Tips to Improve Test Performance
In this article, we will review several methods that may help you reducing anxiety surrounding tests and help you perform better on tests. Most of this information is taken from the Learning and Development Center of Sheppard Air Force Base, where most young Air Force personnel receive their initial specialized training.
Let’s first focus on dealing with anxiety-producing thoughts. Do you often focus intently on the negative consequences of doing poorly on a test? Many students with test anxiety make a tense situation (testing) worse by thinking catastrophic or disastrous thoughts. Instead of concentrating on the task at hand (the test), you begin doubting yourself and your abilities, engage in “what-if” thinking (e.g.: ”what if I fail”), and begin to think about your whole life being doomed because of this test and your anxiety. The more you think this way, the more anxious you are likely to become. And the more anxious you are, the more likely you will do poorly on the test. Once you do poorly on a test, you are more likely to engage in negative and anxiety producing thinking before the next test, which negatively effects your performance, leading to more anxiety producing thinking…thus, a VERY self-defeating cycle is created!
Think of this process as “mental rehearsal.” If you constantly rehearse failure, doubt, and anxiety, you will experience failure, doubt, and anxiety. If you want to feel more calm and do better, you must “mentally rehearse” being calm, performing well, and getting passing grades. Picture yourself:
1. Getting up the morning of the exam and following your usual routine
2. Going into the test situation, feeling a little nervous but in control
3. Talking yourself through the anxiety and feeling confident
4. Taking the test, knowing most (not necessarily ALL) of the answers, and finishing on time
5. Leaving the test with a feeling of having done your best
6. Getting a passing grade!
Rehearse this scenario many times before the exam, in as much detail as possible.
How to Study for Tests
Know the material: don’t stop studying until you are confident that you know the material
Take care of your whole self: be disciplined and only spend time on what is really important for the test. Rest, sleep, exercise, eat right, manage life stress, solve problems, talk with others about your experiences and how you feel, and “talk kindly” to yourself (see “Mental Rehersal” above).
Practice a general relaxation technique, 10-15 mins per day.
things such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, stretching, meditation, yoga,
martial arts (see instructions in the next session)
Deal with your fear of failure, embarrassment, “looking stupid,” letting others down.
a. Realize and remind yourself that all you can do is your best
Remember and remind yourself that even the best “fail” at one time or another…what’s most important is that you learn from it and go on to succeed in the future.
Just because you are not good at some topics, at some times, does not mean you are completely stupid and worthless. You have strengths and weakness like everyone else.
If appropriate, discuss worries about letting people down with those that you are worried about letting down…and see that you will still be accepted, cared for, and valued.
Take practice tests, under same conditions (same room, same number of questions, same amount of time, same temperature, same time of day etc.), if at all possible.
The best test takers are not always the smartest; they simply know enough to of the material, and manage their anxiety.
Familiarize yourself with the test
Ask questions about the test: how long is it, what type of questions will be on it. Ask your instructor what concepts are most important to study, and what information to focus on.
Overview the Test
Overview all the material to be studied for the test and schedule time to do it. Make a list of tasks you need to do to prepare for the test, and then cross them off the list when done.
Know that all information is NOT created equal
Some information will be more important – so don’t study everything equally. Identify the most important information, terms, concepts, and definitions. Decide what information has to be memorized and what information needs to be understood in a more general way. Given the topics you expect to be most important for the test, set priorities for your studying – review the most important information until you can recite it and explain it.
Avoid the “Escape Syndrome”
Set a study goal for yourself and meet the goal. If you find yourself focusing on other things besides studying, take a few minutes and rethink what you are doing. Then reward yourself by doing something fun or relaxing. If you find other problems, issues, or worries popping into your mind during your study time, keep a list handy and write those things down so that you can come back to them AFTER you have met your study goal.
Deal with Study Materials Efficiently and Effectively
Approach any unread/studied materials by keeping in mind what you need to pull out of the reading. This means you must have GOALS for your reading.
Preview the material, divide it into parts, and look for the organizational scheme of the work. Decide what parts of the reading you can omit (you already know or are familiar with the material; or it is low priority for the test). Use the following reading techniques:
Skim all the reading material first so you will at least have looked at everything before the test. Take notes on what you skim.
Formulate questions based on skimming the material. You will use these questions to guide your reading.
Read to answer your questions.
Write the answers to your questions down.
After each section of reading, close the book and recite as much as you can remember OUT LOUD. Reciting out loud allows you to use another source of sensory input – hearing – for learning. Also, speech is about four times slower than thought, so saying things out loud forces you to sustain a thought for a longer period time, increasing memory storage.
