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Lesson 10: How to Take Tests

Gary North, Ph.D.
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YESTERDAY'S ASSIGNMENT

Did you lecture to the wall on Lesson #9? If not, do it now.

Follow directions -- especially mine.

Lesson 10

TAKING TESTS

I had a college friend in the 1960's who was a master test-taker. He would score 99 on any machine-graded exam that he took. But he was not that good a student. I asked him once what he wanted to do after he finished school. I shall never forget his reply: "I'm looking for a job that will pay me to take exams." That made sense!

I have also known very smart people who never do well on written tests.

What about you? How good a test-taker are you? If you usually get high grades, you are probably smart. If you don't get high grades, you may be smart. Or you may not be very smart. But if you have read this far, you're probably smart. Even if you're not, you're hard-working enough to get higher grades on tests if you will follow my instructions.


GENERAL MENTAL ATTITUDE

When the professor hands you the test, and you read the first essay question, don't panic. If you're going to flunk it, flunk it with style.

I once gave a make-up exam to a college student. Half way through the exam, in panic, she handed it in. "I just can't do this." I told her that she had another half hour, so go back and write something. "Write anything that's accurate, and you'll probably get a D, which is a passing grade." She took my advice. She got a C+. That's a whole lot better than an F.

Never forget, there are people in the room who aren't so smart as you are, who are even more behind in their reading, who didn't crack a book, and who are going through a break-up with a boy-friend. These people will pick up all of the F's and most of the D's.

To get a B, all you have to do is beat the C students.

To get an A takes some doing. Forget about it . . . for this semester, anyway.

In other words, stop worrying about an F or a D. Stop worrying also about not getting an A. The field has now narrowed: beating the C crowd.

How many people in the C crowd signed up for my study course? Of those who did, how many are still reading it?

If you become an A student, don't worry. You may think that someone in 20 years -- or 5 years -- is going to care whether you got an A or a B. You're wrong. Only you will care -- maybe. You may imagine that some B+ student is on your tail ready to shoot you out of the sky. You have forgotten the obvious: the B+ student is worrying about the B- student who is trying to shoot him out of the sky. So, you will do just fine merely by showing up. Be calm. Be cool. And be collected.


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The Best Way to Remain Calm

If you want to remain calm, prepare for the exam. This sounds obvious. It is obvious. But do you do this every time? Probably not.

If you knew in advance what your weak points are, you would be better off. That's because you could get help in advance. But most people are so fearful about finding out their weak points that they refuse to do a personal inventory. They prefer to pretend that they won't get caught. This is foolish, but it's nearly universal.

That's why there are books on passing the SAT and ACT exams. These books usually include several practice exams. You can take them at home as if you were taking the real exam. If you take all of them -- hardly anyone does this -- you will get to the point where nothing in the procedure is new to you. You can then spend 99% of your time solving the tests questions. That's the whole point.

In short, get efficient early. Ask the right questions about exam-taking. Get correct answers.

That's another reason to join this Web site. Get the preparation you need before you need it.

https://www.garynorth.com/public/5.cfm

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TRUE/FALSE TESTS

These are common for quizzes. They sometimes appear as part of a longer exam. But if this is the only kind of exam you ever get, you're being cheated. A T/F exam is too limited to reveal much about what you know or don't know.

Let us begin with some basics.

If the answer sheet is separate from the question sheet, meaning it's a machine-graded exam, the most important rule is this: be sure that your answers are in the correct box on the card. If you get these out of order, you will fail the exam. Check two or three questions and answers after you're finished. Make sure they match. Allocate time for this final check.

Go through the exam fast, answering every question you're sure about. Skip any questions that stump you. Come back to them later. Go as fast as you can in the first run-through.

Monitor your time. Know how much time you can devote to any question. Look at the clock after your first run- through. Then look again after every question you answer when you come back to the tough ones.

Read each question carefully. There are probably more trick questions in T/F exams than on any other kind of exam. If your teacher has asked trick questions before, pay attention to the wording of the questions.

If you see the word "always" or "never" in the question, the answer is probably False. If you have to guess, guess False.

If you must guess, go with your instinctive answer when you first read the question. Don't second-guess yourself.

Don't leave any blanks. Guess.


MULTIPLE-CHOICE TESTS

We used to call these "multiple guess." These are more complex than T/F exams. They usually deal with objective facts: dates, sizes, names.

