Let’s get together and study” sounds great, but it’s not very specific. Decide who will make any resources in advance, and hold each other accountable for good notes, flash cards, etc.
  • Evaluate your group. After a few tests, determine if your study group is really helping its members succeed. If you’re all struggling, it might be time to mix up the group or add some new members.

Don’t Cram

Cramming is definitely not one of the best test-taking strategies. When you try to condense all your learning into a few hours the night before a test, you’re likely to feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Plus, cramming may help you remember information in the short term, but it doesn’t help you master knowledge for a lifetime. Avoid the need to cram with these tips:

  • Set aside review time after every class. Each night, look over the day’s notes, and use them to create review materials like flash cards, review questions, online quizzes, and the like.
  • Mark the dates of upcoming tests on your calendar. Use those dates to plan your study schedule in advance.

Get Rest and Eat Well

Feeling your best is key to acing a test!

    • Don’t stay up late to cram. Even if you’re short on time, getting enough sleep is vital. Try to squeeze in a little extra study time during your normal waking hours instead.
    • Eat a good breakfast. It sounds trite, but it really is true. A good breakfast sets you up for a good day!
    • Don’t skip lunch. If your test is in the afternoon, eat a healthy lunch or grab a protein-heavy snack before exam time.
    • Stay hydrated. When your body is dehydrated, you’re more prone to headaches that make it harder to concentrate. Drink lots of water, and keep some on hand during the test if allowed.
    • Visit the restroom. Go in advance so you don’t need to break your concentration once the test begins.

General Test-Taking Strategies

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No matter what type of exam you’re taking, there are some test-taking strategies that always apply. These tips work for multiple-choice, essay, short-answer, or any other kind of exam or quiz.

Tackle Easy Questions First

Focus on showing what you know, and build confidence as you go along.

  • Look over the entire test first, without answering any questions just yet. This allows you to plan your time and find out what to expect as you go along.
  • Ask questions right away. If you’re not sure what a question is asking, talk to your teacher. It’s better to clarify than to guess.
  • On your second run-through, answer any questions or problems you’re certain about. Skip those that you need more time to consider.
  • Finally, go back and handle more challenging questions, one at a time.

Watch the Time

Know how much time you have to complete the test, and keep an eye on the clock. Don’t get obsessed with how much time is left, though. Simply work at a comfortable pace, and check the clock at the end of each page or section. Feel like you’re running out of time? Remember to prioritize questions that are worth more points, or those that you’re more confident about.

Review Before Submitting

Answering the last question doesn’t mean you’re done just yet. Look back over your paper and check the following:

  • Did you put your name on your paper? (So easy to forget!)
  • Have you answered every question? Don’t lose valuable points due to lack of attention to detail.
  • Did you check your work? Do math problems in reverse to make sure the answers make sense.
  • Have you truly answered the questions asked? For essay and short answer, make sure you’ve addressed everything the prompt requires.
  • Were you neat and clear? Check your handwriting if applicable, and make sure the person grading it can read what you wrote.

Test-Taking Strategies by Question Type

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Different types of questions require different test-taking strategies. Here’s how to conquer the most common question types.

Multiple Choice

  • Read the question carefully. Look for “gotcha” words like “not” or “except,” and ensure you know exactly what’s being asked.
  • Form your own answer. Before you look at the options, think of your own answer. If one of the options matches your answer, go ahead and select it and move on. Still need help? Continue with the rest of the steps.
  • Eliminate any obvious wrong answers, those that are irrelevant, etc. If you’re only left with one option, that must be it!
  • Still not sure? If you can, circle it or mark it with a star, then come back later. As you work on other parts of the test, you might remember the answer.
  • Make a final choice: In the end, it’s usually better to pick something than to leave a question blank (there are exceptions to this, so make sure you know in advance). Choose the one that seems best, and move on so you can finish the whole test.

Matching

  • Read both lists completely before you start to answer. This cuts down on impulse answers.
  • Read the instructions. Does each item in column A have only one match in column B? Or can you use items from column B more than once?
  • Cross off answers as you use them. If you can only use each answer in column B once, cross it off as you use it to make it easier to ignore as you continue.
  • Complete easy matches first, then come back to more challenging ones.

True/False

  • Read each statement carefully, word by word. Look for double negatives and other tricky syntaxes.
  • Watch for qualifiers like: always, never, often, sometimes, generally, never. Stricter qualifiers like “always” or “never” often signify the answer is false (though not always).
  • Break long sentences into parts, and examine each part. Remember that each part of the sentence must be correct for the answer to be “true.”

Short Answer

  • Read the question thoroughly, and mark any requirements like “name,” “list,” “describe,” or “compare.”
  • Keep your answer concise. Unlike essay questions, you often don’t need to answer in complete sentences, so don’t waste time with extra words. (Read the directions closely, though, in case complete sentences are required.)
  • Show what you know. If you can’t answer the entire question, go ahead and write what you do know. Many tests give partial credit for partial answers.

