Chapter 6 Test Taking

6.3 Techniques During a Test

A classroom of students sitting at desks taking a test

You’ve done all you can within reason and within your circumstances to prepare for the test. You’ve studied hard, practised questions, and got a good night’s sleep; you ate nutritiously, and arrived to the test early and prepared. Now it’s time to write the test. There are specific strategies you can use in the midst of the test that will help you do the best you can do.

During-Test Strategies

Here is a list of the most common–and useful–strategies for test-taking.

  • Choose your seat wisely. Sit where you are most comfortable. Scan the room and look for considerations that might affect you (e.g. sitting away from windows or doors that may be drafty or distracting). That said, sitting near the front has a couple of advantages: you will hear directions more easily; you may be less distracted by other students; and if a classmate comes up with a question for the instructor and there is an important clarification given, you will be better able to hear it and apply it, if needed.
  • Cut down on distractions. Wear ear plugs, if noise distracts you. Put your phone on do not disturb before you arrive.
  • Bring water. This helps calm the nerves, for one thing, and water is also needed for optimum brain function.
  • Listen carefully to instructions given by the instructor or test invigilator.
  • Write it down. Take a couple minutes to write down key facts, dates, principles, statistics, concepts, memory cues and formulas that you memorized to help you on the test. Write them on a piece of scratch paper or in the margin of the exam paper. Do this right at the start. Then you can refer to these notes as you take the exam.
  • Scan the test. Before starting to do any of the questions, scan the test so you know how many test items there are, what types there are (multiple choice, matching, essay, etc.), and the point values of each item or group of items. There is nothing worse than getting a big surprise when you have no time left to do anything about it. You don’t want to think you’ve almost finished the test, and then with five minutes left, you discover the last question is a forty mark essay.
  • Mark the questions as you scan the test. Star or highlight the questions that you know really well. Put question marks beside the ones that you might have more trouble with. Always focus your attention on the questions you know well first. It ensures that you get the questions done that you have the most chance of getting high marks on, and it builds your confidence from the start. Spending time on a question that you are struggling with is wasting your time which could be spent answering the questions you know the answers to. Skip the ones you don’t know and come back to them later if you have time. You might even get some clues to the answers from some of the other questions covering similar information. On computerized tests or answer sheets where you can’t or shouldn’t make marks – write down the numbers of the questions you skipped or weren’t sure of on scrap paper so you can find them easily later.
  • Create a Plan. Evaluate the importance of each section as you scan the test. Determine which way you want to approach the test. Some students start with the easy questions first, that is, the ones they immediately know the answers to, saving the difficult ones for later, knowing they can spend the remaining time on them. Some students begin with the biggest-point items first, to make sure they get the most points. Determine a schedule that takes into consideration how long you have for the test and the types of questions on the test. Essay questions, for example, will require more time than multiple choice or matching questions. Keep your eye on the clock.

Create a Test Plan

Look for opportunities where some areas of the exam are worth more points than others. For example: An exam consists of 21 questions, with 10 being True/False, 10 being multiple choice, and one essay question. The T/F questions are worth 1 point each (10 points), the multiple-choice questions are worth 2 points each (20 points), and the essay question is worth 30 points. You know that the essay question is the most valuable (it is worth half of the value of the exam). And we should allocate our time for it accordingly. Do a quick analysis of time to be able to spend your time on the exam wisely. You want to spend some time with the essay question since it is so valuable, without sacrificing adequate time to ensure the T/F and multiple-choice questions are answered.

Often, the order of the exam in this scenario will be: T/F first, multiple choice second and essay third. Most students will go in the chronological order of the exam, but you may want to start with the essay, or at least decide on the essay question (if there is a choice between given options) and write the outline (plan) for the essay with key points before diving into the rest of the exam.

If this exam were to last for 40 minutes, a student could make a rough plan to spend 15-20 minutes on the essay question, ten minutes on the multiple choice, three-five minutes on the T/F and 5-10 minutes reviewing answers, checking over the essay, and going back to questions that were skipped.