Review actively and DAILY. Integrate class notes with reading material onto summary sheets by diagramming, charting, outlining, making tables for yourself, or just writing summaries. Daily review reinforces learning and makes it easier to recall.
Find a study partner or join a study group
Together you can discuss new ideas, pick out the most important points from lecture/study materials, and clarify your notes/thoughts. You can quiz each other, you can present materials to each other. Remember to set goals, stay focused, and study for a set period of time to stay on track.
Practice doing what you will be doing on the test
If you will be solving problems, then you need to solve problems as your test preparation. If you are going to be answering multiple choice questions, than write out multiple choice questions for yourself (better yet, get a study group together and write out questions for each other). Remember, the single most effective way to prepare for any test is to practice doing what you will have to do on the test.
General things to keep in mind while studying
schedule your studies
choose a good study environment
underline or highlight key informant
write down key points or record them for later review
try flash cards to increase exposure to key points
ask yourself questions as you read
recite important imnformation out loud
concentrate on areas of weakness
take breaks while studying
take practice tests
Part of a good performance on a test has to do with being in a good state of mind when you take the test. You will need to be sure your mind and body is in a good place to do your best. Signs that you are NOT in a good place include:
Sweaty palms or cold, clammy hands and feet
Tense, acid stomach, nausea, of “butterflies” in your stomach
Shallow, rapid breathing
Tension in neck, arms, face
Feeling shaky or faint
Blurred vision or headache
Mind going “blank”
These are all signs of anxiety and stress, when you become ready to either fight or run for your life (the “flight or fight” response). Whenever you PERCEIVE a situation as threatening, your body goes into this state of alert.
The bad news is that these symptoms interfere with our thinking and performance on tests. The good news is that we can learn to control these symptoms by CONSISTENTLY practicing a few simple techniques.
For all these exercises, sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the floor, eyes closed, and hands either resting comfortable at your side or in your lap. Begin each exercise with deep breathing, and end each exercise by slowly rousing yourself, wiggling your hands and toes, and opening your eyes when you feel ready.
This exercise is the easiest to do, and is very effective both before and during a test. In fact, this should be the first thing you do when you sit down to take an exam, and also any time your mind goes “blank” (or periodically during the test so your mind does not go blank). With your eyes closed, breathe in slowly. There should be little or no movement in your chest and shoulders, and you should be able to feel your stomach rise. To get a feel for this type of breathing, you can put your hands on your stomach and one on your chest. Continue to breathe while focusing on breathing slowly and deeply. You can count your breaths to maintain your focus, or repeat a word, such “calm” or “relax” slowly to yourself while you breathe.
This is good if you become aware of tension anywhere in your body before, during, or even after an exam. Make fists with both hands and pull your forearms tightly up against your upper arms, tensing the muscles in your lower and upper arms. While you keep your fists and arms tensed, tense all the muscles in your legs. While keeping all these muscles tensed, clench your jaws, shut your eyes, and frown. Hold your entire body tense and tight for a count of 5, then let everything go at once. Focus on letting go of all the tension you created in your body, and allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of relaxation that follows.
You can modify this exercise to target specific muscle groups that are feeling tense. For example, if you become aware of tight, painful shoulders, pull your shoulders up to your ears and hold that tension for a count of 5, and then release it, making note of the contrast.
Mental imagery can be a powerful relaxation tool. You can use this exercise as part of your mental “test preparation” or during the exam, if you feel yourself going blank, starting to panic, or going off on a negative train of thought (like the “what ifs”). Start out by breathing slowly and deeply, with your eyes close and sitting comfortably. Think of a place that is calming, soothing, a place you would rather be – some people like the beach, or a mountain, or forest. Pick a place that works for you. Then, imagine that place in as much detail as possible – think of what you would see, hear, feel, smell…Let yourself “be there”. Think of this scene 1-3 minutes to refocus mind and relax your body.
BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU REHEARSE! Often, we rehearse seeing ourselves being anxious, sweaty, tired, worried, going blank, and so on. If your goal is to be LESS anxious and MORE successful on tests, then that is what you need to rehearse. Close your eyes, breathe slowly and deeply, and picture yourself getting up, following your usual routine, and going off to take your test. Imagine it in as much detail as possible. See yourself walking into the testing room, sitting down, and receiving your exam. Picture yourself doing your breathing and any other form of preparatory relaxation prior to looking at the test. See yourself calming down, thinking that you can do it, feeling more in control. Look at the test and see that you don’t know all the answers, but you know enough to pass the test. Visualize yourself answering the questions, using whatever test taking strategies you have decided on (answering all the easy questions first, using the process of elimination, etc), and finishing on time. See yourself handing in the test, walking self-confidently out of the room, and breathing a sigh of relief and satisfaction. If you find yourself becoming anxious during this mental exercise, break away and practice your deep breathing, imagery, or muscle relaxation. The point is to practice REALISTIC scenarios of success (not just seeing yourself go in and ace an easy test), that include seeing yourself using strategies to succeed.
