Rock Valley College

Test Taking Skills

Taking a test is similar to taking a ride in a car. Although no one in the car has total control of the car and every driving situation, the person in the car who has the greatest sense of control is the driver. Therefore, the driver frequently handles driving situations in a more relaxed and comfortable manner than the passengers in the car.

Similarly, the person in the test situation who is the most relaxed and comfortable is the person who has a greater sense of control. Therefore, to reduce the average anxiety that is a part of preparing for and taking a test, you need to work on gaining a sense of control in the testing situation.

You can feel less anxious in a testing situation by learning to control what you can - your emotional self, physical self and academic self. Students often forget that their body and mind are integral; thus, both need to be carefully attended to, especially at particularly stressful times like test time. If the emotional and physical selves are attended to and controlled, then the academic self will be allowed to perform at its best.

  1. Emotional Self: The self that controls the feelings and emotions about taking the test.

The following guidelines should be considered in helping to control the emotional self.

  1. Think positively about yourself. Before and during a test, many people begin having doubts about their knowledge and ability. If these doubts are allowed to persist without being checked and transformed into positive statements, your anxiety will undoubtedly increase.
  2. Dress for success. Often if you feel confident and positive about the way you look, these feelings will transform into your  actions and thoughts. You are also likely to acknowledge but then quickly disregard negative self talk that occurs during a test.
  3. Come to the test prepared. This does not only apply to academic preparation. Just as important is the need to bring the materials that will be needed for the test, including books, notes, concept cards, pencils, paper or any special test response booklets. If you forget such materials, you could feel less empowered and even defeated before the test ever begins.
  4. Acknowledge your role as a student in the test situation. Remember that the test is not a race between the students within the class. Instead of focusing on WHEN individuals finish the test, you should focus on HOW you are finishing the test.

    As you begin the test, you should preview the test to see what types and how many questions need to be completed. Then, you should spend a minute or two planning how long you will spend with each problem and/or section of the test. Finally, you should question if enough time is being allowed to finish each question with special consideration given to answer essays or more difficult problems on the test. In addition, you should feel comfortable and confident that you have the right and responsibility to ask questions during the test, in particular, you should ask questions where you may have some confusion about the wording or directions of a question. In any case, however,you need to be sure to ask a SPECIFIC question. In this manner, the teacher will not likely feel that the you are "fishing" for an answer.
  5. During the test, answer easy questions first. There is no rule that says that test questions have to be answered in numerical order. However, you can increase your confidence while reducing your anxiety by answering easy questions first. By increasing confidence in this manner, you will be more likely to relax which in turn aids in recall of information and enables you to answer more difficult questions. Furthermore, test questions are often interrelated, so answering one question may lead to answering another more difficult question. Finally, by answering easier questions first, you can ensure that you have answered questions you are knowledgeable about before time runs out.
  1. Physical Self: The self that controls how your body reacts and feels in the testing situation.

The following guidelines should be considered in helping to control the physical self:

  1. Establish and maintain a regular sleeping pattern. In response to busy schedules with numerous tasks and priorities, two areas of daily living are often neglected or slighted. The first area you may cut in your schedule in an attempt to find more time is that of sleep. Naturally, the amount of sleep a person needs varies. It is true that some individuals can function efficiently on less sleep; however, an average of 6 to 8 hours still holds true for most people. If you wake up sluggish or become sluggish quickly within the day or if you find that you are less attentive, it could be due to lack of sufficient sleep.

A mind and body that is well-rested is better prepared to handle the rigors of a testing situation. Of particular importance is the fact that the mind is able to recall information much more efficiently if a sufficient amount of sleep has been obtained. For this reason, an all night cram session can be particularly detrimental to test performance.

2. Establish and maintain regular, nutritional eating habits. Nutrition and regular eating is another area that you might choose to neglect in response to your schedule and time constraints. Doing so, however, is to neglect the fact that nutrition is necessary for the body and the mind to function.

It is important to eat the right amount of the right foods. You need to be aware of how and what you eat and that how much you eat can affect your ability to perform a test. Balanced, nutritional meals with appropriate amounts of protein and carbohydrates are especially important. Typically, this type of meal gives the greatest amount of energy over a longer period of time. Therefore, this type of energy can best sustain the body and mind throughout the testing situation.

You should also be aware that too much food or heavy meals consisting of large amounts of fat before a test can also be detrimental to your test performance. In this case, a greater amount of oxygen is needed in the digestive system to process the food. The oxygen is reduced in other areas of the body, including to some extent the brain, which in turn makes you tired. Being tired dulls the mind's ability to recall and recite information and thus can lead to poorer test performance.

3. Recognize and control symptoms of General Adaptation Syndrome. General Adaptation Syndrome describes the physiological response of the body to situations of fear or anxiety. In such situations, the body responds with an increase in adrenaline which causes other reactions such as an increased respiratory rate, quickening pulse, sweaty palms and nervous stomach.

  1. Academic self: The self that controls how you are prepared academically and how you handle taking the test.

    The following guidelines should be considered when controlling the academic self.
    1. Take control of the test once it is given. You should remember that each part of the test is important. Therefore, you will want to overview the entire test to determine what is expected and to determine where you will want to begin taking the test. In doing this, you can also identify time constraints of specific test questions and identify a necessary pace to answering all questions on the test.

