Preparing for Tests: Impact of Attention, Language, Memory, Sequential Ordering, and Higher Order Cognition

Tests are the primary measure of students’ knowledge throughout their academic careers. Tests may be used to enhance student learning (e.g., challenge students to apply their skills) or to measure student knowledge (e.g., to determine course grades or make instructional decisions). Tests, however, do not always give a true picture of a student’s knowledge or abilities. Some students who have a good grasp of material have great difficulties demonstrating their knowledge in a testing situation. Learning how to effectively prepare for tests and to develop good test-taking skills are crucial elements of becoming a successful student.

Knowing how to study for tests requires that students attend carefully and consistently to instruction, determining which information is important for an upcoming test. While studying, students must make their minds work efficiently, creating a study plan to guide them, and monitoring progress at each step. Students must also develop a practical system for remembering information, such as asking and answering questions as they study, or using memory strategies to enhance recall of important material. Finally, students must learn to “think like the teacher,” anticipating questions the teacher is likely to ask, and matching their study techniques to the type of test and the material being studied.

The act of taking a test requires that students coordinate multiple skills, often under the pressure of time. Students must organize their time effectively and work at an appropriate pace. They may be required to recall information precisely and accurately, or to provide an elaborate response to a problem or question. Students must often make effective use of problem solving strategies, recognize patterns and rules, and exhibit flexibility to best demonstrate their knowledge in a testing situation.

Here are some strategies to help students learn how to prepare for tests and become better test takers.

Developing Study Skills

  • Promote students’ abilities to sustain study sessions by gradually increasing the time between breaks. For example, have students first study for ten minutes and rest for five, then extend the study time to fifteen minutes with a five minute rest, etc.  
  • Encourage students to do "warm up" activities as part of their study routine, such as beginning with something familiar to get going, starting a homework or study session with a quick review of material covered the last time students worked on the topic, or reviewing positive results from the past to create a confident frame of mind.  
  • Have students make concept maps or graphic organizers on a weekly basis to keep learning fresh, keeping their maps organized in a notebook for future studying and easy access.  
  • Some students find that studying in groups helps them learn material faster and better. However, students should be given guidelines for working in groups, and teams should be monitored to make certain that students use time efficiently.  
  • Provide study-buddies and small group practice sessions where students review recent information or information learned weeks or months earlier. Coordinate study teams in which students compare notes, discuss and answer questions from chapters, share strategies, and create practice tests to give to each other. This is especially important in courses where information is cumulative, e.g., information and skills learned in September are essential to success in April.  
  • Help students understand that acquiring good study skills involves steady progress. They may find it helpful to keep a chart to record each new study technique acquired, including techniques such as: beginning to study several days before the test, organizing notes as a review tactic, using self-testing to monitor knowledge of the material, matching study plan to the type of test, etc.  
  • State the objectives of each lesson to help students know what is expected on upcoming tests. Have students intermittently question themselves about the lesson objectives to evaluate their mastery of the material.  
  • Provide students with an advance organizer before beginning a lesson. An advanced organizer is a verbal statement or visual representation that is just above the level of students’ current understanding. Advanced organizers give students a sense of where the lesson is going and what they will know by the end of the lesson.

Preparing For Tests

  • Have a class discussion about the strategy of cramming for a test, and why it often fails. Example points might be that cramming requires a student to pull together vast quantities of information in too little time, students who study this way are likely to feel overwhelmed and overloaded with details that do not seem connected, and such feelings will likely contribute to a greater sense of anxiety and dread about the test.  
  • Have students think about different ways to prepare for different kinds of tests, and help them match their study strategies to the nature of each test. For example, matching explorers and their expeditions on a test is different from writing an essay on the adventures of those explorers, and requires different study techniques. For the former and for any objective test, students might list names, definitions and key terms, practice true/false statements, etc. For an essay test, students might review concepts, prepare an outline, list possible questions, etc.  
  • Teach students to use self-testing as a guide to determine which information they have mastered and which needs more attention.  
  • Have students write and submit questions they think will be on an upcoming test. This will aid mastery of information, as students will reinforce their comprehension of the content in order to write good questions.  
  • Teach students to ask questions to learn which procedures and tasks are required for upcoming tests and projects (“Will the test be all multiple-choice?” “Should the essay due on Friday be in rough draft or final form?”).  
  • Help students prepare for tests by prioritizing information for them. For example, provide a study guide showing the relative importance of information, have students keep a checklist of materials to take home and tasks to do each night to get ready for a test, etc.  
  • Help students guide their studying by giving them a strategy or checklist to follow, such as the Five W’s Questioning technique (Who-What-When-Where-Why)

Taking Tests

  • Help students become better test takers through practice and guidance. For example, talk with students about good test-taking behaviors, such as:
    • using time optimally
    • knowing how long you have to take the test
    • glancing over the entire test before beginning in order to preview what’s in store
    • reading directions and questions carefully
    • asking for clarification if there is something you don’t understand
    • tackling the easier questions first
    • keeping a steady pace
    • guessing at questions you don’t know and coming back to them if time remains
    • going over your test and answers if time remains  
  • Introduce students to different types of essay questions, and to key word cues that help students know what is being asked for, e.g., compare, contrast, trace the development, describe, discuss, define and give examples. Give students examples of prototypical answers, and have them practice writing each kind.