Tips and Tricks to Take Better Tests
Students in the United States take more tests than kids anywhere else in the world. Some tests simply determine if a student has mastered knowledge and skills. Others have higher stakes and can determine class placement, grade level or college acceptance. These tips can help students on any test – whether it’s the weekly spelling quiz, annual state standardized testing or entrance exams.
To prepare for the test:
- Don’t cram. Trying to cram in loads of information the night before a test can increase anxiety which interferes with clear thinking. Plus, being sluggish from lack of sleep will likely negate the benefits of the extra knowledge. Instead of a massive cram session, spread out studying over several days. People are more likely to remember and recall information learned over time than in a single session immediately before test time.
- Focus on the positive. Test taking can be a huge source of anxiety – especially high-stakes standardized testing. Testing days in some schools can be miserable with edgy teachers, nervous students and an intense focus on results. So what’s the positive? Often these test times mean a reprieve from homework, extra recesses, few “regular” classes and a school-provided snack.
- Write about test anxiety. Researchers found that students who took 10 minutes just before an exam to write about test fears performed significantly better on the test than their peers who didn’t write.
- Rely on the right type of encouragement. Studies show people do better work when praised for their effort, not for their grades or results. So avoid pressure to get top scores, and encourage hard work.
- Practice. Taking a “practice” test on everyday classroom work is a great way to gauge mastery of skills and knowledge. When it comes to standardized testing, practicing by taking a previous version may reduce stress simply because the student will know what’s coming. But don’t overdo it! After all, standardized tests are designed to test what students know, not what they can cram in with test prep materials or repeated testing.
- Teach someone else the material. This can help students gain a better grasp of the material and remember it more effectively.
- Consider a quick study group session. Some students benefit from studying with and quizzing others because it helps identify areas they may have overlooked.
- Make sleep a priority. Adequate sleep is crucial to proper brain function and studies continue to show that a sleepy brain works harder and accomplishes less. The perfect amount of sleep varies for every person, but The Nemours Foundation recommends 10 hours of sleep for kids 6 to 9; 9 hours for 10- to 12-year-olds; and 8 to 9.5 for teens.
- Eat good-for-you foods. To keep cognitive function at its peak, the brain needs “good” fuel. A quality breakfast is essential for optimal brain function. Dozens of studies over six decades consistently show that students who eat breakfast perform better academically and are able to remember things better, than those who don’t eat breakfast. Before the test, eat a meal or snack that contains complex carbohydrates to fuel the brain and protein which is important for attention and alertness.
- Practice breathing. When people are stressed they generally breathe way too fast – more than 15 breaths per minute. At that point, their brain is getting 40 percent less oxygen than it needs for normal functioning. This oxygen deprivation is often why kids who should do well on tests, simply don’t. To reduce the stress, and increase the oxygen levels, before the test, or during any stressful situation, take a deep breath, hold it for two or three seconds and let it out slowly. Repeat five times.
- Stay hydrated. Studies show that even slight dehydration slows the rate nutrients enter the brain, producing short-term memory deficits, reasoning difficulties, and other cognitive problems.
- Know what to expect and come prepared. Bring the right kinds of pencils, erasers or calculators. Or, if required, be prepared to leave it all at the door.
- Pack a snack and water bottle. If allowed, bring these to the test to keep your brain hydrated and fueled. Snacks should include complex carbs, protein and bit of good fat.
- Chew gum. Studies suggest that chewing sugarless gum can reduce stress, improve alertness, relieve anxiety and lead to better test scores. In one study, teachers reported that gum chewers needed fewer breaks, sustained attention longer and remained quieter. One thing to chew on – in one study the benefits of gum only helped improve test scores if chewed before, not during, the test.
At test time:
- Actively listen to, or read, all of the directions. Don’t assume you’ll know what to do or when to stop.
- Use all of the time. IIf you finish the test and have time left over, review your work. Make sure you’ve answered all the questions, shown your work and used proper punctuation. Revisit questions you may have struggled with because other questions later in the test may have jogged your memory.
- Breathe! Remember, if you’re getting stressed, you’re probably breathing too fast.
- Skip the hard questions and come back to them. If you hit a problem that you can’t figure out, don’t spend all your time on it. Move on and come back if you still have time when you’ve finished.
- Finish the test! If you feel yourself running out of time, quickly scan through the remaining questions and try to make the best guess possible on multiple choice questions. This way you have a better chance at getting the answer right than if you write down nothing at all.
- Work neatly. Write legibly and keep numbers in distinct columns to prevent mistakes.
- Read every answer. Even if the first answer looks right, a better answer may be lower on the list.
- Look for clues. Watch for qualifiers like the words “always,” “never,” “none” or “generally” to guide you to the right answer. If the statement is long or complicated, break it into smaller parts – if one part is false, the whole statement is false. The longer the true/false statement, the more likely it is to be true. And remember, tests usually have more true statements because they’re easier to write.
If anyone continues to struggle with test taking, reading, or learning in general, a cognitive skills assessment can help determine why. This test is important because it assesses underlying mental skills like attention, memory, logic and reasoning, and visual and auditory processing. After the assessment pinpoints cognitive strengths and weaknesses, you can focus on the best ways to make weak skills stronger, which will lead to a lifetime of easier learning and testing.