Curriculum, How To

It’s a Muscle! 7 Effective Strategies for Test-Taking Skills

Every year, it feels like testing season sneaks up on us. We’re diligent in providing strong educational opportunities for students, using interventions, making data-driven decisions, trying to make learning fun, and then all of a sudden — high-stakes testing is upon us. Many of us find ourselves reiterating test-taking strategies to students, using acronyms to help them remember strategies and formulas, and plying them with candy to get them to sit through drills. Some schools even pause educational content for more intensive test prep. 

The season leading up to testing is exhausting and stressful. I remember looking at a 9th grade boy one year who asked me, bleary-eyed after another intensive 90 minutes of practice testing, if the state test was over yet. That test wasn’t going to even begin for another week! It leaves many of us who teach wondering: did it even help? 

To ensure we’re helping mold strong thinkers who are also able to ace standardized tests, we reached out to experts in the field and made a list of research-based strategies that do work. Try them out and let us know what helped your students! 

  1. Don’t stress the test
  2. Create opportunities to practice in low-stakes environments 
  3. Ensure breaks from technology 
  4. Pick a strategy for answering questions 
  5. Focus on authentic vocabulary 
  6. Chunk and gist 
  7. Build stamina 

Let’s dive in. 

  1. Don’t stress the test to your students

This feels counterintuitive, and to a point, it is. Researchers in a 2018 study found that cortisol levels spike when we’re anxious about testing — which in their case led to a physiological response linked to an 80-point drop in SAT® scores. Cortisol, or the stress hormone, is linked to a fight-or-flight response. It makes concentration difficult, and prolonged stress exposure can risk burnout and academic disengagement. Testing already stresses everyone out — what can we do to lower cortisol levels for our students instead? 

  1. Create opportunities to practice in low-stakes environments with authentic and meaningful feedback 

If we are using data effectively, we already know which standards and skills our students are going to struggle on. Our knee-jerk reaction might be to stop doing everything and focus a lesson on a point of weakness. This is not authentic and does not help turn short-term memory into long-term memory. Instead, stamp the skill or standard into the authentic work the student is already doing and make sure to provide meaningful feedback. For example, if you know students struggle to select strong text evidence for their answers, turn daily work into a simple Part A, Part B multiple-choice question. For Part A, have them select the answer to a question, and for Part B, select the evidence that best goes with it. If you want, you could even add a Part C where they have to explain why they chose their evidence. Then, make sure you are providing that feedback — it could even be partner-graded! 

  1. Ensure your students get breaks from tech 

As much as we rely on technology for lessons and testing and our cell phones for communicating and fun, we do need a break from screens. Overexposure to screens has been found to impair academic performance and focus. Be sure to encourage activities off the computer. It’s even better if students can get tactile — cutting and rearranging number sequences or sentences, moving around the classroom, even some meditation can help with that brainpower! 

  1. Pick a strategy for answering questions and stick to it

When setting students up for the test, try for a “less-is-more” approach. In my early years, I had a song, acronym, handout, hand motion, or activity for every type of question a student might see. I realized early on that we were spending all of our time memorizing how to answer questions, not actually working on high-quality instructional materials. Instead of doing hard work with my students, I was trying to prioritize a cheat code. Now, we use very simple strategies that we have agreed to school-wide: RACES for writing, and for multiple choice, we use the following cadence, lovingly called BALI around our campus:

B – Break down the question

A – Answer it in your brain 

L – Look for the wrong answers and eliminate them first 

I – If you don’t know, skip and come back 

  1. Focus on authentic vocabulary 

Whether in math, science, social studies, or English, vocabulary knowledge and acquisition comes up again and again as a barrier to success. Studies have found that learning words authentically, tied to a topic, helps students remember them more than learning them in a vacuum. That means we should prioritize finding and creating vocabulary experiences around words in the units we are teaching as opposed to randomized weekly vocabulary drills. To ensure students are learning the words, there are plenty of engagement activities and grammar strategies to use, such as recognizing prefixes and suffixes, Greek and Latin cognates, and context clues. As much as we try, we will not be able to cover every topic or style of writing in our classrooms before the test, but if our students are comfortable using grammar strategies to improve their vocabulary understanding, they will be able to make meaning of text more easily. 

  1. Chunk and gist 

Scaffolds can be simple, student-driven, and effective, and nothing exemplifies that more than teaching chunking and gisting. This is a strategy that can be applied to any text or problem and can be used even after the student leaves school. Teaching a student how to break text or experiences into smaller chunks and then summarize what each chunk is helps with memory and comprehension. Teach students to write in the margins, highlight headings, and take large steps and make them smaller until they feel manageable. It works in the daily classroom and for testing.

  1. Build stamina

Students are going to need stamina to make it through multiple full days of testing. They’ll need it for other high-stakes tests in life, for filling out paperwork to rent or buy their first car or home, and to file their taxes. We all need emotional and mental stamina throughout our lives, including but certainly not limited to test day. And while we advocate not drilling students on practice tests as your only form of test prep, we do advocate for building up endurance in the classroom. 

There are 1,150,000,000 hits on Google when you enter the phrase “test-taking strategies” into the search bar. In reality, effective test-taking skills are not just about memorizing formulas or practicing drills. It’s about recognizing that preparing for tests is a holistic process that involves both mental and physical well-being. By adopting the strategies mentioned here, we can help our students (and ourselves!) navigate the testing season with confidence and resilience. The emphasis on reducing stress, providing meaningful feedback, taking breaks from technology, and building stamina highlights, we hope, the importance of a balanced approach to test preparation. And the best part? You’re not alone. With Progress Learning’s suite of Tier 1, intervention, and test prep tools we can support you and your students at every step of this journey. 

Request a demo of Progress Learning today. 

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