The Myth Behind "Poor test taking"
Learning how to study
There seems to be an epidemic of “poor test takers” who routinely get A’s on their homework but fail miserably on quizzes and tests. Looking at their grade sheets, you’ll see a few D’s or F’s for tests and quizzes scattered among a sea of A’s for homework. Parents shake their head in confusion because their children manage to get high marks for doing their homework but those good grades aren’t reflected in their low test scores.
Parents often meet with their children’s teachers in search of explanations for these disparate grades. As the director at Merit Educational Consultants, I often hear parents’ claims that their children do their homework and receive excellent grades but that they are just “poor test takers.” Although test taking does require some skills, these students aren’t poor test takers. Claims like this are misconceptions. With the exception of students with learning differences or test anxiety, the problem isn’t poor test-taking skills; rather, they simply don’t know how to study for tests. When students learn how to study, they can achieve much higher exam scores that accurately reflect their academic potential.
Homework scores don’t always indicate how well students know the curriculum/material, either. Some teachers simply give credit to students for attempting to do the work. Others don’t correct the students’ work, so even though they did the assignment, there’s a possibility that every answer was incorrect. Even when the teachers do correct the homework assignments, the actual exercise may not guarantee that the students are learning the concepts. With their iPods blaring and their cell phones ringing, many students can mindlessly fill in the blanks and skim books while they go through the motions to complete their homework as quickly as possible.
Consider this. A math teacher may introduce a new concept and provide several examples on the board during class. Then when the students go home that evening to do their homework, they simply review their class notes, plug in the formula, and zip through the problem sets. So what’s wrong with this? The students are just going through the motions. They probably don’t understand why they’re using that particular formula for that type of problem. Then the following day when they learn a new concept in class, the teacher once again gives examples and sends the students home with a new formula to use to solve the equations for that day. A week later, when the students take a quiz or test, they do poorly because they aren’t sure which formula to use. In other words, they didn’t really understand what they were doing; they were on automatic pilot while they did the work.
When teachers announce upcoming tests, some allow students to make “cheat sheets,” which can be index cards or full 8 ½” x 11” sheets of paper filled with notes that the students can use during the tests. It’s remarkable how much information students can squeeze on to their sheets of paper. Other teachers give students study guides that define exactly what will be on the tests. Obviously, both of these systems – along with “going through the motions” while doing homework – fail to encourage students to learn the material that they should be responsible to know.
Most students prepare for their tests by cramming or simply reviewing their notes the night before. They think that by reading through their lecture notes and homework assignments, they’ve done all they need to do to ace their exams. What they don’t understand is that their brains can’t absorb all of that information in such a short period of time, so they can remember only superficial concepts. Cramming doesn’t give the students enough time to thoroughly understand the concepts so they could apply their knowledge in solving difficult questions on a test.
Even if they’re one of the lucky few who can cram the night before for a test and pull an A, what they memorized for the test probably didn’t go into long-term memory; so, when it comes time to study for the final exam, they’ll have to relearn everything again. And worse yet, when these students advance to the next class the following year, they’re setting themselves up for failure because they skimmed the surface of the previous class and don’t have the foundation they need to succeed in courses that require previous knowledge.
When students enter college, they will be expected to have retained basic information from high school courses and apply it to increasingly complex theories. Additionally, students must be able to assess what they need to study without depending on the professor to do so for them. Many a college professor is frustrated by student requests for study guides or open-book tests exactly because it suggests surface-level regurgitation instead of analysis, which is what students must do to succeed.
So how can a student ace a test? It’s really quite simple: the five-day plan. In order to get a perfect score on a test, they need to comprehend, not just memorize, the material. For English or History, that means that they need to have time to read the chapters, highlight important information, rewrite their notes in outline form, make flashcards, and test themselves. This will take time because their brains need time to absorb the information.
Five days before the exam, re-read the sections that will be covered on the test. If they own the book, they can highlight it and mark it up to help them remember important facts. Four days before, the students should rewrite their lecture notes in an outline format and add important information from their readings and lectures. Three days before, make flashcards from their outlines and notes, and begin testing themselves. Two days before, take a practice exam from the book or online and review their flashcards. Make a list of questions they’re not sure about and ask their teacher before or after class the next day. The night before the test, review the text, lecture notes, outline, flashcards, and practice exams. With this comprehensive approach to studying for tests, your child will be sure to ace the test.
Not all children learn the same way, so adjust the plan to work for your child. Some students learn best when they rewrite their notes while others may prefer to record lectures and listen to them. Experiment with various systems but stick with the 5-day plan. By allowing your children’s brain to comprehend a little bit each night, they will finally learn the concepts, and they’ll be able to retain them in their long-term memories.
Besides improving their test scores, they’ll be able to ace their final exams with considerably less studying and stress. Students who continue to review all of their notes once per week for the duration of the quarter or semester really come to know the material and typically do very well on midterm and final exams.
Inasmuch as learners have to practice when and how to use math formulas or recognize iambic pentameter in poetry, they also have to practice time management. Use the Merit Planner to block out time for different tasks the five days prior to an exam. That way, students don’t become overwhelmed trying to keep track of their study plans for multiple tests in all of their classes. By using the Merit Planner, all they need to do is complete the tasks each day that they’ve scheduled for themselves. And by the time they get to college, they will have already learned how to successfully manage their time. It’s really that simple. If you need help getting started, watch the Merit Planner video for free tips.
The Merit Planner is available on our website. Merit’s Time Management Specialists are available both online and onsite to help students take control of their learning and test-taking skills. Get started now so your child can start acing their tests!
Susan Tatsui-D’Arcy is the director at Merit Educational Consultants. She offers study skills seminars and tutorial sessions to help students learn how to get A’s. She is also the author of The 21 st Century’s Mother’s Guide to Managing Your Time and Taking Control of Your Life! www.meritworld.com; (831) 462-5655