Test-taking tips and strategies

Every student has struggled with test anxiety at some point, but is it at least more manageable at the community college level? South Puget Sound Community College Professor and Counselor Yolanda Machado thinks so. She teaches human development classes at the college, and she recently put on a one-hour workshop dedicated to test-taking strategies.

“We noticed that students are interested in test-taking strategies, but they don’t want to sign up for five credits of it,” Machado told her audience.

Unfortunately, Machado said, there is still no single, quick fix, and students still need to transfer knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory the old fashioned way, especially by doing the assigned readings. But, by paying closer attention to their teachers, and with some slight changes in study habits and test-taking habits, students will be able to handle any test with confidence, she said.

Test myths
Machado said there are some common myths about test taking, and she deconstructed her top ten. As it turns out, she said, the only thing that a test truly measures is experience in test taking. “Testing is just a game you need to learn how to play,” she said.

Another myth that Machado tackled is that SATs identify the best students for college. She said that it used to be the number-one predictor of college success, but that the new metric is students who get Associate in Arts degrees. She told her audience, “You are a better predictor of success than a student coming out of high school with a high SAT score, so keep that in mind.”

Studying the teacher
According to Machado, to do well on a teacher’s test, it is necessary to pay close attention to the teacher. For example, if the teacher pauses before making a point, reads something to the class word for word, or gets excited about a particular subject, it is most likely going to be on the test, said Machado. “When your instructor seems to be more animated on a certain subject, that means it’s one of their little pets. Their pets are always on the test,” Machado said.

Study a little bit each day
A crucial step in developing good test-taking habits is having the right study habits, said Machado. She said the key is to do the assigned reading, and to study a little bit each day, rather than cramming or doing a “marathon study session” just before a test.

“If you were to review, in short periods of time, every single day for a few minutes here and there, you’d never have to do a marathon study session. In fact, you’d never have to even study for a test. Studying would be a thing of the past,” she said.

Machado said it is also important to review the notes the same day you took them. “Any time you don’t review your notes within 24 hours, you’re re-learning the material,” she said.

The actual test
Arrive exactly five minutes early. Machado suggested getting to the test exactly five minutes before the test begins. If you arrive too late, you might miss some crucial verbal instructions, and she gave some examples of this from her own experience. She also said that arriving too early is bad as well, as it might amplify your test anxiety, especially if you ask others how they prepared for the test.

Use the whole test time. Machado strongly suggested using the whole test time. Unless you are specifically instructed not to, she emphasized scanning the whole test first before taking it. This way, you will know up front which sections will take more time than others, she said.

Essay questions
Understand common test essay terms. Machado said that the common essay terms you should be prepared for are: summarize, define (in one or two sentences), describe (definition plus a few examples), compare (how things are alike) and contrast (how things are different).

Make a quick outline. To help you structure your whole essay, Machado suggested making a quick outline of it first. If you run out of time, some professors will give partial credit for the outline, she said.

Use good handwriting. Most importantly, Machado suggested using a pen and writing legibly. If you have bad handwriting, she suggested taking a calligraphy class.


10 myths about tests

1) Tests measure how much a student has learned.
2) Tests are objective.
3) Tests are fair.
4) Tests show instructors how well they are teaching.
5) Tests help students learn.
6) Essay tests measure understanding better than short answer tests do.
7) If it is taught, it must be tested.
8) The best insurance for a high test score is through thorough understanding of the test subject.
9) Tests can predict performance on the job.
10) SATs identify the best students for college.

The truth about testing

1) The only thing that a test measures is experience in test taking.
2) There is no such thing as an objective test. They are made by people.
3) IQ tests serve no educational purpose whatsoever. IQ tests measure ability to learn. 95% of straight-A students do not have high IQs. What they have is a set of study skills that have allowed them to be successful in school.
4) To master a subject, fall in love with it. To do well on tests, study the art of test taking. There is an art to it.
5) A higher score can actually reflect less learning. You already know it!
6) Tests show neither what a student knows nor what he or she can do.
7) An essay test is an objective test with words strung between the facts.
8) Tests do not help students learn, and they do not help teachers to teach.
9) Ranking students serves no educational purpose.
10) In an enlightened college, every student is an excellent student.

How to predict test questions

1) Repeated information.
2) Interest level of the instructor.
3) Instructor pauses before making a point.
4) Questions students pose to the instructor.
5) Questions instructor poses to the class.
6) Instructor looks at notes before speaking.
7) Instructor writes it on the board/overhead.
8) Reading assignment is covered in class.
9) Questions students get wrong on previous exams.
10) Instructor reads a passage slowly, word for word.

10 tips for essay exams

1) Use a pen.
2) Write legibly and neatly.
3) Use paragraphs frequently.
4) Use one side of the paper.
5) Know common essay terms. (The five big ones: summarize, define, describe, compare and contrast.)
6) Use examples to support your opinion.
7) Be brief, and get straight to the point.
8) Leave space between answers.
9) Make a quick outline.
10) Leave time to review for grammatical errors, etc.

10 tips as you begin to take a test

1) Arrive early and relax –– exactly five minutes early.
2) Do not ask others how much they prepared for the test.
3) Pay attention to the verbal directions.
4) Scan the whole test immediately.
5) Evaluate the importance of each section.
6) Estimate the amount of time needed for each section.
7) Read the directions slowly.
8) Re-read them!!
9) Jot down all memory aides.
10) Ask, if directions are not clear.

10 tips for improving test scores

1) Use the full test time.
2) Study in short blocks of time –– no marathon sessions, no cramming.
3) Use mind map summaries as study guides (i.e., condense your notes onto one sheet of paper)
4) Use flash cards. (If you are really good, take your notes on flash cards to begin with.)
5) Form study groups.
6) Do brief daily reviews of notes and other course materials.
7) Make up mock tests and answer the questions.
8) Do not miss class.
9) Use acronyms, acrostics (sentences like “Every Good Boy Does Fine”) and other mnemonic devices.
10) Learn to take stellar notes.

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