Learning How to Take a Test
Updated: Apr 17
You've put in countless hours to learn the material, worked dozens of practice problems, and feel as ready as possible for this upcoming test or exam. But what else should you know and watch out for when taking a test?
Undoubtedly, you’ve probably heard some common-shared knowledge like needing to understand the breakdown of the test questions. What is each one worth? Which question has the least amount of points? You’ve also probably heard to begin with the easy problems and save the harder ones for last. While this is great advice, it’s also quite vague so I’d like to refine and share overall test-taking strategies that will work for most math and science courses.
My entire strategy for taking tests and exams can be boiled down to a simple idea.
Stop Spending So Much Time on a Single Question
Within the first few moments of reading a question, it should be clear whether you know how to answer it right away or need more time to process. Circle any question in that second category, save any initial notes you made about it on the side, and move on.
Even if you think you could figure it out with a few more minutes -- don't. Switch directions and try another question. The odds that there will be another question later in the exam about the same concept are very high. So, by the time you come back to it, you may have already seen the answer or a pretty strong hint towards it somewhere else in the exam. When you return to the difficult question again, you can usually solve the problem more efficiently than you could have before.
Example from a High School/College Algebra Course
Say there’s a question on your test that asks you to factor an expression; however, you don’t fully remember the pattern for the result. You have an idea but are drawing a blank on some details in the pattern like which terms are positive and negative. So, you circle that question and move on to work on others. Later in the exam, there’s another question involving the factored form of a similar equation that jogs your memory and helps you remember the pattern for that previous question circled.
This strategy is also very useful in other math courses like trigonometry, precalculus, calculus, and statistics. Science courses such as chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics, and many engineering courses too also benefit from this strategy.
Step-By-Step Test Breakdown
Most tests and exams in math and science courses consist of a lengthy multiple-choice section followed by a "show your work" long answer section with fewer questions and partial credit grading. To sum it up, here’s a step-by-step breakdown of how to best approach a typical exam.
Multiple Choice Test Taking Strategies
Begin with the multiple-choice section and go through each question. Answer any that can be done right away, and circle questions that are tricky or will take you longer than a few minutes to figure out.
Read Each Long Answer Question
Continue on to the long answer section and read through each question carefully. Start with ones you know how to do and save the harder ones for last.
Find Similar Unanswered Problems
By this point, there should be some multiple choice and longer “show your work” questions which you have circled. Odds are that some of them will be about the same topic and give clues or hints towards how to solve the others. Notice which questions may go together and try working those ones out first.
Break Down Each Question’s Worth
If there are still questions you don’t know how to do and no hints from other questions, then consider how many points each question that is left is worth. It’s better to spend more time on long answer questions so you can still get partial credit for the work that you show. For multiple-choice questions, narrow down the options as best you can and give it your best guess.
How to Improve Test Taking Skills
Doing well on tests and exams isn’t just about knowing the material inside and out, but rather understanding how to use the test itself to your advantage. These strategies can help you take a more logical and systematic approach to your exams and hopefully get a few more points added to your final grade.