Student Tips: 5 Tips For Test Taking

Many people experience test anxiety. Five pieces of advice for reducing anxiety and raising scores on standardized tests.

Few events can trigger anxiety faster than a standardized testing situation. Even if the test itself is not intended to be especially difficult, so many other things may hinge on the results- promotions, licenses, certifications, etc. It's no wonder that many people experience overwhelming fear and anxiety just before a test begins. These emotions can trigger other mental stumbling blocks, such as short term memory loss or feelings of disorientation and disconnection.

But there are some things test takers can do to reduce their anxiety and perform better on standardized tests. Some of these tips address the mechanics of tests themselves, while others are meant to put the test taker in a better frame of mind before and during the test period. No amount of 'test psychology' can ever replace the tried-and-true method of thorough studying, however, so test takers must understand their obligations to learn the material to the best of their ability.

Here are 5 tips for reducing anxiety and possibly improving your own performance on most standardized tests:

1. Study the tested material in the ways which suit you best. There's a measurable difference between studying and learning. Studying for a test may involve skimming over a textbook's chapters for vital information, or quickly reviewing class notes from a lecture. Most of the information gathered in a last-minute study session is stored in short-term memory. The information should still be there at test time, but once the test has been taken the brain will often clear out short-term memories to make room for new ones. The trick is to LEARN information, not merely study it for a one-off testing situation.

Learning the information for a test is an active process. Most people learn essential skills and information through a combination of three methods- visual, auditory or haptic (learn by doing). In order to prepare for a test, you may have to create flash cards for formulas or watch a movie on the topic. Haptic learners may have to use repetition or build models. The more one learns about a particular subject, the more confidence one can gain. Cramming for a test creates numerous anxieties- What if I didn't study the right chapters? What if I forget the order of events? Active learning methods alleviate these anxieties by taking the focus off memorization and onto mastery of the actual process or subject.

2. Think like a test creator, not just a test taker. Standardized tests are created by educated humans, not spontaneously produced by computers. This means that most test creators are going to follow some form of logic when constructing standardized tests. If a test taker can think like the test's creator, then certain helpful patterns should emerge. An educated guess is better than a random one any day.



Test creators are quite aware of the randomness of answers. If a multiple choice test involves letters A, B, C and D, it makes sense to use all of them at some point. Additional answers such as 'none of the above' or 'all of the above' are generally used sparingly, and usually apply if at least two of the other answers are plausible. Look for shorter elements in A through D answers if the correct choice is actually 'none' or 'all' of the above.

Testers want to create desperately random patterns in order to destroy the idea of a 'pattern', ironically enough. Rarely will the answer be the same letter for more than two or three questions in a row. If the answer for question 1 is A, then the answer for question 2 might be C, and the answer for question 3 could be B or D. The point is that test creators work so hard at not creating patterns that their results are often patterns of randomness. When searching for a right answer, look back at the previous ones for guidance. It's highly unlikely that the proper answer is the third or fourth D in a row.

True or false questions are often tricky for a reason. It may seem like random guessing would work, but often the wording of the question itself will provide a clue. Again, test creators want to appear random, so a long series of 'true' or 'false' answers would be highly unlikely. Look for qualifying words which sound like absolutes- never, always, every, none, etc. True answers are rarely put in this form, because there are almost always exceptions to every rule. The trickiest true/false questions involve a partially correct answer which counts on the reader to react too quickly. A question such as "Moses took two of every animal on the ark, True or False?" may seem straightforward because the test taker read 'two animals' and 'ark'. Obviously the statement should be true because those two elements are well-known. But Moses didn't take any animals on the ark- Noah did. True and false tests often rely on this sort of minor deception, so read each question very carefully before answering.

Test creators often have a ideal answer in mind when constructing essay questions. A test taker needs to know three major points about the subject of the question and connect those points well. Well-supported opinions are often appreciated, but the test creator will be more impressed if your responses and the ideal answer mesh.

3. Arrive early to a test and get comfortable with the environment. Many people discover that the test itself is not as difficult as performing under non-familiar conditions. A test may be administered in a cavernous study hall or a small soundproofed room. There may be crowds of people taking the same test or you may be the only one in the room. Some tests must be observed through cameras or proctors stationed in another room. A computer may be involved, or scoring may be done with a pencil and paper answer form. All of these factors are bound to have an effect on the test taker.

Test takers need to know what is allowable for personal comfort and what is forbidden. Some test proctors will allow for ear plugs, for example, while others won't. Tests involving mathematics may require special calculators, which may or may not be provided by the testers. In general, test proctors like to keep the conditions very consistent and Spartan. Each seat should be comfortable and each test packet should contain the same amount of sharpened pencils and scratch paper. When in doubt, arrive early and become comfortable in the testing environment. If anxiety overwhelms you, go for a walk or do some light calisthenics to release stress.

4. Prioritize the study material. Looking at a dozen lists, formulas and biographies which all need to be memorized can create more anxiety than necessary. Learn the most difficult elements first and don't sweat the small stuff. The trick to passing any test is to get a certain percentage of the questions right. Few people will ever get 100% of the questions right on each and every test they take. By learning the hardest material first, you'll increase your chances of getting a passing score. You'll have time to relearn all of the material you may not have mastered, so concentrate on the core essentials.

5. Try to ignore the timer. Most standardized tests allow much more time than one might suspect.

However, some people can become very anxious at the idea of a limited amount of time to perform a task. The idea is to not allow outside influences such as a ticking egg timer on a desk to change your basic modus operandi. Imagine if you had to cross an intersection in front of a car going 10 mph. It might take you five seconds to make the crossing. Now imagine the car is traveling at 60 mph. How much time would you need now? The answer is the same five seconds, but now the price of failure seems higher. This is the basis for timer anxiety when taking a test.

The answers haven't changed, your ability to write down a response hasn't changed, but now there is a heightened sense of urgency. Some people find a timer to be a healthy way to promote thinking under pressure, but others may see it as a slow-moving tank gaining ground every minute. The trick is to maintain a pace which allows for thoughtful answers and not hurried decisions. The first pass through a test may be rushed, but there should almost always be time for a review. Some tests are designed to provide far more questions than anyone could answer in the time provided. The best way to handle this type of test is to quickly learn the patterns behind the answers. Instead of taking in all five numbers in a matching test, for example, look for differences in the last two digits only.

Speed tests are rarely designed to be tricky, just mind-numbing. Civil service tests are often graded for accuracy as much as raw speed, so don't allow yourself to become reckless.

© High Speed Ventures 2011