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Twenty-Seven Test Taking Tips

Over the years, subscribers to the Brainpower Newsletter have regularly sent emails asking for tips on how to do well on academic exams, so here are some of the best. I've separated them into three parts as follows: memorizing the material; preparing for the test; taking the test. You can use a couple from each category, in that order, to develop a routine that works for you or, if you are really ambitious, you can try to apply all of the techniques and develop all of the skills suggested here.

Memorizing the Material

1. Good test scores start with good comprehension of the material, of course, which often includes memorizing specific facts and formulas. Perhaps the most common way to remember something is by repetition over time. You expose yourself to the material repeatedly. That's typically how you learn how to use a computer, for example.

To make this simplest of memory "techniques" work for you, schedule periodic reviews of the material. These intervals seem to work well (following your first exposure):

Review the information after 10 to 15 minutes.
Review the information the next day.
Review the information the next week.
Review the information a month later.

2. Of the more advanced techniques, I've found that the "loci system" and its variants are the easiest to use. The basic idea was used thousands of years ago by Roman orators to remember speeches. They would rehearse speeches as they walked through a garden or palace, associating each important topic with some location. Then, when in front of the audience, a speaker could mentally walk through the garden to recall each point. I have written about this memorization technique previously.

After listening to books on my MP3 player, I've noticed that I often recall exactly where I was when I read that part of the book again. This suggests a new way to use the loci system for test preparation. Record what you need to know and walk through a park or down city streets as you listen. Stop to look at what's around you as each important part begins. During the test you may find that you can mentally take a walk to recall much of the information.


If you really want to do the best you can on all of your exams, start your preparation long before, with healthy habits. Those include eating healthy foods, getting regular high-quality sleep, and committing to take the time necessary to learn the material. Now here are some more specific tips...

3. Prior to the exam, eat a light meal that contains both protein and carbohydrates. Too much food, or too many carbohydrates, can leave you feeling groggy.

4. Sleep well. Although sleep deficiencies seem to affect response time more than accuracy, many tests are timed, so get quality sleep. But don't overdo it. In my experience, too much sleep can make you just as mentally groggy as too little.

5. Review the test or a similar one if possible. A sample test or previous version of the exam will help you know what kind of questions will be on it, so you can be sure to study the right things.

6. Get there early. Test-anxiety is bad for test scores, and time pressure adds to test-anxiety, so avoid it by being a bit early.

7. Sit away from nervous test-takers. The anxiety of others can be contagious, so don't sit near others who are obviously stressed out.

8. Ask about the exam in advance. The professor or administrator of the test will sometimes tell you where most people have trouble. Then you can double-check answers in that part of the test, or watch for "trick" questions.

9. Drink a little bit of coffee. Several studies have shown that people score higher on written tests after as little as a half-cup of coffee. If you are a very nervous person, however, too much caffeine can increase anxiety. Use your own judgment on this one, and/or do some experiments at home to see what amount of caffeine works best for you.

10. Exercise for ten minutes. As little as ten minutes of exercise has been shown to speed up decision making time and accuracy in tests of mental ability. Take a walk just before test time, or find a place where you can jog in place for a few minutes.

11. Use supplements. There are many things you can ingest that may help, but I will mention just a few that are proven safe. Fish oil (or just eating fish) speeds up brainwaves and in some studies appears to improve concentration as well. Ginkgo Biloba may help send more blood to the brain, although some recent studies dispute this. An extract derived from the Periwinkle Plant, Vinpocetine, is used as a cerebral vasodilator to increase blood flow to the brain, improving its oxygenation and thereby increasing mental alertness and acuity. Recent research suggests that it may be the most powerful memory enhancer available to date.

Test Taking Skills

In addition to learning the material well and preparing as much as possible beforehand, there are also a few things you can do during an exam to improve your score. Here are a few examples.

12. Imagine yourself confidently finishing the test early and without trouble. A bit of positive expectation works for most people, and can't hurt.

13. Breath deep. As you start the test, take several deep breaths and let the tension drain from your muscles. This will reduce anxiety and help you concentrate. Take a deep breath now and then throughout the test, to keep the oxygen level in your brain up.

14. Sit up straight. Posture changes brain function, for reasons not entirely clear yet. Do not force yourself to hold an uncomfortable position or the pain might distract you, but at least try not to slump to much.

15. Close your mouth. I'm not sure why this works either, but it really does. You can verify this for yourself by trying to do math with your mouth hanging open or with it closed. You'll notice that the latter works better.

16. Concentrate on each question. Total involvement in one question at a time reduces feelings of anxiety because you are not anticipating and worrying about the next challenge. Don't think about the other questions until you get to them.

17. Make notes. Write down any information you might forget (if you are allowed to take notes). If you "crammed" for the test just before taking it this can be particularly useful. As soon as you sit and the exam starts, make a few notes about anything you might otherwise forget.

18. Pay attention to instructions. Often points are lost solely because the instructions weren't followed exactly.

19. Organize your time. When you first receive the test, review it and plan how much time to take for each section. Also allow several minutes for reviewing the test afterwards. In this way you'll know if you are on schedule or if you need to speed up. You don't want to lose credit for eight questions you knew the answer to just because you spent too much time working on a few tough ones.

20. Find a few easy questions first. Answering a few questions you are sure about gets your confidence up. It's a good warm-up for the rest of the exam.

21. Leave tough questions for later. Learning to recognize when a question may be too difficult to answer quickly is an important skill for timed tests. Again, don't leave eight easy questions unanswered because of time spent on a tough one.

22. Consider the test maker's intention. When an answer seems too easy, and you know it's wrong, look for a similar answer. Why? Because creators of exams often try to catch sloppy test takers with answers that are similar. Watch for other clues to intent when you are unsure of the right answer.

23. Answer all the questions if you can. Except when there is a penalty for a wrong answer (as opposed to an unanswered question), you should guess if you're not sure. On multiple choice tests you'll probably get a few guesses right just by chance.

24. Narrow the options. When they are multiple choice questions, eliminate as many unlikely answers as you can. Then pick one of the remaining ones. By simply knowing which answers are wrong you can often get half of these questions correct with this method.

25. Review the test. Always use the remaining time to look over your exam when you are done. Maybe you learned something from later questions that can help with the correct answers for earlier questions. Also be sure you marked the right circles or boxes on multiple choice tests, and that you didn't leave any questions unanswered.

26. Use all the time allotted. Maybe you've done everything you can do, but why not use any leftover time to review the test once again? A simple mistake that you can correct can move you up to the next grade.

27. Find the tips here that work best for you and create a routine you can follow each time. It should involve good study habits, appropriate preparation, and the test taking skills that raise your scores the most.

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