The clock says 2:15 and its time for your next class. Suddenly, you’re feeling sick. You feel a bit dizzy, you’ve just broken out in a sweat and you are having trouble remembering which way the classroom is. You just remembered you’re supposed to take a test in that class and everything you knew about the subject just soaked out your pores in the sudden sweat that came with your realization.
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Perhaps it is helpful to realize you are not alone in having these feelings. One of the greatest difficulties facing students has traditionally been the taking of tests. Students may do fine keeping up with the course materials but panic when it comes testing time. This panic can be alleviated by taking a few simple steps before the exam and no, this does not involve writing the answers up your sleeve. Many times, these feelings are simply the result of being unprepared. If you are not confident in your knowledge, you are more susceptible to this kind of panic. By adjusting one’s attitude and employing a few studying strategies, students can achieve greater results with less stress.
The first step to overcome test-taking difficulties is to adjust your attitude. “To become an A student, you’ve first got to believe it’s possible” (Jensen 40). Instead of coasting through class time planning what you’re going to do after class, take the time to make clear, complete notes. Use some of your spare time training your brain for knowledge by reading as often as you can and attend your classes regularly so that you are at least aware of what might have been covered in class. However, don’t overload your study schedule. Remember you have a body as well as a mind. You need to be sure to schedule breaks in order to move about and stretch.
As long as you don’t overdo it, this can help ‘recharge’ your mind and make your studying more effective. Finally, don’t waste time complaining about the need to study (Jensen, 2003). This is nothing new to any student, it won’t keep you from having to take the test and it does nothing more than waste valuable time that could be put to better use.
Beyond these foundational things you can do to increase your chances of achieving high test scores, there are many things you can do to prepare smarter for an upcoming exam. The first thing you should do is identify an appropriate study atmosphere. “There are many different aspects to the environment, which have been shown to affect cognitive performance and test results. These include temperature, light, sound, aesthetics, design and formality” (Tambin & Ward 14).
Schedule your time wisely so that you’re not trying to cram a semester’s worth of material into your brain in a single night and make sure your study time will be free of external distractions or interruptions. If you have developed a good attitude as described above, then you have strong notes to help you review the course material. As you go through this material, give yourself small goals to reach with tangible rewards – at the end of each chapter I’ll take a short walk or play one hand of my favorite solitaire game and signal the end of my study session by making a quick phone call to a friend (Tambin & Ward, 2006).
While you’re reviewing these materials, pay particular attention to the key concepts that are highlighted either in your text or in your notes as being especially important to your instructor. This will help you start to predict what questions might appear on the test. Strong hints are often provided in the form of italic or bold print, terms that are presented as a part of a list or ideas that are linked to phrases such as ‘the most important’ or ‘the main idea’. Your instructor may even be willing to provide a study guide for you to help focus on what will be on the test. The night before the exam should see you already mostly prepared for the test. All you should need to do at this point is carefully review your notes one last time, make sure you have all the test-taking supplies you’ll need and relax.
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Taking the Test
On test day, you should try to plan an additional half hour free before your exam so that you will have one more chance to review your notes again. This should not be a new training session but just a simple, stress-free means of reminding your brain what it’s already learned. When you receive the test material, take a deep breath and begin reading. Make sure you understand the directions and identify which questions are worth the most points.
Start with those and move in order of decreasing importance. Tests come with a wide variety of potential question types. The essay question is most often the weightiest response. “The first step in writing a good essay is to plan your time,” jot down a brief outline of what you know to answer the question and then write your response (Holschuh & Nist-Olejnik 267). If you have the available time, it is often worth several points to proofread. Multiple choice questions are favorites among instructors because they are easier to grade. Like True/False questions, be sure you read all the way through the question and the responses.
Watch for absolutes as a means of ruling out potential answers. When working on matching questions, pay particular attention to the words themselves. “Beware of words similar to the right answer … Watch out for words that sound like the stem … Watch for grammar” (Kesselman-Turkel & Peterson 57). When you have to guess, do your best to eliminate some of the possibilities and then make the most informed guess you can among the remaining options.
After you have finished the exam, take some time to reflect on the experience. What seemed to work for you, what seemed counter-productive? Understanding more about how you learn will help you study for future exams and make you a more effective learner. This means you will become more efficient in the learning process and need to spend less time in study because it will take less effort to retain the information.
How do you feel about the test you just took, is this a positive feeling or a negative one, why is this so? Understanding what parts of the experience were actually negative can help you to plan around these obstacles in the future while any realization of the positive might help you realize taking tests may not be such a bad experience after all.
Holschh, Jodi Patrick & Sherrie Nist-Oleknik. College Rules!: How to Study, Survive and Succeed in College. New York: Ten Speed Press, 1899.
Jensen, Eric. Student Success Secrets. New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 2003.
Kesselman-Turkel, Judi & Franklynn Peterson. Test-Taking Strategies. University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Tambin, Louise & Pat Ward. The Smart Study Guide: Psychological Techniques for Student Success. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.