Before the test (adapted from Cuseo, Fecas & Thompson, 2007)
Prepare appropriately ahead of time. There are a variety of ways to prepare for tests that go well beyond studying and assessing your learning of course content. Being prepared both mentally and physically can provide you with the right frame of mind as you enter a test.
- Get enough sleep before the test. Not only does sleep help your long-term memory retain information, but getting enough sleep in the days leading up to the test will make you more alert, contribute to a positive mood, and decrease stress.
- Plan your meals. George Elliot says “no man can be wise on an empty stomach.” Eat breakfast (ideally with complex carbohydrates), but don’t eat too much right before the test as that can take blood away from your brain. If you need a snack, opt for a piece of fruit. Try to avoid caffeine right before the exam; it can leave you feeling jittery or anxious.
- Develop some pre-test rituals. Consistent habits and behaviors can put you at ease in stressful situations. Examples might include taking a short walk, listening to music, or visualizing your success on the exam.
- Arrive early and prepared. You’ll want to be able to choose your seat, and you can only do this if you arrive early. Bring all of the materials you need to take the test with you. If you’re thoughtful about your preparation, you will be more at ease as you wait for the test to begin. Make sure you bring appropriate writing utensils (and back-ups) and things like a calculator or a notecard/page of notes if they are allowed.
- Avoid standing/sitting around anxious people. If you know that the room is crowded and can see people who are overtly anxious, find a different place to sit or stand. Use time prior to the test to relax, take deep breaths, and think positive thoughts. Focus on your own preparation and future success.
During the test
Develop a process for taking tests that demonstrates “test-wiseness." This means using strategies to help you navigate the test in addition to your knowledge of the material and content. Check out our handout on "Test-Taking Tips" to help you evaluate your own testing strategies. In addition, here are a few strategies that research finds have a positive impact on test scores (Wark & Flippo, 1991):
- Read over the exam when you first begin. Take notes on the number of questions, point values, and other important information. Next, plan your time so that you have a few minutes to spare to review your answers. Be especially aware of test characteristics if you are taking a test online. Before you begin, find out if you will be able to go back and review answers online or if the test only allows for moving forward after answering questions.
- Answer all of the questions. Start with the easy questions, skipping over difficult questions or questions you’re unsure of. Studies show this technique helps students achieve higher test scores (Cuseo, Fecas, & Thompson, 2007). Be sure you mark these questions so you can return to them later. You may find clues to the answers in other questions, and answers/ideas may come to you as you are answering other questions. Note: If taking a test online, this may not work as a strategy, so be aware of test characteristics like the ability to go back and review answers.
- Consider a “brain dump." This means writing down any formulas, mnemonic devises or equations on a scrap paper as soon as you receive the exam. By recording things you are worried you might forget later, you can begin the exam with more confidence and less stress.
- Review answers. Be willing to change your answer if you realize your earlier answer is not correct. Studies show that reviewing test questions may help you catch errors or mistakes; however, this is different from second-guessing or doubting your answers. Only change answers when you are sure you have made a mistake.
After the test
What you do after you finish a test is almost as important as what you do to prepare for a test. The time after a test is an opportunity to analyze your performance and look for information about how to improve on future tests. Use a “Test Autopsy Form” or other technique to analyze the problems or questions you missed, to determine what techniques or strategies might have helped you, and to plan for how you’ll approach your next test. Students who are able to reflect on and learn from their test-taking experiences are more likely to make specific changes to their test-taking process—changes that will benefit them on the next test.