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How to Do Well in Tests: A Veteran Teacher’s Practical Guide (1)

‘Teachers are a complete and utter mystery. They teach us whatever they feel like, test us on whatever they want and evaluate us however they please. Apart from being lucky and likable, there’s not much we can do.’ Except, maybe, to see this sentiment as what it is: Dismissive hyperbole that’s keeping us from really finding out how to do well in tests.

In reality, many aspects of a test, such as its context, tasks and even evaluation criteria can be understood. Whether we’re about to sit a high-stakes exam in uni or school, or we’re assessed by a professional organisation, doing well in tests is about more than mastering the subject matter. The secret lies in not only understanding our job as students but also that of a teacher.

Note, for the sake of brevity my focus will be on written exams rather than oral or practical tests. Even though you should be able to extrapolate from my advice to any test you may take. Before we flesh this out in our first three practical tips, let me give you an insight into the mind of a teacher.

Table of Contents

Inside a Teacher’s Mind

Personally, I’ve sat many tests and exams in school, university and have gone through more professional evaluations than I’d like to remember. I’ve succeeded in most, and more importantly, failed in many. At the same time, I’ve spent a lot of time in the teachers’ camp, testing and grading students of all ages in exams, both written and verbal. Through my international experience, I’ve got to know the literature, teachers and students from cultures across the world.

Now, you’re right. My mind is by no means every teacher’s mind. Neither can I speak for every single teacher across the globe. Though, test-taking and marking are pretty similar across the world. They all follow the same mechanisms because there are certain realities every teacher faces. One of those realities is that teaching is hard. Both cognitively and when it comes to workload.

Imagine you have to teach 26 school hours a week and you know what you’re doing. Roughly speaking this includes preparing classes, teaching them to 30+ students at a time and making sure each of those students has learned what you taught, i.e. you need to evaluate them. Competent teachers will always know what they could’ve done better in the classroom. But they will rarely have enough time to prepare perfectly because they’re usually swamped in admin. Now, this workload intensifies as test season begins.

Imagine having a pile of 100+ tests on your desk waiting to be corrected. Imagine having a week with 50 oral exams before you. Imagine that on top of daily classes and admin responsibilities, which usually resume. Whether we think this workload is deserved and teachers should quit complaining isn’t my point, though. What I argue is this: Knowing the challenges your instructor faces can impact how well you do in tests.

Practical Tips on How to Do Well in Tests

No doubt, students have their challenges, too. If I had to name three things that make tests difficult, it’s (1) mastering a subject matter cognitively and/or physically, that is having the ability to do certain tasks successfully after practice, (2) the psychological aspect of sitting a test, the time management under pressure and associated stress as well as (3) managing the expectations of the marker and those of yourself. Since I can only indirectly help with the first aspect, our focus will be on the latter two. Let’s start with tip no. 1.

1. Consider the Context

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that good test performance is partly decided well before the actual exam. That’s why our first tip relates to the context of the assessment. There are two aspects to it, the what and the how.

What’s Being Tested?

Think about the overarching topic and extent of the exam. As we know, learning material usually follows a curriculum. The curriculum is broken down into units, modules and sequences. Assessments are there to evaluate how proficient we are in what was being taught in a given unit or module.

Put simply, knowing the context of the exam narrows down what we need to learn. What was part of the previous test won’t be as relevant in the upcoming one. I say ‘as’ because teaching is often done in progressions. Some of what was taught before might be foundational for what you’re about to be tested on.

The importance of the what is also true from a teacher’s perspective. As they have to evaluate what you produce, they will limit the scope of the tests accordingly. They have a curriculum to follow. Generally, it also doesn’t make sense for them to test something they tested before.

A teacher would also not want to test material that’s reserved for a later exam. I say ‘generally’ because there will always be that dreaded task that wasn’t on the curriculum (yet). Because the teacher lost the overview or thinks it was discussed in the classroom. So it pays out to factor in the reliability of the instructor.

How’s It Being Tested?

