I don’t think I can recall a single instance, in any class, whether in elementary school, high school, college, or graduate school, where there was a discussion on how to take a test. Reflecting back, I find my own development to be one of forced changes, when a poor score or frustrating experience caused such angst in me that I made a radical shift in how I prepared for and took exams.
When I started my own teaching career, I assumed that if I taught the material, worked with my students to master the concepts and skills, then I should be able to write any good question on an exam, and they would in turn provide a solution worthy of praise. In fact, I had made the same error of assumption that my own teachers had made with me. I was disappointed with my students’ results. Certainly, some demonstrated that they had learned something, but they were not showing the unbridled success that I knew that they were capable of. Soon, I was adjusting my exam expectations, without realizing it. We would work on the types of questions that I would pose on an exam, and slowly train the habits of mind needed to succeed. It was a step in the right direction, since I was indirectly teaching how to handle the questions on the exam. I still wasn’t directly discussing the art of taking an exam.
I now want to start the much needed conversation with this essay. In what follows, we develop ten techniques that will greatly impact a student’s testing experience, and help lead to better success. My forced changes have given rise to many of the suggestions and techniques that I enumerate here. This is a plan for success, and it will take several experiences to find your stride.
- Take a moment to scan through the exam. It helps to get your bearings off the bat, and get through those initial feelings of being overwhelmed. Take a look at how many questions there are, how long the exam is, and what types of questions are being posed (multiple choice, short answer, fill in the blank, draw and label, essay). Scan the questions and remind yourself that you are not being asked anything that you have not seen before. Select for yourself what questions look easy that you can start with, and what questions you will need to budget more time for. Finally, make sure to remind yourself that this exam is manageable, and you will do the best that you can.
- Read each question. As a teacher, allow me to be a herald and sound the horn that many of the points that students lose on exams come from simply not reading the question. The sheer number of points lose is stunning. Please, read each question carefully. Clearly identify what is actually asked for, including units. Mark what you are given. There is absolutely no shame in writing all over your exam with highlighters, or by underlying words, in order to make the question clear for yourself. Remember, you only get credit for answering the actual question presented, and not some other question.
- Check to see if your answer makes sense. Here is another rather deflating situation that I encounter as a science teacher. Students will blindly punch numbers into a calculator, have it spit out a response, and then scribble it down, without actually pondering if it makes any sense. There aren’t 1000 kilometers in 1 meter, and a block cannot go down a ramp faster than the speed of light. If an answer does not make physical sense to you, don’t write it down. Go find your error, please. Your teacher will appreciate it very much.
- Go in any order. I am an avid fan of this tactic, whether it is to assuage my own anxiety, or just to spice things up. Does anyone really care in what order we answer questions in? Go ahead and skip around! Answer the questions that you like first, that you know that you will answer correctly. Build up some confidence, and get into your rhythm and stride. Then, start tackling the questions that are more challenging for you. If you are not getting anywhere with a question, do what an old professor of mine would tell me: “Go into denial.” Pretend the question is not there, go to another one with a clean conscience, and then come back to the original question with a fresh perspective.
- Start by answering questions that you feel confident with. In keeping with the idea of the last point, there is nothing wrong with answering questions that you are confident on first. I often need to feel like I am making progress early on to alleviate some of the testing anxiety. Interestingly, I have seen some great students tackle hard questions, and only run out of time, leaving the easy ones behind without earning points for them. Their response? They thought that they would have time to get to them.
- Write notes on the top of the page. I used this in three different ways. The first would be to write down facts, formulas, constants, mnemonics, and other things that I had to memorize and didn’t want to have to recall, then question if my recollection was correct mid question, and raise my anxiety level. The second was to write down the time on the clock as I moved from page to page – time management does matter! The third was to write notes to myself on my exams that kept me positive and encouraged. I had no shame in being my own cheerleader.
- Feel free to use all of the time allotted. I never understood why students feel that the success of a student is directly correlated to how little time they use to complete an exam. I’d like to debunk this rumor. Take all the time that you need to do well. Even if that means the whole examination block. Are there extra points for finishing early that I was supposed to award to students? Put another way, there is no reason to rush yourself more than you may feel because of the maximum allotted time.
- Do not compare yourself to anyone else in the room. This is a natural response. If someone finishes early, we think that they must have done extremely well, and certainly better than how we are doing. After an exam, we flock and listen to how others felt about the exam to gauge what our supposed appropriate response should be. Taking an exam is a personal experience. I don’t mean that it necessarily is a private, secretive affair. It is between you, the paper, and the examiner. What other students do has absolutely no bearing on what you do. You job is demonstrate all of the knowledge and skills that you have, and to score as many points as you can. Since the remainder of the students does not have any bearing towards this goal, why compare yourself? We don’t know how anyone really did, so we are drawing comparisons by making one too many assumptions on our part. Let it go.
- Trust yourself. Enough said. You have done all of the hard work of studying leading up to the exam, and have been solving problems correctly, trust that an exam will not be different, and that you will do well. Often, I would try to set up the work that my students did so that an exam would be “just another assignment” to do, and not something either frightening or novel. Having a positive attitude and trust in yourself will help boost your performance.
- Leave everything in the room. I work hard, then play hard. My preparation for any exam is intense, extensive, and thorough. I throw everything that I have at an exam, and do the best that I can. When I leave, I rarely ever want to discuss, rehash, litigate, deliberate, or even think about the exam. If I do have the feeling, I quickly grow anxious that I did not do everything that I could have. Bottom line, the exam is over. There is no use worrying about it. I know that I did everything that I could, so I leave it in the room. And start gearing up for the next challenge!
As a parting thought, be proud of the work that you have done. If you are struggling, work with your teacher, tutor, advisor, or favorite student mentor. Taking an exam is as much psychology as it is about the preparation of the application of subject matter and skill. It is a skill in its own right, and one that requires training.