If you are reading this article to improve your own test scores, you have already taken a big step toward achieving that goal by acknowledging that test-taking skills, like most skills, can be improved. To use Dweck’s (2006) terminology, you are approaching test-taking with a growth mindset rather than a fixed one. If you are reading this article to help the students you tutor improve their test scores, your first step should be to try to convince your tutees that they can learn from their mistakes and do better on the next exam.
Six Common Obstacles to Success on Exams
Unfortunately, improving test performance involves more than replacing the thought, “I don’t do well on tests,” with “I haven’t been doing well on tests, but I will get better.” As you can see in Figure 1 (pg. 13), there are at least six obstacles that could be causing you or your tutees to underperform on tests. The rest of this article will help you identify which of those obstacles has been most responsible for your disappointing test performance and provide tips for overcoming those obstacles.
1. Not studying enough.
You will never hear an Olympic medalist say, “I practiced for about an hour this year, so I was ready.” Yet, some students study very little and then act like their poor performance is surprising. Obviously, the amount of studying students need to do depends on many factors, but the average college student studies 17 hours a week— and you don’t want to be merely average. If you spend 15 hours a week in class and 25 hours a week studying, you are still only spending 40 hours a week on your “job” of being a college student. Your postcollege job may be much more demanding: In fact, one study suggested that most American professionals work 72 hours a week (Deal, 2013)!
Besides procrastination, two other factors may cause you to study less than you should. First, you may compare the amount of studying you do to the amount of studying your friends do—and your friends may be in majors that require less studying than psychology. Instead, compare yourself to harder working students (thus encouraging upward, rather than downward, social comparisons).
Second, the studying you did to perform well in lower division courses may not be sufficient to do well in some upper division courses (when it comes to time demands, not all courses are created equal). Although initially having to study much more than you previously did will seem demanding, after a few weeks of studying much more than you once did, this higher workload will seem normal (Helson, 1964).
2. Thinking you know it when you don’t.
For some students, “knowing” means recognizing that they have seen a term. For most upper division psychology courses, on the other hand, “knowing” means being able to (a) define the term, (b) explain how the term differs from other terms, (c) use the term in a paragraph, and (d) apply it to solve a problem. To perform well on your exams, make sure that you know the ideas discussed in class very well. Students who believe their professor requires only memorization should check to see whether that assumption is correct.
Similarly, just because a professor says the test will be multiple-choice, don’t assume that the professor is interested only in memorization: Multiple-choice tests are often used to determine whether students know the difference between related concepts and are sometimes used to see whether students can apply concepts. For many upper level courses, students should study by explaining each concept in a way that is ADEPT: using an Analogy, Diagram, Example, Plain language definition, and Technical language definition (Azid, 2014). Note that, depending on the course and professor, the definition may need to include: (a) the name of the person associated with the concept, (b) how the term differs from related terms, and (c) an evaluation—based on evidence—of the concept’s validity.
3. Not knowing what is important.
Professors expect students to know what the most important concepts are and to be able to distinguish main ideas from supporting details. Students having trouble identifying the important concepts should start by making a list of key terms ordered from most to least important. They might debate their ordering of those terms with a classmate, which could help both students identify the most important ideas. Students having trouble distinguishing main ideas from details should start by making outlines of the material, then have a classmate critique those outlines.
4. “Studying” without really studying.
Students often sabotage their studying by not using what psychologists know about the effects of self-testing, regular reviewing, and multitasking. Study habits should parallel what students will be asked to do on the test. If taking the test will not involve reading over notes or rereading a chapter, students should avoid those strategies. Instead, they should study by testing themselves over the material.
Surprisingly, although students would not want their favorite sports team to play their first game without ever having scrimmaged, they often show up for a test without having taken several practice tests. Similarly, psychologists emphasize the role of testing in learning (the testing effect): that taking tests over the material is one of the best ways to remember that material (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006). Unfortunately, few students do self-testing, even though this strategy has a very high impact. If a text does not come with practice quizzes, students may find helpful quizzes online or test themselves using flashcards or quizlet.com.
Because of the spacing effect—that information presented over spaced intervals is learned and retained more easily— studying and reviewing regularly is a very effective way to study. However, instead of regularly reviewing material, many students cram. Cramming to prepare for a test is like training for a 5K race by running a marathon the night before the race; one may feel virtuous, but it would have been much better to have run a few miles every day in the weeks leading up to the race.
