14 Test Taking Strategies For College Students

Test taking strategies for college students are important techniques for successfully handling a testing environment in order to achieve maximum academic performance. While study habits are extremely important for mastering the material, the best test taking habits focus on the student’s personal skills when preparing for and taking the test.

The advantages of understanding and employing effective test taking skills are optimized performance, reduced anxiety before and during tests and a rise in student confidence about their ability to do well on tests.

Developing exam taking strategies for test prep and for test taking produce the best results, as multiple studies have shown. For example, the study published in the South African Journal of Education concluded that “the improvement of secondary students’ testing skills to be significantly correlated with variables that play a substantial role in a student’s level of achievement…”

What are Test-Taking Strategies for Before the Test?

Test taking techniques to use before the test make the most of your study time and put you in the best academic, physical and mental position to succeed.

These 5 exam taking strategies will improve your preparation before the test.

5 Test-Taking Strategies for Before the Test

Develop Good Study Habits

There is no substitute for practicing good study habits all semester, so that when tests approach, you are already very familiar with the material covered. Good study strategies give you confidence and allow you to relax during the test, reducing test anxiety.

A study titled Performance of College Students: Impact of Study Time and Study Habits concludes that, “results showed some study habits had a positive direct relationship on student performance but others had a negative direct relationship.” Choosing proven study habits is critical for success.

Study habits with positive results include practicing in the study cycle, taking thorough lecture notes by hand, and engaging in active learning habits such as rewriting notes in your own words, recalling notes from memory before rereading them, writing down questions you have and finding the answers, and participating in peer learning in which you both teach other students and learn from other students.

Take Practice Tests Under Test Conditions  

Practice tests give students a clear idea of the types of questions and the areas of information to be covered in an upcoming exam.

Take the practice exam and treat it like a real test, meaning that you should allot yourself the same amount of time you’ll have on the real exam. And put into practice these proven test taking habits including developing a positive mental attitude, read instructions carefully and follow them closely, read the whole test before starting to answer questions and employ smart answering strategies.

Known as the testing effect, it “is a well-known concept referring to gains in learning and retention that can occur when students take a practice test on studied material before taking a final test on the same material,” according to Rethinking the Use of Tests: A Meta-Analysis of Practice Testing.

Practice Healthy Self Care Habits  

Good health habits for test taking include your sleep habits, your diet and the amount of exercise you get.

Get good rest every night, if possible. A study from MIT showed that students who slept longer and had consistent sleep patterns performed better on tests than those that did not. One of the author’s of the study says, “in this study the benefits of sleep are correlated to performance in the context of a real-life college course, and driven by large amounts of objective data collection.”

If you are prone to sleeping poorly the night before a test, then be sure to get a good sleep two nights before a test, in other words, the night before the night before the exam.

Put yourself on a healthy diet that includes a good balance of healthy, complex carbs and proteins while avoiding excess sugar that can spike your energy and then quickly fade, creating a sluggish feeling.

Regular, appropriate levels of exercise produce restful sleep, relax your body and mind and increase your energy level. These benefits of exercise for test taking result in you being mentally sharp when exam time comes.

Develop Positive Mental Skills

Positive mental skills help to boost confidence and mental focus while they also reduce negative thinking that can lead to test anxiety and poor test performance. A study published in International Journal of Educational Research showed that confidence can be built through positive mental skills, which the study calls self-efficacy.

Positive thinking includes envisioning yourself working hard on study skills, completing your pre-test preparation checklist and getting a high score on the test.

Keep in mind that it is much easier to develop positive mental thoughts about exams when you have practiced good study habits and you have cultivated good testing skills. All test taking strategies support and build upon one another.

Arrive Early and Prepared

Leave yourself extra time to get to the testing site to eliminate anxiety caused by being late. Find a seat before the majority of students arrive to avoid the rush.

To facilitate arriving early, take time the day before to gather any resources required or allowed for the exam, such as several writing tools and a calculator if needed.

What are Test-Taking Strategies for During the Test?

These 9 best test-taking strategies work when used during the test to ensure that you understand the test sections and questions, answer the highest number of them correctly and have time to complete the exam without being rushed.

  • Listen To or Read Instructions, and Follow Them Carefully: Instructions guide your approach to taking the test for best results.
  • Scan the Test Before Answering Any Questions: This allows you to know how the test is structured, so you can plan your test taking approach and make best use of time.
  • Manage Your Time: This ensures that you’ll answer all test questions in the allotted time.
  • Write Down Information You See Questions About: Make a few quick notes about answers needing information you’re concerned you might forget.
  • Answer Questions You Know First: Answering familiar questions first makes sure you complete all questions you know the answers to.
  • Answer and Review All Questions: Provide an answer on all questions, even if you have to guess, and review answers if time allows.
  • Employ Smart Answering Strategies: Evaluate true/false and multiple choice questions to choose the best answer.
  • Read Essay Questions Carefully and Make a Brief Outline Before Answering Fully: This ensures you’ll answer comprehensively.
  • Review Your Exam Strategies and Results: Adjust your test taking techniques in light of the results you achieve.