  • Read the directions carefully. Then reread them. Do you understand what is expected of you? If not, re-read the questions, or ask the instructor to be sure you are clear.  Common errors from not reading directions carefully include either missing one part of the question (e.g. answered the first part but forgot about the second part) or not noticing that you only needed to answer 3 out of 5 of the short-answer questions (hence wasting time that could have been spent somewhere else on the test). Too many students lose points simply by not following directions completely!
  • Read the questions carefully. Underline key words in each question. Think about where you have heard these key words before. Think about other questions on the test for clues. When you have finished writing your answer, go back and read the question again to make sure you actually answered it. (It is not uncommon for students to go off on a tangent and then not actually answer the question.)
  • 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, terms, or concepts you may want to use later in an essay question. You’ll know because you read the essay question already and did your outline. Circle key concepts and jot them into your essay outline as you answer questions throughout the test.
  • 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.
  • Move. Try to stretch in your chair from time to time to relieve tension and assist the blood to the brain! Roll your shoulders, circle your feet and hands, clench your butt, circle your neck.
  • Reduce anxiety. Remember to employ strategies to reduce test-taking anxiety (covered earlier in the Chapter 6.1 Test Anxiety and How to Manage It).
  • 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.

Video: “Mr. Bean – The Exam” (length 5:56)

Exercise: Test-taking Tips

Write a letter of advice to Chen incorporating 10 test-taking tips and strategies you think will help him.

Chen believes he is good at organization, and he usually is–for about the first two weeks of classes. He then becomes overwhelmed with all of the handouts and materials and tends to start slipping in the organization department. When it comes to tests, he worries that his notes might not cover all of the right topics and that he will not be able to remember all of the key terms and points–especially for his math class. During tests, he sometimes gets stuck on an item and tends to spend too much time there.  He also changes answers sometimes but finds out later that his original selection was correct. Chen is also easily distracted by other students and noises which makes it hard for him to concentrate, and, unfortunately, he does admit to occasionally “cramming” the night before.

Strategies for Specific Exam Formats

As well as using the above strategies during the test, it is important to be aware of the five principal types of questions on tests and to know specific strategies for each type to help maximize success.

True or False Questions

Look for qualifiers. A qualifier is a word that is absolute. Examples are: all, never, no, always, none, every, only, entirely. They are often seen in false statements. This is because it is more difficult to create a true statement using a qualifier like never, no, always, etc. For example, “All cats chase mice.” Cats may be known for chasing mice, but not all of them do so. The answer here is false and the qualifier “all” gave us a tip. Qualifiers such as: sometimes, many, some, most, often, and usually are commonly found in true statements. For example: “Most cats chase mice.” This is true and the qualifier “most” gave us a tip. Here is another example. “Delia flirts with every man she meets.” Though the statement may seem true because you know Delia, there was a time 5 years ago that she met a man named Bob, and she didn’t flirt with him.  Though the temptation is to say, “true”, the one instance that it didn’t happen (when she met Bob) makes the actual answer, “false”. Similarly in a test, if you can think of one exception in a statement with an absolute qualifier (i.e. even one instance that the statement wouldn’t be true), then the answer is false.

Make sure to read the entire statement. All parts of a sentence must be true if the whole statement is to be true. If one part of it is false, the whole sentence is false. Long sentences are often false for this reason.

If students don’t know the answer, they should guess on True or False questions unless there is a penalty for an incorrect answer. There is a fifty percent chance of guessing correctly! And if you have to guess, guess the one that seems to make the most sense to you, and if you still have no idea, guess True, because most tests include more true statements than false.

Multiple Choice Questions

It is important to read each statement carefully. Think of multiple choice questions as four (or five) true or false statements in one. One of the statements is true (the correct answer) and the others will be false. If you have options such as “all of the above,” or “both A and B,” make sure each item is completely true (no exceptions) before selecting those options. If you know your material well, you will be able to pick out the true statements. If you are unsure of the material, there are some strategies to help you come up with the right answer.

Apply the same strategy toward qualifiers as you did in the True False questions. If you see an absolute qualifier in one of the answer choices, it is probably false. If a statement says something “always” happens and you can think of even one exception, then it is false. Try to identify the true statement, but before you choose it as the right answer,  always read the other statements because you may find another statement that sounds true. Eliminate answers you know to be false.  Then discern between the two true-sounding statements. While working through a question, it is helpful to x-out the ones you know are false; it will save time if you need to go over the question again.

