49 Testing Strategies

April Ring


What you’ll learn to do: explore techniques for doing well on tests

Photo of a room full of students seated at individual desks taking an exam.

Do every day or two something for no other reason than you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.

—William James, American philosopher and psychologist

By the end of this section, you will be able to identify common types of tests given in a college class and their purposes. You will be able to identify effective strategies for preparing for a test and ways to improve your performance. You will also be able to identify strategies for answering typical kinds of text questions.

Common Types of Tests in College

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify common types of tests given in a college class and their purposes

The Purpose of Testing

You are a unique person. No one else is exactly like you. You have particular ways of learning; you are interested in certain subjects; you have approaches to interacting with others that are special to you. You are an individual.

Your instructors need to know as much as possible about what you know, think, and can do. Testing is one way to gauge how you learn, what you learn, and what you can do with what you’ve learned. By knowing more about these aspects of you as a student, your instructors are better able to teach you.

Three columns of folded paper. Each is split lengthways and the top half is shifted slightly left

What are your instructors looking for that will yield clues about your individual learning? Mainly, your instructors are seeking, through testing, to confirm that you grasp the concepts or skills they are teaching. They want to know that you are achieving the objectives they set out for you. Their objectives may pertain to cognitive skills. In addition, your instructors are always pleased to see good grammar, thoughtfulness, creativity, accuracy, and interesting citations.

Your professors are not the only people who need to know about your learning. College administrators, such as deans and provosts, also need to be informed. Student performance gives them useful information that they use to make decisions about textbooks, teacher training, professional development, and other education or resource needs. There are a lot of stakeholders invested in seeing students be successful.

That said, your instructors are really the front line when it comes to collecting and interpreting student learning data. Tests, quizzes, homework, and other activities and assessments are often the best way to find this data. Ultimately, the data your instructors collect help them refine the teaching and learning process so that everyone succeeds—students and instructors alike. Your instructor’s goal is to determine whether or not you’ve gained proficiency with the course materials, and testing can help evaluate your proficiency or lack thereof.

What’s Being Tested

There are many ways to understand how tests and exams fit into academia and college culture. One way is to ask what purpose the tests serve. For example, what is your professor trying to achieve if she gives you a survey-type test on the first day of class? How might the purpose of that test differ from that of, say, a practice quiz given before a midterm? And what is the purpose of a midterm?

Obviously, each survey, quiz, practice test, midterm, and final exam can serve different purposes. Depending upon the purpose, the assessment will fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. pre-assessment
  2. formative assessment
  3. summative assessment


Tests in this category are used to measure the beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, and skills that you have when you begin a class or before you begin working on a new topic. With pre-assessments, your professor gathers baseline data to use at a later time to evaluate change—that is, by comparing former knowledge or skills against what you learn in class.

One approach to pre-assessment is for a professor to ask students at the start of the term to describe a term or concept that’s foundational to the course. Then, later in the course, the professor revisits that data to determine how the instruction changed your understanding of the same concept. Comparing what you know or believe before and after a course or lesson is a productive way to gauge how successful your learning was and how successful the teaching was.

Formative Assessments

Tests in this category are typically quizzes, pop quizzes, review questions, and practice tests. With formative assessments, your professor’s goal is to monitor what you are learning and get feedback from you about what is needed next in teaching. Did students do well on the quiz? If so, it’s probably time to move to the next topic. If they didn’t do well, it suggests that more teaching time should be devoted to the concept. Formative assessments help the instructor to better meet your needs as a learner.

Summative Assessments

Tests in this category are the assessments that students are most familiar with: midterm and final exams. In a summative assessment, a professor is evaluating how much you actually learned at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it with a benchmark of what you should have learned. Summative assessments can be stressful, but they can be an effective measurement tool. Most summative assessments are graded.

In college courses, tests are usually verbal or written. In a verbal test, you might be asked to give an oral presentation, for example. For a written test, you might be asked to mark or write out your answers on paper or on a computer. For special courses, you might also encounter physical tests in which you’re asked to perform a set of skills (like demonstrating the procedure for giving someone CPR, for instance).

