Test Taking Skills
In a seminal article, Millman, Bishop, and Ebel (1965) defined test wiseness as “a subject's capacity to utilize the characteristics and formats of the test and/or the test taking situation to receive a high score” (p. 707). The construct was first described in 1951 by Robert Thorndike, who considered its effect on test reliability. Test wiseness is generally thought to include an awareness of the process of test taking and knowledge of a number of individual test-taking skills that can be applied to a number of different testing formats to maximize test scores. Specific test-taking skills include using time wisely, answering all items, using effective guessing strategies, eliminating choices known to be incorrect, and making use of specific cues imbedded within individual test items. It has been suggested that there is individual variability in test wiseness, in that test-wise individuals have an advantage over individuals similar in knowledge or ability but lacking in test wiseness.
Effective test-takers possess a number of skills that go beyond the simple and direct knowledge of the content being tested. These skills include a complete understanding of the purpose(s) of the test, the specific requirements of the test, and any specific constraints placed upon performance, for example, time limits. Test wise test-takers use this awareness in order to employ strategies designed to meet these purposes, requirements, and constraints.
There has been some debate concerning whether test wiseness is a separate and distinct construct. However, specific tests of test-taking skills have been developed, suggesting that such skills do exist and can be described. Test wiseness tests may include items that are answerable only through the use of a test-taking strategy, imbedded within “real” test items. Following is an example of a test-taking skills item:
The Matharah tree is found most often in the following:
- arid areas;
- dry regions;
- rainy climates;
- barren locations.
Because the Matharah tree does not exist, test-taking skills must be employed to answer the question. In this case, items a, b, and d, all provide very similar information, and because they cannot all be chosen, the only logical choice is c. This strategy is referred to as similar options. It has been found that older test takers score higher than younger test takers on tests such as this. Other measures of test wiseness include passage independence tests (where test takers are asked to answer questions about a reading passage without having read the relevant passage), direct interviews (where test takers are asked to describe their thinking process as they answer test questions), and tests of the test taker's ability to use different test formats (such as separate answer sheets).
Finally, relative deficits in test-taking skills can be inferred by directly training participants in presumed areas of deficit and evaluating whether training results in increased test performance over participants who have not received such training. If this training includes skills only, and not the information being tested, any difference between the two groups can be considered deficits in test-taking skills. Overall, test-taking skills training has realized tangible, but modest effects. However, effects have been more pronounced for older (e.g., upper elementary) students and longer training periods; and for students with mild disabilities (e.g., learning disabilities) and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. For some groups of test takers, test-taking skills training can make a significant difference in test scores.
A variety of procedures are employed to teach test wise-ness. Without doubt, the most important strategy for improving test performance is academic preparation, particularly with respect to the specific purpose and anticipated requirements and format of the upcoming test. For example, a multiple choice test format may require broad, general, and shallower knowledge, while an essay format may require more focused, detailed, and elaborated knowledge. Another general strategy is physical preparation, which includes getting sufficient rest and nourishment prior to taking the test. Positive attitudes toward the test are also important and can be improved by setting realistic goals, taking practice tests, understanding the purpose of the particular test, rewarding effort, and understanding of specific test-taking skills.
While taking tests, people should use their time wisely. It is important to use time efficiently on familiar or easier items, and not to waste time on very difficult items unlikely to be answered correctly. Test-wise individuals monitor their time frequently and pace themselves as they take the test. That is, when the testing period is half over, test-takers generally should have completed about half the test. If the test is completed early, the additional time can be spent returning to the more difficult items. Efficient test-takers recognize that, when guessing is not directly penalized, it is important to answer every question.
In any test-taking situation, it is important for test takers to maximize the knowledge they have, even when it is not complete. Many standardized tests as well as classroom tests employ some type of identification format, such as multiple choice, in which test-takers identify a correct response from an array of choices. In these cases, efficient test-takers are careful to think first of a correct response, then consider all choices before answering. Test-wise individuals are aware that they may not only select the option most likely to be correct, they may also discard items unlikely to be correct, by using elimination strategies. In addition to the similar options strategy discussed previously, test-takers can also, based upon their prior or partial, eliminate responses known not to be correct. For example, even when the answer is not known, if an efficient test-taker can eliminate two of four possible answer choices, the probability of making a correct choice is increased to 50 percent from 25 percent. Over the course of a number of test items, this difference can increase a test score significantly. In other cases, particularly in the case of teacher-made tests, the syntatic or semantic content of the item stem (the “question”) may provide a cue to the correct answer choice. This strategy can be enhanced if the test-taker has some partial knowledge of the item content. Test-wise individuals consider carefully choices that use absolutes such as always or never—because few statements allow for no exceptions— when choosing their answers.
Some tests include specific formats unique to that particular test. For example, a multiple choice phonics test may require test takers to match sounds in different printed words, or a math test may require test takers to identify which missing information is required to solve a particular problem. Test-takers should practice applications of their knowledge in a variety of different contexts in order to be able to address such formats.
Test formats that require test takers to produce, rather than identify, correct responses also lend themselves to specific test-taking strategies. For example, for short answer or sentence completion items, it is important for test takers to guess if unsure, use partial knowledge when necessary, look for cues in the test item, and make the completed sentence appear logical and consistent. For essay tests, it is generally important to study the question and consider command words (e.g., discuss, compare, justify), note important points, organize thoughts, and write directly to the purpose of the question.
It has been argued that test-taking skills training should be discouraged because it encourages test-takers to outsmart the test, rather than by correctly applying content knowledge. Certainly, some strategies (e.g., the longest or most qualified answer choice will be correct) lend themselves to this criticism. However, in most cases, test-wise individuals employ appropriate strategies in conjunction with their content knowledge to maximize the impact of their knowledge on their test score. To the extent that a test-taker's score should reflect the test taker's level of content knowledge, and not be limited by relative awareness of test format requirements, test-taking skills training is an important overall component of educational measurement.
See also:Classroom Assessment
Mastropieri, M. A., & Scruggs, T. E. (2007). The inclusive classroom. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Millman, J., Bishop, C. H., & Ebel, R. (1965). Analysis of test wiseness in the cognitive domain. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 18, 787–790.
Sarnacki, R. E. (1979). An examination of test-wiseness in the cognitive test domain. Review of Educational Research, 49, 252–279.
Scruggs, T. E., & Mastropieri, M. A. (1992). Teaching test-taking skills: Helping students show what they know. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
Thorndike, E. L. (1951). Reliability. In E. F. Lindquist (Ed.), Educational measurement (pp. 560–620). Washington, DC: American Council on Education.
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