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'Bad' Test-Taking

  1. May 12, 2014 #1
    Do you think that it is possible to understand the material of a class fairly well, yet still perform poorly on examinations? Or is there perhaps some other more complicated issue?

    I just finished a course where (in my opinion) I believe that I understood the material adequately, yet my test scores have been kind of all over the board. My big exams haven't been horrible (between 85 and 96%), but smaller 'quizzes', which are really just microcosms of the exams, have had much more erratic scores (I scored perfectly on some, and as low as 50% on others!). I practiced sample problems time and time again, and as I was practicing I made few mistakes, and most of the ones I did were only stupid little ones like forgetting to carry the sign, etc. But I still think that I had a fairly firm grasp on all the material I was tested on.

    I just took my final a few hours ago, and even though I felt like I had the material down really well, and was doing great on all my practice problems, I think that I may have done somewhat poorly on it. I mean, it probably wasn't worse than a B, but I feel like I should've been able to get an A, no problem. I haven't seen the score for it yet, so I guess there's a (small) chance that I'm overrating and I really did fine, I have this sinking suspicion that that is probably not the case.

    Whenever I'm taking tests like these, though, I feel like I just forget how to do a lot of things. That, and I feel like I may also be over-thinking things, ignoring my intuitions and sometimes doing some really bizarre things that I ordinarily would've known was the wrong.

    Do you think that it is possible that I am legitimately a 'bad test-taker'? Or is it maybe that I don't actually know the material quite as well as I thought? Maybe I'm just afraid of failing that I get distracted (I feel like this is less likely, seeing as I don't feel anxious when I take them; just at a loss)?

    If anybody has any input on this, I would greatly appreciate it as always. This is something that I obviously need to find the root of and conquer if I want to succeed past my undergraduate studies.

    Thanks everyone, and sorry for posting a billion threads and polluting the forums with a superfluous amount of my inane questions. I just don't know of any better places to seek advice on these sorts of matters.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 12, 2014 #2
    I think it is possible to just be a bad test-taker, although if you do a lot of practice problems, it should minimize that. I felt like that a lot until I got to proof-based courses, as far as making stupid mistakes, except I don't know that I was much worse on tests than in other situations, aside from having less time to double-check my work. However, I wasn't that good about doing extra practice problems, so that I could do things quickly and accurately for tests.

    I'll share a little technique I have been using for actuarial exams, lately, though. I practice doing problems with a timer. Not only that, but I'll go back and actually figure out the fastest possible way I can do the problem. I also try to figure out every possible type of problem that can be on the exam and try to classify them and make sure I know how to do them super-fast, and that I know all the possible mistakes I make when I do those types of problems. This might be partly a case of "learning-to-the-test" too much, but if you aren't naturally good at tests, sometimes, you have to come up with tricks to beat the system and do well anyway. Also, I think this process is not exclusively for test-taking purposes, even if the test may be the primary reason I do it. It gives you more repetition of the concepts, and sometimes, I think understanding is a matter of having it at your fingertips and being able to see things immediately, so sometimes there's some overlap between that and your speed at doing problems.
  4. May 12, 2014 #3


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    Of course it's possible to be a bad test-taker. Lots of people suffer from near-crippling anxiety, even for minor exams. Just about everyone experiences some kind of anxiety before a test, so long as they care about the result.

    One thing to try is to remember that a test score is just a test score. Professors will (intentionally or not) vary the difficulty of exams - particularly as you go further on through your studies. Sometimes, they like to challenge their students. Sometimes the class average is too high and so to compensate for an easy mid-term they intentionally make the final hard to avoid having to introduce a curve. Sometimes they assume that you will have covered something in another class. Some are just plain bad at writing tests. The good news is that in the end you're marked relative to your class mates.

    Fortunately there are lots of things you can do to remedy struggles with test-taking. Have you ever really read up on test-taking strategies, for example?
  5. May 18, 2014 #4
    Alright, well thanks for the advice everyone. I just looked at a detailed breakdown of how the entire class that I was worried about gets graded, and I found that between quizzes, exams, and the final, they all account for 85% of my total grade. Is that normal? That seems like a lot. I'd think I wouldn't have quite as much to worry about otherwise... If anybody has any insight on this, I'd certainly appreciate hearing it.
  6. May 18, 2014 #5


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    I'm not sure I understand. Quizzes, exams and the final should account for 100% of your grade, unless the course includes a lab maybe.