In reviewing the test, you need to read all directions carefully. Sometimes test directions are different than usual expectations; for example, the directions for group or multiple test questions may ask you to identify all the answers that apply rather than the best. Also, time limits and point information may be given in the directions which will further enable you to plan your attack of the test.

You should also be sure to answer all questions on the test unless directed to do otherwise. Students often choose to skip or leave blank those questions of which they are unsure. This only guarantees that you will lose points for the test question. At least if you make a reasonable guess you will have a chance to earn some, if not all, of the points for that particular question. Finally, you should check your answers carefully before turning in the test. This can help you to eliminate careless errors in your test performance. If, however, you are second guessing a previous response, you are better off leaving the initial response to the question. In other words, a first guess is often better than a second guess.

  1. Remember that thorough test preparation is necessary. The goal of thorough test preparation is to put as much of the course information into long term memory as possible. In order to do this, you need to practice and predict test questions over a long period of time, preferably beginning as soon as the information is presented either in the lecture or text materials.

One method of test preparation, PLAE, is explained on the following pages. If a plan, such as one developed using the PLAE method, is utilized, you will have much more confidence in your preparation and, in turn, have less anxiety about your ability during the test.



PLAE is an acronym that stands for preplanning, listing, activating, and evaluating. PLAE is a method of test preparation which encourages students to plan and implement an effective and adequate test preparation strategy.

Preplanning Stage

  • Your purpose in this stage of test preparation is to gather information about the test and establish goals for the test.
  • You can activate this part of your test preparation the minute you first find out that there will be a test.
  • Some questions you will want to be able to answer during test preparation include:

1. When is the test? - Day, date and time

2. Where is the test? - Sometimes a test may be given in a room different than the class is normally taught in, especially a final exam.

3. Specifically, what other obligations are there during the week of the test?  You need to keep in mind all tests, assignments, projects, as well as any appointments or special occasions in your personal life which might interfere or distract you from studying for this exam.

4. What does the test cover? What chapters, lecture notes, videos, additional readings, or handouts?

5. What kind of test will be given? How many items or questions will there be on the test? What types of questions will be asked? Will it be an essay exam, multiple choice, short answer, or a combination of these things? Will there be 10 questions or 100 questions? Will there be factual or memory level questions? Will the questions require you to make inferences? Will they be application questions? Having this information will help in better identifying which questions to predict and practice in preparation for the exam.

6. How much does the test count in the total evaluation process? Considering this information can help in identifying what priority preparation for this particular exam should have in relation to overall study time. This also helps to keep long-term grade goals for a particular course in mind throughout the semester.

7. What is my goal for a grade on this test? This goal also helps to determine the priority of the test preparation in regard to overall study time. Furthermore, goals need to be realistically obtainable considering possible conflicts and time constraints.

8. How much time is needed for studying, reciting, and reviewing? How will this predicted time commitment affect the regular study schedule?

Listing Stage

  • Your purpose in this stage of test preparation is to select and plan study strategies that will be most effective in acquiring and maintaining the necessary information and understanding needed for the test.
  • First, you will need to list recitation strategies, such as concept cards, practicing questions and answers generated in Cornell notes or outlining answers to essay questions. In addition, you should define why the selected strategy will be the most appropriate and effective for this particular test.

You should realize and remember that the same study strategies do not work with the same amount of effectiveness for different types of tests or for tests of different content materials.

Secondly, you need to complete a plan of study. This plan will very specifically outline what study activity you will act on, when and where you will study, how long you will study, and why you will engage in this outlined study activity.

There is also a need to keep track of whether the outlined study activity was completed as defined, but this can only be completed as the plan is put into motion.

The following can be utilized to outline a plan of study:

When preparing the plan, the following questions should be considered:

1. Is the study time distributed over several days?

2. Have you allotted at least two blocks of time to test yourself over the key concepts? Or for a friend to test you?

3. Are specifically stated goals for learning identified in the "why" column of the study plan?

4. Has enough time been allowed to complete each task?

5. How much total time has been scheduled for test preparation in the study plan?

6. How does the total scheduled study time compare to what was identified in the pre-planning stage?

7. Will the goals identified in the pre-planning stage be accomplished with this plan?

Activating Stage

Your purpose in this stage is to activate the plan developed in the Listing stage and to monitor your level of completion of activities, as well as effectiveness of identified study activities.

The following questions should be addressed at least three times during the duration of the operation of the plan:

1. Is the plan being followed?

2. If not, why? What is interfering? What are other obligations that had not been previously accounted for?

3. How can the plan be modified without sacrificing the grade goal identified in the pre-planning stage?

4. Are concepts being remembered and understood? Are the study activities selected in the listing stage working?

5. If not, why? Should another study activity be selected? If so, which one? Or should study time distribution be changed? Or should more self-testing blocks be built into the study plan?

Evaluating Stage

  • This stage of the PLAE strategy is done after the test has been taken and returned.
  • Your purpose in this stage is to question yourself regarding your test performance and the strengths and weaknesses of the overall study plan and its implementation.
  • Questions that you should ask yourself to determine these items include:
    1. Was the test what was expected?
    2. Was the study plan followed? If not, what events or situations interfered with carrying out the plan?
    3. How many hours were actually engaged in planned study activities?
    4. Were study hours distributed or massed?
  • All of the PLAE study plan sheets should be filled with the appropriate classroom materials, so that you may refer back to them when preparing plans for the next test for the course. By keeping the plans and analyzing their effectiveness, you will begin to see patterns of your own strengths and weaknesses in studying.