Test Strategies

Do you prepare appropriately for tests?

Do you try to integrate material from different sources?

Do you know how to modify your study habits in different types of courses?

Do you review your answers to essay questions?

Do you have problems with specific kinds of tests – multiple choice, essay, true/false, short answer, matching or essay?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, you need assistance with test strategies!

Good Test Strategies Includes a Good Study Plan

Developing a Study Plan

  • Plan what you need to study, when you need to study and be sure to study the material over several days. Don’t study up to the last minute. You will stress yourself and confuse yourself if you try to cram a lot of information into a small amount of time.
  • Study in a well lit area, free from distraction at the same time each day.
  • Study extra sources if possible to enhance your understanding.
  • Don’t wait until the day before the test to ask for help from your instructor or tutor at the Academic Support center in ASC 1017, 591-3543. If you are confused about a concept, ask for help right away.

Know Your Instructor

  • Harmonize with his/her style of organization (if there is any), interpretation, synthesis, and specification of details.
  • Indicate in your notes the points stressed. Study more thoroughly the areas in which you are weak.
  • Based upon the instructor's style, try to predict questions that might be asked. Ask what type of questions to expect and the content areas she/he feels are important.

Learn the Material:  These hints work only if you have studied and learned the content.

General Rules for Any Test

  • Plan your arrival so that you have plenty of time. In fact get to the test site early. Showing up late is a sure way to focus unfavorable attention on yourself.
  • Check your test taking material prior to leaving for the exam. Be sure to bring extra pencils or pens and to have a backup calculator or backup batteries. Showing up without a pencil or other necessary materials is another sure way to focus unfavorable attention on yourself.
  • Don’t Panic! Take a moment and breathe several deep breaths. Briefly look over the entire test to see what is ahead of you.
  • Read all directions very carefully. Underline key words in the directions that give indication as to how your answers are to be recorded and how they should be worded. Read the directions and make sure you understand them. If in doubt, ask. Know the scoring policy! Are you penalized for guessing? If not, answer every question.
  • Budget your time. Survey the test to determine the type and number of questions to be answered. Determine where you will start on the test. Shoot for the most points in the time you have. Allow time for:
  1. Reading directions; previewing test.
  2. Answering items in reverse difficulty – answer the ones you are most sure of first, then the next easiest, etc. until the hardest remain.
  3. Break Time (If a test is more than 1 hour in length, give yourself 5 or so minutes to clear your mind, stretch, and recharge).
  4. Go back over difficult or skipped items.
  5. Check to see that your responses were marked in the correct places on the answer sheet.
  • Keep track of time. Bring a watch to keep track of how much time you have and to pace yourself. Check yourself at 15 or 20 minute intervals to determine if you are progressing at an acceptable rate. Use all of the allotted time.
  • Work methodically. As a general rule work through the test by answering all the questions you are sure of first, this relieves tension and gives you confidence, thus loosening up material from your memory as you proceed. Go back to the ones you skipped later, of course.
  • Sincerely attempt every question. Avoiding it completely because it looks hard is self-defeating. However, hard questions can be left until last unless they carry a great deal of value and you need more time to ensure answering them.
  • Be aware you may have problems remembering from time to time. If you find yourself blocking, move on to the next question.
  • Ask for help in interpreting test questions which you do not understand. If you are unsure or confused about a question, ASK the professor.
  • Be aware of any negative statements you are telling yourself about the test. Such statements as "I'm failing, I didn't study for this, and the test is too hard for me" are sure ways of increasing anxiety. Keep breathing.
  • Don't be concerned with what other students are doing. (Another sure way of increasing anxiety is to tell yourself you’re the only one having trouble.) Don’t rush through the test. You may skip a step or skip a question. Make sure that you have an answer for each question.
  • Don’t read things into the questions. Take them at face value.
  • If you think you know an item but are not sure, mark your response and come back to the question. However, first impressions or intuitions tend to be correct, so if you do change your answer, be sure you have a good reason for doing so.
  • If the question seems unintelligible, reword it or break it down into parts.
  • Beware of mandatory words such as "never" or "must" or "always." The obvious answer might not be correct if there are exceptions to the statement.
  • Words such as "seldom," "normally," and "generally" or "usually" allow exceptions, however.
  • Use information from other test items. Often the answer to a question is found in another.
  • Carefully proofread the exam before turning it in.

