Teacher to teacher

Teaching students test strategies

How to take a test is something you can teach your students if you follow some simple guidelines and your students do their part by making a good-faith effort to prepare for it. The following methods can work for multiple-choice exams and essays, too.

Multiple choice

Students know that “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo” is not an effective strategy when taking multiple-choice exams. Neither is choosing C because everyone says C is the most chosen letter for answers (a common myth). Have students consider instead these tips to help ensure preparedness and success:

  • Read each question carefully, underlining or highlighting important words such as “most,” “best” and “not.”
  • Use a process of elimination. Cross out choices you know are wrong and focus on more likely choices.
  • Return to the passage or text (if possible) to find the answer there and do not rely on memory.
  • For math problems, redo your calculations to see if you come up with the same answer. Many listed answer choices can be seemingly correct but erroneous results of common miscalculations that test preparers expect students to commit.
  • Do not always select the first answer. Read through all of the choices. Questions with words such as “best” or “most” will often have a first answer that seems to be correct, but isn’t.
  • Skip questions that are confusing or pose trouble, but be sure to revisit them later.
  • Think of it as a game! Kids love games, and if they approach their exams as such a challenge, they may be more eager to do well. I’ve told my students many times that test makers are trying to trick them. It works because kids want to “break the code” and not be fooled.


Students often have no idea how to begin to answer an essay question. They veer off topic and wind up never answering the question. Or they write and write and write, thinking the longer the essay, the better it will be. I stress to my students that it does not matter how long the essay is; what matters is that you stay on topic, answer the question and support the answer with specific details. A simple way to get students to remember how to answer an essay question is the acronym RADMC, which stands for:

Rephrase the question
Answer the question
Details supporting your answer (taken directly out of the text, the number required depends on age/grade)
Million-dollar word (a vocabulary word taken directly out of the text)

Think about it: If we do not want to do something, chances are we are not going to perform well on that task. Motivation is key to success, so teachers should try to give tests that provide extra credit or replace a previous bad grade or earn points for a prize. Activities like these appeal to students, motivate them and allow them to practice test-taking skills they learn without feeling pressure.

Practice makes perfect

Students learn from each other. Consider pairing your students together when taking practice exams and switching up the pairings at some point. Allow students to choose their friends from time to time, but not always. Do not be afraid to pair the highest achiever with the lowest because even in such cases students can still learn from each other. However, having students work in partners or in groups for test-taking skills practice must be closely monitored. Make sure all students participate and can explain why they chose a particular answer.

My students would call the following activity a form of torture and moan and groan at even the thought of it — but it works. Students can take practice exams as individuals, partners or in small groups, but they need to get their answers right or else face more work. Check their answers and have them make corrections, but also have them give you a written explanation for what they did wrong for each and every question. They may hate it, but they will do it and it will work. They will become better test takers because they will understand the mistakes (such as not reading the question carefully enough).

Repetition is crucial. Constantly drill these guidelines into your students’ heads and don’t wait for major exams to teach these techniques. Teach these skills and students will have the knowledge they need to succeed on tests through college and beyond.

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