If there is no penalty for incorrect answers,  guess if you are not certain of the answer. If there is a penalty for incorrect answers, common logic is to guess if you can eliminate two of the answers as incorrect (pending what the penalty is). If there’s a penalty and you cannot narrow down the answers, it’s best to leave it blank. You may wish to ask your instructor for clarification.

Answers that are strange and unrelated to the question are usually false. If two answers have a word that looks or sounds similar, one of those is usually correct. For example: abductor/ adductor. If you see these as two of the four or five choices, one of them is usually correct. Also look for answers that are grammatically incorrect. These are usually incorrect answers.

Matching Questions

Although less common than the other types of exams, you will likely see some matching exams during your time in college. First, read the instructions and take a look at both lists to determine what the items are and their relationship. It is especially important to determine if both lists have the same number of items and if all items are to be used, and used only once.

Matching exams become much more difficult if one list has more items than the other or if items either might not be used or could be used more than once. If your exam instructions do not discern this, you may wish to ask your instructor for further clarification.

Students should take a look at the whole list before selecting an answer because a more correct answer may be found further into the list. If one column is short phrases and the other column is single words, work from the column with phrases and look for the single words to match (not the other way around). If both columns have single words, group them by parts of speech (nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs etc.). Mark items when you are sure you have a match and cross out these options to eliminate answers for the remainder of the matching. Guessing (if needed) should take place once you have selected answers you are certain about.

Short-Answer Questions

Short-answer questions are designed for you to recall and provide very specific information (unlike essay questions that ask you to apply critical thinking to that information.) Read all of the instructions first. Budget your time and then read all of the questions. Answer the ones you know best or feel the most confident with. Then go back to the other ones. If you do not know the answer and there is no penalty for incorrect answers, guess. Use common sense. Sometimes instructors will award partial credit for a logical answer that is related even if it is not the correct answer.

Make sure to look at the marking system. If short answer questions are worth 3-5 marks out of 100, then likely the instructor is looking for about 2-3 relevant sentences, not a full paragraph. If they are out of twenty marks, you’ll want to include more information in more depth.

Author’s Story

I have a tendency to write too much on short-answer test questions. I want to write down everything I know about the topic. It’s great because I’ll usually get full marks on the question, but an instructor once told me that I would have had full marks with my first few sentences. The trouble is that if you spend too long on a short-answer question, you may run out of time for other questions, especially a long-answer essay style question that really does require you to go into depth. Write down a few of the most relevant things on your short-answer question and come back and write more later if there’s time at the end.

— Mary Shier, College of the Rockies

Essay Questions

Knowing the format of the exam can help you determine how to study. If you know that you are taking a True-False or Multiple Choice exam, you will need to discern whether a statement is True or False. You will need to know subject content for the course. But if you are studying for short answer and especially for essay questions, you must know a lot more. For essay questions, you must have much greater content knowledge and be able to make a coherent argument that answers the question using information from textbooks, lectures or other course materials. You will have to connect themes with examples. Essay questions evaluate your thinking and reasoning skills applied to the course material. You will have to place a lot more time and thought into studying for an essay exam than for True-False or Multiple Choice exams.

Read the essay question(s) and the instructions first. Underline or circle key words in the question. Plan your time wisely and organize your answer before you start to write. Make a quick outline to organize the essay and include all key points. Address the answer to the question in your first paragraph and reiterate it in your last paragraph (conclusion). You would be surprised how many essays are written that discuss all kinds of things about the topic, but actually never answer the question! It may help to restate the original question. Write clearly and legibly. Instructors have difficulty grading essays that they cannot read. Clearly state what you are trying to say. Don’t expect that the instructor knows what you mean. Write the essay as if you are explaining it to someone who knows nothing about the topic. Please note that essay questions often have multiple acceptable answers, so don’t question whether your answer is correct or not. Just make sure you’ve backed up what you’ve said.

Save some time for review when you have finished writing to check spelling, grammar and coherent thought in your answer. Inevitably you will find things that need to be clarified. Write your essay double-spaced. This leaves room to add in words or phrases in the proof-reading stage without making a mess of your paper. Finally, make sure you have addressed all parts of the essay question.

