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The secret recipe for test-taking success is this formula: mix nine-parts test preparation with one-part test strategies. Most people would like to think the ratio is the opposite. They think "If I just knew the 'secret strategies' I would do so much better." Unfortunately, it is not that easy. On the bright side, however, there are specific test preparation strategies you can combine with a few test-taking tips that can greatly improve your exam performance.

Step One: Preparing for Exams

You need to think of exam preparation as a semester-long process that starts the first day of class and includes all class attendance, listening, questioning, note-taking, reading, writing, and review activities done up to the time of the exam. Too many people want to believe, "If I just cram the night before I can still do my best." This technique allows students to get by just often enough for them to keep trying it; in reality it fails far too often, leads to weak understandings, and does not permit students to perform up to their capabilities. Instead, you need to take a longer, more systematic look at test preparation, building on time management principles, daily and weekly review sessions, and multiple views of the material.

It is important to record the dates, times, and places of your exams. This allows you to schedule for adequate and timely review sessions well in advance of the exam. Research supports the use of regular, scheduled reviews. Retention is better because it is stored in long-term memory. With this in mind, shorter study blocks of 1 to 2 hours will be more effective then longer, unbroken blocks. Many students will develop three types of study routines: daily reviews, weekly reviews, and exam reviews.

Daily Reviews are short (10-15 minutes) reviews of information just presented. Go over your notes and texts of the day, paying special attention to formulas, theories, lists, dates, names, and ideas. You can do this type of studying on the bus, before classes start, or when there's not enough time to start anything bigger.

Weekly reviews are longer reviews of the week's assigned readings and lecture notes. Spend up to one hour per subject. You will often utilize any study aids, such as flash cards, charts, diagrams, outlines, handouts, summaries, etc.

Exam Reviews require you to pull together the materials necessary in order to assess prior learning, expand your understandings, and organize for the exam itself. The following are useful tips:

  • Look at all your materials to determine what is known, what needs work, and what is unfamiliar. Start with the unfamiliar and move towards that which is more familiar. During this review it is also important to make judgments about what portions of the class will be most important.

  • Using your lecture notes, reading notes, textbooks, and study aids from your weekly/daily review materials, prepare an outline of the main topics. Flesh out this outline by going back over course materials and inserting facts and details, such as laws, principles, theories, ideas, formulas, illustrations, definitions, events, diagrams, etc. During this process integrate-condense-organize. Whole chapters can be condensed into single outlines or tables. Later, highlight the key words or phrases that can be accessed during the test.

  • When it is necessary to memorize details, it is often useful to recopy the information onto 3x5 flashcards so that you have easy access to them during those odd study times.

  • Create visual aids whenever possible. The structure provided by diagrams, charts, graphs, timelines, and color-coding aids in recall.

  • As you prepare and review these materials, try to anticipate exam questions. You might also refer to previous exams or quizzes to get a sense of the type, style, scope, and content of the potential questions.

  • In the case of comprehensive exams, if there are questions you are still unable to answer from previous exams, develop answers for these questions and review them with the instructor.

  • Once your materials are organized and you have begun working with them get together with other capable students and quiz each other. Discussion of this type will reinforce your learning and let you know which material you still need to master.

Step Two: Taking Exams

Caution: There is no substitute for preparation. The following strategies are designed to help you maximize your ability to show-what-you-know. Specific tips are presented for approaching multiple-choice, true-false, problem-solving, and essay type questions.

Multiple-Choice Test Strategies:

  • Work quickly. Don't waste time on difficult questions. Mark them and come back to them later. Do the easy questions first. Go through them in order.

  • Read carefully and give the answer the instructor intended. Look for qualifying phrases such as most correct, generally, or in the case of, etc. Look for absolutes such as always, never, none, or all. Check grammatical clues; the correct answer usually agrees grammatically with the stem.

  • Check the answer you have chosen to be sure it satisfies all parts of the question. Be careful not to read into the question and make it more difficult or complex than it is.

  • Eliminate implausible answers. When several answers seem correct, re-read the stem and choose the closest answer. A foil may be correct but not answer the question. When answers are similar or opposites, find out where they differ.

  • On debatable questions resist the temptation to change answers. Your first intuition is often your best intuition. Change answers only when you are certain they are wrong.

  • When all else fails, guess. Narrow the field and use logical reasoning.