The same is true for how you’re being tested. If it’s an essay, you might want to practice your writing skills, that is how to make it a cohesive and coherent piece of writing. If it’s a multiple-choice test, you can consider the various subtypes of questions and strategies for how to best approach them. There’s a certain repertoire of methods and types of tasks depending on the subject area. If you understand how the tasks work before the test, you won’t have to worry about that during the test itself.

Here’s another way to think about it. Will you only be required to reproduce knowledge (“Describe the properties of peanut butter.”), or be asked to analyse (“Examine how peanut butter affects your digestive system.”) and to personally judge an issue (“Comment on the claim that peanut butter is better than jelly.”). Anticipate the tasks, think about connections and examples beforehand and spare yourself the stress and awkward silence during an oral exam.

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Broadening the Context

Now, let me reiterate that this is not an invitation to only prepare the absolute minimum. I’d rather call it efficiency. Well-designed units build on top of each other. They start with simple concepts and expand so that the student gets a more and more complex understanding of the subject. It would be a mistake to dismiss everything that’s been learned in the past. Especially if the last test didn’t go well. In fact, if it didn’t this is where I would start preparing.

In order to do really well, you’ll have to go beyond the narrow requirements of a single test. In my experience, the key is to use the context and expectations of the test before you as a starting point. Then consider what you need to catch up on and expand your knowledge and skills from there. What was taught before the last test? What is taught now? What will be taught next? Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal judgement and time management.

2. Dissect the Task

Once you’re sitting the test, the actual tasks are the heart of every evaluation. One of the worst things we could do is look for a question that sounds vaguely familiar and just start ticking boxes or writing down our answer. This would work great if the teacher’s intention wasn’t to test your knowledge about a certain issue or in a very specific skill. So in order to make sure we actually answer the question we have to dissect the task. Let’s consider a hypothetical writing task: Compare the psychological effects of eating peanut butter with those of eating jelly.

Unpacking the Terms

If we were to break this task down, we’d first look for any actionable verbs such as to describe, to analyse, or to evaluate. It really doesn’t matter what the verb is, what matters if we and whoever evaluates the test agree on what they entail. In my world, for example, to compare means to consider similarities as well as differences between two concepts and come to a final conclusion as to what extent they’re more different or alike.

This is obviously something that should be understood before the exam begins. What’s more, we can break down further aspects of the task. In our example, we’re supposed to compare the “psychological effects” of one eating one specific food over another. At this point we should take a moment to consider if we have a solid understanding of what “psychological effects” entail, that is which effects fall into that category. Put differently, we can limit our answer to those aspects alone. This brings us to the next part of the dissection of a task, the resulting structure.

Making Choices

Now that we know what we actually have to do we can better plan the work ahead of us. Note that our example task subtly gives us a choice. We can choose which effects we want to consider and how many of them. We might want to plan one section to write about similar effects and one about the differences. The sections again fall into paragraphs that discuss our chosen aspects. We look for linguistic markers such as and/or and make sure we don’t waste time on a part of a question that wasn’t there.

If we were to take this one step further, we can even do some planning on how long it might take us to write the sections and complete that one task. It’s important to note that considering the elements of the task is not a one-off. If we’re writing an essay, for example, we regularly go back to the question and ask ourselves: ‘Am I responding to the task? How is the sentence I’m writing linked to answering the question?’

Tasks and Evaluation

Now, we certainly could throw anything we know about peanut butter and jelly out there. Let the teacher go on a quest to extract any meaningful answers out of our convoluted writing. But how much time does a teacher have for this kind of text archeology if there are 99 more essays waiting to be graded? There are two sides to the answer to that.

In a best-case scenario, the teacher knows what he or she is doing. After all, they have to evaluate what the students write so they craft and limit the task accordingly. That’s great for us because all of my above tips will work seamlessly with the later evaluation of our essay. In a worst-case scenario, the teacher puts together a convoluted and ambiguous task but still expects students to produce a coherent response. In this case, the teacher violated an iron law of education: ‘Thou shalt not ask double-barreled questions.’

Sometimes two actionable verbs are used in a single task, sometimes the task has so many aspects, ands and/or ors so not even the teacher knows what exactly the student is supposed to do. It’s a nightmare to correct because there are even more ways to structure a response. So the teacher ends up an overworked text archeologist after all. We might not like it, but in this case, we’ll have to make up for the shortcomings of the task, meaning we have to carefully structure our answer so the teacher can tell which part of the question is answered where. This ties in nicely with my third tip.