Answering Different Types of Exam Questions 

Multiple Choice Questions:

They measure both simple knowledge and complex concepts and are an exercise in recognizing the correct and/or best answer. You can give only one response which is either right or wrong.

  • Be sure to read all of the options! Often people stop with the first option that looks right.
  • In multiple choice questions, anticipate the correct answer before looking at the options.
  • Work backwards — read the answers, then the question.
  • Pay attention to qualifying words (e.g., always, never)
  • Don’t look for patterns. Look for clues (e.g., grammar, tenses)
  • Choose the best alternative (more than one answer may be correct).
  • Relate response options to the question one at a time. And Balance options against each other.
  • Have good reasons for eliminating options.
  • Familiarity of a response option does not necessarily make it the correct choice and vice versa.
  • Guess if you don’t know the answer.

Matching Questions:

They are an exercise in recalling memorized information. The tests are divided into two columns. Items on the left side are usually matched with responses on the right side. The matching format is designed to test your recognition of the relationships between words and definitions, events and dates, categories and examples, and so on.

  • Ask if you can use alternatives more than once. Following directions here is critical.
  • Take each entry in turn in the left column and try to think of the answer before reading the choices. Balance options against each other.
  • Work with one column at a time, matching each item of that column to all of the options in the second column.
  • Only work tentative lines (light pencil) until you have completed the task, then mark them heavily.
  • Narrow down the field, by completing those answers you know are correct. After completing ones you know are correct then work on the more difficult matches. Do not match if you are not sure.
  • Choose the best answer and mark the answer sheet according to the directions.
  • Avoid changing answers.

Fill-in-the-Blank Questions and Sentence Completion Questions:

They are an exercise in recalling specific types of information. Unlike the multiple choice or matching question, you must supply the appropriate word or number to complete the entry.

  • Use clues (e.g. grammar, tenses) in the question to help determine your answer.
  • Consider the number and length of the blanks to be filled in as possible clues.
  • Use common sense and choose the best word.
  • Read through after you answer to make sure it sounds right.
  • Give general answers if you do not know specifics. e.g., correct and specific answer = 1904 general and possibly correct answers = early 1900s.
  • When you're torn between 2 alternative responses you could fill in, commit to one but mention the other. This shows that you do know something. e.g., "Pegasus (or possibly Poseidon)"
  • Avoid flippant answers.
  • Guess! Usually there is no penalty with this type of question, so if you do not know the answer, it is best to write something at least.

Short Answer Questions:

They often ask for definitions or short descriptions. They are an exercise is seeing how well you can express your thoughts. Concentrate on key words or facts. Be brief.

  • Pay attention to grammar.
  • Answer within the context of the course.
  • Use terms the instructor used.
  • If you are having a problem, answer by giving an example.
  • Beef up your answers if you have time.

True/False Questions: 

They require you to select a response (true or false) that shows recognition of correct or incorrect information that is presented -false questions are well suited for testing your recall or comprehension.

  • The answer is false if any part is false.
  • Do not look for patterns.
  • Guess if you don’t know.
  • Stick with your first answer unless you are sure you are wrong.
  • Watch for qualifiers or mandatory words such as "always," never," or "must." If they are present, chances are the statement is "False," since few things are "always," never," or "must."
  • If a question contains words such as "seldom," "normally," or "generally," where an exception would not alter the answer, chances are the answer is "True."
  • If a statement is more specific than most, chances are it is "True."

Problem-Solving Questions:

They ask you to demonstrate proficiency in conducting an experiment, executing a series of steps in a reasonable amount of time, following instructions, creating drawings, manipulating materials or equipment, or reacting to real or simulated situations. Read the question.

  • Re-read getting important information.
  • If there is a multiple option, estimate your answer.
  • Work backwards (e.g., 2 + 3 = 5, 5 - 2 = 3)
  • Watch for careless errors.

Essay Questions:

They are designed to judge your abilities to organize, integrate, interpret material, and express yourself in your own words. They are analytical in nature. Your instructor is interested in determining how well you relate course material and class discussion to the particular question under consideration.

