18 Test Taking

Test Taking

Rebecca Hiebert

Learning Objectives

After reading this page, you will be able to:

  • use successful study habits for test prep;
  • understand the “whole person” approach to testing;
  • use strategies for before, during, and after the test;
  • manage stress and anxiety during tests.

Why Is This Important?

It is important to develop good test-taking strategies so that you can make sure to communicate all the knowledge you have acquired. We need to intentionally make choices so we can be most effective before, during, and after tests.

Test Taking

Once you are practicing good study habits, you’ll be better prepared for actual test taking. Since studying and test taking are both a part of learning, honing your skills in one will help you in the other.

While you are actually writing a test or exam you may experience a slight elevation in your stress level. This is actually beneficial for testing. This mild stress will keep you focused when you need to recall the information you’ve studied and demonstrate what you’ve learned on the test. Properly executed, test preparation, mixed in with a bit of stress, can significantly improve your actual test-taking experience.

Before the Test

Creating a Sense of Urgency

You can replicate the effective sense of urgency an actual test produces by including timed writing into your study sessions. Find out the format of the test in advance. Will there be multiple choice, essay, long-answer, or diagram questions? With this knowledge you can structure your practice time to prepare for the types of questions you will face. You can use a timer as you write example essay questions in order to create a sense of urgency similar to what you might feel during the real test. Making yourself adhere to a timed session during your study session will help you to find out what types of problems you need to practice more compared to the ones that you’re more comfortable solving.

Leveraging Study Habits for Test Prep

It is important to develop effective study habits to get ready for tests. Here’s a checklist for study and test success for your consideration:

An infographic shows a checklist for study and test success of students. Adapted from image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/6-3-test-taking, Attribution: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“Whole Person” Approach to Testing

Just because you are facing a major test in your engineering class (or math or science or writing class) doesn’t mean everything else in your life comes to a stop. Perhaps that’s somewhat annoying, but that’s reality. Allergies still flare up, children still need to eat, and you still need to sleep. You must see your academic life as one segment of who you are — it’s an important segment, but just one aspect of who you are as a whole person. You will still need to schedule time to see your friends and family, sleep, prepare meals, do laundry, and go grocery shopping. If some of these important tasks get ignored for a long period of time, your ability to think clearly and do well on your test will be jeopardized. A “whole person” approach to testing takes a lot of organization, scheduling, and attention to detail, but the life-long benefits make the effort worthwhile.

Establishing Realistic Expectations for Test Situations

If you become very upset and stressed when you don’t score close to perfect on a test, you probably need to reevaluate your own expectations for test situations. Striving to always do your best is an admirable goal; however, realistically knowing that your current best may not achieve the highest academic score can help you plot your progress.

Realistic continuous improvement is a better plan because people who repeatedly attempt challenges for which they have not adequately prepared and understandably fail (or at least do not achieve the desired highest ranking) often experience increased frustration as they work toward their goal and may even feel like quitting. This doesn’t mean you settle for mediocre grades or avoid challenges. It means you become increasingly aware of yourself and your current state and potential future. Know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and be honest with yourself about your expectations.

Understanding Accommodations and Responsibilities

Some people take tests in stride and do just fine. Others may need more time or a change of location or format to succeed in test taking. With adequate notice, most faculty will provide students with reasonable accommodations to assist students in succeeding in test situations. If you feel that you would benefit from receiving these sorts of accommodations, first speak with your instructor. You may also need to talk to a student services advisor for specific requirements for accommodations at your institution.

If you need accommodations, you are responsible for understanding what your specific needs are and communicating your needs with your instructors. Before tests, you may be allowed to have someone else take notes for you, receive your books in audio form, engage an interpreter, or have adaptive devices in the classroom to help you participate. Testing accommodations may allow for additional time on the test, the use of a scribe to record test answers, the use of a computer instead of handwriting answers, as well as other means to make the test situation successful. Talk to your instructors if you have questions about testing accommodations.

Prioritizing Time Surrounding Test Situations

Think of a test as an event with multiple phases. You will need to review your notes, complete practice tests, attend review sessions, and even meet with classmates to review the material together. All of these steps take time and need to be planned in advance so that you are able to adequately cover the material you need to succeed on the test. Step back and look at the big picture of this timeline. Draw it out on paper. What needs to happen between now and the test so you feel comfortable, confident, and ready?

During the Test

Once you get to the test, try your best to focus on nothing but the test. This can be very difficult with all the distractions in our lives, but if you have done all the groundwork by attending classes, completing assignments, and studying, you are ready to focus intently for the comparatively short time most tests last.

Arriving to Class

Help yourself feel calm and prepared on the day of the test by:

  • getting to the testing location a few minutes early so you can settle into your place and take a few relaxing breaths;
  • avoiding talking to excited classmates who may interrupt your calmness at this point; and
  • getting to your designated place, taking out whatever materials you are allowed to have, and calming your mind.

