Helping Poor Test Takers Make the Grade

Posted by Matt Berringer on May 12, 2014

Students Taking a TestAs the school year comes to a close, students are cracking open books and paging through old notes in preparation for end-of-the-year exams. It's during this time of year that many students—even those typically considered "good students"—battle test-taking anxiety.

Many students consider themselves to be poor test takers. For some of these students, the label alone is enough to raise their stress level, which has been shown to negatively affect test scores and continue the cycle. However, there may be a logical and fixable reason for their consistently low test scores.

To help a student plan for test-taking success, Dr. Linda Silbert, author of Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids, suggests pulling out the student's old tests. Look for patterns or clues as to what might be contributing to the poor test taking. According to Dr. Silbert, the 10 most common causes of low test scores are:

Vocabulary. Words that most adults take for granted may simply be missing from a student's vocabulary. If the student doesn't fully understand a question, it is difficult to form the correct answer. Encourage students to ask for clarification during lessons or look up any unfamiliar words while studying.

Concepts. A student may memorize a list of facts but may still not fully understand the material's underlying concepts. Educators can talk to parents about helping to reinforce concepts students are learning in school by discussing them during casual conversation at home.

Language Processing. Similar to vocabulary, some students may have trouble processing the meaning of short phrases. Encourage students to ask for clarification when needed.

Learning Style. A student may be studying in ways that aren't compatible with his or her individual learning style. Identify the student's learning style and help create a study plan accordingly. A visual learner, for example, might retain more information if she scribbles small sketches related to the information rather than just reading her notes.

Memory. If a student is studying but not retaining the information on test day, he may not be studying long enough. Moving information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory takes time, practice, and repetition. Students should study over a period of a few days, beyond the point at which they think they know the material.

Slow Worker. Students who process information slowly may feel rushed or panicked during a test. Consider allowing these students extra time to complete the exam. Knowing they will have extra time may relax them enough to fix the problem.

Study Skills. All students should work to develop consistent and effective study skills. Review good study habits with students before a big exam.

Writing. If a student is successful with multiple choice exams but not written tests, he may be having difficulty clearly articulating his thoughts in writing. Consider working with him to improve those skills or allow him to take the test orally or using another assessment technique.

Learning Disability. Mild learning disabilities often go undetected and, therefore, unaddressed. If you suspect a disability, seek an assessment and/or consider test-taking accommodations.

Anxiety. Anxiety may be experienced by students who feel internal or external pressure to succeed. Locating the source of the anxiety will provide clues on ways to alleviate it.

Educators and parents can also encourage students to learn and retain the information more easily by suggesting they do the following:

  • Review the material right after class while it's still fresh in their minds
  • Spread studying out over several days, rather than cramming all the information the night before the test
  • Focus on learning general concepts first, then details
  • Test themselves on the material to determine their strong and weak areas

In addition, students can set their bodies up for success. This means exercising in the days leading up to the exam, getting a good night's sleep, eating a breakfast of protein and non-sugar carbohydrates, drinking plenty of water, and relieving anxiety by arriving early and pausing during the test to take deep, relaxing breaths.

Topics: assessment, K-12