Essay

  • Read the question thoroughly, and mark any requirements like “name,” “list,” “describe,” or “compare.”
  • Sketch an outline before you start. Determine your basic topic sentence, and jot a few notes for each paragraph or point.
  • Use concrete examples. Make sure you have specific evidence to support any point you’re making. Vague answers don’t prove you really know the material.
  • Edit your first draft. When you’re done with your first draft answer, reread it immediately. Make any corrections that come to mind.
  • Finalize your answer. If there are other questions on the test, go ahead and complete them. When you’re done, come back to each one for a final proofread. Add any missing information, fix misspellings and punctuation errors, and make sure you’ve completely answered the questions you were asked.
  • Learn more: Five Dos and Don’ts for Timed Essay Tests

Oral Tests

  • Listen to or read the question, then re-phrase it out loud to be sure you understand what’s being asked.
  • Take a deep breath and a solid pause before you answer. Think through what you’ll say before you start to talk. It’s OK to be silent for a minute or two!
  • Ask if you can jot down some notes before you talk. This can help you remember all you need to say.
  • Take your time as you talk. Racing through makes it more likely you’ll make a mistake, or that your examiner won’t understand you.
  • Answer the question, then stop talking. There’s no need to tell them everything you know, and the more you talk, the more opportunities you have for making an error.
  • That being said, be sure to answer the whole question. Ensure your answer covers everything you were asked.

Test Question Mnemonics

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Need an easy way to remember some of these test-taking strategies? Try these mnemonic devices!

LEARN

This general strategy from Ms. Fultz’s Corner works for multiple test question types.

  • L: Leave the hard questions for last.
  • E: Erase and fix your answers when checking your work.
  • A: Add details to written answers.
  • R: Read and reread to dig out the answers you need.
  • N: Never give up, and do your best!

RELAX

This is another one that applies to most tests, via Academic Tutoring & Testing.

  • R: Read the question carefully.
  • E: Examine every answer choice.
  • L: Label your answer or your proof.
  • A: Always check your answers.
  • X: X-out (cross out) answers you know are wrong.

UNWRAP

Use this one for reading passages with accompanying questions. Learn more about UNWRAP here.

  • U: Underline the title and make a prediction.
  • N: Number the paragraphs.
  • W: Walk through the questions.
  • R: Read the passage twice.
  • A: Answer each question.
  • P: Prove your answers with paragraph numbers.

RUNS

This one is simple and gets right to the heart of the matter.

  • R: Read the questions first.
  • U: Underline the key words in the questions.
  • N: Now, read the selection.
  • S: Select the best answer.

RUNNERS

This is similar to RUNS, with a few key differences. Learn more from Book Units Teacher.

  • R: Read the title and predict.
  • U: Underline keywords in the question.
  • N: Number the paragraphs.
  • N: Now read the passage.
  • E: Enclose keywords.
  • R: Read the questions, eliminating wrong options.
  • S: Select the best answer.

UNRAAVEL

Larry Bell’s reading passage strategy is popular with many teachers.

  • U: Underline the title.
  • N: Now predict what the text is about.
  • R: Run through and number the paragraphs.
  • A: Are the questions read, in your head?
  • A: Are you circling the important words?
  • V: Venture through the passage (read it, picture it, and think about the answers).
  • E: Eliminate the wrong answers.
  • L: Let the questions be answered.

STOP

This one is quick and easy for kids to remember.

  • S: Summarize each paragraph.
  • T: Think about the question.
  • O: Offer proof for your choice.
  • P: Pick the best answer.

CUBES

This is a time-tested mnemonic for math word problems, used by teachers and schools everywhere.

  • C: Circle the numbers.
  • U: Underline the question.
  • B: Box key words.
  • E: Eliminate extra information and wrong answer choices.
  • S: Show your work.

After the Test

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Take a breath—the test is done! Now what?

Don’t Worry About Your Grade (Yet)

This is so hard, but stressing over the results won’t help you get them any faster—or change your grade. Focus on what’s ahead of you right now, and deal with your test grade when you get it. Repeat to yourself: “I can’t change it by worrying about it.”

Learn From Your Mistakes

Whether you pass or fail, take a moment to look over wrong answers or missing information. Make notes about them so you can follow up for final exams or upcoming assignments.

Ask for Help or a Retake

Not sure why something was wrong? Ask your teacher! Still don’t understand a concept? Ask your teacher! Seriously, it’s what they’re there for. If you prepared and still didn’t pass, consider getting some tutoring or teacher assistance, then asking for a chance to retake the test. Teachers really do want you to learn, and if they can tell you tried your best and are still struggling, they might be willing to give you another chance.

Celebrate Your Successes

Did you pass? Hurray! Learn from any mistakes, but don’t sweat them too much. You did the hard work, you got a passing grade—take a moment to feel proud of your accomplishment!

What test-taking strategies do you teach your students? Come share your ideas and ask for advice in the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook!

Plus, check out Should Teachers Allow Test Retakes?

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