Taking the Test

Before you start answering questions, listen and preview the test:

  • listen carefully for any last-minute oral directions that may have changed some detail on the test, such as the timing or the content of the questions;
  • scan over the entire test to make sure you are familiar with the layout and what you need to do;
  • decide how you will allocate your available time for each section; and
  • jot down how many minutes you can allow for the different sections or questions.

Then, if the test is divided into sections, be sure you read the section directions very carefully so you don’t miss an important detail. The extra time you spend at the beginning is like an investment in your overall results. For example, instructors often offer options — for example, you may have four short-answer questions from which to choose, but you only need to answer two of them. If you did not read the directions for that section, you may have thought you needed to provide answers to all four questions. Working on extra questions for which you will receive no credit would be a waste of your limited time.

Answer every required question on the test. Even if you don’t complete each one, you may receive some credit for partial answers. If you are taking a test that contains multiple-choice questions, go through and first answer the questions about which you are the most confident.

Read the entire question carefully even if you think you know what the stem (the introduction of the choices) says, and read all the choices. Skip really difficult questions or ones where your brain goes blank. You can go back and concentrate on those skipped ones after you have answered the majority of the questions confidently. Sometimes a subsequent question will trigger an idea in your mind that will help you answer the skipped questions.

Allow yourself a few minutes at the end of the test to review your answers. Depending on what sort of test it is, you can use this time to check your math computations, review an essay for grammatical and content errors, or answer the difficult multiple-choice questions you skipped earlier.

Finally, make sure you have completed the entire test. Check the backs of pages, and verify that you have a corresponding answer for every question section on the test. It can be easy to skip a section with the idea you will come back to it but then forget to return there, which can have a significant impact on your test results.

After the Test

As you leave the test room, the last thing you may want to think about is that particular test, but it is important to take some time to review your experience with the test. Once you have your results, study them — whether you did really well or not as well as you had hoped. Both scenarios hold valuable information if you reflect on them.

In order to learn from your test results, you must analyze both what you did well and where you struggled. For example, maybe after looking at the mark distribution of the test, you found that you did very well in the multiple choice section but not as well on the long-answer questions. You can use this knowledge to update your studying plans. Before the next test, you can practice writing timed long-answer questions since you know that those are more challenging for you.

Test Anxiety

A photo shows the overhead view of a stressed female student sitting at a table, with notebooks, a smartphone, spectacles, and a laptop around her.
Overhead view of a stressed student sitting at a table, with notebooks, a smartphone, a pair of glasses, and a laptop around her. Image source: https://openstax.org/books/college-success/pages/6-3-test-taking, Attribution: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Test anxiety can cause you to doubt yourself so severely that you underperform or overcompensate to the point that you do not do well on the test. Don’t despair; you can still succeed if you suffer from test anxiety. The first step is to understand what it is and what it is not, and then to practice some simple strategies to cope with your anxious feelings relative to test taking. Whatever you do, don’t use the label test anxiety to keep you from your dreams of completing your education and pursuing whatever career you have your eyes on. You are bigger than any anxiety.

Understanding Test Anxiety

Test anxiety can manifest itself in different parts of our bodies. You may feel queasy or light-headed if you are experiencing test anxiety. Your palms may sweat, or you may become suddenly very hot or very cold for no apparent reason. At its worst, test anxiety can cause its sufferers to experience several unpleasant conditions including nausea, diarrhea, and shortness of breath. Some people may feel as though they may throw up, faint, or have a heart attack, none of which would make going into a testing situation pleasant.

We can become very nervous when we think about taking a test because if we do really poorly, we think we may have to face consequences as dire as dropping out of school or never graduating. Usually, this isn’t going to happen, but we can literally make ourselves sick with anxiety if we dwell on those slight possibilities. You actually may encounter a few tests in your academic career that are so important that you have to alter your other life plans temporarily, but truly, this is the exception, not the rule. Don’t let the most extreme and severe result take over your thoughts. Prepare well and do your best, see where you land, and then go from there.

Using Strategies to Manage Test Anxiety

You have to work hard to control test anxiety so it does not take an unhealthy hold on you every time you face a test situation, which could last well into your career. One of the best ways to control test anxiety is to be prepared for the test. You can control that part. You can also learn effective relaxation techniques including controlled breathing, visualization, and meditation. Some of these practices work well even in the moment: at your test site, take a deep breath, close your eyes, and smile — just bringing positive thoughts into your mind can help you meet the challenges of taking a test without anxiety taking over.

Key Takeaways

Test taking is a skill that students can develop by managing their time before the test by study effectively, planning how to answer questions during the test, and analyzing test results after the test and reflecting on how to study more effectively next time. Students also need to manage their test anxiety in order to think clearly while taking tests.

Attribution Statement: Adapted from College Success by Amy Baldwin, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.