A Christmas present: Test taking tips for smart but nervous students

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By Greg Markley

If someone told me as a graduate student at Auburn University years ago that the library would have a Panera, I’d say “That’s crazy.” It was as unlikely as Toomer’s Drugstore reverting to an actual pharmacy. Below are test-taking tips that have worked great for me. I developed them over my academic career and work to improve grades better than a ton of Frappuccinos.
On multiple choice questions, I find no middle-of-the-road beliefs about how easy or tough they are. The brightest students get most of them, while others dread them because they are unpredictable, as compared to Short Answers or even easier True or False. In MC’s, don’t forget to read all the answers. Don’t just find an answer that seems best, choose it, and move on.
“There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs.” This was the philosophy of Zig Ziglar, a famous salesman and public speaker. He meant: take things step-by step. In testing, definitely go over everything twice. I notice that once the first test-taker leaves, most others get done within 10 minutes. Why? You have the whole class time. Why leave before double-checking your answers?
Plenty of students lose points because they forget to see the NEGATIVE. Some 1/3 of the questions on exams require you to choose the negative, i.e. “all of these except” or “which are not.” Generous professors underline or capitalize NOT or NEVER. But not every student is lucky to get such helpful teachers.
On short answers, there are three approaches to prevent hurting your score. Students tend to be reckless in wanting to fly by these questions. Although the whole idea is “short” answers, give them within reason. An example is the question: “Who created the National Parks system?”
The student may answer “Roosevelt” but if they do not state which President Roosevelt, they lose. A better answer is “Teddy Roosevelt” instead of “FDR” who wasn’t president until 1933.
Note when each answer is worth 2 or 3 points. Some professors make Short Answers worth just 1 point. This is acceptable as the student only loses a point. But I prefer 2 or 3 points because you can judge a student’s knowledge better. For instance, “Which president got impeached by the House?” The student answers “Johnson” and gets an easy 1 point. But he would receive full-credit (2 points) for “Andrew Johnson” not LBJ, who was never impeached.
In Snowden (2016), a CIA aptitude tester declares: “Our average test time is 4 hours. If you take more than 8 hours you will fail.” (Later) “Sir, I am done. (Tester) “In 49 minutes.” (Snowden)” No, in 38 minutes.” Edward Snowden, under criminal charges for stealing American secrets, is brilliant with computers. But not everyone can fly thru complex exams like Snowden.
The lesson for you is: Don’t waste TOO MUCH time on responses.
Write more only when it will gain points. Add a phrase or sentence if needed to complete your short answer. Sometimes a word or phrase will not suffice, not even for a “Short Answer.”
Overall, plan ahead how you use the exam time, and check your watch every 10-12 minutes. If an essay question is worth 40% of the grade, and there are 10 True or False questions worth 1 point each—don’t spend any more than 10-12 minutes on true or false.
In true and false questions, it is essential to carefully read each statement. If even one part of a statement is false, the entire statement is false. Remember that, and you will have fewer headaches during and after the exam. Most questions have a combination of who, what, when, where or how facts. If even one of those five facts is wrong, the question is definitely false.
This tip is not infallible, but is highly accurate: qualifiers signify the likely answer in T/F questions. Words like never, all, and always usually indicate a false statement. Conversely, words like sometimes, generally, and often tend to indicate it is a true statement. This is only a guide to T/F; it’s not perfect. Last true and false tip– A “reason” statement tends to be False when offered as the “reason” or “cause.” But this is not an entrenched rule. When in doubt, it pays to go with the averages, however.
Finally, remember that most of us stumble sometimes. This could be by memory lapses, lack of study, personal problems, etc. In 1963, I flunked out of 1 st grade, and it was a difficult time for a 7-year old. Yet I passed 1 st grade in 1964 as a top student. I now have bachelors and two masters. Don’t impede your progress by weak study habits. Yet, if you screw up on an exam, put it in perspective. Life is not a sprint, it is a long run, if we are lucky. So be patient.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the last 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has masters degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.

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