Test Formats

Tests vary in style, rigor, and requirements. For example, in a closed-book test, a test taker is typically required to rely upon memory to respond to specific items. In an open-book test, though, a test taker may use one or more supplementary resources such as a reference book or notes. Open-book testing may be used for subjects in which many technical terms or formulas are required to effectively answer questions, like in chemistry or physics.

In addition, a test may be administered formally or informally. In an informal test, you might simply respond in a class to discussion questions posed by the instructor. In a formal test, you are usually expected to work alone, and the stakes are higher.

Below is a sampling of common test formats you may encounter. If you know what kind of test you’ll be taking, you can tailor your study approach to the format.

Common Test Types

There are three common test types: written tests, oral tests, and physical skills tests. Let’s look at the kinds of things you’ll be expected to complete in each test type.

Written Test

Written tests can be open book, closed book, or anywhere in between. Students are required to give written answers (as the name of this test type implies). Below you’ll find a table of the most common question types in written tests:

Most Common Question Types in Written Tests
Question Type Description
Multiple choice (objective) You are presented with a question and a set of answers for each question, and you must choose which answer or group of answers is correct. Multiple-choice questions usually require less time for test takers to answer than other question types, and they are easy to score and grade. They also allow for a wide range of difficulty.
True False
You are presented with a statement, and you must determine whether it is true or false. True/false questions are generally not predominant on tests because instructors know that, statistically, random guesswork can yield a good score. But when used sparingly, true/false questions can be effective.
You are presented with a set of specific terms or ideas and a set of definitions or identifying characteristics. You must match each term with its correct definition or characteristics.
You are presented with identifying characteristics, and you must recall and supply the correct associated term or idea. There are two types of fill-in-the-blank tests: 1) The easier version provides a word bank of possible words that will fill in the blanks. 2) The more difficult version has no word bank to choose from. Fill-in-the-blank tests with no word bank can be anxiety producing.
You are presented with a question or concept that you must explain in depth. Essay questions emphasize themes and broad ideas. Essay questions allow students to demonstrate critical thinking, creative thinking, and writing skills.

Oral Test

Oral tests (also called a verbal exam or viva voce) are a discussion type of test. Often, there isn’t just one correct answer to the test questions.

The oral test is practiced in many schools and disciplines in which an examiner verbally poses questions to the student. The student must answer the question in such a way as to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject. Usually, study guides or a syllabus are made available so that the students may prepare for the exam by reviewing practice questions and topics likely to be on the exam.

Physical Skills Test

In a physical skills test, you are presented with opportunities to perform specific tasks that require manual labor or physical skill. These tasks measure physical abilities, such as your strength, muscular flexibility, and stamina. Below is an example of physical abilities tests in the workplace:

You can view the transcript for “Walk-Through of APD Agility Test” here.


Preparing for a Test

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify effective strategies for preparing for a test

Preparing to pass tests is something that begins the moment you start learning material for a class, and it continues all the way through to the final exam.

Many students, however, don’t start thinking about test taking, whether weekly exams, mid-terms, or finals, until the day before. They pull all-nighters, cram, hoping that this will prepare them to take a test the following day. Unfortunately, cramming won’t help you retain information in your long-term memory, and it just isn’t the most effective method for studying for an exam.

Studying and test-taking are both parts of learning; honing your skills in one will help you in the other. Let’s start by evaluating which test prep strategies you’re already using.

Pre-Test Taking Strategies

Which pre-test strategies are you already using?

