Chapter 6: Learning & Studying

Testing Strategies

Test anxiety assessment

Everyone feels some anxiety about tests. However, too much anxiety can interfere with your test preparation and test-taking. Take this 5-minute assessment to determine how much test anxiety you may have and what you can do about it.

  • Visit the Test Anxiety Assessment at
  • Click on the “Continue to Assessment” button. You have the option to take the test in Spanish.
  • Click on the best answer to each of the 35 questions.
  • When you’re finished, you’ll receive a brief assessment of your level of test anxiety.
  • Learning about tests in the section below and gaining experience with them throughout your college career will go a long way toward reducing anxiety. You can also click on a link to learn 20 ways to reduce your test anxiety.

Common Types of Tests in College

There are many ways to understand how tests and exams fit into academia and college culture. One way is to ask what purpose the tests (also called assessments) serve. For example, what is your professor trying to achieve if she gives you a survey-type test on the first day of class? How might the purpose of that test differ from that of a practice quiz given before a midterm? And what is the purpose of a midterm exam?

Each survey, quiz, practice test, midterm, and final exam can serve different purposes. Depending upon the purpose, the assessment will fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. Preassessment
  2. Formative assessment
  3. Summative assessment

Preassessments: Tests in this category are used to measure the beliefs, assumptions, knowledge, and skills that you have when you begin a class or before you begin working on a new topic. With preassessments, your professor gathers baseline data to use at a later time to evaluate change by comparing former knowledge or skills against what you learn in class.

One approach to preassessment is for a professor to ask students at the start of the term to describe a term or concept that’s foundational to the course. Then, later in the course, the professor revisits that data to determine how the instruction changed your understanding of the same concept. Comparing what you know or believe before and after a course or lesson is a productive way to gauge how successful your learning was and how successful the teaching was.

Formative assessments: Tests in this category are typically quizzes, pop quizzes, review questions, and practice tests. With formative assessments, your professor’s goal is to monitor what you are learning and get feedback from you about what is needed next in teaching. Did students do well on the quiz? If so, it’s probably time to move to the next topic. If they didn’t do well, it suggests that more teaching time should be devoted to the concept. Formative assessments help the instructor better meet your needs as a learner.

Summative assessments: Tests in this category are the assessments that students are most familiar with: midterm and final exams. In a summative assessment, a professor is evaluating how much you actually learned at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it with a benchmark of what you should have learned. Summative assessments can be stressful, but they can be an effective measurement tool.

Test Formats

Tests vary in style, rigor, and requirements. For example, in a closed book test, a test taker is typically required to rely upon memory to respond to specific items. In an open-book test, though, a test taker may use one or more supplementary resources such as a reference book or notes. Open-book testing may be used for subjects in which many technical terms or formulas are required to effectively answer questions.

Below is a sampling of common test formats you may encounter. If you know what kind of test you’ll be taking, you can tailor your study approach to the format.

Written Test (can be open-book, closed book or any approach in between) Multiple choice (objective) You are presented with a question and a set of answers for each question, and you must choose which answer or group of answers is correct. Multiple-choice questions usually require less time for test-takers to answer than other question types, and they are easy to score and grade. They also allow for a wide range of difficulty.
True False (objective) You are presented with a statement, and you must determine whether it is true or false. True/false questions are generally not predominant on tests because instructors know that, statistically, random guesswork can yield a good score. But when used sparingly, true/false questions can be effective.
Matching (objective) You are presented with a set of specific terms or ideas and a set of definitions or identifying characteristics. You must match each term with its correct definition or characteristics.
Fill-in-the-blank (objective) You are presented with identifying characteristics, and you must recall and supply the correct associated term or idea. There are two types of fill-in-the-blank tests: 1) The easier version provides a word bank of possible words that will fill in the blanks. 2) The more difficult version has no word bank to choose from. Fill-in-the-blank tests with no word bank can be anxiety producing.
Essay (subjective) You are presented with a question or concept that you must explain in depth. Essay questions emphasize themes and broad ideas. Essay questions allow students to demonstrate critical thinking, creative thinking, and writing skills.
Oral Test Discussion (subjective) The oral exam is practiced is when an examiner verbally poses questions to the student. The student must answer the question in such a way as to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of the subject. Many science programs require students pursuing a bachelor’s degree to finish the program by taking an oral exam, or a combination of oral and written exams, to show how well they understand the material. Usually, study guides or a syllabus are made available so that the students may prepare for the exam by reviewing practice questions and topics likely to be on the exam.
Physical Skills Test You are presented with opportunities to perform specific tasks that require manual labor or physical skill. These tasks measure physical abilities, such as your strength, muscular flexibility, and stamina.

