Practice Tests & Workbooks, Test Content and Procedures
Practice Tests and Workbooks
The most proven, yet least used, way to study for exams is practice tests (D. Applegate, CAL). Sample questions allow one to assess one's retrieval success before the exam; areas of weakness are identified and addressed prior to taking the actual test. Students may make up their own questions, or they may answer questions on old tests or in the textbook or student workbook accompanying the text.
Practice tests have many benefits. This strategy may be used to prepare for nearly any type of test. They help one to anticipate what the test may look like, reducing anxiety and stress. Practice tests are a valuable way to assess one's understanding of the information, distinguishing what is known and what needs to be learned. Writing one's own questions requires that one thoroughly understand and evaluate the information. When used effectively, practice tests improve one's mental preparation for an exam, bolstering confidence and positive attitudes. Finally, writing and/or answering practice questions forces one to repeatedly review the material, which enhances memory registration and recall.
Some students may complain that making up and/or answering practice questions is too time consuming. However, the advantages of the strategy greatly outnumber the disadvantages. If time is a concern, students may form study groups for sharing the responsibility. Each member writes some questions, and the group meets to exchange and answer the questions.
The following are guidelines for the practice test questions strategy.
Consider the types of questions.
Find out what types of questions will be asked on the test: essay, multiple choice, true-false, etc.
Look on the syllabus, ask the instructor, examine old tests, or talk with former students in the class.
Write practice questions.
There are several approaches to writing practice questions. Turn the section headings in the book into questions. Take sets of related pieces of information and write questions focusing on that relationship. Look for the main ideas presented in each lecture and form them into questions. Change the numbers given in math problems and rework them. Ask the instructor for a few sample questions to get an idea of the how he/she writes questions.
Until you become accustomed to the strategy, you may want to use prewritten questions instead of making up questions. There are several sources of practice questions: old exams, review questions at the end of each chapter in the textbook, and student workbooks accompanying the text.
Because writing one's own questions requires thorough examination of the test material, students should attempt to move in this direction as they become more proficient.
Record the questions.
Depending on personal learning strengths and preferences, students may choose to record the practice questions as a list on paper, individually on flash cards, or as a list on audio cassettes.
Answer the questions.
There are three options at this stage. Students may answer the questions as they write them. Or, students may answer the questions later, using the notes and readings as references. In either case, students may want to record the page numbers on which the answers are found in the notes or book.
The third option is to use the questions to as a practice test after reviewing for the exam. This is done without the use of notes or other study materials.
Record the answers.
Again, students may record the answers on paper, flash cards, or audio tapes.
Review the answers periodically.
To be really effective, practice questions should be reviewed periodically to test recall and to improve understanding.
Look at the flash cards during "down" time between classes or while standing in line. Listen to the tapes while commuting to school or to work.
Change the order.
Shuffle the questions so the information is not learned in a particular order.
This insures that one is actually learning the information itself, rather than order of questions and answers.
This also helps one to prepare for tests in which the questions are arranged oddly; instructors don't always arrange questions topically or in the order in which the information was covered in class.
It takes time to gain proficiency in this strategy.
Both writing the questions and predicting what might be asked on the test require practice.
These skills should improve as students are exposed to a variety of tests and as they learn more about their instructors' test-writing habits.
Don't lose heart when your questions don't appear on the test. If you've used the strategy effectively, chances are you know the material well enough to answer different questions.
Test Content and Procedures
The following information must be known in order to form an effective test preparation plan (D. Applegate, CAL). Different strategies must be used for different testing situations. The most common concerns include:
When and where will the test be administered?
Which topics, chapters, and readings will be covered on the test?
What proportion of the questions is from lecture? From readings? From lab?
What are the most important ideas?
What kinds of questions - essay, identification, multiple choice, etc. - will be asked?
Is the exam open-book or closed-book?
Do students have to memorize formulas, or is a "cheat sheet" allowed?
What ancillary materials - blue book, calculator, ruler, etc. - are required or permitted?
What level of detail does the instructor expect in the answers?
Does the instructor look for accurate regurgitation of memorized facts or for interpretation of information?
Who will administer the exam - the instructor or a teaching assistant?
Who grades the exams - the instructor or a teaching assistant?
How will the questions be graded - full or partial credit, by hand or by machine?
Does the instructor deduct points for spelling or grammar mistakes?
There are a number of ways to answer these questions. The following tips are based, in part, on Lunenfeld and Lunenfeld (1992) and Kesselman-Turkel and Peterson (1981).
Examine the syllabus.
Many of the aforementioned questions can be answered simply by checking the syllabus. Most instructors describe testing procedures, including the types of questions and the ancillary materials permitted, in the syllabus. Look at the course schedule; topics listed here will probably appear on the test. Check the syllabus before meeting with the instructor; he/she may be put off if you ask questions whose answers are clearly indicated in the syllabus.
Ask the instructor.
One of the best ways to clarify expectations is to consult with the instructor well in advance of the test. It is better to get information "from the horse's mouth" than from a secondary source. Ask for clarification during or after class, or better yet, make an appointment to visit the instructor during his/her office hours. Have a list of questions ready to ask when you meet with the instructor.
In some cases, the instructor will reward you with information just for coming to see him/her. But if the instructor seems hesitant to answer questions related to the topics or ideas on which the exam focuses, don't press him/her. Similarly, if he/she says "you should know everything" and when pressed doesn't offer more clarification, check the syllabus, old exams, the book, or talk with other students for insights. Instructors are sometimes unwilling to divulge too much.
Analyze the instructor's behavior.
If the instructor offers few hints and you've never had a test from him/her before, try analyzing his/her behavior for clues. Consider the types of information emphasized in lecture, the nature of assignments, and the manner of lecture presentation. Ask yourself: Does the instructor focus on details? Does he/she emphasize facts or ideas? Would he/she ask "trick" questions? What's his/her goal in teaching and attitude toward testing? Has he/she encouraged students to evaluate and interpret concepts?
Look at old tests.
Old exams are a valuable source of information concerning the topics or ideas emphasized, the types of questions asked, the way questions are worded, the level of detail the instructor expects in answers, and grading procedures. If copies of old tests are not available, say on reserve at the library, ask the instructor if this accommodation is possible. Some instructors will do this, but only if asked.
Consult with other students.
Talk with students who have taken the class before. Not only may they have old tests, but they may provide insights into instructor expectations, main ideas, and grading procedures. Current classmates may have ideas about the major topics to study.
Use the textbook.
Most texts provide review questions at the end of each chapter or unit. These should give you ideas of what may be asked on the test. Or try turning the chapter headings into questions. Check the index listing of people and concepts; the more page references, the more important the idea.
Use text workbooks.
Student workbooks that accompany the text are an excellent source of review questions for the reading material. They can give you an idea of what topics might be covered on the exam and what the questions may look like.
The following chart, called a test procedures organizer, should be completed for each class. Place a copy in the front of the three-ring notebook for each course for easy reference. The chart is modeled after Mengel's (1992) homework organizer.