Test-Taking—An Overview


Taking the actual test is only one step in a process that really begins when you walk into the classroom the very first day of the course. 


In addition, how well you will do on a test depends on many things: 


  • Did you use any helpful “debriefing” information from previous tests in the same course?
  • Did you collect the proper information in the proper organization? 
  • Did you begin “touching” the information as soon as possible after you first collected it?  Did you trickle the information in bite by bite over time?
  • Did you create useful study aids such as flashcards early in the process? 
  • Did you “weed” your attitude toward tests as test day approached, using the advice and techniques presented in this chapter?
  • Did you allow past test experiences to predict how you would do on this test? 
  • Did you follow proper test-taking procedures when the test hit your desk?




Test stress or test anxiety affects everyone, even “good” students; it is a normal reaction to a potentially fearful situation.  If you have ever felt well-prepared for a test only to be unable to answer questions during the test, you have most likely experienced the effects of test stress or test anxiety.  Interestingly, one of the biggest reasons stress and anxiety affect student performance on tests is that students are not as well prepared as they think they are.  But more on that later; for now, let’s examine the brain.


The Stress Cascade


Our brains have different layers with different jobs.  The deeper layers of our brain--we’ll call this part our “survival brain”--is responsible for keeping us safe.  When our “survival brain” senses a danger or a threat (when our stress and anxiety reach a certain level or threshold), our “survival brain” takes control and puts our bodies in a “fight or flight” mode.  At this point chemicals flood our bloodstreams, making our hearts beat faster and our muscles move more rapidly.


Unfortunately, when these “survival brain” chemicals are released, our “higher brain” (where the test answers are stored) goes partially off-line and stays off-line until the chemicals have run their course in our bloodstreams.  This adaptation helped keep us safe in the wilds, but works against us on tests since it is the “higher brain”—the part that has been shut down temporarily--which holds the answers to the test questions.


If you have studied hard prior to a test and then have “frozen” or “drawn a blank” while taking the test, you are likely a victim of your “survival brain” sensing danger and temporarily shutting the higher brain down.


A good indication that you have become a victim of this is if you begin to remember answers to test questions soon after you turn in the test and leave the classroom.  What likely happened was that the stress of the actual test “locked down” your “higher brain” which contains your memory and recall, rendering answers stored there unavailable during the test. 


Remember when stress and anxiety reach a certain point, the “survival brain” automatically awakens and activates chemical reactions in the body that must run their course before higher brain functions come fully on-line again.  So what can we do?  Read on!




Though we will seldom experience a stress or anxiety-free test, we can be ready for the stress and anxiety we will likely encounter.  We can create a defense against being overwhelmed by stress and anxiety if we pay attention to three areas easily remembered by the acronym APT.  APT stands for Attitude, Preparation, and Technique.




Attitude refers to our emotional response to an upcoming test.  It includes our emotional charge (positive, neutral, or negative) to tests in general.  Our attitude can interfere with our performance.  What follow are some attitude adjustment ideas to consider:


Stress Reducers


  • DON’T PREDICT (you’re not psychic):  Instead, just WAIT and SEE.


              _ FEAR = Future Events Appearing Real


There are such things as “self-fulfilling prophesies” where we create our own future performance by predicting what MAY happen.  In other words, many of us fail a test well before we take it by convincing ourselves in advance that we are going to fail.  We do this by telling ourselves things that just aren’t true about the upcoming experience.  We “awfulize” the test-taking experience and predict the outcome well before we walk into the classroom and take the test.  It just makes sense that if we have already failed a test in our minds well before we take it, we are far less likely to do well doing the actual test. 


Here’s how it goes: Days before the upcoming test we begin thinking things like “I never do well at tests.” “I’m going to fail.”  “I always freeze on tests.”  “I am a terrible student; therefore I will fail.”  I am stupid, so I won’t do well.”  “I can’t do this.”  “If I don’t do well, terrible things will happen.”  You get the idea. 


It is important to STOP this predicting.  The truth is we won’t really know how we did on a test until we get it back graded.


So what do we do to combat this tendency to predict doom?  Try this: when you discover that you have been predicting a terrible result in advance of the test, catch your attention and tell yourself that you won’t know how you will do on the test until you get it back graded, so until then you will WAIT AND SEE. 


That’s not hype; that’s honesty.  So when you catch those negative mental predictions, instead say, “I won’t know how I did until I get the test back graded, so, instead, I will spend my emotional energy preparing and studying rather than predicting the future.”


You may well have to “weed” your mind of these negative predictions many times before the next test.  Old habits die hard, and it’s likely you have developed quite a negative emotional charge towards taking tests.  So expect the negative predictions to surface in your mind and be diligent in refuting them by replacing them with the TRUTH—that you don’t know anything beforehand, so you will wait and see.