  • Briefly outline what you plan to say. Use the outline to write your answer. Think before you write. Answer the question that is asked.
  • Don’t worry about revising or editing. Don’t pad your answers, but do include relevant examples. Use your own words to express the ideas.
  • Include an introduction, middle, and conclusion to your essay.
  • Include lots of details and examples. Be general when you aren’t sure of the exact detail (e.g., It is better to write "late fourteen hundreds" rather than 1493 if the true date is 1492).
  • Be as neat as you can be. If they can’t read it they won’t give you the benefit of the doubt.
  • Read directions carefully (i.e., Do you have to answer every question of just three out of five?).
  • Re-read questions. Pay attention and know the meaning of key words (e.g., explain, contrast, compare).

Important Words in Essay Questions

The following terms appear frequently in the phrasing of essay questions. You should know their meaning and answer accordingly. (This list and the sense of definitions, though not the exact words, are adapted from C. Bird and C. M. Bird, Learning More by Effective Study, Appletom Century Crofts, New York, 1945, pp. 195-198.)

COMPARE: Look for qualities or characteristics that resemble each other. Emphasize similarities among them but in some cases also mention differences.

CONTRAST: Stress the dissimilarities, differences, or unlikeness of things, qualities, events, or problems.

CRITICIZE: Express your judgment about the merit or truth of the factors or views mentioned. Give the results or your analysis of these factors, discussing their limitations and good points.

DEFINE: Give concise, clear and authoritative meanings. Don’t give details, but make sure to give the limits of the definition. Show how the things you are defining differs from the things in other classes.

DESCRIBE: Recount, characterize, sketch, or relate in sequence or story form.

DIAGRAM: Give a drawing, chart, plan, or graphic answer. Usually you should label a diagram. In some cases, add a brief explanation or description.

DISCUSS: Examine, analyze carefully, and give reasons pro and con. Be complete, and give details.

ENUMERATE: Write in list or outline form, giving points concisely one by one.

EVALUATE: Carefully appraise the problem, citing both advantages and limitations. Emphasize the appraisal of authorities and, to a lesser degree, your personal evaluation.

EXPLAIN: Clarify, interpret, and spell out the material you present. Give reasons for differences of opinion or of results, and try to analyze causes.

ILLUSTRATE: Use a figure, picture, diagram, or concrete example to explain or clarify a problem.

INTERPRET: Translate, give examples of, solve, or comment on a subject, usually giving your judgment about it.

LIST: As in "enumerate," write an itemized series of concise statements.

OUTLINE: Organize a description under main points and subordinate points, omitting minor details and stressing the arrangement or classification of things.


Often the tests we take are made up by individuals who have little or no training in test construction. The following hints are based upon common errors made in constructing a test and they are to be used as last resorts, i.e., if you do not know the answer or if you are very uncertain. On poorly constructed tests, then, the correct answer will generally have these characteristics:

  • Length - they are longer than the other options.
  • More precise.
  • Usually not an extreme answer.
  • Will be one of two opposite alternatives.
  • Will be one of two similar alternatives unless the alternatives are exactly the same.
  • Will use familiar language.
  • Will be a grammatically perfect extension of the question.
  • Will not have extreme emotional words such as "harebrained" or "foolhardy."
  • Will not be flippant or silly.
  • Will more often be the middle option. e.g., b or c if the options go from a through d.
  • If options are numerical, the correct answer is more often a middle value, for example:
    • 4
    • 8 - more likely to be the correct answer.
    • 10

After the Test is Returned

  • Make sure you are in class the day the test is returned and the professor reviews the answers.
  • Check the point total to make sure there were no mistakes in grading.
  • Rework the questions you missed. Try to understand why you missed them.
  • Look for the origin of each question. Did they come from the text? Lecture? Outside readings? Concentrate more on the source next time.
  • Determine which types of questions you missed so you can practice these for the next test.

Texas A & M Student Counseling Services & Texas Women’s University Counseling Center, University of Cincinnati: Learning Assistance Center Academic Coaching,MCCC Faculty Development by Barbara Gross Davis, University of California, Berkeley. From Tools for Teaching, copyright by Jossey-Bass.

Contact: Educational Counseling and Disabilities Services: [email protected]