The research on multitasking suggests that students don’t learn well when they try to study while distracted by other tasks—although many will attempt to do so. Students probably don’t understand the problem of multitasking because many greatly underestimate how many times their attention is disrupted by their phones, social media, or television (Rosen, Carrier, & Cheever, 2013) and greatly overestimate how good they are at multitasking (Ophir, Nass, & Wagner, 2009). Students who want to avoid multitasking while studying can use apps like FocusBooster, Anti-Social, and StayFocused, which prevent “accidental” multitasking.
If you are tutoring, start by educating your tutees about how research demonstrates the benefits of taking frequent tests (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006), reviewing material (Dempster, 1988), and studying without distractions (Kuznekoff & Titsworth, 2012). Then, apply those findings to make tutoring sessions more effective. To take advantage of the testing effect, spend less time repeating what you, the book, or the professor told students, and spend more time asking students questions about the material. To take advantage of the spacing effect, review material from past tutoring sessions and have students commit to attending regular tutoring sessions: Resist requests to take on a new tutee the day before the final exam. To take advantage of what we know about multitasking, do not allow cell phone use during tutoring sessions.
Of course, not studying enough, not knowing what to study, and not knowing how to study can lead to poor test scores. However, some students know the material, but do not show what they know on exams. In some cases, this is due to panicking during the test. If the pressure of the exam causes you to panic, you are not alone—even the great Michael Jordan did not perform at his best while under pressure (Weisinger & Pawliw-Fry, 2015). So, what can you do? One successful approach is to overprepare, so that you, like Michael Jordan, do not need to perform at your best to perform very well. By testing yourself consistently in the weeks before the exam, you will be able to confidently say to yourself, “I got this.” Another successful approach is to remind yourself that you are someone who will probably do well on the test (Rydell, McConnell, & Beilock, 2009). After all, you are not just any college student; you are a Psi Chi member.
Another thing you can do is reduce the pressure you are putting on yourself. Start by reminding yourself that there is more to you than your performance on this test (Ambady, Paik, Steele, Owen-Smith, & Mitchell, 2004). Next, focus on showing what you have learned rather than on what grade you might earn. In addition, challenge any maladaptive self-talk by recognizing that everyone else is also being affected by pressure. The points you lose due to panicking are probably similar to what everybody else is losing, and the points you lose on this test certainly will have a minimal effect on your overall GPA—much less the rest of your life. Finally, remember that you have at least five strategies for dealing with panic.
a. If you feel stressed during the exam, try seeing yourself as “psyched” for the exam rather than nervous. Remember that the pressure of the exam may improve your performance by causing you to be alert, careful, and focused (Jamieson, Mendes, & Nock, 2013).
b. If you are having trouble concentrating, take a minute or two to “hit the reset button” by taking a few deep breaths, thinking about a particularly happy moment, or imagining that you are at home taking a practice exam. Then, return to the exam.
c. If your thoughts are racing, write down those thoughts on your test or on scratch paper. Writing down irrelevant thoughts may clear those distracting thoughts from your head. Writing down more relevant thoughts will help you focus on information that will help you answer the question.
d. If you feel that you don’t know anything related to the test questions, remind yourself that, if you studied well, you know the material— and that your professor wants students who know the material to do well. So, think about what you know (it may help to think back to when you were studying the material or to imagine explaining what you have learned to a friend). After focusing on what you know rather than on what you don’t know, think about how what you have learned in class applies to the test questions. To build up confidence and momentum, scan the test and answer the simpler questions first. If your test has multiple-choice questions, eliminate the obviously wrong answers and see whether some of the questions contain clues for answering other questions.
e. If all the options for a multiple-choice question seem the same, you can do three things. First, turn the multiplechoice questions into a fill-in-theblank question by writing down an answer to the question before you read the options. Then, see which of the provided answers matches your answer. Second, if you are torn between two answers, write down an explanation for why one answer is more correct than the other. Often, writing such explanations will help you recognize that one answer is clearly correct (Dodd & Leal, 1988). Finally, remember that, if there is only one right answer and two options are truly identical, neither can be correct. They are either not identical or both incorrect.
