With High School starting to pick up after the first month and midterm season starting in most Post-Secondary institutions, it’s as good a time as any to start talking about tests. Love them or hate them, good test taker or otherwise, they’re a large part of the marking scheme for students in their later years of education; doing well on them can make a pretty big difference in your future plans and prospects. Studying for tests can be difficult and time consuming, and too often does procrastination mess up your plans for a successful test. So we’ve written up a list of some tips that can help you be a successful test taker and exam writer. While a lot of good test taking practices take place before you write the test, there are good habits to fall into for while you’re actually writing, and even after you’ve finished. Often overlooked, these practices can help you do better on your current test or even start preparing for your next ones, raising your grades in the long run. There are lots of good practices you can get into to improve your preparation for tests.
An item I’d like to start on is picking the right place to study. Oftentimes, you’ll just end up in your room, sometimes with a handful of friends, going over your notes. The trouble with this is it’s very easy to get sidetracked or off topic; the privacy of your room and presence of your friends will pull you towards spending quality time with them over working at practice problems. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with goofing off, a few days before an important test is usually not the best time to do it. Your own room is a dangerous choice; most of the time you will want internet access to study effectively, and the draw of YouTube, Facebook, or what-have-you can be too strong to resist. As such, find a place where you can not only self-regulate, but also be kept on track by the environment. Study in the dining room or kitchen where your parents can tell if you’re working or not. Try working at a library. My personal favorite place to study is right in the room you’re going to test in; the learning environment encourages you to stay on track and helps you to absorb more information, as well as easy access to a full gamut of teachers and fellow students. Not to mention that, in Primary and Secondary School, tests are often written in your classroom; this way, you’ll have a better chance of remembering concepts you went over since you’ll be in the same room you studied them in (As such, for post-secondary students, it’s good to find the room you will be writing in for the same reason, except in this case it carries the added bonus of ensuring you won’t be late to the actual exam). Finally, it’s often best to invite some friends along to study. While they can sometimes drive you to distraction, the benefit of sharing your knowledge to better grasp the materials outweighs the risk, and studying makes good bonding time regardless. Just make certain you pick a good spot to stay focused and grasp well the material, and you’ll be right as rain.
Keeping on track for long periods of time is hard, however. Studying non-stop for an entire afternoon is a huge drain on most people, to the point where, by the end, it’s almost impossible to stay focused on the material; it often ends up being just reading words on a page, with no real absorption. The reality is, pushing yourself too hard will just end up being ineffective in the long run. It’s important to avoid studying for too long in a single session to avoid ‘Burning out’; make sure to take the occasional break to keep yourself on task when you return to your work. Get out your phone and text or watch a video, go outside for a stroll and grab a coffee, chat with your friends instead of studying with them for a while, or whatever you do to unwind yourself, but make sure you can come back to studying afterwards, if you aren’t done for the night yet. I recommend studying for about an hour and a half and then giving yourself the half hour to unwind a bit, though this will vary from person to person, and of course don’t stop yourself if you’re on a roll. This advice on taking regular breaks can also extend to projects, report writing, and homework, provided that you’ve given yourself enough time to work with to get what needs doing done on time.
The most important thing to keep in mind for a test is to start studying early. How you define early varies from case to case; for a small test, this might just be two or three days in advance. For a bigger one, maybe a week. For any exam or midterm, I’d suggest no less than two weeks to study and chip away at the material. This sounds like a lot of time, maybe even too much, but it’s important to do for a couple of reasons. First, it gives you time to work with in case something comes up; a last minute project, plans you really want to make, or just a day to unwind and de-stress. Second, it helps prevent concurrent deadlines from stacking on the pressure; if you have two tests within two days, start well in advance to avoid cramming two nights in a row. Furthermore, it helps ensure you can give yourself the time to unwind you will inevitably need. Lastly, it gives you a chance to talk to your teacher, tutor, parents, and friends about concepts you feel rocky on, a chance you miss out on if you start just a day or two before. This is why I also recommend starting at least a few days in advance on even the most minor test.