For more tips on what you can do before, during, and after test see Test-Taking Strategies from Bucks County Community College.

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.—Albert Einstein

Strategies for Better Test-Taking Performance[1]

There are many skills and strategies that can help you become a better test taker. One of them, widely used, is LAB B2 OWL, an acronym of the critical aspects of successful test-taking strategies. Watch the following video, which describes the strategies in detail. Then review the main concepts in the table,[2] below.

L LOOK: Look over the entire exam before you start. Read directions, underline test words, and circle questions you don’t fully understand.
A ASK: If you have any questions at all, ask. For example, if the exam doesn’t indicate total point allocation, be sure to ask your instructor.
B BUDGET: Budget your time based on the point allocation for each question. For instance, let’s say your exam has one essay question worth 50 percent and 5 identifications worth 10 percent each. If you have two hours to take the test, this gives you one hour to complete the essay and 10 minutes for each of the five short-answer questions. You will have 10 minutes in reserve to review your work before turning it in.
B2 BEGIN X 2: Begin with an easy question in order to build your confidence and get warmed up for the rest of the exam. Begin each answer with a thesis or topic sentence that restates the question in a single sentence to help you focus your answer.
O OUTLINE: It’s important to write a quick outline for your essay on a separate page before you begin. This will help you organize your facts and focus your ideas. It might also serve to show your professor where you were going if you don’t have time to finish.
W WATCH: Watch for key testing words, such as analyze, define, evaluate, and illustrate. These terms help you understand what your professor will be looking for in an answer.
L LOOK: Finally, look over your exam before turning it in to make sure you haven’t missed anything important.

Aside from learning about tests and strategies for taking them, a big part of doing well on tests is knowing what to expect and gearing up psychologically, in other words, learning how to deal with test anxiety.

What Is Test Anxiety?

My fears are like thundering elephants. Then when I get them out and really look at them, I see that they are actually mice with megaphones. —Bruce Rahtje, author and Biblical scholar

For many test takers, preparing for a test and taking a test can easily cause worry and anxiety. In fact, most students report being more stressed by tests and schoolwork than by anything else in their lives. According to the American Test Anxiety Association:[3]

  • Roughly 16–20 percent of students have high test anxiety.
  • Another 18 percent have moderately high test anxiety.
  • Test anxiety is the most common academic impairment in grade school, high school, and college.

Test anxiety is “the set of phenomenological, physiological, and behavioral responses that accompany concern about possible negative consequences or failure on an exam or similar evaluative situation.” (Zeidner, 1998) Put another way, test anxiety is a combination of overarousal, tension, worry, dread, fear of failure, and “catastrophizing” before or during test situations.

Below are some effects of moderate anxiety:[4]

  • Being distracted during a test
  • Having difficulty comprehending relatively simple instructions
  • Having trouble organizing or recalling relevant information
  • Crying
  • Illness
  • Eating disturbances
  • High blood pressure
  • Acting out
  • Digestive issues
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Cheating
  • Negative attitudes towards self, school, and/or subjects

Poor test performance is also a significant outcome of test anxiety. Test-anxious students tend to have lower study skills and lower test-taking skills, but research also suggests that high levels of emotional distress correlate with reduced academic performance overall. Highly test-anxious students score about 12 percentile points below their low-anxiety peers. Students with test anxiety also have higher overall dropout rates. Test anxiety can negatively affect a student’s social, emotional, and behavioral development, as well as their feelings about themselves and school.

