Strategies for Poor Test-Takers

Dear Dr. Linda,

My son is in ninth grade and just took his midterms. He did horribly. He’s an A student, but when it comes to midterms and finals he gets a low grade or even fails. I can relate because the same thing used to happen to me. I’m concerned now because these grades count toward college. Do you have any tips to help him do well on these exams or is he just a “poor test-taker” like I used to be?


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Dear Tina,

Many parents describe their children as “poor test takers.” These are the students who do well on the weekly tests, do all their homework and then get poor grades on midterms and finals. If you have a child that falls into this category, here are four basic things that can contribute to this syndrome and some strategies for dealing with it.

• To begin with, “poor test-takers” don’t practice enough. Here’s what they do. To explain this, I’ll go back to the beginning and talk about how we all learn new skills or knowledge. The new material comes into our short-term memories and stays there for a very short amount of time—from 30 seconds to a minute. In order for this material to move into our long-term memories we need to “practice” it over and over again. Since the speed with which information gets into long-term memory differs from one person to the next, some need to practice more than others. But, most students don’t. In fact, what most students do is go over the material and once they think they know it—and they do at the time—they put it away. By the next morning, and certainly by the time they sit down to take a test, the information has “disappeared.” It never got into their long-term memories, which basically means it’s not available for recall later.

• Secondly, “poor test-takers” don’t know how to study. They need to learn how to improve their memories, by visualizing the material, creating graphic organizers, making up silly acronyms and more. When learning many new things at once, we need to know how to “chunk” things into three, four, five groups of information. (There’s a reason our telephone numbers are arranged in chunks of 3-3-4 and our zip codes are five digits). Good studiers divide the information they must learn into chunks. Once they’ve learned one, they move on to the next. Once they feel they know and understand that chunk, they review the first chunks they learned, too, reinforcing them as well.

• Thirdly, “poor test-takers” try to memorize everything without understanding it. So, if the teacher asks the question differently, “poor test-takers” don’t understand the material well enough to be able to answer the question correctly. It’s one thing to recognize a word on a multiple-choice test, and another to understand what the word means and be able to apply it to new situations. The reasons they don’t understand the material well enough is because of all of the above or because they really never understood the material from the start. Most “poor test-takers” don’t realize that they don’t understand the subject, so be aware as parents of what your children are learning in class. Talk about the subjects with them and be sure that they do understand what they’re learning. (And, if you don’t understand it, find someone who does.)

• Finally, “poor test-takers” don’t manage their time well. Learning new material starts the day you first encounter it and never stops. If you memorize material for the test on Friday and never look at it again until the midterm or final, you’ll do poorly. It’s not because of “poor test-taking.” It’s because the material left their brain immediately after the test. “Poor test-takers” need to plan their time well so they have time to review before midterms what they had to learn for each test leading up to it. They can’t just put a day or two aside to go over flash cards or notes before a big exam. It takes practice to do well and practice takes time.

Dr. Linda

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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