    Either way, in most courses the professor will begin the first lecture with a syllabus and within that, there should be a breakdown of the grading scheme. No student should have to go through the semester wondering how much of their final grade a particular exam is going to count for. That should all be spelled out on day one.
  7. May 19, 2014 #6
    100%?! What about homework? Homework is where the other 15% was from. Do most classes not have any homework?
  8. May 19, 2014 #7


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    Oh - yes. My bad. Assignments should (and usually do) count for something.

    The issue that most professors face in this context is that it's extremely difficult to verify that homework is done independently, particularly in the larger classes. So homework assignments are often given enough weight that it's worth the students' time to do them, but not so much that students who don't work as independently as they should can earn a high grade in the course. 10 - 20 % of the grade for homework assignments is fairly common. As you move to more advanced classes that weight can increase.
  9. May 19, 2014 #8


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    Aside from actually knowing the material, I think this comes down to two skills: time management and anxiety management. Outside of academia, both those skills are just as useful as knowing the material.

    It's hard to know how to balance "fairness" and "equal opportinuity" against a simple measure like exam performance. Sometimes it feels a bit like arguing that somebody who is a world expert on the theory of sprinting but can only run 100m in 30 sec still deserves an Olympic gold medal....
  10. May 20, 2014 #9
    Really? Hm, so I guess my class wasn't so unusual after all. 10-20% still seems awfully small to me, but oh well. I guess I will just have to learn some better ways to figure out how to perform better.
  11. May 20, 2014 #10
    See, the thing is, I feel like I definitely studied for long enough. I mean, I pretty much got as much out of it as I felt I could. As for anxiety, I don't think that is really the problem. I do certainly get nervous before I take the test, but generally once I sit down and start it, I feel pretty calm (in fact, it's one of the few occasions where I'm not anxious; I have OCD, Panic Disorder, and a handful of various phobias, just to give you an idea of what I mean), so I don't think it is that, either.

    I really feel like the problem is memory. When I'm studying, I remember how to do everything just fine, and perform quite well on practice problems, etc. But once I start taking the test, it's like some of my knowledge just disappears temporarily. I will be studying right up until it is time to take it, so it only takes a couple of minutes. But, even on top of that, sometimes I feel like I lose my grip on logic. I frequently find myself not really able to grasp certain mathematical ideas as well as I normally could.


    You know, now that I've sort of got my mind focusing on this, I wonder if the problem is going in with a lack of confidence? Come to think of it, even when I am performing well, I find that I generally lack confidence in my abilities even to the point of a self-defeating attitude at times. Which, I suppose in a way could be considered a form of anxiety. Just not the same kind of anxiety I feel in other aspects of my life... Yeah, I guess the more that I think about it, the more that it feels correct to me. I guess I should start looking up strategies for coping with that.

    Thanks for helping me get on the right path as usual, everyone.
  12. May 20, 2014 #11


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    Here's something to consider. Even if you feel that you have studied enough and in the right way, if you are not obtaining the grades you want, then perhaps you are NOT studying as much or in the right way.

    In my opinion, homework counting 15% towards the final score is (more than) enough.
  13. May 20, 2014 #12

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    Or not. Or the boundary gets extremely fuzzy. I've taken multiple graduate classes where there was no homework, just a midterm, a project, and a final (and sometimes the project is the midterm). In others where there was homework, the homework didn't count for much with regard to the grade, but the midterm and final were take-home. What's the difference between a homework assignment, a project, and a take-home exam where you have two weeks to complete the exam? The boundary gets fuzzy.
  14. May 28, 2014 #13
    I had a similar problem...Here are my two cents...

    In the past when the online and textbook homework was allotted I worked through all problems with the help of solutions manual. Looking at a problem I knew the pattern and what steps I needed to get to the answer without knowing the actual logic behind why I was doing it in the first place. Sometimes I got away with it but when the question was asked in a different way than what I was used to, it confused me and I just couldn't figure it out in spite of solving a plethora of problems.

    Solution for this : Really have the concepts belted down. Know them inside out. Know each and every step when solving problems, write it down why are you doing it after every step. This coupled with doing a tons of problem sets in technical courses. A peak physiological state is of paramount importance... ( exercise, good diet, sleeping habits ). Deep breathing like Pranayama helps a ton for stress and anxiety management.

    Provided you study well, the first exam is a true indicator of what you need to do to succeed in that course. After the first exam, based on your performance one can take the necessary steps in order to improve the performance in the following tests. One can also follow this up by doing random practice tests from time to time, preferably timed in a place similar to your exam environment in college without any distractions. Good Luck.
  15. May 29, 2014 #14
    This is an interesting idea. I think I will try this, thanks.
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