Over the years we have heard a number of supposedly indisputable truths about effective test taking. While it is easy to discount the absurd (always eat protein the morning of a test because protein makes your neurons fire more effectively), a few seem to persist that are not obviously wrong. Let’s scrutinize a few of those here, and consider their validity.
The first is the common belief that studying the night before a test is somehow counter-productive. But, assuming sufficient sleep, how is studying the night before counterproductive? Certainly you don’t want to stay up all night, but if one reviews previously learned material, how can that possibly prove harmful? Even if learning new material for the first time, it does not make any sense that you somehow diminish your potential grade the next day. Ideally one should not learn new material for the first time, the night before, but even this beats the alternative. If a student doesn’t know the quadratic equation, the absence of studying the quadratic equation will not possibly allow her to perform better on a test where she is asked to solve one. True, you want to get as much sleep as possible, but the notion that studying the night before is harmful seems to rest on the idea that in so doing you make yourself nervous, and you don’t want to be nervous; you have to be calm when you take a test! Actually, being nervous is a totally normal reaction to stress and results from 40 million years of evolution. It is unlikely that every kid who gets an A on a physics test did so without some sense of nervousness.
A second one that comes up frequently (often suggested by test prep companies), is that your child should take their practice tests in an environment similar to the one they will face the morning of their test. And of course, since Fred’s Test Prep Company rents space over the weekend at the local high school, signing your child up for their course will offer an advantage because they get to take practice tests in a test-like environment. But consider your own performance in academically challenging courses. Did you get better grades on any of the math tests you took in high school or college because you studied for them in a classroom, as opposed to the library or your dorm? Probably not, and then there is the added point that actually traveling to the location where they hold the practice test takes precious time away from studying. So if they hold the practice test at 9AM, kids have to get up early, get dressed, travel to the venue, and travel back. The bet here is that those additional two hours or so of Saturday morning time can see more productive use for a student sitting at their desk at home, rather than schlepping back and forth to the test center.
Another notion has been around for so long that everyone is convinced it must be true: “The first answer that you think of is usually the correct one.” If there has ever been a peer reviewed study published asserting this has validity, we would love to read it. However, a good question should challenge you intellectually and make you think. As such, the first thing that pops into your mind might require some consideration, and is not necessarily right simply because it came to mind first.
Perhaps the least effective test taking technique is the over reliance on them to begin with. Ever since someone figured out a couple of admittedly effective protocols for gaming the general SAT test, the notion persists that one need only master a few effective techniques to do well on any given standardized test. So if your child doesn’t get vectors? Well don’t worry about it, because test taking techniques will help them do well on the Physics SAT even if they don’t know any physics at all. While there is definitely some validity to this for the general SAT and the ACT, it drops off precipitously for other tests. There are definite test specific techniques that are useful, but you can’t answer a question on vectors correctly if you don’t know what a vector is.
Now that we have looked at a bunch of ideas that don’t work, let’s look at some things that actually might work, with an emphasis on what to do the actual day of the test.
•When you first get your test, look it over and figure out which are the easiest problems. For whatever reason, things tend to go better if you do these questions first. Usually the easier problems are at the very beginning. But that is not always so, in particular if the question is on a subject you know little about.
•Don’t get bogged down on a tough question! This is especially true for the kids who have excelled in that subject. So if they are taking the SAT Subject test in chemistry they know they can figure out the pesky balancing problem, and will remain on that problem until they do so because it is an intellectual challenge to do so. Let’s suspend that mode of thinking for an hour, ok?
•On any essay questions, write legibly! Say you are taking the AP Biology test and you have a free response question on cellular respiration. Try and put yourself in the position of the reader, who will have spent an entire weekend reading page after page of often illegible essays. They might tend to be less than kind if yours is another one.
•Remember that “careless mistakes” are still mistakes for the computer scanning your test. Math and science are exacting disciplines and require careful, precise work, yet we often hear a child say “Oh I just made a careless mistake”. Well, don’t be careless! Precision is a habit that can be formed. This can’t be stressed enough, and as a student goes through practice tests, great care must be paid to the accuracy and precision of the work.
We hope you have found these suggestions helpful. Please do be in touch if you have any of your own ideas, we would really love to hear them!