Here are the basics. They will sound familiar.

If the answer sheet is separate from the question sheet, meaning it's a machine-graded exam, the most important rule is this: be sure that your answers are in the correct box on the card. If you get these out of order, you will fail the exam. Check two or three questions and answers after you're finished. Make sure they match. Allocate time for this final check.

Go through the exam fast, answering every question you're sure about. Skip any questions that stump you. Come back to them later. Go as fast as you can in the first run-through.

Monitor your time. Know how much time you can devote to any question. Look at the clock after your first run- through. Then look again after every question you answer when you come back to the tough ones.

If you must guess, go with your instinctive answer when you first read the question. Don't second-guess yourself.

But you already knew this.

On any question where you're not sure, mentally eliminate the obvious wrong answers. Then choose one. Mark it lightly, so that you can come back in the last 60 seconds and either change it or darken it. A light mark indicates "not sure."


ESSAY EXAMS

These are more difficult to grade. They are also more difficult to answer well. A T/F or multiple-choice exam is objective. A written exam involves rhetoric and style. A superior writer has an advantage over the competition, even if the competitors know the material just as well.

Get used to it. Or learn how to write.

Here are the basics of taking an essay exam.

Step one: time is of the essence. How heavily is the written part weighted in the overall exam? What percentage? You had better know in advance. Then you must allocate this percentage of exam time to this portion of the exam. (Who says fractions and percentages aren't important?)

You can't write much. There isn't time. On a sheet of paper, write down three or four important facts about the question. "What are important facts?" you ask. The ones you remember. You won't remember more than three or four. What if you don't remember the really important facts? Then you had better be a terrific writer, so you can fake it with style.

Unless you are really skilled in this class -- an A student -- don't start writing the first thing that pops into your head. If you do, you will fill up space with unorganized thoughts. This is what college professors call "dumping." The student dumps everything he knows into one unorganized paragraph. It's better to have three short paragraphs, well organized, than one long mess.

After you jot down the few facts that you remember, using a separate sheet, re-organize them in the order that you think is most important for the essay. If it's a history exam, use chronology. If it's a government exam, use whatever categories of government that seem to apply: branches of government, comparative power of governments, or size of the budget. Or use chronology. If it's an English exam, try to say something about the characters: interaction, development, believability. As to such things as "genre," "imagery," and "texture," you're on your own.

Then, looking at your very simple outline, divide the facts into three broad categories, if possible. These will be your paragraphs. Then start writing sentences. Try to write at least three sentences per paragraph. Write one paragraph per separate category on your outline sheet.

I don't know how your mind works under pressure. I would recommend dividing your time per essay question into one-half thinking, jotting, and organizing, one-half writing. If you are working from a coherent structure, your essay will come easily enough. In fact, you may go overboard. Things will pop into your head as you write. Resist the temptation to write down the new things until you are finished with the basics. You can always add a paragraph: "On the other hand...." "It could also be argued...." "There is another factor...." Don't write: "Hey, I just thought of something else."

Then close the essay with a brief summation. Wrap up what you have written in two or three sentences. Leave at least two minutes for this final addition, if possible.


CLEAR HANDWRITING

If your teaching assistant can't read your handwriting, you're in trouble. Don't create a bad impression here.

Find a pen that lets you write as clearly as you can. This probably is not a ball point pen. Ball point pens are dirt cheap, but they don't offer the on-paper resistance that a good pen offers, especially a fountain pen.

Maybe you are allowed to use a pencil. Check with your instructor in advance. I prefer a #2 lead pencil. A pencil lets you erase a lot easier. This may take pressure off you. But don't be tempted to erase whenever you can just draw a line through a mistake. Erasing takes more time. Save time.


SUMMARY

Time-management is essential. Be sure you spend your first two minutes allocating your time in terms of the percentage given to each section of the test.

Keep looking at the clock. Don't spend too much time on any one section, and surely not on a low- weighted section. When a section's time is up, move on.

Read the questions carefully.

Make sure the answers correspond to the questions when there is a separate answer sheet.

Go through the objective parts of the exam as fast as you can. Then come back to think more carefully about the questions that stumped you.

When guessing, go with your first answer.

Don't write an essay before you think.

Don't write an essay until you have a short outline.




ASSIGNMENT

Lecture to the wall concerning time management for essay exams.

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