  • Organize your notebook and other class materials the first week of classes (Strategies for Organizing College Notebooks or Binders).
  • Maintain your organized materials throughout the term.
  • Take notes on key points from lectures and other materials (examples of note-taking formats).
  • Make sure you understand the information as you go along.
  • Access your instructor’s help and the help of a study group, as needed.
  • Organize a study group, if desired (review of organizing study groups).
  • Create study tools such as flashcards, graphic organizers, etc. as study aids (review of study aids).
  • Complete all homework assignments on time.
  • Review likely test items several times beforehand.
  • Instead of asking your instructor what items are likely to be covered on the test, ask specific questions about the content that you have. These questions will be much more welcomed than simply asking what will be on the exam.
  • Instead of asking your instructor if she or he can provide a study guide or practice test, ask them how would they study for the exam if they were a student in the class.
  • Ask your instructor how test items such as essays are graded. For example, is there a rubric that the instructor uses?
  • Maintain an active learner attitude.
  • Schedule extra study time in the days just prior to the test.
  • Gather all notes, handouts, and other materials needed before studying.
  • Review all notes, handouts, and other materials.
  • Organize your study area for maximum concentration and efficiency.
  • Create and use mnemonic devices to aid memory (review of mnemonic devices).
  • Put key terms, formulas, etc., on a single study sheet that can be quickly reviewed.
  • Schedule multiple, shorter study times. Research shows that shorter, more frequent study sessions are much more effective in learning the material than one long study session. This method is called “the spacing effect.”
  •  Get plenty of sleep the night before.
  • Set a back-up alarm in case the first alarm doesn’t sound or you sleep through it.
  • Have a good breakfast with complex carbs and protein to see you through. Your brain is not an ethereal thing; it is an organ that needs calories in order to function well. During the test, simple carbohydrates such as sugars (fresh fruit) will be digested much more quickly and can give you a boost of blood sugar to get you through the exam.
  • Show up five to ten minutes early to get completely settled before the test begins.
  • Use the restroom beforehand to minimize distractions.
  • Get up and move around for a few seconds (if you are permitted to). It can help your focus.

After reviewing these strategies, you have likely discovered new ideas to add to what you already use. Write at least two new test prep strategies down somewhere you’ll be able to easily reference them, and implement them into one of your other classes.

Leveraging Study Habits for Test Prep

In your mind, you probably know what you need to do to be prepared for tests. Occasionally, something may surprise you—emphasis on a concept you considered unimportant or a different presentation of a familiar problem. But those surprises should be exceptions. You can take all your well-honed study habits to get ready for exams. Here are some study and test strategies for your consideration.

Test Prep Starts on Day One

Remember, preparing to take your exams starts on the day you start learning. Read all your assigned lessons and attend all your classes throughout the term as much as possible. When you have to miss class, make sure to connect with a peer to catch up on what you missed. Remember to take notes during class and review those notes within twenty-four hours. This practice will help you retain the information you learned, and hopefully will help you commit it to long-term memory so you don’t have to resort to cramming later on in the term.

Active Learner Note Taking

Instead of simply copying down the professor’s lecture or what the PowerPoint says, use note-taking techniques that require active thinking. Make connections to other concepts and scenarios and ask questions that you’re curious about in your notes. This method will help you learn during class instead of using your note-taking time to simply transcribe the lecture so you can “learn it later” when you study.

Review with Classmates

You might be surprised how much reviewing the course material with your classmates can help you learn and retain the material. If you have a discussion about class instead of just reading the assignments and listening to the lecture, you are more likely to retain that information; you’re likely making connections to what you already know, and you’re reviewing the material again but in a different format. You’re likely to also benefit from your classmates’ points of view, which may be different than yours. They may have picked up on something in a lecture that you didn’t, or have an interesting point to share about the reading and how it connects to another class they are taking that you’re not enrolled in. However, make sure to resolve any disputes between you and your classmates about the facts—if you’re unsure of a peer’s interpretation of course material, don’t just assume they are right; make sure to confirm this information where you can from a reputable source.

Focus on Your Weaknesses

Focusing on your weaknesses may sound counterintuitive, but this isn’t about lowering your confidence! Throughout the term, you will probably encounter concepts that are more difficult to understand than others. When you’re preparing for your exam, you should take your weaknesses into account by devoting time specifically to studying concepts you’re not as familiar with and sure of. Consider taking time out of your day to seek tutoring for these concepts, or set time aside to review that material with a classmate who understands it. If you’re able to cement your understanding of just one concept that you were previously unfamiliar with, you have an opportunity to improve your test grade.

Stress Yourself Out

Probably the most obvious differences between your preparation for an exam and the actual test are your urgency level and the time constraints. A slight elevation in your stress level can actually be OK for testing—it keeps you focused and on your game when you need to bring up all the information, thinking, and studying to show what you’ve learned. Properly executed, test preparation mixed in with a bit of stress can significantly improve your actual test-taking experience.

