INTRODUCTION: In almost any math course I teach, one of the most common problems students identify is that of taking tests.  Even students who seem to be learning well during a specific unit can suddenly perform dismally on a unit examination. To help them do better on my tests, I used an exercise from the On Course text’s Facilitator’s Manual. I did this activity one week before we were scheduled to have our first exam.


  • to remind students of test-taking strategies they may have used successfully in the past.
  • to provide students with new test-taking strategies.
  • to improve students’ scores on math tests (though this approach will helps students in any course).


  • Paper and Pens
  • ELMO projection system  [This device in my classroom projects an image of any object placed under its camera onto a large screen in the classroom, and I used it to write and display the summary of our ideas during the class.  This allows an immediate paper record to duplicate and distribute to the students.] You could use an overhead projector instead.


1. Begin with an introduction to the problem of test taking. I say, “I wish I had a dime for each time a student has said to me,  ‘I understood it all at home but when I took the test, my mind just went blank.’  We have our first exam next week, and I don’t want that to happen to you.  Some of you have great strategies for taking tests, and others might like some help, so let’s gather some suggestions.”

2. Put students into groups of three or four, and tell them to list and be ready to share as many ideas as possible for test-taking strategies of two types: those to use BEFORE the test and those to use DURING the test. I provided two examples for them:  “In the morning before a test, I am best off NOT looking at course material, because I sometimes get confused and it damages my confidence.  During a test, I usually divide the time available by the number of questions to get a rough idea of the time I have per question, and then try to use that as a rough guideline to be sure I don’t fixate on one question for too long.”   Allow about 10 minutes.

3. Ask each group to contribute one or two strategies for BEFORE and DURING the test.  As the strategies are offered, record them for display on the ELMO or overhead transparency. I sometimes make clarifying comments or rephrase the ideas slightly to make them easier to remember on reading them later.

4. At the conclusion of this discussion, provide the following writing prompt:  “Which of the ideas that the groups came up with will you try for our test coming up?  Why?”  Ask students to answer this at home and turn in their response by the end of the week. 

5. As soon as possible (ideally that same class period), duplicate the lists of test-taking strategies and distribute copies to the students.

6. After the exam, have students respond to a new writing prompt: “Did you use any of the test taking strategies we compiled last week?  If so, how effective do you think the strategies were for you on this exam?  What changes would you make for next time?” Optional: Hold a discussion based on this writing prompt.


Based on the energy level in the room, students seemed to enjoy the activity and see value in it.  Students who felt they knew how to prepare for tests seemed pleased to get a chance to “share the wealth.”  On the other hand, students who were not so confident were open to the ideas and seemed willing to admit to their colleagues that they were looking for ideas.  During the whole-group sharing time, several students who are not typically vocal in class were the first to share their ideas, a positive collateral benefit I had not anticipated. However, most students did not respond to the “Why?” portion of the writing prompt, so they did not dig as deep into their test taking styles as I would have liked.

Here are the lists my students compiled:

BEFORE the Test: 

  • Do all the assigned homework; keep up with the class!

  • Do a variety of practice problems to get ready, not just the ones you already know.

  • Know how to use your calculator, and be sure to bring your calculator to the test.

  • Review the quizzes we had, look at your mistakes, correct them, and use the problems to write similar ones for practice test questions.

  • Form a study group and meet regularly.

  • Get plenty of rest the night before the test, eat a good breakfast, and get to class on time.

  • Use mnemonic devices to memorize formulas you might need to know. [Although I don’t actually emphasize memorization in my class, I let this one stay on the list!]

  • Read through your class notes and write a summary of all the topics.

  • Go to the Math/Science Center as needed to meet with tutors, or go see the professor for help.

  • Visualize yourself doing well on the test!

DURING the test:

  • Solve the problems you know first; guess on the rest!

  • Show as much work as you can for partial credit.

  • Take a holistic approach to taking the test. [This suggestion came from several general comments about being centered, relaxed, perhaps using prayer as a resource…so we summarized with the term “holistic.”]

  • Check to see that your answers make sense in the context.

  • Never change an answer unless you are SURE you have a better one to replace it!  [I added this one myself—it is the worst thing I see students do.]

  • Read and follow all directions.

  • If you have time, go back over the test to make sure you have answered everything.

  • Pace yourself—don’t rush.

  • Skim over the test as you begin.

  • Do problems with the most points attached as soon as possible.

  • Ask the instructor if you have any questions about anything on the test; she can always refuse to answer, but you have nothing to lose!

