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Test Taking Tips: RELAX!

Hungry for more test taking tips??

Test Taking Strategy ACRONYM: RELAX!

On July 2nd, we posted about P.O.E., the Process of Elimination...We hope it was helpful!

Today, we are going to take a close look at another helpful test-taking acronym, RELAX.

RELAX stands for:

Read (the question carefully)

Examine (every answer choice)

Label (your answer or your proof)

Always (check your answers) X-out (answers you know are wrong)

Hopefully you can see right away that the last tip, X-out, is really another way of talking about the process of elimination. So we will skip the last letter today...please check out our July 2nd post for more details about that tip!

But let's look at R,E,L & A!

Read (the question carefully)

This is one of the most important and, unfortunately, ignored test-taking tips. And teachers know this. There is a fairly popular beginning-of-the-year exercise that many teachers use to teach this valuable lesson to students. It comes in many guises, but in general it goes like this...

The teacher hands out a worksheet to the class and tells them that the quicker they complete it correctly the sooner they can be excused (or get some other kind of reward). Many students fall for it in the sense that they jump to the problems in the exercise without reading the instructions, hoping to finish them faster and sooner get the reward. But a few students read the directions first, which usually say something like "For this set of exercises below do none of the problems. Instead, simply sign your name at the top of this page and turn your paper over in the middle of your desk when you are done signing your name."

No student forgets this lesson if they have ever gone through it, especially if they did not read the directions first. It's a bit of a cheap shot for the teacher to use, but it gets the point across. Reading the instructions or the question in an exercise or test is a fundamental test step that cannot be skipped or rushed, or you will likely waste your time and effort for no points!

Long story short, don't spend any of your valuable test-taking energy on trying to solve a problem until you read the question carefully enough to know what is being asked. Also, remember to read the instructions for an exam before you tackle the questions. Any well designed exam will have you read things in a certain order so you can properly do the steps required for the format of the test. Don't jump ahead to save time. It will probably hurt your score you in the end.

Examine (every answer choice) I have seen many students, even really diligent students, fail to reliably use this simple advice on multiple choice exams . It's understandable why it happens too. Many tests are timed tests and students will leap at the first "rightish" sounding answer rather than read through all of them, hoping to save time. Big mistake!

Students need to know that, in general, test makers craft a set of answers that invariably catch students off-guard who commit this misbegotten strategy.

Consider your typical set of answers on a given standardized test or on a multiple choice test for normal school courses. It will often have five answer choices. Why is five so common? The short answer is that five answers is just enough choices to construct a grading scale. Five answer choices translates in a nice way to a five letter grading system.

To explain a bit more, many teachers will, of course, be using the results of the test to grade student performance, rewarding academic excellence with A's and B's, acknowledging adequate work with a C and signaling that more effort is needed with D's and F's.

In line with this general grading scheme test makers will make about two answer choices that will be fairly easy to rule out as wrong as long as a C effort has been achieved by the student. The remaining three answers will be designed to ferret out which students achieved a broader and deeper grasp of the material. So the right answer will often be one of at least two answer choices that both sound correct. This difficulty is built into the test to ensure that the A, B and C efforts can be discerned by the grader.

Long story short again, don't leap at the first answer you read that sounds about right. Instead, read all the answers and eliminate the obviously bad ones right away. Then wrestle with those last two or three that sound correct and eliminate what you can from those last choices before making a final guess!

And here are some common tricky ways test makers make it hard to choose a final answer:

  • Two answers are close in meaning.

  • What to do...ask yourself which answer is worse instead of which one is correct

  • What to the question to see if one is a better fit for the question

  • What to do...if you are truly stuck go with your first gut feeling about which one was correct

  • One or more answers uses fancy or quoted words.

  • What to do...unless the question asks you to remember a specific fancy term or quote, "smart" sounding words and phrases don't necessarily make a choice correct. Try putting the answer in your own words to see if it answers the question.

  • You are certain two or more answers are true on their own.

  • What to do...again, re-read the question to see if one answer is the better (or worse) fit for the actual asked question.

  • What to do...check if one answer is too specific or broad for what's being asked.

Label (your answer or your proof)

This tip has two versions depending on the exam.

For science and math exams, labelling the units for the numbers you find during your intermediate steps and for a final answer can sometimes help you catch all kinds of errors. For example, a math word problem may have asked for an answer in feet, but you double check your label on your final number and it's in inches! A little more work to do!

Same goes for science problems. This labelling tip is incredibly helpful for all kinds of chemistry and physics problems. In fact, there are many science test questions that totally hinge on recognizing an appropriate unit for what is being asked. For example, if a multiple choice physics exam asks for the acceleration of an object you might know that acceleration is basically velocity divided by time and that this always creates an answer with a squared time unit such "meters per second squared". So you would know to reject any answers with units that didn't have a squared time element in the denominator.

The other version of this tip is for reading tests, short answer questions and essay test questions, especially data-based-questions (DBQ's). As you read any given materials, such as a short reading or a primary source, underline (or circle) the passages that actually prove or support your claims. Remember that what you circle should help you convince your reader that what you will say about a topic is a good argument. Don't circle merely interesting information or facts. Ask yourself as you go along, why will what I just circled help me prove the claim I think I can make about the topic.

Always (check your answers)

This is an easy tip to understand, because most of us have gotten exams back and seen how if we had only checked our work we could have caught a silly error. For example, in math tests it's a missed sign or an instance when you divided instead of multiplied.

So if you have any time at the end of an exam go back through your work and confirm you got the easy problems right. Then move to the problems of medium difficulty and check you're thinking. Save the most difficult for last.

As well, as you move from problem to problem in an exam take a second to double check your answer actually answered the correct part of the question before you circle your final guess.

X-out (answers you know are wrong)...See our July 2 post about the process of elimination!

Finally...maybe the most important tip in RELAX is the word relax itself.

Remember that there are very few if any tests anyone will take in middle or high school that would spell total doom for their academics, much less their life, if they don't do well--though sometimes it can feel that way! This is not to recommend that anyone should take their education lightly, but maintaining a healthy perspective is helpful for your test performance. Stress ruins test performance. Students perform best on tests when they are well rested (and well fed;) and calm. Relax means, do the best you can come test time and don't worry about the outcome. Focus on getting as many points possible. You will have your emotions about your grade, good or bad, later on. That's only natural, but during the exam give yourself permission to relax and devote all your energy and focus on the questions at hand.

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