Will This Be on the Test?

October 16, 2009

I am sometimes cynical about tests, especially the kinds of high-stakes standardized assessments that are given to large groups of students and used to make judgments about the quality of schools or students or teachers. There are too many ways to interpret a question, too many “what ifs,” too many student diversities to make me comfortable trusting their usefulness. Despite these teacherly reservations about large-scale testing, I took many tests while I was in college.

Sometimes it’s possible to demonstrate what you’ve learned by other means like projects and papers, but often tests are the most efficient and comprehensive way to check for students’ understanding and mastery of course content. Since some coursework builds on essential knowledge gained in a previous course, preparing for and passing tests can be a big part of a college student’s life.

Here are a few of my favorite test-taking hints:

Do an information dump as soon as the test begins regardless of the kind of test it is. I do this before I read the test so I don’t get distracted by the questions. Most of us go into a test crammed full of information we’re afraid we’ll forget even if we know it really well. Tests seem to induce a kind of in-the-moment amnesia in me. I can remember my name, but not much else. Whether it’s formulas or vocabulary or concepts or names, the information dump relieves some of my anxiety. It relaxes me to get things out of my head and onto paper so that I can focus on my responses.

I often write this information on the test itself unless that’s been specifically forbidden. The only thing I’d caution you about is having it look as though you brought notes into the test with you—that’s why I often dump my information on the back or in the margins of the test or on the cover of a blue book. If you want to, dump in pencil and erase it before handing in your work. If you do this, I recommend taking a good eraser with you for getting rid of your notes to yourself.

I write on tests for other reasons as well. As I’m reading over the test, I make notes of things I want to remember as I go back to answer the questions, especially for short answer or essay questions. I also write on the test when I’m uncertain about the correct answer. For example, if I’m answering a multiple choice question and I think that all of the answers could be correct, but there is no “all of the above” answer, I write on the test itself why I think that each of the answers is correct, providing reasons for each answer. What I’m hoping to demonstrate by extending the answers is my knowledge of the course content. (Don’t erase these answers!)

If I am going to do poorly on an exam, at least I want the teacher to know that I studied for it. Don’t overuse this strategy. If you do this for every question, no teacher is likely to read all those responses. This is only for times when you are genuinely confused and is not to be used in an attempt to create a fog of words to disguise the fact that you didn’t study!

Here’s another reason to write on a test: If I’m answering a long standardized test, I make a mark over each answer I select on the test before I write it on the answer sheet. Before I hand the test in, I go back and match the answers I’ve noted on the test with those on the answer sheet. Several times I’ve discovered that I skipped something and that a significant number of my responses would have been wrong if I hadn’t checked things over.

Another hint: If you’re writing in a blue book or responding to an essay question on your own paper, write only on the front of the paper and use every other line. Many times, I’ve needed to add something when I reread my answer and this gave me room to do so. I also do mini-information dumps at the end of essay questions if time runs out and I am not able to make all my points. Again, I’d rather have points docked for not integrating my thoughts than to have it appear that I didn’t know anything. Be sure to proofread too.

And my final hint: Always ask what will be on the test. Testing is not a game and teachers are not hoping to catch students off guard with trick questions. The things that may appear to be trick questions are generally a result of minds that work differently. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like those big one-size-fits-all-across-the-country tests. It’s also one of the reasons that I suggest that you consider a test an opportunity to have a dialogue on paper to show your understanding of what you’ve studied.

I’m ending with a poem that I wrote in a faculty meeting during which we were discussing standardized testing for admittance to teacher education programs and looking over related information. I was thinking about how difficult it is to write any test that works for every person:

Oh, Child, Left Behind

United States Department of Education • June 6, 2002 Draft Guidance
Improving Teacher Quality
No Child Left Behind

A Partly Found Poem from a Faculty Meeting Document
by Wilkins-O’Riley Zinn

Empirical methods.
Observation or experiment.
Rigorous data analysis.
Reliable and valid data across evaluators.
Experimental or quasi-experimental.
Appropriate controls.
Random-assignment experiments.
Build systematically.
Scientific review.
Peer-reviewed journal.
(It should be noted that a practitioner journal or education magazine is not the same as a peer-reviewed academic journal.)
Control groups.

Scientifically based teacher quality research
is research that applies rigorous, systematic,
and objective procedures
to obtain valid knowledge relevant
to improving student academic achievement.
Pursuing practices grounded in scientifically based research
will have a positive impact on student academic achievement
and will help to strengthen the teaching profession.

I have observed that I am irrelevant.
I cannot be replicated although perhaps I might be cloned.
I am subject, not object.
Made sick by
(mortis) rigor:
harshness rigidity severity sternness strictness stringency hardship ordeal exactitude adversity precision difficulty

An uncontrollable system, dear teacher.
A student.

What’s your best test-taking hint?

At college age, you can tell who is best at taking tests and going to school, but you can’t tell who the best people are. That worries the hell out of me.
• Barnaby C. Keeney


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