Later that week, as I read their journal responses to the prompt, I could see that most students had found at least one idea they wanted to try that they had not considered before. Here are some excerpts from their writing:

I will review all the quizzes because I realized that I failed some of the problems due to the fact that I didn’t write down the correct numbers/values…. For the first time, I will really encourage myself that I WILL do well, although my first few grades have been poor.

I gave the idea to my group to get together and study.  In this way of studying all members in the group can share ideas and bring up different solutions to certain problems.  Everyone agreed, and we will have our study group on this weekend.

I must start out telling you that I am a bit nervous about this first exam.  I really want to do well in this class, I really do…so to prepare for this exam I will….look over the quizzes.  Then I will pray!

The one that appeals to me most is the sleep idea.  I think that a good night’s rest and breakfast before tests are two of the essential parts of having a good testing session.  Your body will be rested, as well as your mind.

I am going to try studying prior to having a good night’s rest, instead of resting and then studying in the morning. Hopefully this technique will either better my test-taking, or it will allow me to better know myself when it comes to taking tests.

And my favorite one:

“Visualize yourself doing well on the test.”  More than halfway through Tuesday’s discussion, you imparted this statement of psychological wisdom and strength.  It became the first strategy I added to my notebook.  I wrote it in upper case, bold, block letters. This is a new and different and novel idea….an additional option with which I might improve my ability to calm myself in order to free my brain from those flustered boundaries and release knowledge and skill endorphins in an effort to complete my exams with confidence.

How did this activity impact the exam results?  I taught this same course last fall, and I gave essentially the same first exam to my group this semester as I did last semester.  Obviously, there are many factors that play into the results, and I had only a sample of 27 in the fall, 26 in the spring.  However, when I computed the median grades for both, even I was surprised to find that the median in the fall was 64, while the median this term was 81! Additionally, THIRTEEN A’s or B’s were earned as opposed to only six last fall.

After the exam, students wrote a response to the new prompt, “Did you use any of the test taking strategies we compiled last week?  If so, how effective do you think the strategies were for you on this exam?  What changes would you make for next time?”  Some of the replies:

I used one of the test taking strategies we compiled last week. The strategy was gathering in a study group. During studying in a group I felt it was very effective for me because the other students helped me with the material that was hard for me, and I myself explained the problems they had difficulty with. Now, after I got my test back, I am convinced that this way of studying helped me a lot, and it was even more fun than studying alone.

I think that it helps to look at the whole test and figure out which problems are worth the most; that way if you get stuck you can prioritize. I think it’s important, especially in this specific math course to think about your answers and see if they make sense. I tried to show as much work as I could so that even if I got the answer wrong I would get some credit. I tried not to rush because I have a tendency to try to do things quickly. I read all the directions because that is simple, needs to be done and helps me.

I studied with a classmate. We went over the whole material and the previous quizzes. We also helped each other with material each one had confusion with. The second thing I tried, and will recommend to everybody, was getting a good night’s sleep, it makes one feel so good and focused. I really wanted to see if resting was a factor in taking tests because in my last quiz I did not sleep enough and this made me feel so tired and out of focus; I spent too much time in problems that I normally do in one minute.

Even though the test wasn’t that hard, I did not get good grade… The study group we supposed to have, I could not be there, because I had lost of contact, time, and place etc.

My technique during the test was to skim through all the pages before starting, but that just seemed to get everything all confused in my mind.  I think that if I had just gone through the test problem by problem like I normally do, then my mind would not have gotten all cluttered with the different types of problems. [So, unfortunately she felt she was better off BEFORE this activity!]


This activity is one of those kinds of activities I have been hesitant to try in class, because on the surface it seems “a waste of time” for a content class like math. (You know,  “Let them do that stuff in a study skills class, I need to talk about logarithms!”)   However, after trying it and seeing the kind of response it provoked in my class, I really felt it was well worth it.  I was impressed by the kinds of ideas the students generated and by their honesty and openness to admit to their weaknesses in test taking.  I had a sense in the class that we had moved to a new level of trust and teamwork as a group. In the class meeting following the activity, I could hear several pairs of students who had been in group discussions together revisiting the ideas they had generated.

In addition, this was not the first time we had used group exercises in the class, but to my knowledge none of the groups had met outside the class period.  However, after this activity, at least three of the seven groups arranged a group study session for the exam.  I learned that perhaps the opportunity to talk about something other than the content helped them to find more common ground in their groups.

I also learned that I really enjoyed being able to talk with my students on a different level, and to let them share their expertise.

–Deb Poese, Faculty, Mathematics, Montgomery College, MD

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