At the very least, there’s one practice to avoid whenever possible when it comes to test-taking; last minute cramming. Cramming simply doesn’t give you enough time to cover the concepts with the necessary depth to really ‘get’ them. What usually occurs is a shallow understanding of about half of the material. There’s enough time to go into a handful of topics in depth, but what remains is often only skimmed over in little detail. Furthermore, cramming leaves you with little time to correct. Your resources will be limited to Google Searches, texts to friends, and possibly a one-hour session with your tutor, if you’re fortunate enough to have one scheduled the day before writing. So, even if you figure out what will pose a problem on the test, there’s no guarantee you will be able to puzzle out how to do it properly in time. Meanwhile, if you had given yourself an extra day or two, you might have some tutoring sessions to clear up rough spots or talk to your teacher about unclear concepts. Not to mention that you’ll probably be studying non-stop for hours; an easy way to burn yourself out. When you also consider the fact that this might shake up your confidence walking in and you have a recipe for disaster. While it’s often better than not studying at all, cramming can really throw you off if some major concepts still don’t make sense and you end up writing the test feeling unprepared regardless.
Section 2: During and After
There’s one, overarching thing to keep in mind on any test; do not, under any circumstance, start to panic. Panic, as my professors so often told me, is recursive. Say, for example, you come to a problem that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. No matter what you try, you can’t make heads or tails of it, and try crazier and crazier strategies to try to puzzle it out, with no success. You move on to the next problem, one that you’re familiar with, but your nerves are shot and you make a mistake such that you can tell your answer is completely illogical. You panic some more; “Why can’t I get this one right? I know how to do these problems!” Recursive Panic.
It’s a tall order, but you need to remain calm no matter what your teacher throws at you. Don’t be afraid to skip questions you don’t understand or you get a nonsense answer for. You can always come back to them later, and some part of your mind is still wrestling with the problem whether you’re aware of it or not. (For this reason, it’s good practice to actually read all the questions on the test before you start writing. You’ll start to work some of them out subconsciously while you do the others; this’ll save you time in the long run.) So, in brief; keep calm and leave some ‘till later.
Right after you finish the test, there’s something you can do to improve your grades; forget about it. I know that sounds paradoxical, but there’s no use being anxious about the result of the test you just wrote. The issue with this is devoting your brain power to retroactively pull apart the test right after you finish takes time and energy away from whatever it is you have to do next; a homework assignment for tomorrow, a project you’ve fallen (or will fall) behind on, or maybe another test that you have to write the next week, the next day, or sometimes within the next hour. This is a larger scale case of the problem-to-problem stress snowball; doing badly on one test distracts you during the next, and so on and so on. I’m not saying ignore the test entirely, but put the result in the back of your mind until you do what needs doing.
When you do get your test back, however, make sure to devote some time to reading into the test beyond just peeking at the grade. Take the time to look at the questions you got wrong, part marks for, or left blank, and try to figure out how to do them properly. This is a bit of a time investment but it often pays off, especially for smaller tests with a low mark weighting. Best case scenario, your teacher might have mismarked a problem that you actually got right (or sometimes wrong, but let’s not talk about those) and you get a mark back for the test. Even if not, you can diagnose your weak points and correct them now, which will make studying for future tests and exams much easier when you come to the concepts you had trouble on in the first test. If anything is still unclear, don’t ignore it. Talk to a teacher, a tutor, anyone who has a good grasp on the material, and ask them to explain it to you. While it’s too late to correct it for this test, if you can avoid making the same mistake in the future (whether that be on another test, a project, or in the workplace), then that’s still a success in my book, any day.
Test-Taking can be difficult and tedious, but it isn’t going away. It’s important to remember these tips to make the most of things. Remember to put yourself in a good situation walking into the test; give yourself plenty of time, plenty of help, and keep yourself away from distractions. Try not to be nervous while you write and give yourself a moment to take a deep breath if you need it. Don’t worry too much right after you finish, and remember that the marked copy isn’t just a grade, it’s a map of all the areas you have trouble with. Above all else, don’t panic. Your teachers and professors aren’t out to get you, your failure isn’t their end goal; your advancement is. So if you do poorly or are starting to panic about one that’s coming up fast, talk to them about a plan moving forward, ways you can improve, and maybe even a way to raise your previous mark. Work hard and work together. Best of luck, and happy testing!
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