Do not exaggerate the importance of any single test or quiz. Instead, know the value of the particular test—know how its points will affect your overall grade in the course—before you take it. 


I have seen it many times: a student faces a 30 point test in a course where 1000 points will be awarded over the entire quarter.  Instead of doing the math, (30 points is only 3% of course total—this means you could fail this test—get a zero--and still get an A in the course), the student convinces him or herself that this test will determine their grade in the course.  Hello, anxiety!!





Never see your grade on a test (or in a course) as a measure of your self-worth.  Talk about adding to the anxiety!  If you think this way, you have talked yourself into believing that you are your grade.  So now it’s not just the points you may lose if your do poorly, but your entire self-worth is hanging in the balance.






Leave the past in the past.  Do not predict your chances on an upcoming test based on your performance on tests in the past.  Remember, when we anticipate an upcoming experience, we turn to our “emotional encyclopedias” where we have recorded feelings about similar past experiences  If you have developed strong negative feelings toward tests because of the past, you will begin dreading the test long before test day comes. 


When you recognize this thought process, repeat the following as needed:


That was then—this is now.





Trust and use your study skills.  If you have followed the suggestions in this course, then remind yourself that you have prepared properly and well.





When the test hits your desk, rely on and follow your test-taking technique—a series of steps you will follow to answer questions.


Remind yourself in advance that you have this test-taking plan and that you will follow it (We’ll visit the proper steps in a bit.).  Knowing you have a step-by-step process to follow when answering questions will give you confidence that you will be taking the test rather than allowing the test to “take” you.





Before beginning serious test preparation, be sure to have the answers to the Two Great Study Skills Questions:


  1. Where will the test questions likely come from?  Lecture notes, textbook assignments or both?


  1. Will the test be objective (multiple choice, true-false, matching, fill-the-blank) or essay (answers requiring at least a short paragraph?


The Hard Truth about Preparation


As we read earlier, perhaps the biggest reason stress and anxiety affect student performance on tests is that students are not as well prepared as they think they are.  So the best way to beat test anxiety is to over-learn, or, as we learned in the chapter on memory training, practice, practice, practice, but practice smart. 


Keep in mind that being able to answer practice test questions in the comfort of your own study environment the night before the test is not the same as being able to answer questions in the classroom when the real test hits your desk. 


Remember, stress tends to lock us up—OVERLEARNING counteracts the paralyzing effects of stress. 


Good advice is to at least double the number of practice times.  In other words, if you normally quiz yourself ten times as you prepare for a test, increase your practice to at least twenty times.  Even doubling your practice times may make you only minimally prepared when test anxiety hits you, so practice until you are sick of it and then practice some more.


In addition, begin your preparation earlier.  Instead of starting the day before (or the night before or the morning of) the test, begin serious preparation two or three days earlier.


Preparing for Specific Kinds of Tests


As you know, The Second Great Study Skills Question asks us to determine which type of test we will face.  Will we face an Objective Test (multiple choice, true-false, matching, fill-the-blank questions) or an Essay Test (questions requiring a short paragraph or more of writing).


Here’s why we need to know this answer well in advance of the test:


Objective Test Preparation:


  • When preparing for objective test questions, concentrate on “The Big Six” and get started early, well before the test.


  • Flashcards and continual, spaced practice will be your best friends.


Essay Test Preparation:


  • If essay test questions are in your future, a few days before the test actually create your own test questions.  That’s right, pretend you are your instructor and write out five or six “broad strokes” questions you predict you will likely face.


  • When predicting essay questions, keep in mind that since an hour-long essay test will likely contain only a few questions, the questions will most likely be general and wide-ranging.


  • Ideas for these likely general questions can be found by looking for major themes or topic covered, topics that took a day or two of lecture.  Also check out the review or study questions at the end of the chapter which hold general knowledge questions, too. 


  • Write out each of your questions on a separate sheet of paper. 


  • Below each question, make a list of key points that would go in an answer. 


  • Finally, use your memory training skills (box and label, catchwords, catchphrases) to memorize the lists.




Test-Taking technique is the steps we’ll follow to actually answer questions, so at this point we’ll jump to The Eight Steps for Taking Objective Tests. 


But let’s talk about debriefing first.


Debriefing yourself as soon as possible after you turn in the test can provide you with valuable information to ease your preparation for the next test. 


A debriefing includes considering the following questions about the test you just took:


  • Where did the questions come from?  The textbook?  The lectures? 
  • What kind of test was it?  Essay?  Objective? 
  • Did the test focus most on terms?  On examples?
  • Did you follow proper test-taking procedures when taking the test?
  • Did you let the test take you?
  • Rate your stress and anxiety during the test on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being extremely high.




Click here for helpful Web sites for taming Math Anxiety