College Test Taking Skills

College Test Taking Skills

College students take tests:

• Every time class meets
• Once a​ week
• Once a​ month
• Once a​ semester
• Twice a​ semester
• All of​ the above
• None of​ the above

The answer to​ the question is​ all of​ the above. Although a​ few professors give only one big, all-or-nothing (talk about pressure!) test at​ the end of​ the semester, most give at​ least two. Thus, at​ the very minimum, you can probably expect to​ take a​ midterm exam (usually given in​ a​ regular class meeting) and a​ final, which is​ scheduled during a​ special exam period at​ the end of​ the term. a​ final exam normally lasts two or​ three hours; you may finish in​ less time, or​ you may still be scribbling as​ someone pries your blue exam book out of​ your cramped hands.

It's likely, however, that more than two tests (and other factors, such as​ papers and discussion) will contribute to​ your final grade. in​ some classes, especially science-oriented ones in​ which you're continually being bombarded with new terms and concepts, you may be tested once a​ week or​ more.

Which really isn't such a​ bad thing. in​ a​ way, getting lots of​ tests is​ better than having only one or​ two. For one thing, these tests tend to​ be "little": Each one doesn't count for a​ major chunk of​ your grade, so if​ you bomb one, it​ won't kill your overall average in​ the class. The sum total of​ these tests, however, may count for a​ lot—a third of​ your entire grade, perhaps. So if​ you do well on these little tests—and have a​ healthy grade going into the final or​ midterm—you might be in​ pretty good shape and feel much less pressured as​ you prepare for the big ones. Also, being tested regularly forces you to​ study and keep up with the material, which also is​ good; this way, you aren't trying to​ re-learn in​ December what you digested (and promptly forgot) way back in​ September.

Types of​ Tests

In huge lecture courses, you'll probably get "objective" tests, which deal with hard information more than ideas. in​ smaller discussion classes, you're much more likely to​ get essay exams, in​ which you'll be expected to​ organize concepts and write thoughtful responses to​ questions.

Objective tests typically deal with true-or-false questions, matching, multiple choice, identifications, and completions. as​ you've probably figured out, these tests are more convenient to​ grade and are often handled by machines or​ teaching assistants. For some students, however, these can be worse than essay tests. Particularly nightmarish are questions without an​ obvious answer but rather a​ confusing array of​ answer options, such as:

A, B, and D
B and C
A and C
All of​ the above
None of​ the above

A, B, and D? What kind of​ mind, you may wonder, dreams up such a​ test? We don't know.

But we do know that this kind of​ test—which might cause you to​ have acid flashbacks to​ the SATs, Advanced Placement, or​ any other "achievement" tests you may have endured on your journey to​ college—throws a​ lot of​ people.

No test is​ a​ perfect instrument for measuring a​ student's progress; each semester, some of​ the most capable students—people who think clearly, write and talk well, and work hard—fail to​ come through exams with the good grades they genuinely deserve. Maybe they suffer from what educational psychologists call "test anxiety"—believed to​ affect about 25 percent of​ all students, some much more than others. The numbers are thought to​ be even higher for minority students. For whatever reason, some good students just don't "test well."

Others, however, seem to​ outdo themselves, to​ perform above their capabilities during exams. These students may not be brilliant, but they're shrewd enough to​ squeeze the full mileage out of​ the knowledge they do possess. Also, they take everything they're given—and sometimes professors give away quite a​ bit. Most professors have never taken Tests and Measurements, Educational Psychology, or​ other courses in​ teaching methods and techniques. Partly as​ a​ result, they often goof up on their own exams—unintentionally dropping hints for those students clever enough to​ take advantage of​ them. Hey, a​ break for you!

This question, for instance, might show up on an​ American History exam:

At the onset of​ World War II, the President of​ the United States was:
A. Harry S Truman
B. Dwight D. Eisenhower
C. Franklin D. Roosevelt
D. Herbert C. Hoover

Okay. Assume you're stumped by that one. Later in​ the same test, however, you find:

During the early days of​ World War II, President Roosevelt's Secretary of​ State was:
A. Henry Wallace
B. Cordell Hull
C. George C. Marshall
D. Douglas MacArthur

Well, you may not know who the Secretary of​ State was (Mr. Hull), but you would have to​ be pretty unobservant not to​ have noticed that the second question provides a​ big clue—the answer, in​ fact—to the first.

"I've left myself open to​ just this kind of​ thing many times," admits one professor, "and I'm amazed at​ how few students have grabbed the freebies that have been available to​ them."

The take-home message here: Grab the freebies. if​ you really study the test, you can pick up clues that add points to​ your score. it​ may not be much, but every little bit helps. Here are some other tips:

• Don't leave anything blank. You have a​ shot at​ points if​ you make a​ stab at​ an​ answer. You get diddley squat if​ you leave it​ blank. On true-or-false questions, you have a​ fifty-fifty chance of​ getting it​ right; on a​ multiple-choice question, your odds are usually no worse than one in​ four. On short-answer questions, a​ professor may give you a​ mercy point or​ two for at​ least making the effort—any effort—even if​ your answer is​ almost entirely wrong. (Warning: Some professors penalize their students for guessing. Be sure to​ find out what your instructor's policy is​ before you take the test!)

• Be ruthless with your time. Suppose you're asked to​ identify the term "rationalism." Each identification is​ worth, say, five points and should be answered briefly. But wait! it​ just so happens that you studied the heck out of​ rationalism; therefore, you're tempted to​ write three full pages on the subject to​ show off your hard-earned knowledge. Don't. It's not worth it. Let it​ go. You're only going to​ get five points, tops, no matter how much you write. So answer the question swiftly and move on. Don't tell everything you know on this question; nobody cares. The shrewdest test-takers respect the Point of​ Diminishing Returns and are ruthless in​ allocating their time. They demolish the easy stuff quickly and efficiently, saving up those precious extra minutes for the really tough questions that carry big point values.

The essay exam, some professors assert, calls for a​ higher order of​ mental processes. Instead of​ merely recognizing material, as​ in​ objective tests, you must also be prepared to​ organize it, evaluate it, argue with it, generalize and particularize from it, and relate it​ to​ other situations. if​ an​ objective test calls for knowledge, then an​ essay exam calls for knowledge, judgment, and skill. Your judgment will be demonstrated by how well you organize your thoughts (what you use and what you leave out), and your skill by how well you present what you know.

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