By Donovan Makus
Tests. They’re an unavoidable part of life. From ones we hardly see as challenges, such as cooking a meal, to academic tests, such as writing midterms or finals, our lives are faced with these challenges. Like any challenge, there are ways to prepare for and face, academic tests better. I hope these tips will be helpful to both the veteran test-takers as well as novices.
The most important part of testing well is preparation, but before sitting down with your notes and textbook, you should try and gather as much information about the test as you possibly can. The format and style of the test will have a large impact on how you should approach your studying. Will your multiple choice test be a straightforward A-E option test, or will most questions have “all of the above” or “B and C” style answers? The more detailed the questions are, the more you need to know. An all-written midterm will require you to know the topic in unprompted detail. On the other-hand, an entirely multiple choice test doesn’t require you to be able to spew words onto a blank page as you can focus on being able to link concepts instead. The other key piece of information that you may lack in many cases is what the test-writer considers to be fair game. Will they focus on broad-level understanding, such as “Describe photosynthesis,” or will they ask you what the third-largest class was from a data table in a slide or the textbook? Until you know what the test writer’s approach will be, the safe approach is to focus on the little details. That being said, it’s worth asking your instructor so you’re not staring at the exam trying to remember the third largest Albertan ecozone from slide 17 of 80.
Beyond the actual format of the test, you also need to tailor your studying to the two broad types of tests: content-based and reasoning-based. Content tests are more traditional, focusing on your ability to remember facts, problem-solving steps, or content from the class. The other style is more common on admissions test, such as the LSAT, and don’t require you to remember as much underlying content. These tests focus on how quickly and effectively you can solve presented questions, testing your critical reasoning skills. Few tests fall entirely into either camp, but it’s a distinction worth noting since it should affect how you prepare. A reasoning-based test will require more practice–you can read about approaches to the questions–but you need to include ample time to learn how to approach the test yourself. Sample questions are always useful as they let you identify weaknesses in your content knowledge or reasoning approach you can fix before test day, but you need to approach them properly. Simulate the test itself; don’t write your sample midterm with your notes open, and use only the approved resources for the actual test. Also make sure you leave enough time to review your answers before writing the actual exam. Content tests are prime for flashcards, mindmapping, and note review, with plenty of information to memorize. By combining practice with learning the material, you’ll set an excellent foundation for your test.
After the preparation comes test day. With luck and enough time, you will feel reasonably prepared for the test. This is one of the most important parts of testing and also one of the most difficult to master: the importance of being in the right mental state going into the exam. Besides being actually prepared, there are a couple of things you can try to improve your test-writing mindset. The most important aspect of this is being well-rested and well-fed before you walk into your test. You don’t want your judgement clouded by fatigue and hunger.
Beyond this, adjusting your mental state pre-test can pay dividends. Feeling anxious and less than confident? Listen to a favourite playlist before you put away your phone. Choosing some upbeat, inspirational songs that you already like goes a long way. Not one for “Unstoppable,” “Born for This,” and “Champion”-style songs? No problem, your music doesn’t need to have inspirational lyrics. Find something you like that increases your confidence. On the other hand, if you feel that you’re already too hyped up for the test, a wind-down track can help you. Music can also help you prepare if you listened to the same songs while studying, providing an auditory link to the material.
Now the dreaded time has arrived–the first minute of the test. Hopefully you wrote your name on the test before you forget at the end! Many people will start on page 1 and go through the test in order. It’s not a bad strategy if you’re fast enough to never run out of time. The issue is this approach relies on your speed and ability to not get bogged down on a single question or passage. A better approach is to try and pick up as many points as quickly as possible, ideally the easiest questions. How you do this will vary by the test structure. Writing an entirely multiple choice test? Skim any questions (making sure to mark those you skip so you don’t miss them later!) and only do the questions you’re 100% confident about. This has an added side effect of letting you warm up to the test and building your confidence. If it’s a mix of multiple choice, true-false, and written response, you can go through your strongest area first. That being said, my personal advice is to never approach the written response first, since this is an area where you can add as much of a response as the space allows, and you don’t want to leave 3 pages of work for 1 written response question worth 5 marks only to run out of time, when answering a bunch of multiple choice questions in a minute or two could give you just as many points. Don’t fixate on any part of the test, and focus on maximizing your time.
As time passes during your test, hopefully you will gain confidence and answer all the questions you find easy. Now comes the harder part: those more difficult questions you left for last. Leaving them for the end gives you the benefit of reading the other test questions first, as perhaps that intimidating written response question is easier once you’ve answered the multiple choice and can pull some details from the questions you already answered. No matter what you decide, the important thing is to avoid becoming fixated one a single problem when there are still others left to solve. This is especially important if you’re writing a “speeded” test, where the test gives you little time to answer each question as an artificial way of increasing the pressure on you. For questions you don’t know the answers to, eliminate wrong answers. Cross out options you know are incorrect, and this will leave you with a 50/50 chance of guessing the right answer.
After the test comes the calm–hopefully–unless you have back to back midterms or finals. It’s important to take some time to unwind; tests are stressful and running at 100% all the time will eventually take its toll. Another key aspect of the post-test experience is not to linger on the questions you were either unsure of or know you got wrong. There are benefits to reviewing tests, particularly if you’ll be tested on the same content again, but if you’re facing an extended delay before getting your test back, don’t dwell on it. Just breathe, relax, and try not to think about the next test on the horizon right away.