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Taking Exams

There are some principles of exam performance known only to successful, test-wise students. Millman (1966) defined test-wiseness as the ability to use knowledge of the characteristics of tests and the testing process to improve one's performance. Studies show that test-wise students do better in exams (Rogers & Bateson, 1994; Towns & Robinson, 1993). Here are the basic principles:

  • Know your stuff. The single most important point is to have a good, solid knowledge and understanding of the material being tested. Using the tips for doing well in college and managing your time, as well as the study strategies described above, can help you to achieve this kind of knowledge and understanding.

  • Schedule your time. Look the test over and calculate the time you can afford to spend on each item.

  • Read completely. Be sure to read the entire item. If the item is multiple choice, try to answer it before looking at the alternatives so that you will know which is correct.

  • Eliminate options. If you don't immediately know the answer, eliminate unlikely options quickly, then choose among the remainder. Your score may well be higher (Kim & Goetz, 1993).

  • Look to other items. It is common for information in one item to provide an answer or partial answer to another.

  • Don't think too much. If you don't know an answer, put down your best guess and come back later if time permits. Mark questions you are most uncertain of so that you can return to them later.

  • Don't leave items blank. Despite rumors to the contrary, it is to your advantage to guess unless the professor will deduct substantial credit for guessing (Budescu & Bar-Hillel, 1993).

  • Ask questions. Ask the professor or TA to clarify an item if necessary.

  • Review your answers. Time permitting, go back over the entire test before turning it in. If you are short on time, concentrate on the difficult items you marked.

  • Change your answers! We emphasize this one because the idea that you should never change an answer is so widespread among students and faculty alike. It is a myth (Schwarz et al., 1991). Studies show that students change answers from right to wrong about 20 percent of the time, but change them from wrong to right 58 percent of the time (Benjamin et al., 1984). Other work shows that 3 points are gained for every 1 lost by changing answers (Geiger, 1991).


Benjamin, L.T., Cavell, T.A., & Shallenberger, W.R. (1984). Staying with initial answers on objective tests: Is it a myth? Teaching of Psychology, 11(3), 133-141.

Budescu, D., & Bar-Hillel, M. (1993). To guess or not to guess: A decision-theoretic view of formula scoring. Journal of Educational Measurement, 30(4), 277-291.

Geiger, M.A. (1991). Changing multiple-choice answers: A validation and extension. College Student Journal, 25(2), 181-186.

Kim, Y.H., & Goetz, E.T. (1993). Strategic processing of test questions: The test marking responses of college students. Learning and Individual Differences, 5(3), 211-218.

Rogers, W.T., & Bateson, D.J. (1994). Verification of a model of test-taking behavior of high school seniors. [Special issue: Cognition and assessment.] Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 40(2), 195-211.

Schwarz, S.P., McMorris, R.F., & Demers, L.P. (1991). Reasons for changing answers: An evaluation using personal interviews. Journal of Educational Measurement, 28(2), 163-171.

Towns, M.H., & Robinson, W.R. (1993). Student use of test-wiseness strategies in solving multiple-choice chemistry examinations. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 30(7), 709- 722.