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6 Detailed Test-Taking Strategies on How to Do Well in Exams

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 getting to the bottom of actually useful test-taking strategies.

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.

6 Detailed Test-Taking Strategies

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.

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’.

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.

4. Collect the Easy Wins

Easy wins are any aspects of a test that are relatively effortless to accomplish. More so than mastering the core knowledge and skills of the exam. The downside is they don’t count as much towards the overall grade. The upside is they do add up and are essential to get to a 100% test score anyway. The key to collecting them is prioritisation.

Taking our time to break down the tasks first (tip no. 2) and sitting the test with the evaluation criteria in mind (tip no. 3) may seem like it takes away valuable time from actually answering the questions. However, this approach not only allows our answers to be more relevant. It also enables us to identify and prioritise the easy wins in regard to content, structure and language.

Easy Wins: Content

A well-crafted exam begins with an easy task. For one it’s to give the student some confidence. For two it’s because of a natural teaching and learning progression from simple to complex. Should we find the first task not easy at all, it’s either because the teacher had other plans or we severely underestimated the subject matter. That doesn’t mean we cannot go look for some easy wins. Here’s one way how to find them.

Which task asks us to (1) reproduce knowledge (List all presidents of the United States.), (2) analyse an issue (Examine how Jimmy Carter came to power.) or (3) evaluate it (Comment on Jimmy Carter’s first 100 days in office.). The first type of task is a mere memorisation exercise. The second requires additional background knowledge, an understanding of the mechanisms of presidential elections and the ability to connect all those dots. The third type tests the first two skills plus our ability for independent judgment.

The least we can do is to notice when all we need to do is get our (memorised) facts right. Memorisation methods such as the Mind Palace Technique can help here and in an exam where the rest is all analysis and evaluation, those are the easy wins content-wise. If at all possible, we can do those first to build our confidence. Even if all else fails, the teacher will notice and reward those foundational skills. Speaking of foundational skills.

Easy Wins: Structure & Language

Structure and language are other areas with easy wins. They usually carry less significance in evaluations. But good form is essential for everyone looking to score at the top and anyone looking to pass at the bare minimum alike. Because it’s essential for your evaluator to navigate your text in the first place.

When it comes to structuring, we’re talking about the basics of layout and formatting, We begin our text (or verbal answer) with an introduction, which gracefully segues into the main part and is wrapped up with a conclusion. We write (or think) in paragraphs that transition naturally (cohesiveness) and we make sure the reader will find everything to be consistent and follow logically (coherence).

What’s more, we write clearly leaving enough space between paragraphs. We alternate between long and short sentences, simple and complex grammatical structures. We don’t use jargon or technical terms unless they’re appropriate and we know what they mean. If required, we annotate with consistency. Finally, we check for spelling or grammatical mistakes and make sure all our papers are numbered and in good order.

Form and Grading

Good form is key. Imagine a teacher grading a meticulously articulated and structured paper whose only shortcomings are that the analysis is amateurish at best and the final assessment naive at worst. Now imagine the same in reverse. A brilliant piece of interpretation and evaluation that nonetheless takes the assessor two hours to decipher.

In the eyes of a demanding teacher, basic facts, structure and language are the fundamentals. Relatively speaking, they’re the easy wins that are absolutely necessary to score high. Because part of the justification for excellent grades is that the student not only got the difficult and important things right but also the fine details.

5. Fill in the Gaps

Knowledge gaps are (almost) inevitable. Complete blackouts, the Black Swans of testing, have more severe consequences but are rarely expected until they actually happen. There are, however, strategies to mitigate gaps and blackouts.

Avoid Mindreading

Teachers can’t read minds. If the tasks or parts of it aren’t clear and we write as if they were that can lead to confusion. A better strategy would be to include in our answer what we think certain tasks or terms entail.

For example, we may be asked to explain the transition of US presidential powers. If we’re unsure what ‘presidential powers’ are we can define the term before going into detail. In other words, we make our assumptions and rationale for answering the question the way we did as transparent as possible.

Anything that lets the evaluator understand our thought processes better helps. Although they ultimately have to fall back to the teaching material and the criteria, they will be more inclined to give us the benefit of a doubt. It’s not a perfect solution but a psychological win and better than skipping a question altogether.

Ask for Clarification

If the test format allows, there is of course a superior solution: asking for clarification. Oral exams, for example, tend to have a conversational format. Done cleverly, there are a few tactics that can help you fill gaps in knowledge or understanding without compromising your grade.

One is to simply repeat or paraphrase the task to buy yourself some time and potentially prompt a correction from your interlocutors (So you want me to explain how responsibilities are transferred from one administration to another.). That way you can make sure everyone’s on the same page. If certain technical terms are unclear, mirror the teacher by repeating the term you’re unsure about, spoken as a question (Presidential Powers?). This can prompt the teacher to expand on the term.