You can replicate the effective sense of urgency an actual test produces by including timed writing into your study sessions. You don’t need all your study time to exactly replicate the test, but you would be well served to find out the format of the exam in advance and practice the skills you’ll need to use for the various test components. For example, on one early exam in his history class, Stuart learned the instructor was going to include several short-answer essay questions—one for each year of the time period covered. Stuart set up practice times to write for about fifteen to twenty minutes on significant events from his notes because he estimated that would be about how much time he could devote out of the hour-long testing session to write one or two required short-answer questions. He would write a prompt from his notes, set a timer, and start writing. If you’re ready and you have practiced and know the material, twenty minutes is adequate to prepare, draft, and revise a short response, but you don’t have a lot of extra time.

Likewise, in a math exam, you will need to know what kinds of problems you will have to solve and to what extent you’ll need to show your computational work on the exam. If you are able to incorporate this sort of timed problem-solving into your study time, you’ll be more prepared and confident when you actually come to the exam. Making yourself adhere to a timed session during your study can only help. It puts a sense of urgency on you, and it will help you to find out what types of problems you need to practice more than ones that perhaps you’re more comfortable solving.

Prioritizing Time Surrounding Test Situations

Keep in mind that you don’t have any more or less time than anyone else, so you can’t make time for an extra activity. You can only use the time everyone gets wisely and realistically. Exams in college classes are important, but they are not the only significant events you have in your classes. In fact, everything leading up to the exam, the exam itself, and the post-exam activities are all one large continuum. Think of the exam as an event with multiple phases, more like a long-distance run instead of a fifty-yard dash. Step back and look at the big picture of this timeline. Draw it out on paper. What needs to happen between now and the exam so you feel comfortable, confident, and ready?

If your instructor conducts some sort of pre-exam summary or prep session, make sure to attend. These can be invaluable. If this instructor does not provide that sort of formal exam prep, create your own with a group of classmates or on your own. Consider everything you know about the exam, from written instructions to notes you took in class, including any experiential notes you may have from previous exams, such as the possibility of bonus points for answering an extra question that requires some time management on your part.

Create a study schedule for final exams

Read How to Create a Study Schedule to Prepare for Final Exams, which lists ten steps, four tips, two warnings, and a list of things you will need. Based on this advice, design a plan you know will work well for you when it comes to studying for any big test–final, mid-term, State Boards, etc.–incorporating at least ten of the suggestions.

Taking a Test

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify test-taking strategies to improve your performance
  • Identify strategies for answering typical kinds of test questions

Once you get to the exam session, try your best to focus on nothing but the exam. Focusing can be very difficult with all the distractions in your life. But if you have done all the groundwork to attend the classes, complete the assignments, and do your exam prep thoroughly, you are ready to focus intently for the comparatively short amount of time most exams last.

Getting Ready on Test Day

Don’t let yourself be sidetracked right at the end. Beyond the preparation we’ve discussed, give yourself some more advantages on the actual test day:

  • Get to the testing location a few minutes early so you can settle into your place and take a few relaxing breaths.
  • Don’t let other classmates interrupt your calmness at this point.
  • Sit where you are most comfortable. Sitting near the front has a couple of advantages:
    • You may be less distracted by other students.
    • If a classmate comes up with a question for the instructor and there is an important clarification given, you will be able to hear it better and apply it, if needed.
  • Bring water if allowed. Water can help calm your test nerves, and you won’t be distracted by thirst.
  • Wear earplugs if noise distracts you.
  • Get to your designated place, take out whatever supplies and materials you are allowed to have, and calm your mind.

Strategies for Test-Taking Performance

In many respects, test-taking is a skill. If you learn some key strategies, you can be quite successful in taking tests. There are many skills and strategies you can employ to help you be a better test taker.

Once the instructor begins the test,

  • listen carefully for any last-minute oral directions that may have changed some details on the exam, such as the timing or the content of the questions.
  • make a quick scan over the entire test as soon as you receive the exam sheet or packet. Don’t spend a lot of time on this initial glance, but make sure you are familiar with the layout and what you need to do.
  • decide how you will allocate your available time for each section using your quick scan of the test. You can even jot down how many minutes you can allow for the different sections or questions.

