Taking tests

Build your skills and confidence

Are you dreading an upcoming test? Do you blank out or have trouble focusing every time you take a big exam? Are you frustrated because you consistently find that your scores don’t match what you feel you really know?

Let's figure out how to build your skills and confidence by breaking the test-taking process down into 3 different phases in the story: Before, during, and after.

Cramming works - until it doesn't.  What can you do instead?

  • Or, it works  in the short-term, for some applications – simple recall, to a pointBut it doesn’t stick and then we end up learning and relearning, which is not only a huge waste of time, but it’s boring and demotivating.
  • Instead, create a regular study schedule where you're learning in small doses over time - like by reviewing your notes after and then again before every class session, continually folding back in older material to connect it to the new. 

More about how to do all this here!  

Figure out your test format.  Then, make the "practice" match the "game."

  • If you'll just need to memorize and reproduce a bunch of facts, that’s one kind of cognitive activity.  But if you’ll be expected to interpret a concept in your own words, or apply a formula to a novel set of conditions or variables, that requires a different kind of preparation.  Like what? 
  • Don’t just “look over” your notes and textbook. Actively engage with the material.  The harder your brain is working to “retrieve” the information, the better you’ll remember it.
  • You can put this into action by using methods like self-quizzing or teaching the content to someone else to make sure you are processing the material more deeply.  That whole “be the teacher” thing when you’re studying is especially helpful to really master it  - if you’ve ever tried to explain something to someone else, you know there’s no better way to reveal what you know (or don’t know)! 

More about how to do all this here!

Help yourself out and make your learning easier.

  • Good sleep improves your memory, focus and concentration, lowers stress, and improves your mood.  Exercise does many of these same things.
  • Learn some daily destressing, meditation/mindfulness, and quick strategies you can do anywhere in a moment like box/square breathing.  They key is to practice this stuff regularly before the test day (you could even make it a part of each study session), because a stressed moment is not a learning moment. You don’t want to be trying this out for the first tme as the test begins!

More about how improving your well-being and learning go together here!

Calm the self-talk and get in the game.

  • Use the calming strategies you've been practicing (see our "Before the test" video) to center and focus)
  • Reframe anxiety  as  excitement?!:​  Try saying: “I am excited.” Because anxiety and excitement are both high arousal emotions and have similar symptoms, it’s easier, in some cases, to get from one to the other than to completely shift gears into calmness. 
  • Another way to deal with this is to try to frame what's in front of you as a challenge - one that you have the tools and ability to meet, as you have so many times before in your academic career and will continue to do.  OK, so you want to throw that at me?  Challenge accepted! 
  • If you were given potential essay questions before the test, you might even  try drafting an outline of how you would respond in advance. 

Get it down, survey, read carefully, and budget your time.

  • Write down any formulas, lists, equations, facts, or mnemonics you want to remember and refer back to as soon as you received the test. Use the margin, the back, or a blank piece of paper (if allowed). 
  • Survey the test (front and back of pages) to see how it is arranged, look at the different question types, notice different point values, and discover the overall length of the test.  
  • Read ALL directions carefully!  If you are confused with directions, ask for further explanation.  
  • Go through the test and answer all the questions that you know how to answer right away.
  • Then go back through and answer the questions that required you to think a bit more. Keep an eye on the time.  If you have leftover time after completing the test, go back and check your responses.

The brain doesn't like to be unemployed.  Let's give it something to do besides focus on your stress while you're taking the test.

  • Self 1 is the "judger" - the one that wants to constantly check in about how well the test is going and start to catastrophize about that.  Self 2 is the "doer."  Our task is to turn the "volume knob" down on Self 1 to get it out of Self 2's way so it can do its thing. (Metaphor from W. Timothy Gallwey's The Inner Game of Tennis).  How?  By giving it something else to do: 
  • The following strategy will both help you do that and more thoroughly analyze the question in front of you.  *Here's the hot take:  Do what most people don't tend to do, and spend more time with the question.
  • One way to do that:  Read the question 3 times: 
    • 1st time to get the gist
    • 2nd time to note specific words that affect how you answer the question (like "retrieval cues" that connect it to the material you've learned and "alarm words/phrases" like "check all that apply," etc.) 
    • 3rd time to to say the question back to yourself in your own words, checking that you understand what it's really asking. 
  • This will not only help you answer the question, but will give your brain a kind of "script" to pay attention to (thus distracting it from your stress).

For multiple choice, comprehension, and essay questions... 

  • Multiple Choice: Consider each question-answer pair on its own merits and articulate your reasoning.  Take the time to explain to yourself, specifically why this one is best.  And also why not that other one?  Are their particular words or phrases in the question or answer choice that will help you in your reasoning?  X the definitely “not-its”, check the one that’s best and, for those choices you’re unsure about, put a “?” and come back to it. 
  • Comprehension questions related to a passage you’ve read: The key word here is “specific."  As you read, stop to put the passage in your own words.  What is the author’s intention or position on the issue?  What specific data, phrases, or wording support your analysis?​  In the answer choices, consider the specific words that might help you choose one over the other as a best answer – particularly those that indicate extreme support for or against the issue involved.​
  • Essay: Pay attention to the verbs in the prompt and what that tells you about what you are being asked to do in your writing.​  If asked for an argument, be as specific as possible in backing your position with supporting evidence.​

Adjust your strategies to the moment!

  • If you are running out of time you should pick up the pace, read faster, and make quicker answer selections. You might have to turn to educated guesses if you are really running out of time. If it’s an essay test, provide an outline or list of points that you planned to cover in your answer.  
  • You should NOT change your answers if you are panicking or rushing at the end; you SHOULD change your answers if you can completely justify the change due to further clarification you later received about the question.   

Feel your feelings but then, when you're ready...

  • If it didn't go the way you wanted, practice some "self-compassion" (from Kristin Neff): Treat yourself with the kindness you would a friend, remind yourself that setbacks are a common human experience, and try to see the situation with the clearest eyes possible.  You're not trying to sugar-coat it, but you're also working to not make it mean more than it needs to.  Self-compassion is not the same as self-indulgence or giving yourself a free pass.  Rather, it's how to hold yourself to a high standard while also giving yourself the support to actually meet that standard.  
  • Now you have the potential to learn something incredibly valuable about yourself for next timeThis is where hope and growth come from - it’s learned through adversity, with opportunities to struggle, and in doing so, you learn to believe in yourself.  Rising to that challenge reveals your hidden abilities, and seeing these abilities changes your self-concept – the way you see yourself. 

Analyze your test.

  • You might go back through with your instructor or on your own and see what patterns of error you can detect, each of which implies some different ways to change your studying and test-taking habits
  • For each ask Why?  And what new habits and strategies would help now?
  • You could even color-code the patterns you find. For ex.: 
    • Misread = Pink 
    • Forgot material = Purple 
    • Never understood = Red 
    • Knew enough but couldn't apply in the way being asked = Blue 
    • Careless mistake = Green 
  • Now you know more about where and how to focus your attention to keep improving your growth and learning!