Effective test-taking strategies

Sridhar Rajagopalan

The phrase ‘test-taking strategies’ is a common one. It refers to what we must do to score best in tests. These may include tips, suggestions, special types of preparations, etc.

I would start off by saying that there can be positive and negative test-taking strategies. Further, most of the time, test-taking strategies focus on the negative ones – for example, the tip (not quite true in good tests) that the answer to multiple choice questions is most often ‘C’ and rarely ‘A’. This tip is supposed to help students who may not have completely prepared the question or run out of time.

These are tips that help us ‘beat the system’. But I believe that when we beat the system, we actually beat ourselves! The world of tomorrow is going to matter less on just ‘cracking exams’. Some people believe that admission into a top institute is a guarantee of a successful career, but this is not true – there is no shortcut to success, and I apply the same principle to effective test-taking too.

That does not mean that there can be no effective test-taking strategies – there are, and I shall describe some positive test-taking strategies that you can share with your students as they gear up for the exams.

  1. Focus on the fundamentals, figure out the rest: Here’s a strategy that worked for me. Like most students, I would run out of time preparing for tests, but I would study whatever I did – usually the first (basic) chapters – very thoroughly. In the test, I often found, that based on this, I could solve questions from later chapters that I had not covered! I think this works better than trying to remember random things or focusing on what seems most important ‘for the test’. I’d say, whatever you learn, learn it deeply!
  2. Know what you don’t know: In any subject, know what you are not clear about or find confusing. The clearer you are about this, the better you can focus and address this problem. If you find a particular topic confusing, you can focus on that – taking help if required. But the first step has to be asking yourself: “what are the 3 topics I am least confident about?” Know what you know, and know what you don’t know!
  3. Post exam, resolve not to make the same mistakes again: Do you know that as test developers and administrators we find that the same students repeat the same mistakes, again and again over time?! If you identify 10 students and the questions they got wrong in a test and give them the same question a few months later, they usually not only get them wrong, they end up making the same mistake they made earlier. What does this show? We should go back, check what we got wrong, understand that concept and practice it so we don’t repeat the mistake!
  4. Know your strengths, interests and style of learning: In addition to knowing topics that you know or are weak in, know your style of learning. Do you have a particular way of learning best? Is the last day extremely important for your preparation or not really? Do you learn best with friends or individually? Do you prefer to learn from notes, mark on your book or learn best while explaining to someone else? Try to understand these consciously and play to your strengths.
  5. Both while preparing and in the test, understand: We always maintain that life is about ‘learning with understanding’ which we contrast to ‘rote learning without understanding’. Both while studying for an exam and later in life, if you understand whatever you do or read (even if it is only a small area) you will be – I believe – more successful than someone who has a superficial knowledge of many things. Do you know about the person who was digging the ground for water and dug 1 foot in one place, before changing his mind and digging a similar amount and so on at 20 places? He would have done better digging 20 feet at one place, right?!
  6. Life is a lot about taking intelligent guesses: Trust your instinct, train yourself to take decisions. Do not guess when you have absolutely no idea, but if you have some idea (for example, in a multiple choice question if you are able to eliminate 2 options), take a call! Taking a call is about taking a decision, and you learn even from wrong decisions. But you cannot learn if you do not take that decision at all!
  7. Stay cool, read through the paper, jotting down points; plan your time: Using all the above and other good strategies you have come for the test and have the paper in front of you. What now? ‘Stay cool’ may sound clichéd, but remember, it is something that you can learn, and something that really works in all tests (not just the paper and pencil kind). If you find something that you just can’t understand in the paper, first of all, smile to yourself. This will give your mind the best chance to figure it out. Read through the paper (remember to smile at things that make you nervous) and also jotting down points that you remember (as soon as you are allowed to write). Also plan your time.

Remember, a test is not about beating anyone else – however much it may seem that way. It is not even about beating yourself. It is the next step you are taking towards your goal and a chance to check out if you are ready for that step or need more practice!

Best of luck!

The author is the Managing Director of Educational Initiatives that develops the diagnostic test ASSET and adaptive learning program Mindspark. He can be reached at [email protected].

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