3. Reverse-Engineer the Evaluation Criteria

Closely related to the tasks are of course the evaluation criteria. They may be transparent before the test or they may be rather obscure. If we have a sense of the criteria, we not only know how much each task will be worth so we can prioritise. We can also gear our answers more towards what is expected of us. Note that I’m saying ‘more’ here and not ‘completely’. But more on that in Part 2 of this guide.

What Do Evaluation Criteria Look Like?

A good teacher will put in a lot of effort to make a task clear, unambiguous and easy to evaluate – for their own good as we’ve learned. They ask themselves what the learning goals were, how they intend to evaluate them with the task and how they will know the student has achieved them. In order to do that, they may use a so-called rubric and/or pre-define a level of expectation.

A rubric is a scoring guide that defines different criteria and levels of achievement. For example, the classic criteria for essay writing are content, structure and language. The rubric will determine what needs to be there to score, let’s say, a fail, pass, credit, distinction or high distinction. Criteria are usually weighted differently in that learning content tends to be worth much more than structure and language. So far so unimpressive.

Evaluating Our Own Test

Let’s suppose our teacher asks us to reflect on the causes of peanut butter cravings. To get a high distinction in the test the standard rubric asks for a ‘critical reflection and the use of highly relevant examples’ (content), in a ‘well-thought-out format’ (structure) and ‘highly suitable professional language’ (language). Sounds pretty vague, doesn’t it? Here’s where the reverse engineering comes in. How do the criteria apply to our topic? What will the teacher be looking for? Rubrics tend to be rather generalised, i.e. they’re not prepared for a specific topic.

The good news is, that’s where there’s room for our personal and unique way of answering the question. Still, the teacher may have pre-defined a level of expectations dictated by the task at hand. Essentially, this is teachers doing the tasks themselves. They’d write down what answers they expect to see from students at different levels of achievement in terms of content. We can also think of them as sample answers. Obviously, this will not be provided. But having followed tips 1 and 2 we’d now be able to craft our own task and evaluation criteria to prepare for the exam.

The Imperfection of Evaluation Criteria

Once we go through this process ourselves we’ll find: Evaluation criteria are not perfect. They need to be specific enough to be valuable and broad enough to capture all the different possible answers. A good teacher will recognise when an answer is outside the scale of his or her rubric (in a positive sense) and give us credit for it. An inexperienced one won’t know what to do with it and perhaps mark it down.

It may seem otherwise, but generally, teachers look for value, not deficits. They look for reasons to give you as many points as possible and not to mark you down. Why? Because it’s easier. Little is more refreshing than breezing through a well-crafted piece of writing that ticks all the boxes you have in front of you. The solution to all of this is to answer first with whatever was being taught in class and then go further. As a cherry on top. If needed.

Ambiguities and errors, on the other hand, slow a teacher down. Especially when they’re committed to positive correction, i.e. letting the student know how they can do better. However, the closer we stick to the actual task and what’s expected in the test, the easier the teacher will be able to comprehend and reconstruct what we were trying to do. The human addiction to correct is a powerful one. Seeing where students went wrong and putting them on the right path – that’s kind of our job.

Closing Thoughts

Students are a complete and utter mystery. No matter how well we teach them something, they always find a way to get it wrong in tests. What are we supposed to do? Write the exam for them? If we paired our hyperbolic student from the beginning with this hyperbolic teacher, the result would clearly be a disaster for both. The truth is we can’t control how our teachers operate, but we can try to understand them better and adapt accordingly. To achieve that, here are our first three tips on how to do well in tests so far:

  1. Consider the context of the test by thinking through what you will be asked to do and how you’re supposed to do it in advance.
  2. Break down the requirements of the task so you can plan ahead and don’t do more than the task requires.
  3. Take the test with the evaluation criteria in mind. How can you make this as easy to evaluate as possible without compromising your unique approach?

If you found these tips useful, check out the second part of this guide: How to Do Well in Exams: A Practical Guide From a Veteran Teacher.

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