Taking Tests

Liv Marken

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the difference between formative assessment and summative assessment.
  2. List several test delivery types.
  3. Apply general strategies to apply when taking tests and quizzes.
  4. Explain what test anxiety really is, and how to reduce it.
Figure 7-4: How does this photograph make you feel? Many exams are written in regular classrooms, but some are written in gymnasiums such as this one in the U of S PAC. Get prepared both psychologically and intellectually with this chapter’s advice. Source: Permission: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Types of Tests

Two general types of tests are based on their objectives, or how they intend to provide feedback learning has occurred: formative assessments and summative assessments [1].

Formative assessments include quizzes, unit tests, pop quizzes, and review quizzes from a textbook and, if available, accompanying web resources. They test you on fundamental material before you are tested on more challenging topics. Quizzes go beyond grades; they can help you to identify what you know and what you still need to learn in terms of applying the material. A poor result on a quiz may not have a big effect on your overall average, but learning from its results and correcting your mistakes will affect your final grade when you take midterms and finals.

Summative assessments include midterms and finals. They are used by the instructor to determine if you are mastering the course material, and as such, they usually carry a heavy weight toward your final grade for the course. Because of this, they often result in high levels of test anxiety and long study periods.

In addition to this classification by objective, tests can also be grouped into various categories based on how they are delivered. Each type has its own peculiar strategies.

  • Paper tests are still the most common type of test, requiring students to write answers on the test pages or in a separate test booklet. They are typically used for in-class tests. Neatness and good grammar count, even if it’s not an English exam, as your writing needs to be clear and easy-to-read.
  • Open-book tests allow the student to consult their notes, textbook, or both while taking the exam. Instructors often give this type of test when they are more interested in seeing your thoughts and critical thinking than your memory power. Be prepared to expose and defend your own viewpoints. When preparing, know where key material is present in your book and notes; do this by creating an index for your notes and using sticky notes to flag key pages of your textbook before the exam. Don’t assume that an open-book test is easier! They are often much more challenging than closed book; not only will your instructor make them longer, he or she will make them harder.
  • Take-home tests are like open-book tests except you have the luxury of time on your side. Make sure you submit the exam on time. Know what the instructor’s expectations are about the content of your answers. The instructor will likely expect more detail and more complete work because you are not under a strict time limit and because you have access to reference materials. Be clear about when the test is due. (Some instructors will ask you to e-mail your exam to them by a specific time.) Also find out if the instructor allows or expects you to collaborate with classmates. Be sure to type your exam and don’t forget to spell-check!
  • Online tests are most commonly used for formative assessments, although they are starting to find their way into high-stakes exams, particularly in large lecture classes. The main advantage of online tests is that they can be computer graded, providing fast feedback to the student (with formative tests) and allowing the instructor to grade hundreds of exams easily (with summative assessments). With online tests, be sure you understand the testing software. Are there practice questions? If so, make sure you use them. Find out if you will be allowed to move freely between test sections to go back and check your work or to complete questions you might have skipped. Some testing software does not allow you to return to sections once they are “submitted.” Unless your exam needs to be taken at a specific time, don’t wait until the last minute to take the test. Should you have technical problems, you want to have time to resolve the issues. To avoid any conflicts with the testing software, close all other software applications before beginning the testing software. Finally, let your family or roommates know that you cannot be interrupted while writing the exam. Find a comfortable, quiet location to write the exam. Wear earplugs if you do not want noise distractions.
  • Electronic tests in the classroom are becoming more common as universities install “smart classrooms” with technology such as wireless “clicker” technology that instructors may use to get a quick read of students’ understanding of a lecture. This testing method allows for only true-or-false and multiple-choice questions, so it is rarely used for summative assessments. When taking this kind of quick quiz, take notes on questions you miss so that you can focus on them when you do your own review.
  • Presentations and oral tests are the most complete means for instructors to evaluate students’ mastery of material, because the evaluation is highly interactive. The instructor can probe you on certain points, question your assumptions, or ask you to defend your point of view. Make sure you practice your presentation many times with and without an audience, such as your study group.

Top Ten Tips for Taking Tests

What do you do before and during a test? You have some good ideas for studying and performing well on tests, but maybe you could pick up a few more ideas in this section.


  1. Learn as much as you can about the test. What has the instructor told you about it? Will it be open book? What types of questions will be on it (i.e., multiple choice, short answer)? Are there parts that will be worth more points than others? Will it be cumulative or just cover the most recent material? Will you have choices about which questions to answer? Find the answers to these questions as best you can before going to your instructor. Students often hammer instructors with questions when all the answers to those questions are in the syllabus or mentioned in class.
  2. Try to foresee the questions likely to be on the test. What kinds of questions would you include if you were the instructor? Brainstorm possible questions with your study group. Look for possible questions in your notes. Review past quizzes and tests to see what kinds of questions the instructor likes to ask. Above all, take it seriously whenever your instructor warns, “This will be on the test.”
  3. Don’t be tempted to stay up late cramming. Cramming is not a substitute for doing your assignments and studying consistently over time. It’s better to get a good night’s sleep and face your test fresh and well rested.
  4. Get some exercise and eat well. Exercising the day before an exam will help you sleep well, meaning that you will be more focused during the exam. A healthy diet the night before and the day of the exam will give you energy and better concentration. Include “brain foods,” such as those rich in omega-3 oils, and avoid “heavy” foods that are rich in fat and sugar. If you are writing a long exam (such as a final exam, typically three hours), avoid simple carbohydrates beforehand as you will have a “crash” soon afterwards; instead, eat something high in protein so that your blood sugars remain level.
  5. Get to the test site early. Take out all your allowable tools (pencils, pens, calculator, etc.). Turn off your cell phone (yes, all the way off, not on vibrate) as a way of disconnecting from your everyday world. Do some of the relaxation exercises described earlier for controlling test anxiety.