Listen To or Read Instructions, and Follow Them Carefully

Verbal or written instructions contain important information about the structure of the test, time allowed, or how various questions or parts of the test are weighted. This insight can eliminate confusion and help you plan your approach to taking the test in order to maximize your results.

If you have a question about the instructions for taking the test, whether the question arises before the test starts or once it has begun, don’t hesitate to ask the question.  

Scan the Test Before Answering Any Questions

Quickly review the entire exam before you start to answer questions. Scanning it first shows you how the test is structured, and the number and type – true and false, multiple choice and essay questions, for example.

This test taking strategy allows you to effectively employ other techniques including managing your time and answering challenging questions while the necessary information is still fresh in mind.

Manage Your Time On the Test

Managing your time on an exam involves knowing how much time is allowed for the test and allocating the appropriate amount of time for each section such as a true/false or multiple choice section and essay questions.

This ensures that you can devote additional time to difficult sections and questions and to answer all questions before time runs out.

Write Down Information You See Questions About

When reading over the test before starting, you will likely see one or more questions that you’ve had trouble retaining information about. Either answer those questions in their entirety first or at least quickly jot down essential information that you can flesh out into a full answer when you get to that question. This gets the info out of your head before you forget it. This college test taking strategy is called a “brain dump” in Harvard’s 14 Tips for Test Taking Success

Answer Questions You Know First

This exam strategy ensures that you get the maximum number of questions correct and receive points for them.

A second benefit of this technique is that it leaves the most time to employ smart answering strategies when the correct answer is initially unclear.

Finally, answering easy questions first boosts your confidence and helps you to relax, so that you are mentally prepared to work through the most difficult problems on the exam that you skipped the first time through.

Employ Smart Answering Strategies

There are several key question-answering strategies that give you the best chance of getting the question correct.

On multiple choice questions, read all the answers before choosing one. Select the one that is the clearest, most complete answer to the question.

On true/false questions, remember that the entire question must be true in order for “true” to be the correct answer.

On both question types, answers worded with absolutes such as “always,” “never,” “every,” “all” and “none” are most often incorrect answers.

Answer and Review All Questions

Answer all questions, even if you have to guess on some of the answers or give partial answers on essay questions.

Once all the answers are completed, review them to ensure that you chose the answer you meant to choose on true/false and multiple choice questions and that your essays are complete and do not include wrong information.

Read Essay Questions Carefully and Make a Brief Outline Before Answering Fully

Reading the essay question carefully, even rereading it a few times, gives you a clear understanding of what the scope of your answer should be.

Start answering with a brief brain dump – jot down all the facts and concepts in brief form that you want to be sure to include. This can take the form of an outline, or you can turn your notes into an outline.

Then, fill in the outline with your complete answer. And read over your answer to be sure you have covered all aspects of the question and provided the most complete answer possible. Finally, include additional information that you failed to include in your initial answer. These test taking strategies for essay questions provide the best results.

Review Your Exam Results and Strategies

Once you get your exam results, consider your test taking strategies in light of how well they worked.

When you get good test scores, stick with the exam taking techniques you used for prep and test taking. When your scores don’t meet your standards, try strategies you skipped or didn’t put much effort into.

Keep evaluating your exam taking strategies, adjusting where needed, until you develop a list of test taking habits that give you the test results you want.

9 Test-Taking Strategies for During the Test

What Are Strategies to Overcome Test Anxiety?

Here are proven test taking strategies for reducing or eliminating anxiety before and during the exam. Test-taking anxiety is “feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the ability to communicate what one knows in a test situation” (Austin, Partridge, Bitner, & Wadlington, 1995). Test-anxiety may interfere with a student’s performance when the anxiety level is high (Strnad, 2003).

Overcoming anxiety allows students to perform their best. These are top tips for overcoming testing anxiety:

  • Develop Good Study Habits: Mastering the material as it is given throughout the semester is the best way to build confidence, which is a proven antidote to test anxiety.
  • Practice Positive Mental Habits: When you combine positive thinking with good study skills and proven test taking strategies, you will have good reason to believe in yourself, exude confidence and envision success. These habits prevent anxiety from taking root in your thinking and emotions.
  • Be Rested: Getting good rest reduces anxiety because you’ll have good energy, focus and mental recall.
  • Exercise Before the Test: Your favorite type of exercise will relax your body and mind, releasing natural chemicals like dopamine that enhance concentration and cognitive performance.
  • Arrive Early and Be Prepared: Rushing to an exam creates anxiety. Avoiding the rush, getting to the site early and having the resources needed for the test allow you to relax, take deep breaths, envision test success, review your test taking strategies and review information that is hard to remember.
  • Answer Questions You Know First: Build confidence and reduce nervousness by giving answers to questions that you know are correct.

How to Study for a Test Effectively

The most effective study habits used before taking a test are proven to improve academic performance. To effectively study for a test, understand and practice the 5-step study cycle, employ active learning strategies, set goals and manage your study time, use review sessions individually and with other students, space out your study time and reward yourself for good study skills.

The best study habits produce higher test scores because they produce better comprehension, reduce test taking anxiety, boost confidence and enhance memorization and recall.   

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