Taking Tests and Exams

Throughout your college career you will take tests in many different formats, in many subject areas, and with many different types of questions. The following sections offer test-taking tips that apply to any test situation.

Essay Questions

Many college instructors have a strong preference for essay exams for a simple reason: Essay exams promote higher-order critical thinking, whereas other types of exams tend to be exercises in memorization. Generally, advanced courses are more likely to include essay exams than are lower-level courses. To be successful on essay exams, follow these guidelines:

  1. Budget your exam time. Quickly survey the entire exam, and note the questions that are the easiest for you along with their point values. Take a moment to weigh their values, estimate the approximate time you should allot to each question, and write the time beside each item number. Be sure that you know whether you must answer all the questions or if you should choose among questions. Remember that writing profusely on easy questions that have low values can be a costly error because it takes up precious time you might need for more important questions. Wear a watch so that you can monitor your time, and include time at the end for a quick review.

  2. Develop a very brief outline of your answer before you begin to write. Start working on the questions that are easiest for you, and jot down a few ideas before you begin to write. First, make sure that your outline responds to all parts of the question. Then use your first paragraph to introduce the main points and subsequent paragraphs to describe each point in more depth. If you begin to lose your concentration, you will be glad to have the outline to help you regain your focus. If you find that you are running out of time and cannot complete an essay, provide an outline of key ideas at the very least. Instructors usually assign points on the basis of your coverage of the main topics from the material. Thus you will usually earn more points by responding briefly to all parts of the question than by addressing just one aspect of the question in detail. An outline will often earn you partial credit even if you leave the essay unfinished.

  3. Write concise, organized answers. Many well-prepared students write good answers to questions that were not asked because they did not read a question carefully or didn’t respond to all parts of the question. Other students hastily write down everything they know on a topic. Instructors will give lower grades for answers that are vague and tend to ramble or for articulate answers that don’t address the actual question.

  4. Know the key task words in essay questions. Being familiar with the key task word in an essay question will help you answer it more specifically. Take time to learn them so that you can answer essay questions as accurately and precisely as possible.

Key Task Words in Essay Questions
Analyze Divide something into its parts to understand it better; show how the parts work together to produce the overall pattern.
Compare Look at the characteristics or qualities of several things and identify their similarities or differences. Don’t just describe the traits; define how the things are alike and how they are different.
Contrast Identify the differences between things.
Analyze and judge something. Criticism can be positive, negative, or both. A criticism should generally contain your own judgments (supported by evidence) and those of authorities who can support your point.
Define Give the meaning of a word or expression. Giving an example sometimes helps clarify a definition, but an example by itself is not a definition.
Describe Give a general verbal sketch of something in narrative or other form.
Discuss Examine or analyze something in a broad and detailed way. Discussion often includes identifying the important questions related to an issue and attempting to answer these questions.
Evaluate Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of something. Evaluation is similar to criticism, but the word evaluate stresses the idea of how well something meets a certain standard or fulfills some specific purpose.
Explain Clarify something. Explanations generally focus on why or how something has come about.
Interpret Explain the meaning of something. In science you might explain what an experiment shows and what conclusions can be drawn from it. In a literature course you might explain—or interpret—what a poem means beyond the literal meaning of the words.
Justify Argue in support of some decision or conclusion by showing sufficient evidence or reasons in its favor. Try to support your argument with both logical and concrete examples.
Narrate Relate a series of events in the order in which they occurred. You will also usually be asked to explain something about the events you are narrating.
Outline Present a series of main points in an appropriate order. Some instructors want an outline with Roman numerals for main points followed by letters for supporting details. If you are in doubt, ask the instructor whether he or she wants a formal outline.
Prove Give a convincing logical argument and evidence in support of some statement.
Review Summarize and comment on the main parts of a problem or a series of statements. A review question usually also asks you to evaluate or criticize.
Summarize Give information in brief form, omitting examples and details. A summary is short but covers all important points.
Trace Narrate a course of events. Whenever possible, you should show connections from one event to the next.

Multiple-Choice Questions

Preparing for multiple-choice tests requires you to actively review all the material that has been covered in the course. Reciting from flash cards, summary sheets, mind maps, or the recall column in your lecture notes is a good way to review large amounts of material.

Take advantage of the many cues that multiple-choice questions contain. Careful reading of each item might uncover the correct answer. Always question choices that use absolute words such as always, never, and only. These choices are often (but not always) incorrect. Also, read carefully for terms such as not, except, and but that may be introduced before the choices. Often, the answer that is the most inclusive is correct. In general, options that do not agree grammatically with the first part of the item are incorrect.

Some students are easily confused by multiple-choice answers that sound alike. The best way to respond to a multiple-choice question is to read the first part of the item and then predict your own answer before reading the options. Choose the letter that corresponds to the option that best matches your prediction.

If you are totally confused by a question, place a check mark in the margin, leave it, and come back later, but always double-check that you are filling in the answer for the right question. Sometimes another question will provide a clue for a question that you are unsure about. If you have absolutely no idea, look for an answer that at least contains some shred of information. If there is no penalty for guessing, fill in an answer for every question, even if it is just a guess. If there is a penalty for guessing, don’t just choose an answer at random; leaving the answer blank might be a wiser choice.

Fill-In-The-Blank Questions

In many ways preparing for fill-in-the-blank questions is similar to getting ready for multiple-choice items, but fill-in-the-blank questions can be harder because you do not have a choice of possible answers right in front of you. Not all fill-in-the-blank questions are constructed the same way. Some teachers will provide a series of blanks to give you a clue about the number of words in the answer, but if just one long blank is provided, you can’t assume that the answer is only one word. If possible, ask the teacher whether the answer is supposed to be a single word per blank or whether it can be a longer phrase.

True/False Questions

Remember that for a statement to be true, every detail of the sentence must be true. Questions containing words such as always, never, and only tend to be false, whereas less definite terms such as often and frequently suggest that the statement might be true. Read through the entire exam to see whether information in one question will help you answer another. Do not begin to second-guess what you know or doubt your answers just because a sequence of questions appears to be all true or all false.

Matching Questions

The matching question is the hardest type of question to answer by guessing. In one column you will find the terms, and in the other you will find their descriptions. Before answering any question, review all the terms and descriptions. Then match the terms you are sure of. As you do so, cross out both the term and its description; then use the process of elimination to assist you in answering the remaining items. To prepare for matching questions, try using flash cards and lists that you create from the recall column in your notes.