Test Taking | St. Lawrence University Academic Support

Test Taking

Tests and quizzes are one of the most common assessments tools used by professors to gauge how well students have learned the course material.  Test day is when you can put your preparation into action. Below you will find a number of suggestions to help you perform your best on tests, as well as strategies for specific types of questions you might be asked on an exam.

Before the exam

  • Set your alarm and arrive prepared and on time.
  • Realize that some anxiety is normal.  If you are having a lot of anxiety or feel like your mind has gone blank, set down your pen and take a few deep breaths. 
  • Don't make any drastic changes to your routine - if you normally eat breakfast or lunch before class, don't skip a meal just so you have more time to study.
  • Get a full night's rest the day before the exam. Taking a test after pulling an all-night is like driving a car when the low fuel light is on - you won't get very far.
  • Eat well before the test - avoid greasy, heavy foods and eat healthy. Just like you want to fill up the car before going on a long trip, you'll want to be energized for your test.

During the test

  • Look over the entire exam and carefully read all directions before starting the test; don’t assume the layout and directions will be exactly the same as the previous test.
  • If you’re worried about remembering certain terms, concepts, facts, or formulas, consider a memory dump: as soon as your professor tells you to begin the test, write this material on the back of the test.  By doing so, you now have a visual reference for this information instead of trying to remember it as you take the entire exam. 
  • If you have questions during the exam, ask the professor if they can give you clarification.
  • Pay attention to the points available for each question.  Don’t spend so much time contemplating a 2-point multiple-choice question that you run out of time to provide an answer to a 10-point short-answer question.
  • If you are stuck on a question, move ahead to the next question; have a system to mark questions that you skip so that you remember to finish them.
  • If you find that you are running out of time, do your best to provide at least some sort of an answer; don’t leave a multiple-choice question blank; some professors may give some partial credit if you give at least an outline of an essay question.
  • Show your work (this is especially important for most math-type questions).  If you produce the wrong answer due to a miscalculation, the professor may give you partial credit if they see that you understood the process. If you’re stumped on a multiple-choice question, some professors may even give you partial credit if you explain why you chose one answer over another.
  • Think twice about speeding through a test and being the first to leave. Take the time to clearly read the direction and questions, review your answers, and double check that you have not left anything blank. Don’t worry about how quickly your classmates are taking the exam; everyone goes at their own pace. That classmate who turned in their exam when you were only on the first page may not have known the material well at all.
  • Remember that professors aren’t trying to trick you. Professors want you to learn and tests are a way of evaluating whether you are learning; they want you to do well.

Multiple-choice questions

  • Read the question but cover up the choices. Come up with the answer on your own and see if one of the choices best fits your answer. Second guessing usually occurs when a student first chooses an answer but then sees another possible choice and changes her answer, when the first one is likely the correct one. By answering the question before seeing the choices, you’re likely to go with your first instinct (which might be the correct one!)
  • Read all the choices before selecting an answer. Again, you might go with what appears to be the correct answer first but the better (and right) choice might be right below it.
  • Cross out the incorrect answers. This will help you narrow down your options and hopefully lead you to the correct (and only) one.
  • Pay attention to key words: most, least, usually, always, never, except, etc.
  • For choices that include “All of the above”, if any other statement is false, then this is not the correct answer. For “None of the above”, if any other statement is true, then this is not the correct answer.

True-False questions

  • Read the whole question/statement. If any parts of the sentence are false, then the whole statement is false.
  • Drop negatives from the statement and read what’s left. If it is true, then the opposite which includes the negative, is false. Words like “no, cannot, not” can make statements confusing, so dropping them from the statement can make it easier to understand. Be aware of statements which contains two negatives - just like in math, two negatives cancel each other out.
  • Look for qualifiers. Words like “sometimes, rarely, most, often, frequently” can indicate true statements since they are generally but not absolutely true. Absolutes like “always, never, all” may indicate false statements because to be true, it must be true 100% of the time.

Essay questions

  • Read the essay question/prompt thoroughly. Be sure to answer all parts that are being asked, not just want you want to write about.
  • Create an outline of the main ideas for your essay. This can help you organize your thoughts and help you keep track of what you want to say. Be clear in your answer; if a question asks for three examples of something, don’t leave the professor guessing as to what your three examples are. 
  • Pay attention to key words: list, compare, contrast, analyze, explain, describe, etc.
  • Keep it short and to the point. Bogging yourself down with lots of words may make it harder to get your answer across. If you are asked to elaborate on a particularly topic, this doesn’t mean to write down a lot of stuff that you know are tangent to the topic but to be clear in explaining the main details about the topic.
  • Write legibly. Don’t scribble because your professor is likely to mark it incorrect if they can’t read your answer. Even if it takes you longer to write clearly, you’re likely to get more points than if you use chicken scratch to jot down more ideas that your professor can’t read.