INTRODUCTION: Working as a counselor in a Middle Eastern College has presented many unique challenges. The fact that post secondary study within the country is in its infancy combined with the cultural and experiential history of the students have resulted in a student population that is significantly under prepared for the demands and skills necessary to be successful at college.

Our efforts to provide sessions on various student success topics has met with limited success as voluntary student participation is low or non existent. In an effort to reach more students, I have offered my services to instructors to go into classes to deliver sessions on a variety of student success topics. Recently, I was approached by an instructor to do a session on test taking as he noted that many of his students were doing poorly because of “stupid mistakes” such as not fully reading the questions or leaving out whole sections.

As an introduction to effective test taking, I used this brief fifteen minute activity on following directions. It could also be used in any class for helping students gain better understanding of their thoughts and feelings about test taking. My experience with this activity at the College of the North Atlantic may be of particular interest to instructors of international students.


  • To demonstrate the importance of carefully reading and following directions on tests
  • To help students recognize self-defeating thoughts and feelings when taking tests


  • “Surprise Test,” one per student (Appended below in SUPPORT MATERIALS)
  • Pencil for each student
  • Stopwatch


1. Ask for a show of hands, “How many of you have ever wished you could do better on tests? How many have been frustrated that you made careless mistakes such as misreading a question or doing all the questions when you were told to do only two out of three? How many of you feel nervous or sick before a test?”

2. “Before we address these problems, I’m going to give you a short in-class test. The test is timed and you will have only 3 minutes to complete it. Please remove everything from your desk; I will provide you with a pencil and the test. The test will be graded and used toward your assignment marks. There will be no talking during the test; once you have completed the test, please turn your paper over on your desk and sit quietly until I give you further instructions.”

3. After students have cleared their desks, start passing out the test face down on the students’ desks, while saying “Please keep the test face down until I tell you to start.”

4. Once all the tests are handed out, say, “When I tell you to start you can turn over your paper; make sure you read all the directions carefully.” Then press the stop watch and say “Start.”

5. Even though you told them it is a timed test, once you see three or four students stop writing and turn their papers over, tell the class the time is up.

6. Ask for a show of hands and say, “How many completed the test? How many got it half completed? How many completed less than half the test?”

7. Discussion prompts regarding following directions:
a. If you didn’t finish the test, why were you unable to complete it?
b. Why do you think some people were able to finish?
c. If you did finish, why do you think you were able to complete it?

Completers will point out that they read and followed all the directions and only completed the items required (#1, #2, #21). This can be used as a spring board into to a short group discussion about the importance of carefully reading and following directions.

8. Discussion prompts for feelings about test taking:
a. How did you feel when I announced a test?
b. What thoughts went through your head?
c. What physical feelings (e.g., sweaty palms, faster heartbeat) did you have?
d. How did you feel when I said the test would be graded? Timed?
e. How did your thoughts and feelings affect your concentration on the test?

Draw out the idea that recognizing your feelings – physical, mental and emotional – is an important step in dealing with text anxiety. Once you can recognize the signs, you can learn strategies to help reduce this stress. If the intent of the lesson is to learn about test taking or test anxiety then you can introduce the topic and move into the session. Further, you can recommend that any students who believe that anxiety interferes with their ability to do well on tests should make an appointment to talk to the counselor.


While I have used this activity many times with North American students, this was my first experience using it with an international student population. For most North American students, this activity has a strong initial impact and sets the tone for the rest of the session as they are able to see why following directions is important to test taking. 

Even though the purpose of the activity was also achieved with our Arab students, it was a slightly different experience along the way. When I announced that there was a test, I was pummeled with questions: Why there was a test, Why hadn’t they been told, Why was it being counted? One student was initially quite irate and said “What if we all don’t write it?” I simply replied that they would all get zero, but added that the test wasn’t worth very much and that its purpose was to actually help them do better on their class tests which were worth much more. He seemed appeased by my answer.