Why does test anxiety occur? Inferior performance arises not because of intellectual problems or poor academic preparation. It occurs because testing situations create a sense of threat for those who experience test anxiety. The sense of threat then disrupts the learner’s attention and memory.[5] Other factors can influence test anxiety, too. Students with disabilities and students in gifted education classes tend to experience higher rates of test anxiety.

If you experience test anxiety, have hope! Experiencing test anxiety doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or that you aren’t capable of performing well in college. In fact, a manageable amount of stress can actually be motivating. The trick is to keep stress and anxiety at levels where they can help you do your best rather than get in your way.

Strategies for Preventing and Controlling Test Anxiety

The following video, from the University of British Columbia, provides strategies for coping with any stress and anxiety you may have about an upcoming test or exam. It also provides some of the following strategies for acing an exam:

  1. Ask about the exam (materials covered, format, points, level of detail, et cetera)
  2. Take inventory of your notes
  3. Set a study schedule
  4. Keep your diet consistent
  5. Don’t stop exercising
  6. Get regular sleep
  7. Make a five-day study plan for each exam

Creating a five day study plan

  • For one of your courses this semester, use the tips in the video to create a five day plan.
  • Then, write about how you could apply the five day plan to writing papers and completing projects.

Health and wellness cannot be overstated as factors in test anxiety. Studying and preparing for exams can be easier when you take care of your mental and physical health. The following are a few tips for better health, better focus, and better grades:

  1. Try a mini-meditation to reduce stress and improve focus. Breathe in deeply, count to five, and exhale slowly. Watch your lower abdomen expand and deflate. Repeat five times.
  2. Learn more about how to proactively manage stress.
  3. Know when to stop. Although some students may stay up until 4 a.m. studying, it’s not a healthy habit. Your mind is more efficient when after getting quality sleep, so make sure to schedule enough time for rest.
  4. Don’t try to be perfect. You’ll alleviate a lot of anxiety by learning that just “doing your best” is something to be proud of.
  5. Reach out for help. If you feel you need assistance with your mental or physical health, talk to a counselor or visit a doctor.

Ace your exams

  • Review the set of questions below.
  • Think about how you prepare (or don’t prepare) for tests and exams. What do you struggle with? What steps can you take to better prepare for your exams this semester?
  • Make a list of what you feel are your main worries or concerns about tests or what you find most difficult to cope with. You might consider contacting a tutor to ask for advice or finding out if there are any exam-preparation workshops at your college.
  • Make another list of any good ideas and strategies you intend to try as you prepare for your next test.

Revision and Examinations

  1. How would you summarize your overall feelings about tests?
  2. How much time do you usually spend studying for an exam? How long before the actual exam would you start studying?
  3. What sort of pattern does your study time take? Do you work in phases, small bits, or longer periods?
  4. How close to the test do you study? Up to the night before, or do you have a break?
  5. How carefully do you plan or structure your study period? Do you plan a detailed outline of what you will do, or do you just start and work through it?
  6. If you need to memorize material, do you have any particular way of doing it?
  7. Do you record material in any way, perhaps summarize it on cards or paper or record it?
  8. Do you try to include any new material while studying, or do you stick with what you have already studied?
  9. Do you try to reorganize your material, perhaps by rewriting notes?
  10. Do you make use of back papers? Do you practice answering actual test questions?
  11. What do you do on the night before and the morning of the test?
  12. What do you think and feel as you journey to the test location?
  13. Do you stand outside talking with others, or do you stand alone?
  14. Between going into the room and starting the test, do you have rituals such as where you place the things you’ve taken with you? Do you meditate, pray, or practice relaxation?
  15. Once the test starts, do you have a particular pattern of work?
  16. Do you have a problem with timing?
  17. Do you check back through your work before you submit it?
  18. What do you do immediately after the test?
  19. Do you contact other students or your tutor after the exam?
  20. Looking back at the tests you have taken, do you feel you have learned anything that has helped you or might help you to do better?


  1. "Preparing for Exams." Learning Commons. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
  2. "Preparing for Exams." Learning Commons. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
  3. "Text Anxiety." American Test Anxieties Association. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
  4. "Test Anxiety." Test Anxiety. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.
  5. "Test Anxiety." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.


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