  1. Create a test plan. Listen carefully to the directions given by the instructor. When you receive your test, scan the entire test first. Evaluate the importance of each section. Then create a time allocation plan. Decide how much time you should dedicate to each section. You don’t want to spend 80 percent of your time on a question worth 10 percent of the grade.
  2. Write it down. Take a couple minutes to write down key facts, dates, principles, statistics, and formulas on a piece of scratch paper or in the margin of the exam paper. Do this while you are still fresh and aren’t yet feeling time pressure (when it will be harder to remember them). Then you can refer to these notes as you take the exam.
  3. Read the directions carefully. Then reread them. Do you understand what is expected of you? If not, ask the instructor to be sure you are clear. Too many students lose points simply by not following directions completely!
  4. Do the easy questions first. By getting the easy questions out of the way, you’ll feel more confident about the test and have more time to think about the tougher questions. Start with the objective sections of the exam first (multiple choice, true or false, and matching columns). As you answer these questions, keep an eye out for facts or concepts you may want to use later in an essay question.
  5. Keep an eye on the time. Keep as close to your plan as possible. If you see that you are running out of time, don’t panic. Move to those questions you think you can still answer accurately within the remaining time.
  6. Check your work. This doesn’t mean going through all your calculations again. Start by ensuring that you have complete answers according to the directions. Then look for other common mistakes, such as a misplaced decimal point, dropped words (especially those that can modify the answer, like “not”), and any incomplete or incomprehensible phrases.

Managing Test Anxiety

Most of us have experienced some anxiety around tests. It is normal to feel stress before an exam, and in fact, that may be a good thing. Stress motivates you to study and review; generates adrenaline to help sharpen your reflexes and focus while taking the exam; and may even help you to remember some of the material you need. But suffering too many stress symptoms or suffering any of them severely will impede your ability to show what you have learned. Strong anxiety during a test interferes with your ability to recall knowledge from memory as well as your ability to use higher-level thinking skills effectively.

There are steps you should take if you find that stress is getting in your way:

  • Be prepared. A primary cause of test anxiety is not knowing the material and not knowing what to expect. Make sure that you find out how the exam is structured and what material to study. Double-check the exam time and location, and arrive to the exam a little early. Some people find, though, that talking with classmates before the exam increases their anxiety; if this is you, wait somewhere close by. You can also go to the exam rooms during off-hours to check them out before an exam. Scope out where you’d like to sit and whether the room has a clock.
  • Address negative thoughts. Negative thoughts—“I’ll never pass this exam” or “I can’t figure this out, I must be really stupid!”—may have you spiraling into a stress cycle that in itself causes enough anxiety to block your best efforts. When you begin with the negative thoughts, stop what you are doing and clear your mind. Allow yourself to daydream a little. Go for a walk. Confide in a friend. Meditate. Try abdominal breathing. Don’t go back to work until you feel the tension release. Once your mind is clear, repeat a reasonable affirmation to yourself—“I can do this”—before continuing your work. Remember to use believable thoughts; in other words, don’t tell yourself “I’m going to get 100%!” or “I am a genius!”; rather, tell yourself “I know this material well. I’m determined to do my best!”).
  • Visualize success. Picture what it will feel like to get the grade that you want. Translate that vision into specific, reasonable goals and work toward each individual goal. Take one step at a time and reward yourself for each goal you complete.
  • It’s all about you! Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to other students in the class, especially during the exam. Keep focused on your own work and your own plan. Exams are not a race, so it doesn’t matter who turns in their paper first. In fact, those who take more time have the ability to explain their points more fully or check their work for mistakes.
  • Get help. If exam anxiety is persistent and debilitating, and if it is getting worse despite your best efforts to address it, seek help from student counselling services.

    Exercise: Talking Back to Your Anxious Self

    You’ve learned how negative thoughts contribute to test anxiety and keep you from doing as well as you can. Take some time to disarm your most frequent offenders. From the following list, select three negative thoughts that you have experienced (or write your own). Then fill in the second and third columns for each statement, as shown in the example.

    • I don’t know anything.…What’s the matter with me?
    • If I fail this test, I’ll flunk the course.
    • I should have studied more.…I’ll never make it through.
    • I just can’t think.…Why did I ever take this course?
    • I know everyone’s doing better than I am.
    • If I fail this test, my parents (or partner, or teacher) will be mad. I don’t know how I can face them again.
    • I’m going to be the last one done again.…I must really be stupid.
    • I’m getting really tense again; my hands are shaking.…I can’t even hold the pen.
    • I can’t remember a thing.…This always happens to me.…I never do well on anything.
    My boogie statement How rational is this thought? Do you have any evidence that it is true? Reasonable reinforcing or affirmation statements you can use to replace it.
    Example: I’m drawing a blank.…I’ll never get the answer…I must really be stupid. I’ve missed questions on things that I studied and knew before. I studied this and I am determined to do my best. I’ll visualize where it’s written in my notes to help me trigger my memory.

  1. Hanna, G. S., & Dettmer, P. A. (2004). Assessment for effective teaching: Using context-adaptive planning. Boston, MA: Pearson A&B.

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Taking Tests Copyright © 2021 by Liv Marken is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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