Read the Directions

The time you spend at the beginning of the test reading the directions is an investment in your overall results. For each section, if the exam is divided this way, be sure you read the section directions very carefully so you don’t miss an important detail. For example, instructors often offer options—so you may have four short-answer questions, but you only need to answer two of them. If you had not read the directions for that section, you may have thought you needed to provide answers to all four prompts. Working on extra questions for which you likely will receive no credit would be a waste of your limited exam time.

This same concept applies to reading questions. Read the entire question carefully even if you think you know what the stem (the introduction of the choices) says, and read all the choices. You don’t want to get an answer wrong simply because you misread a question stem or didn’t consider every answer option. Skip really difficult questions or ones where your brain goes blank. Then you can go back and concentrate on those skipped ones after you have answered the majority of the questions confidently. Sometimes a later question will trigger an idea in your mind that will help you answer the skipped questions.

Budget Your Time

If you know what the point allocation is for each test item, be sure to budget your time accordingly. You don’t want to start off at the beginning of the test and slowly work your way through without time for the essay prompt at the end if the essay portion is worth half of the test grade. Scan the test first to get the big picture of 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. Let’s say your exam has one essay question worth fifty percent of your grade and five identifications worth ten percent each. If you have two hours to take the test, you have one hour to complete the essay and ten minutes for each of the five short-answer questions. You will have ten minutes in reserve to review your work before turning it in.

Start with What You Know

If you are taking an exam that contains multiple-choice questions, go through and answer the questions about which you are the most confident first. This strategy can be applied to other types of tests, too. Answering easy questions will build your confidence to move on to the more difficult exam questions.

Answer Every Required Question

If you can, answer every required question on the exam. Even if you don’t complete each one, you may receive some credit for partial answers. Whether or not you can receive partial credit would be an excellent question to ask before the exam.

Review Your Test

Allow yourself a few minutes at the end of the exam session to review your answers. Depending on what sort of exam it is, you can use this time to check your math computations, review an essay for grammatical and content errors, or answer the difficult multiple-choice questions you skipped earlier. Finally, make sure you have completed the entire test: check the backs of pages, and verify that you have a corresponding answer for every question on the exam. It can be easy to skip a question intending to come back to it but then forget to return, which can have a significant impact on your test results.


Another list of strategies widely used is LAB B2OWL—an acronym to help you remember critical aspects of successful test-taking strategies.[1] Watch the following video, which describes the strategies in detail. Then review the main concepts in the table below.


You can view the transcript for “Exam Strategies – Test Skills” here.

L LOOK: Look over the entire exam before you start. Take care to read the directions, underline test words, and circle questions you don’t fully understand.
A ASK: If you have any questions at all, ask. For example, if the exam doesn’t indicate total point allocation, be sure to ask your instructor.
B BUDGET: Budget your time based on the point allocation for each question. For instance, let’s say your exam has one essay question worth fifty percent, and five identifications worth ten percent each. If you have two hours to take the test, this gives you one hour to complete the essay, and ten minutes for each of the five short-answer questions. You will have ten minutes in reserve to review your work before turning it in.
B2 BEGIN X 2: Begin with an easy question in order to build your confidence and get warmed up for the rest of the exam. Begin each answer with a thesis topic sentence. Restate the question in a single sentence to help you focus your answer.
O OUTLINE: Be careful to write a quick outline for your essay on a separate page before you begin. This outline will help you organize your facts and focus your ideas. It might also serve to show your professor where you were going if you don’t have time to finish.
W WATCH: Watch for key testing words like analyze, define, evaluate, and illustrate. These keywords help you understand what your instructor will be looking for in an answer.
L LOOK: Finally, look over your exam before turning it in to make sure you haven’t missed anything important.

Link to Learning

In this test-taking strategies video, you will see multiple students sharing their personal success strategies for studying and test-taking. This video acknowledges that each student is unique, and therefore no two students approach tests in exactly the same way.


cognitive skills: capabilities such as remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, any of which may be assessed by an exam

formative assessment: an inquiry into what a student is learning during a still-unfolding period of instruction

summative assessment: an inquiry into what a student has learned at the end of a specified period of instruction

  1. "Student Success Skills: Test Taking Strategies." St. John's River State College, 2 Nov 2021, www.learningresources.sjrstate.edu/c.php?g=1039758&p=7542469. .


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Testing Strategies Copyright © 2023 by April Ring is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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