Obviously, panicking—one’s mind going blank, being completely unfocused, or being filled with self-doubt—can be a problem. However, some students have the opposite problem—choking. In choking, students grab on to their first interpretation of a question or their first approach to answering a question and don’t let go. For example, consider the following question from Frederick (2005, p. 27): “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost? ____ cents”. Most people wrongly respond 10 cents. They miss this question because they use a heuristic: They substitute an easy question for a hard one. In this case, instead of answering the question asked, they answer the question, “What added to $1.00 makes a $1.10?”When people are encouraged to reflect on the ball question, many realize that the correct answer is 5 cents. To use terms popularized by Kahneman (2011), people get the question wrong when their quick, energetic, intuitive System 1 mind outmaneuvers their slower, lazier, more deliberative System 2 mind. Many test questions in psychology are like the ball problem, in that your System 1 answer to the question is intuitively appealing but wrong. To answer these questions correctly, you have two options.
The first option is to study so much and do so many practice problems that you have retrained System 1 to come up with the right answer. In some cases, this would mean overruling years of experience. The second, and often more practical, option is to help System 2 override System 1. A simple—but difficult to implement—strategy is to be well-rested so that the effortful System 2 does not wear out before you complete the exam. During an exam, a simple, easy, and natural way to activate System 2 is to frown (Kahneman, 2011). Often, however, helping System 2 stay in charge is a three-step process.
The first step is underlining key words in the question. For multiple-choice questions, key words include words like not, always, or never. For essay questions, key words include words like describe, list, define, evaluate, and contrast. When an essay question has a key word such as evaluate or contrast, match that key word to the appropriate prewriting activity. For example, for essay questions asking you to evaluate a concept, you might first make a table listing the concept’s strengths and weaknesses.
The second step is imagining that you are the professor and are writing the question. Why did you write this question? What do you want students to show you? How would a good student’s answer differ now from on the first day of class? To help you think about what your professor would think was a good answer, review the key concepts your professor has emphasized and consider how they could help you answer the question.
The third step is imagining that your initial approach to the question is wrong. If so, what approach or answer would you give instead? Imagine that you are the professor and are grading your answer. What might your professor wish you had done differently?
Preparing to take a test is like preparing to do anything: Although practice doesn’t make perfect, good practice makes for better performance. If you have practiced what you are going to do, you will do better than if you haven’t. Most people do less well than in practice (nerves!), but if you have practiced consistently and well, you should be prepared to do well.
To turn that preparation into performance, do what all successful athletes, musicians, and performers do—warm up and then get focused. Right before a test, warm up by quizzing yourself (or having a classmate quiz you), then take some deep breaths while you imagine yourself doing well on the test. Good luck!
Ambady, N., Paik, S. K., Steele, J., Owen-Smith, A., & Mitchell, J. P. (2004). Deflecting negative self-relevant stereotype activation: The effects of individuation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40, 401–408. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2003.08.003
Azid, K. (2014). Learn difficult concepts with the ADEPT method. Retrieved from https://betterexplained.com/articles/adept-method/
Deal, J. J. (2013, September 12). Welcome to the 72-hour work week. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2013/09/welcome-to-the-72-hour-work-we
Dempster, F. N. (1988). The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research. American Psychologist, 43, 627–634. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.43.8.627
Dodd, D. K., & Leal, L. (1988). Answer justification: Removing the ‘Trick’ from multiple-choice questions. Teaching of Psychology, 15, 37–38. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15328023top1501_8
Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
Frederick, S. (2005). Cognitive reflection and decision making. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19, 25–42. https://doi.org/10.1257/089533005775196732
Helson, H. (1964). Adaptation-level theory. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses: The power of reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 51–56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721412461500
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kuznekoff, J. H., & Titsworth, S. (2013). The impact of mobile phone usage on student learning. Communication Education, 62, 233–252. https://doi.org/10.1080/03634523.2013.767917
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 155583-15587. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0903620106
Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x
Rosen, L. D., Carrier, L. M., & Cheever, N. A. (2013). Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 948–958. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.12.001
Rydell, R. J., McConnell, A. R., & Beilock, S. L. (2009). Multiple social identities and stereotype threat: Imbalance, accessibility, and working memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 949–966. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0014846
Weisinger, H., & Pawliw-Fry, J. P. (2015). Performing under pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most. New York, NY: Crown Business.
Mark L. Mitchell, PhD, is professor of psychology at Clarion University. He has written several books including Research Design Explained (now in its 8th edition), Writing for Psychology (in its 4th edition), and Lifespan Development: A Topical Approach. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Jeanne M. Slattery, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Clarion University, where she serves as advisor to Psi Chi. She is a clinical psychologist with a small private practice, and has written three books, Counseling Diverse Clients: Bringing Context Into Therapy; Empathic Counseling: Meaning, Context, Ethics, and Skill; and most recently, Trauma, Meaning, and Spirituality: Translating Research Into Clinical Practice.
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