Posted 3:01 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, 2021

When filling out a multiple choice test, a good strategy is to think about how you would answer before looking at the answer options.

Tips to do your best on exams and reduce test anxiety

As the end of the school year approaches, it’s time to share what you’ve learned. You want to do the best you can on exam day, but sometimes test anxiety or a lack of test strategy can get in the way. Charlene Holler, an academic skills specialist at UW-La Crosse, is here to help.  

Holler has answered thousands of test skills questions and concerns from students over the years. Here are some of Holler’s best tips for test taking, based on research and years of meeting with students at the university's Counseling and Testing Center

How to take a test 

  • Preview the test - generally. Look over each page of the test to get an idea of what is ahead, so you can pace yourself. Multiple strategies are available on where to start on a test. Some suggest starting with the easiest questions first to build confidence. Barbara Oakley, who has a popular MOOC on how to learn, advises getting as far as you can on the most difficult question first until you are not sure how to continue. Then, pull yourself away and work easier problems. The answer to that harder question may just need time to percolate, and you give it time by working on other questions. Use a strategy that makes you feel most comfortable. 
  • Read the test directions carefully. Don’t skim. Directions contain important information and some may even save you time and energy such as, “You only need to complete two of the five problems.” If you don’t understand a set of instructions, ask for clarification. 
  • If you are stumped on a question, move on. Try coming back to it after answering others. This will help ensure that you are able to get to all sections of the test. 
  • Resist the temptation to change previous answers. Often instructors use related content in more than one question. You should absolutely use those context clues. But,  if you are confident in a previous answer, do not change it unless you have realized additional information. Students often over-think and change a correct answer to an incorrect one. 
  • Multiple choice test taking strategy: If it is a multiple-choice question, look at the question and try to think how you would answer it without looking at the choices. Test writers try to make all the answers plausible. Instructors are assessing if you know why one choice is the most correct. Having an idea of the answer ahead of time can help to clarify and not confuse. 

How to reduce test anxiety 

  • Be prepared. It is no different than setting foot on stage for a solo recital, the more prepared you are, the more confident you will be and the more successful you will be. Learn the ten essential study skills to retain information and stay focused.
  • Breathe. If you are feeling tense and breathing shallow, you are depriving your brain of oxygen when it needs it the most.  
  • Arrive early and write. Before taking the test, pull out a piece of paper and pencil and write down any anxiety or fears you have. University of Chicago researchers found that students who were asked to write about their fears prior to a test did significantly better than a group who did not.  
  • Think positively. Negative thinking fosters and exaggerates anxiety. A bit of nervousness helps us focus; too much is counterproductive. Think of worry as a snowball; it is harmless unless you lose control. A snowball going downhill picks up mass and speed. If you do not have ways to intervene, the snowball, like anxiety, can become unstoppable. During a test if you feel you are reaching a point where your nerves are interfering, put your pencil down, close your eyes and take a couple deep breaths. Have a positive word or phrase such as “success,” or “I know this,” to help get yourself re-centered. This brief intervention can pay dividends for the rest of the exam.   

How to cram for a test if you must 

  • Decide what to learn. Use this rule of thumb: Spend 25% of your time learning new material and 75% of your time drilling yourself.  
  • Relate information to something else you know. Think of your brain as a giant pegboard and “hook” new information to learned information.  
  • Recite, recite, recite. This is the test for knowing the information forwards and backwards.  
  • Relax. Crammed material is not learned as well as well-reviewed material. Use relaxation techniques to minimize the chances of freezing up on the exam.