From an interlocutor’s perspective, it’s preferable to clarify what the actual question is in the beginning. Yes, revealing big knowledge gaps through too many follow-up questions can indeed hurt your grade. But it’s certainly better than the awkwardness of finding out you failed even to address the task after your five-minute monologue.

Beware of Closing Questions

Teachers distinguish between open questions with a wide range of possible answers (How do presidential elections work?) and closed ones with a finite set of answers (Is the US President also the commander in chief?). As a rule of thumb, the more closed a question is the easier it is to answer. It pays to keep track of what type of questions you’re being asked. Because the more challenging the questions, the better you can showcase your knowledge and skills.

In an oral exam, initial questions tend to be broader and more open. This gives you room to choose how you want to answer and what examples you want to pick. Put simply, it challenges you more to give a coherent answer. If a student struggles to answer open questions, skilled teachers will narrow down the options to make it easier. How do presidential elections work? may turn into a more specific Can you describe the process of the primaries? Or even into a very basic How many states does the US have? if a student seems to lack a basic understanding of US elections.

The more skilled interlocutors will vary between open and closed questions depending on a student’s performance. That doesn’t mean that you can’t steer the conversation yourself by signalling that you’re confident and more than capable of answering open and complex questions. Unless you’re sitting a lie detector test, you want to aim for a free discussion rather than being quizzed about facts with yes/no questions.

6. Change Perspectives

If you’re getting too stressed about an upcoming exam it may be time to detach and step back for a moment. Consider the following to put everything back into perspective.

Reassessing Failure

It would be wise not to allow yourself to make your happiness dependent on a single test. Understandably, a looming high-stakes exam can easily distort a sense of reality. Everything is focused on that one test. The future course of our whole life — so it seems — will depend on whether we pass this exam or not. That might be true, but who says failure wouldn’t be the better option?

Instead of fixating on this one opportunity, we might want to ask ourselves: What’s the worst thing that can happen in case we fail? Can we re-sit the test? If so how often? We absolutely MUST pass this placement test or we won’t be able to study at our preferred uni and our life will be ruined forever? That doesn’t sound like a healthy relationship to failure. Because if we think this way and fail, we will indeed lose.

Have Options

A healthier strategy would be to think two to three steps ahead of what your options and their benefits are. Other than a wounded ego, what are the actual downsides in case you need to repeat an exam? If a redo is not on the cards, think of alternative pathways or careers. Alternative goals should be equally valuable and challenging or even more so.

Think about exit strategies and other opportunities in case of an unforeseen catastrophic failure. Take the pressure off by trusting in the long-term benefits of accepting and managing life’s error messages. Failure may not even prompt a big shift in the end. Only a minor correction to find and discover your true Circle of Competence.

Don’t Be Pushed, Push Yourself

Lastly, I would caution you not to get caught up in requirements and evaluation too much. It’s true, you’re being evaluated against largely immovable criteria and compared to your peers. However, there’s a third far more important reference norm. It’s your individual progress, which is measured by comparing yourself today to what you knew and were able to do yesterday.

Perhaps you don’t meet some pre-defined criteria to pass an exam with high distinction. But you may still do much better than in the last test. A good teacher will notice if you were pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and skills and give you credit for it. This is particularly true for writing essays.

Imagine your essay being no. 57 on the teacher’s pile. No matter your level, a lacklustre effort shows in the writing. As long as writing that essay grips you, as long as you feel you’re pushing yourself, there’s a good chance the teacher reading it will be equally thrilled. If you’re not excited about what you’re writing, on the other hand, how is the teacher supposed to be?

Test-Taking Strategies: The Summary

Before I close with the biggest test-taking secret of them all, let’s look at all six of the practical tips again:

  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 is asked of you.
  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?
  4. Make sure to identify and collect the easy wins early on. For example by scoring high on anything related to the memorisation of facts as well as the structure and language of your answers.
  5. Graciously manage knowledge gaps by giving insights into your thought process or asking for clarification.
  6. Get some perspective on the importance of the exam by creating alternatives so that failing a high-stakes test becomes your ticket to another exciting opportunity.

The Biggest Secret

The best test-taking strategy is not to focus entirely on ourselves — even though the stakes are high and the spotlight is firmly on us. But neither should we try and please whoever will have to evaluate what we produce. The real secret is of course to find the right balance between the two in any given testing situation. It’s the eternal question of the creative and productive mind: How much should you cater to your audience’s wishes?

The more standardised the test, the more closed the questions, the more rigid the evaluation criteria will be. The more personal interpretations and judgement are required from us, the more we can bring in what we’d describe as our authentic selves. In any case, teachers neither want us to please them by parroting their (alleged) views. Nor do they want you to reinvent a task so it doesn’t even fit in any of their categories.

Some people may benefit from seeing the world more through their teachers’ eyes. Others may want to remind themselves of the unique perspectives and insights they’re bringing to the table. If you’re looking to experience learning and teaching from both perspectives, give the Feynman Technique 2.0 a try. Developed by legendary physicist Richard Feynman, it promotes learning through teaching and radical simplification.

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.