Words to Watch for in Essay Questions
Word What It Means What the Instructor Is Looking For
Analyze Break concept into key parts. Don’t just list the parts; show how they work together and illustrate any patterns.
Compare Show similarities (and sometimes differences) between two or more concepts or ideas. Define the similarities and clearly describe how the items or ideas are similar. Do these similarities lead to similar results or effects? Note that this word is often combined with “contrast.” If so, make sure you do both.
Contrast Show differences between two or more concepts or ideas. Define the differences and clearly describe how the items or ideas are different. How do these differences result in different outcomes? Note that this word is often combined with “compare.” If so, make sure you do both.
Critique Judge and analyze. Explain what is wrong—and right—about a concept. Include your own judgments, supported by evidence and quotes from experts that support your point of view.
Define Describe the meaning of a word, phrase, or concept. Define the concept or idea as your instructor did in class—but use your own words. If your definition differs from what the instructor presented, support your difference with evidence. Keep this essay short. Examples can help illustrate a definition, but remember that examples alone are not a definition.
Discuss Explain or review. Define the key questions around the issue to be discussed and then answer them. Another approach is to define pros and cons on the issue and compare and contrast them. In either case, explore all relevant data and information.
Explain Clarify, give reasons for something. Clarity is key for these questions. Outline your thoughts carefully. Proofread, edit, proofread, and proofread again! Good explanations are often lost in too many words.
Illustrate Offer examples. Use examples from class material or reading assignments. Compare and contrast them to other examples you might come up with from additional reading or real life.
Prove Provide evidence and arguments that something is true. Instructors who include this prompt in an exam question have often proven the hypothesis or other concepts in their class lectures. Think about the kind of evidence the instructor used and apply similar types of processes and data.
Summarize Give a brief, precise description of an idea or concept. Keep it short, but cover all key points. This is one essay prompt where examples should not be included unless the instructions specifically ask for them. (For example, “Summarize the steps of the learning cycle and give examples of the main strategies you should apply in each one.”)

Exercise: Test Your Knowledge

A blank crossword puzzle

Cross Word Clues
Across Down
2. “Always,” “never,” and “every” are words that usually indicate the answer is ___________. 1. It helps to group words in matching columns by ___________________ ___ _______________.
3. A way to organize your thoughts for an essay 4. Clarify, give reasons for something
6. Short answer questions require a __________ answer. 5. Essay questions often have more than one ________ answer.
8. Describe the meaning of a word 7. Show similarities and differences
9. Give a brief, precise description of an idea or concept 12. Most common answer in true and false questions
10. Type of question used to evaluate thinking and reasoning
11. Since instructors need to read many essays, it is important to write _________.

Key Takeaways

  • Be prepared. Get a good night’s sleep! Arrive early and get comfortable.
  • Scan the entire exam before starting to answer questions.
  • Develop a plan (including a “time budget”) for completing the exam.
  • Read questions carefully. Underline keywords in questions, particularly in essay questions and science questions.
  • Do the questions you know well first.
  • Unless points are deducted for wrong answers, it pays to take educated guesses.
  • Pay attention to specific strategies for different types of questions.
  • Keep a close eye on the time. Don’t be caught off guard.

Lastly, if you finish the test early, use the remaining time to review your answers and make corrections or additions before submitting your exam.

Make sure you have written your full name on the test. It’s shocking how many students write their first name only and expect the instructor to figure it out. It’s also shocking how many students forget to write their names at all. You don’t want to go through all that preparation and stress and then not get credit for your work. Lastly, make sure to hand your paper in!

Video: “Funny school video of kid taking a test” (length 1:04)

Answers to crossword puzzle above:
Across: 2. false; 3. outline; 6. specific; 8. define; 9. summarize; 10. essay; 11. neatly
Down: 1. parts of speech; 4. explain; 5. acceptable; 7. compare; 12. true


Text Attributions

  • Points under the “During-Test Strategies” heading has been adapted from “Taking Tests” in University Success by N. Mahoney, B. Klassen, and M. D’Eon. Adapted by Mary Shier.  CC BY-NC-SA.
  • The “Words to Watch for in Essay Questions” table and the Crossword puzzle activity have been adapted from “The Secrets of the Q and A’s” in University Success by N. Mahoney, B. Klassen, and M. D’Eon. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY-NC-SA.
  • Text under “Strategies for Specific Exam Formats” has been adapted from “Test-Taking Strategy Specifics” in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY.

Video Attributions

Media Attributions


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