Many students feel that one reason they are not top students is that they are poor test takers. These students may not realize that an understanding of different types of test questions can help them create successful test taking strategies. In addition to study skills that help students learn the course material, we need to help our students to demonstrate what they know when they take an exam. What test taking tips will benefit your students?

Types of exam questions

The University of Waterloo Centre for Teaching Excellence explained “Exam questions: types, characteristics, and suggestions.”

Generally speaking, there are two types of tests:

  • Objective, which relies on recognition to get the answer out of long-term memory
  • Subjective, which depends on recall of information and the ability to organize it in a way that effectively answers what has been asked.

Typical types of test questions include:

  • Problems (computational): can assess the student’s memory of solution techniques and their ability to apply those techniques in various ways
  • Short answer: can test higher thinking skills, analysis, or evaluation
  • Essay: allows a student to explain their understanding and demonstrate creativity
  • True/false: check for familiarity with course content
  • Multiple choice: test a broad range of content
  • Matching: assess recognition and recall
  • Fill-in-the-blank: tests for knowledge of key facts and terms

Most students prefer multiple choice and true/false questions and find long-form essay exams to be the most challenging. I assume that students think it is easier to choose an answer from a list than it is to construct a well thought out answer that is grammatically correct.

Helping students to prepare

I think that it’s fair to let students know the types of questions that will appear on their exams because this opens the door to teaching them how to prepare for those questions.

In her book, Practicing College Learning Strategies, 7th Edition, Carolyn H. Hopper devoted an entire chapter to test-taking strategies.

Hopper’s discussion of strategies for objective test questions included descriptions of how qualifiers, negatives, and double negatives can affect the appropriate choice of an answer. She also addressed how to use educated guesses to eliminate distractors and zero in on the correct response. After presenting strategies, Hopper provided practice exercises.

Essay questions

Hopper pointed out that students often lose points on essay exams because they didn’t answer the question being asked. Her test taking strategy for essay questions includes a checklist aimed at covering all the major points required by the exam question. A list of direction words and their meanings is included in order to help students understand what an essay question requires.

Examples of direction words include:

  • Compare
  • Define
  • Justify

“One reason to know this list of commonly used direction words is to understand exactly what test questions or instructions ask you to do. In addition, being familiar with direction words is also helpful in predicting and preparing for possible questions or instructions about the topics that your tests will cover,” Hopper said.

Predicting questions

Another key point covered in this chapter concerned how students can predict what questions will be on a test.

Guidelines for predicting exam questions include:

  • Ideas that are repeated
  • Questions the instructor asks
  • Problems/questions at the end of the chapter

Knowing this with confidence can make a student’s study time much more effective and can reduce test anxiety.

What is your process for teaching students test taking strategies? Share your ideas below. 

Reference: Hopper, Carolyn H. 2016. Practicing College Learning Strategies, 7th Edition Boston, MA, Cengage.