Taking Tests


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand the kinds of tests you will take in college and how you can learn from them.
  • Learn general strategies to apply when taking tests and quizzes.

Types of Tests

All tests are designed to determine how much you know about a particular subject at a particular point in time, and being aware of the differences in types of tests will help guide how you prepare for them. Two general types of tests are formative and summative assessments.

Test takersFormative assessments include quizzes, unit tests, pop quizzes, and review quizzes from a textbook or its website. Their main objective is to make sure you know the fundamental material before moving on to more challenging topics. They can help you identify what you know and what you still need to learn to apply the material and be successful in the course. A poor result on a quiz may not negatively affect your final grade as much as a summative assessment, but learning from the results and correcting your mistakes can potentially affect your final grade on the positive side, especially if your course requires a midterm or final.

Summative assessments include midterms and finals. They are used by the instructor to determine if you are mastering a large portion of the material, and as such, they usually carry a heavy weight toward your final grade for the course. Examine your course information sheets to determine the types of assessments you’ll have in each of your courses and how much they count toward your final grade.

In addition to classifying tests as formative and summative, tests can also be grouped into various categories based on how they are delivered. Each type has its own strategies.

  • Paper tests are still the most common type of test, requiring students to write answers on the test pages or in a separate test booklet. They are typically used for in-class tests. Neatness and good grammar count even if it’s not an English exam.
  • Open-book tests allow students to consult their notes, textbook, or both while taking the exam. Instructors often give this type of test when they are more interested in seeing your thoughts and critical thinking than your memory power. Be prepared to expose and defend your viewpoints. When preparing, know where key material is present in your book and notes; create an index for your notes and use sticky notes to flag key pages of your textbook before the exam.
  • Take-home tests are like open-book tests except you have the luxury of time on your side, so make sure you submit the exam on time. The instructor will most likely expect more detail and more complete work because you are not under a strict time limit and because you have access to reference materials. Be sure to type your exam and don’t forget to proofread.
  • Online tests are most commonly used for formative assessments although they are starting to find their way into high-stakes exams. With online tests, find out if you will be allowed to move freely between test sections to go back and check your work or to complete questions you might have skipped. Some testing software does not allow you to return to sections once they are submitted. Unless your exam needs to be taken at a specific time, don’t wait until the last minute to take the test. Should you have technical problems, you want to have time to resolve the issues.
  • Electronic tests in the classroom are becoming more common as colleges install smart classrooms with technology such as wireless clickers that instructors may use to get a quick read of students’ understanding of a lecture. When taking this kind of quick quiz, take notes on questions you miss so that you can focus on them when you do your own review.
  • Presentations and oral tests are the most complete means for instructors to evaluate students’ mastery of material because the evaluation is highly interactive. The instructor may probe you on certain points, question your assumptions, or ask you to defend your point of view. Make sure you practice your presentation many times with and without an audience. Have a clear and concise point of view and keep to the allotted time.

Tips for Taking Tests

Woman studying on floor You’ve reviewed the material for a test and feel confident that you will do well. You have brought your test anxiety into control. What else can you do to ensure success on a test? Learn and apply these test-taking strategies:

  1. Learn as much as you can about the test. What has the instructor told you about the test? What types of questions will be on it? Are there parts of the test that will be worth more points than others? Will it be cumulative or just cover the most recent material?
  2. Try to foresee the questions likely to be on the test. What kinds of questions would you include if you were the instructor? Brainstorm possible questions with your study group. Look for possible questions in your notes. Review past quizzes and tests to see what kinds of questions the instructor likes to ask. Note whenever your instructor says, “This will be on the test.”
  3. Don’t be tempted to stay up late cramming. Cramming is not a substitute for doing your assignments and studying consistently over time. It is far more important to get a good night’s sleep and face your test fresh and well rested.
  4. Get some exercise and watch what you eat. A good workout the day before an exam will help you be fresh and stay focused during the exam, provided you already like to work out; if not, find time to take a long walk. A healthy diet the night before and the day of the exam will give you energy and concentration to do well on the exam. Include brain foods, such as those rich in omega-3 oils, and avoid heavy foods that are rich in fat and sugar.
  5. Get to the test site early. Take out all your allowable tools, and turn off your cell phone. If necessary, do some relaxation exercises for controlling test anxiety.
  6. Create a test plan. Listen carefully to the directions given by the instructor. When you receive your test, scan the entire test first. Evaluate the importance of each section. Then decide how much time you should dedicate to each section. You don’t want to spend 80 percent of your time on a question worth 10 percent of the grade.
  7. Write it down. Take a couple minutes to write down key facts, dates, principles, statistics, and formulas on a piece of scratch paper or in the margin of the exam paper. Do this while you are still fresh and aren’t yet feeling time pressure. Then you can refer to these notes as you take the exam.
  8. Read the directions carefully. Then reread them. Do you understand what is expected of you? If not, ask the instructor to be sure you are clear.
  9. Do the easy questions first. By getting the easy questions out of the way, you’ll feel more confident about the test and have more time to think about the tougher questions. Start with the objective sections of the exam. As you answer these questions, keep an eye out for facts or concepts you may want to use later in an essay question.
  10. Keep an eye on the time. Keep as close to your plan as possible. If you see that you are running out of time, don’t panic. Move to those questions you think you can still answer accurately within the remaining time.
  11. Check your work. Start by ensuring that you have complete answers and that you’ve followed directions. Then look for other common mistakes, such as a misplaced decimal point, dropped words, and any incomplete or incomprehensible phrases.


  • There is no such thing as an unimportant quiz.
  • In addition to studying, prepare for exams and quizzes by getting plenty of rest, eating well, and exercising the day before the exam.
  • Cramming is seldom a good strategy.
  • Before the exam, learn as much as you can about the kinds of questions your instructor will be asking and the specific material that will be covered.
  • The first step to successful completion of any exam is to browse the entire exam and develop a plan for completing the exam.
  • Read questions carefully. Underline keywords in questions.
  • Unless points are deducted for a wrong answer, it pays to take educated guesses.