TEST TAKING TECHNIQUES
Techniques for All Tests
Give yourself the advantage of a good start; be certain of the time, place and materials required for the test.
Regulate your speed to the time available. Pace yourself.
Don’t let lapses of memory produce anxiety or fear; such lapses are normal.
Don’t waste time with emotional reactions to the questions.
Prepare well in advance. Keep up day to day; avoid last-minute cramming. Don’t go without sleep the night before (although 4-6 hours may be enough). Stop studying at least an hour or so before the test and relax and compose yourself. Eat something (low fat, balancing carbohydrates and protein).
Arrive in plenty of time to arrange your working conditions and take a moment to relax. Avoid getting involved in last-minute cram sessions with panicky classmates. Other people’s panic is contagious. Don’t quiz each other just before the exam.
Develop an optimistic yet realistic attitude. Approach the test determined that you will do your best but accept the limits of what you know at the moment. Admit to yourself, “I will not know all of the answers and I can still pass the test.”
Allow yourself time to “warm-up.” Don’t panic if you don’t know the first few questions. Read over the test and plan your approach.
Pace yourself. Divide the test into four equal sections and allot that portion of your time to each section.
Ask for clarification. Ask if you have questions about directions, procedure, etc, rather than letting anxiety build up because you aren’t sure what you are expected to do.
Pay attention to the test, not to yourself or others. Don’t waste time worrying, doubting yourself, wondering how other people are doing, blaming yourself, etc. Don’t worry about what you should have done; pay attention to what you CAN do now.
Activity reduces anxiety. If you go blank and can’t think of anything, go on to another question or another part of the test.
Relax yourself. If you notice you are not thinking well or your mind is going “blank,” stop and BREATHE. Pause, lay your test aside, and take several slow, deep breaths. Concentrate on your breathing. Do this if you notice that you are worrying excessively about one question, not reading carefully, or forgetting information you know.
Profit from your experience. After the test, try to understand the items you missed and why you missed them. Continue learning and refining your study skill techniques.
Techniques for Multiple Choice Tests
Be sure to read all directions carefully; listen for oral directions or corrections and jot them down if necessary.
Glance quickly through the test to plan your time (“Pace yourself”) and see if your test form is complete.
Do questions you know first; there may be clues within the test to the difficult questions.
Accept questions at face value; don’t read into the questions but DO read the questions carefully. Be especially careful of questions with double negatives, or questions with the word EXCEPT.
Try to supply your own answer before reading the choices provided.
Be sure to read ALL the answers. Rule out obviously wrong choices. Use a process of elimination and reason your way to the right answer.
Watch for KEY WORDS and DISTRACTORS. Key words include ABSOLUTES (always, never, entirely, all, only, etc). DISTRACTORS include unfamiliar-looking terms or phrases, jokes/insults, high and low numbers. These tend to signal wrong answers. On the other hand, questions with QUALIFIERS (usually, sometimes) tend to be correct.
If the answers include a range of values, the correct answer is usually in the middle range rather than either extreme.
Make the answers into true/false statements. It only takes one exception to make an answer false.
When two answers are essentially saying the same thing, then usually neither answer is correct.
When two direct opposites appear among the answers, one of them is generally the right answer.
If you really don’t know, GUESS.
The alternative differing most in length from the others (longest/shortest) tends to be correct.
There may be more than one answer that is correct – in that case, look for the BEST, MOST COMPLETE answer, or the answer that contains information that was EMPHASIZED the most.
Grammar counts! Say the answer with the question and make sure it SOUNDS RIGHT and MAKES SENSE.
Generally speaking, DON’T CHANGE ANSWERS. First reactions or impressions tend to be the correct ones. ONLY change answers if you are 100% certain you were wrong the first time and you can supply a good rationale for the change.
Avoid clerical errors. When using a separate answer sheet, keep it to the right of and close to the test booklet; check frequently to make sure you are marking the right answer for the question.
Check for missed questions.
Techniques for True/False Tests
Generally speaking, more questions tend to be true than false.
ALL parts of a question must be true for the answer to be true.
REASONS (because…; since…) can signal a false statement.
Negatives in a statement can be deceiving. Cross out double negatives.
Absolutes (always; never) tend to signal a false statement.