  • When running out of time, never give up. Pick a letter, "C' for example, and use it everywhere.

True/False Test Strategies:

  • Work quickly. Don't waste time on difficult questions. Mark them and come back to them later. Do the easy questions first. Go through them in order.

  • Watch for qualifiers such as all, most, some, none, always, usually, never, best/worst, highest/lowest, etc. Check these carefully as they are often false.

  • Watch for modifiers such as names, places, dates, or details that make a statement inaccurate.

  • Watch for multiple concepts. Remember, all parts of the statement must be true or false.

Problem-Solving Test Strategies:

  • Scan the test immediately to determine the number of questions and their relative worth. Then budget your time according to importance/value of questions.

  • Make notes. Once the test starts, write down hard to remember formulas, equations, rules, etc. that you are likely to use, even before you review the questions.

  • Work quickly. Don't waste time on difficult questions. Mark them and come back to them later. Do the easy questions first. Go through them in order.

  • Watch the time. Don't dwell too long on one problem at the expense of the others.

  • Be organized in your answers. Show all the steps in your work and clearly identify your answer.

  • Make an attempt. Even if you think your answer is wrong, turn in your work. You may get partial credit for starting a process.

  • When there is time, check your work. Try to use a second process; different than the one you used originally, to solve the problem.

Essay Exam Test Strategies:

  • Scan the test immediately to determine the number of questions and their relative worth. Then budget your time according to importance/value of questions. Note those instances where you have a choice of questions.

  • Read the question carefully. Be sure you understand the question asked and answer it directly.

  • Underline key words or terms, such as what, how, who, and why.

  • Watch for instructions such as discuss, compare and contrast, or explain.

  • Outline your essay. Take 10% of your time to scribble a quick outline and jot down important information that comes to mind. This is the key to organizing your answer and getting down all content. It allows you to write fast, accurately, and in an organized fashion.

  • Write methodically. Restate how you'll answer the question. Organize the body of the answer with one paragraph for each point, containing the supportive details and evidence in logical, chronological, and/or order of importance. Skip a line between paragraphs. Write an ending or conclusion.

  • Use clear, labeling words such as, in contrast, for example, therefore, etc, and underline for emphasis.

  • Get to the point, stick to the topic, and don't add filler. To do otherwise, annoys the grader.

  • Check your work. Be sure you answered the question - all parts of the question. Improve grammar, spelling, legibility, and punctuation if you have time.

  • What if you run out of time? Note this fact on your paper and include an outline of your answer and the main points you would have covered. You may get partial credit.

  • What do you do if you prepared for the wrong topics? Compare what you know to ambiguously worded questions that might overlap. Then write what you do know. A well-written answer that partly misses the point may get partial credit. Write something for all questions. In desperation you might offer a substitute question and answer. A well-written answer to some question is better then nothing.

Step Three: Following-up on a Taken Test

Any time you take a test, you should follow-up on any missed questions. If this follow-up occurs in class and you know what you did wrong, great. If this opportunity doesn't occur in class, you should take advantage of the instructor's office hours and meet to talk. As they say in history class, "Those who don't learn from the past are likely to repeat it". Following up on a taken test completes the testing-cycle and serves as the beginning step in preparing for the next exam.

  • Follow-up as soon as possible. You will ask better questions, understand the answers more fully, and you will have the benefit of this "added" learning to apply to the rest of the course that much sooner.

  • During your meeting look for insights about the way the instructor thinks. How did they approach the problem? What were they looking for - more detail, better organization, a particular focus on theory or application? Be prepared. Know which questions and related concepts you need help with. If you can ask a specific question rather than a general "I don't get this?" you will usually get a better response. Instructors tend to respond better to active learners who can identify their gaps in understanding, rather than a more passive approach that can be mistaken for lack of interest and effort.

  • Incorporate what you learned into your study plan for the next test. Make sure you modify inaccurate study materials or include new information or understandings in your study materials for the final. When there is a comprehensive final, it is all the more important to follow-up on tests.

  • Look for patterns among your errors. Are your errors concentrated among questions with a particular intent (application, conceptualization, and memorization) or of a particular type (essay, problem-solving, multiple choice, short answer, true/false)? Or do your errors stem from your approach to the questions: did you lack organization, use too much/little detail, miss the point of the question, have gaps in coverage, or fail to finish/mistiming?


Information on this web page was developed by the University of Iowa and is used with permission.

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