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Test-Taking

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In this test-taking section, you’ll get insider knowledge on how to manage test anxiety, ace multiple choice exams, use instructions as a checklist for success, and more.

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Tips from Our Learning Specialists

  • Survey the test, noting how many points each section is worth to decide how to spend your time. Reserve time at the end of the test to review your answers. You may wish to write down time allocations for each section and track your progress using a clock or timer.
  • Consider working on questions in a strategic order. For instance, complete the easier questions first to earn as many points as possible. Or start with the harder questions, pause, and return to them once you’ve finished the rest of the test; you might have an aha moment. 
  • If you don’t know the answer to a question, write down relevant information you do know or the steps you would take to solve the problem.  
  • Do a “brain dump.” Write down information stored in your short-term memory as soon as you start the test.
  • Read instructions very carefully. Consider circling key words in prompts, breaking the elements  into an outline, or using the instructions as a checklist to be certain you’ve fulfilled all aspects of the assignment.
  • Or, number or highlight in different colors the various questions asked in the prompts, and  use the same number or color in your response.
  • Get enough sleep. Your brain will not process information effectively if you’re not well rested. 
  • Use triangular breathing if you’re feeling anxious: inhale for five seconds, hold your breath for five seconds, and exhale for five seconds.

Templates 

Sites and Apps

Videos

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Additional Resources at Stanford

  • Sign up for a drop-in session with us! With a Learning Lab Learning Specialist, you can talk about these strategies in more depth, personalize the approaches to suit your needs, and be supported as you practice.
  • Academic Skills Coaching

Research

  • Brady, S. T., Hard, B. M., & Gross, J. J. (2018). Reappraising test anxiety increases academic performance of first-year college students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(3), 395-406. Read the article here.
    • A common narrative is that test taking anxiety can hurt performance on tests. However, the authors of this article argue that worrying about anxiety hurts performance more than the bodily feelings of anxiety. Additionally, this research suggests that a reappraisal message the night before an exam can help improve exam performance for first-year students. This reappraisal message could be something that reframes test anxiety as a positive and normal factor on testing outcomes. In study 1, researchers found that first-year college students reported greater test anxiety than upper-year college students and felt they had less knowledge about how to take tests. In study 2, researchers showed that first-year students who received a reappraisal message prior to the exam performed better on that exam than first-year students who did not receive the appraisal message. The key takeaway here is framing test anxiety as positive and normal can help improve test performance, particularly for students who are newer to a particular academic environment.
  • Carsley, D., & Heath, N. L. (2020). Effectiveness of mindfulness-based coloring for university students’ test anxiety. Journal of American College Health, 68(5), 518–527. Read the article here.
    • Students were divided into three groups prior to test taking and either engaged in coloring in a mandala, free coloring, or no coloring for 15 minutes. It was determined that both coloring activities reduced students’ test-taking anxiety; however, this lowering of stressful feelings was most present in students who colored in mandalas. While this study examined university students’ responses for the first time, other studies have had similar outcomes or have found that mandala coloring and free coloring yield approximate results. Still, a mandala’s prescribed geometric shapes, with already established lines for students to simply add color to with colored pencils, may provide welcome structure. This activity increased mindfulness and lowered anxiety and is recommended as a soothing strategy prior to taking an assessment.
  • Papanastasiou, E. C., & Stylianou-Georgiou, A. (2022). Should they change their answers or not? Modeling achievement through a metacognitive lens. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 1-18. Read the article here.
    • Tests are designed to assess one’s knowledge but test scores can also reflect test-taking strategies. This study examined the relationships between test-taking instruction, answer changing bias, and test performance. A sample of 1512 college students from Greece reported their beliefs about changing answers on multiple-choice tests and their history of being taught test-taking strategies. Then they answered a 40 item multiple choice test. The results of this study showed having a bias about changing (or not changing) answers can negatively influence test performance. The researchers argue that monitoring strategies are a better guiding mechanism than answer changing biases. Marking questions to return to later decreased cognitive load and led students to reconsider some of their answers, which had a positive outcome on their grades on this test.