Did you ever wonder it takes to really ace a standardized test? Well, I did too. So for the past six years, I spent hours observing student behavior, both before and during a standardized test. I then interviewed those test-takers who were able to stay focused, remain calm, and also end up with good scores.
I discovered a correlation between certain test-taking strategies and higher test scores. I took what I learned and taught it to hundreds of students preparing for some type of standardized tests (for example, the GRE, SAT, Praxis, PAPA, or GED) and saw amazing results.
I’d love to share what I learned so your students can also find success in test-taking. Of course, there are many recognized test-taking strategies that are also useful. (Eliminating answer choices, etc.). I wanted to provide ideas I found that were easy, new, and still very worthwhile.
I have broken the strategies into two sections: strategies to use in preparation for the test and strategies to use on the day of the test.
Strategies for students to use in preparation for the test:
- Increase your Cognitive Stamina: Before the day of the test, you will need to train your brain to remain focused for at least 20 minutes uninterrupted. You can do this by practicing some type of concentrated activity every day. Put a timer on and begin by doing this for 5 minutes. Then add two more minutes per day until you have reached your goal. Continue the 20-minute sessions each day. I recommend the Brain Fitness games offered on thinkfun.com. I like them because they are independent, self-paced, and offer three levels of difficulty. My students’ two favorite Think Fun games are Chocolate Fix and Traffic Jam, but any of them are great. Of course, it is not the particular activity that matters. It could be focusing on a Sudoku puzzle. What is important is that by the day of the test, you are able to fully concentrate without drifting for at least 20 minutes uninterrupted. Building cognitive stamina takes time and deliberate effort.
- Know what’s on the test: Invest time researching the objectives of the exact test you are taking and then purchase any practice materials published by that same company. I have found them to be more closely related to what’s on the actual test and often share a common language, which comes in handy during test day.
- Get your emergency action plan ready: Pay particular attention to when and how you monitor and repair comprehension. In other words, do you recognize when meaning breaks down? How do you get yourself back on track? Pay attention to the inner conversations and workings of your mind way before test day so you are able to utilize those same techniques while taking the test. It is similar to having an emergency plan in place, then if one occurs you are prepared and ready for action.
Strategies for students to use on the day of the test:
- Trick your body’s innate flight mechanism: On the morning of the test, you will naturally feel anxious. Our bodies, however, treat all anxiety as a possible threat. It will ready itself to run from the anticipated danger as the blood begins to increase in route to our legs for running. This in-turn causes the “butterflies in your stomach” sensation. A way to trick your body into believing you ran from the danger and are no longer at risk is to simply to run in place. As you run in place, your body calms down realizing the threat is gone. Breathing returns to normal, your Amygdala, which is basically our bodies “Homeland Security System,” will allow receptors to again reach the brain and will reopen the neural connections to the Prefrontal Cortex, where all of our higher level functioning occurs.
- Be strategic in planning brain breaks during the test: Plan for strategic brain breaks during the tests. From my interviews, I discovered that many students wait to do this until they are feeling overwhelmed. I have found that self-imposed brain breaks keep your emotions and you in control. I suggest taking a brain break after every 5-8 questions by doing one or more of the following:
- Take your eyes off the screen or test. Close them and take a deep, cleansing, but silent breath.
- Say to yourself something kind like “Hey, I’m doing pretty well.”
- Do something to cross the midline of the body. Doing cross-lateral movement engages both hemispheres and increases neural connections between them. This can be as simple as scratching an elbow, gently rubbing your left shoulder with your right arm, touching your right ear with your left hand, etc.
- You are now ready to dive back into the test refreshed.
- Use reasonableness as your guide: Most answer choices will include a gotcha answer. The gotcha answer usually represents a common error, but doesn’t make much sense. Before quickly choosing an answer, always ask yourself, “Does this answer make sense?” This simple question will usually eliminate the gotcha answer.
- Come with a fighter’s attitude: Standardized tests are not easy and there will be questions that are difficult. Stay in the game and instead of saying “I don’t know this,” ask yourself, “What would I do if I did know this?” Asking this question pulls you back into the problem to find something familiar about it. Then you have a fighting chance. Remember, you can pass! As soon as you begin talking negative, shut that down and replace it with something more positive. I often tell my students to treat the test like it is the worst “mean girl” you have ever known. Get your “finger wag” on, and don’t let it take you down. You have what it takes and continuing to tell yourself this throughout the test just may be the ammunition you need to come out a winner.