During the test, a number of students questioned the directions, asking, “Why do I have to write my name in Arabic? Why do I have to draw squares under my name?” Again I explained that these statements were there to see how well they follow directions, which seemed to be an acceptable explanation. Once the activity was completed and the “secret” (i.e., that if they heeded Direction #1, they did not have to do all items) was revealed, there were some laughs and some Ah-ha faces that suggested they did get the importance of carefully following the directions. Similarly, the panic on some of the faces of those who didn’t complete the test in the time turned to relief once they realized the humor in the activity.


The students seemed to gain an understanding of the importance of reading directions on tests. Comments such as “I will definitely read all the directions next time” or “I will do what I am told to do on a test from now on,” suggest not only that they now understand the importance but will remember the lesson learned and be more diligent in the future. 

A few weeks after the session, the teacher reported that students appeared to take more time to read the directions and material on the test. Additionally, he stated that the students were asking more questions before and during the test when they did not understand something, which he felt was a big improvement. The teacher did notice an improvement in students’ test-taking skills which was likely attributed not only to this activity but the detailed session on effective test taking in which I covered how to perform better on different types of tests.

Many of the students were able to recognize and verbalize their thoughts and feelings about taking a test. Two said that all that was going through their heads were thoughts about failing. Other students mentioned feeling hot, starting to sweat, feeling their hearts pounding, and their muscles tightening as a result of thinking negative thoughts. Many others nodded in agreement. One student said he experienced a great deal of anxiety and stress with this activity and further commented that this was his experience with most tests. I invited them to make an appointment with me after the class so we could determine the reasons for their anxiety and work on dealing with this issue. When another student commented that he doesn’t feel stressed for regular tests because he is always prepared, this provided an excellent teachable moment to discuss how many students’ negative feelings about tests are the result of not being adequately prepared.


Working with international students always seems to provide me with surprises and challenges. When I was met with some initial resistance and apparent confusion, I thought that maybe I had not been careful enough with the language on the test. However, after talking to the students at the end of the session, I discovered it had nothing to do with language; they asserted that they were questioning because the items seemed strange for a test. The initial resistance was not surprising since this was a new and unfamiliar activity for the students. Everything in this culture is a negotiation; the students’ reaction was their attempt to negotiate a way out of the test or to have it at another time.

While I have done this activity previously when I taught in Canada, the impact it had on the students in Qatar seemed much more significant. I think this might be because they could see almost immediately how not following the directions can have a negative impact on their success. Even though they have been told by many instructors that their mistakes on tests were often due to not reading the questions properly, the impact was not as great because such feedback is often given many days after the test is administered. Similarly, recalling thoughts and feelings as they “just” happened made it easier for them to identify what was happening internally. This student population struggles significantly with problem solving, critical thinking and personal responsibility; I think the fact that the activity was short and directly related to two significant issues (following directions carefully and test anxiety) contributed greatly to its overall effectiveness in achieving the goals of the activity.


Handout adapted from


Follow each direction below.

1. Read everything before doing anything.
2. Put your full name in the upper right hand corner of this page.
3. Write your name in Arabic at the bottom of this page.
4. Write the date in all capital letters in the upper left corner of this page.
5. Draw five small squares under your name.
6. Put an X in each square you drew.
7. Put a circle around each square.
8. Put a circle around all of sentence 7.
9. Put an X under your last name.
10. On the back of this paper write the numbers 1 to 10 in Arabic.
11. Draw a rectangle around the word Arabic in direction 10.
12. Loudly call out your first name when you read this so your teacher can see who got this far.
13. If you think you have followed directions carefully up to this point, call out, “I have!”
14. On the back of this page, add 109.34, 1984 and 8965.
15. Put a circle around your answer, then a square.
16. Count from one to ten backward in a normal speaking voice.
17. Punch three small holes in the top of this page with your pencil point.
18. If you are the first person to get this far, call out, “I am number one!”
19. Underline all even numbers on the back of your page from direction 10.
20. Say aloud, “I am almost finished.”
21. Now that you have finished reading carefully, do only sentences 1 and 2

–Allison Lomond, Counselor, College of the North Atlantic, Qatar

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