test taking strategies

Strategies for Test Taking Success

By Emily Levy, founder & director of EBL Coaching

Taking both in-class and standardized tests can bring anxiety to just about any student. The mere thought of being timed, having to recall information studied, and correctly answering different types of test questions often creates an overwhelming sense of panic. Learning strategies for how to best prepare for these exams, however, can help students feel relaxed and prepared to tackle all types of exams.

Column-Style Notes

Many tests require students to understand and recall large quantities of information. Learning how to create column-style notes can help students actively learn this information and create well organized study guides along the way. Here’s how column-style note taking works:

Let’s say that a student needs to learn a text book section about the Civil War. He should first read that section one sub-section at a time before taking any notes. He should highlight the main idea of each section in green, or if there is no explicit main idea written in the text, he could write an implicit main idea in the margin and highlight that information in green. He should then highlight the important details in yellow, trying to only highlight information that is very important and only words and phrases whenever possible. One the student has finished reading the section he should create a column-style diagram, which might look as follows:

Topic: Civil War
Main Ideas
Important Details
sub-section 1
• Important Detail
• Important Detail
• Important Detail
sub-section 2
• Important Detail
• Important Detail
• Important Detail
sub-section 3
• Important Detail
• Important Detail
• Important Detail

On the top of the page, the student should write the topic of the section; in this case, Civil War. The main idea of each sub-section should be written in the column on the left in his or her own words (Causes of the War, Battles, etc), and the important details from each sub-section should be written in the column on the right. Note that for the important details students can feel free to use abbreviations, symbols, contractions, or any form of shorthand that they find helpful. Students should use this strategy for each section of text that they are required to learn. With this technique, they are able to “chunk” information that was once overwhelming into smaller, easier-to-understand, bits of text. Read more at Organizational Tools for Academic Success – EBL Coaching.

Memorizing Terms

Many exams require students to memorize large quantities of vocabulary words or terms. Without having a photographic memory, this process can be tough. The three-tier note card strategy can be a helpful tool for learning these words and terms. The trick is to write the word or term on the front of the card and then create three horizontal columns on the back of the card, as follows:

Front of Card
Back of Card




The student should write the definition on the top part of the back of the card, in his or her own words. In the second (middle) section, the student should write a sentence that helps him or her associate the meaning to something in his or her life. In the bottom section, the student should draw a picture annotating the sentence. For example, if the vocabulary word to be learned is digress, the student would write that word on the front of the card. On the top section of the back of the card, he or she might write “to stray or deviate.” In the middle section, he or she might write the following sentence: Every time my friend Sally tries to tell a story, she digresses from the main point. In the bottom section, he or she might draw a picture of Sally with a bubble coming out of her mouth with “blah, blah, blah” written inside the bubbles. With this strategy, students are learning to link random vocabulary words and terms to various people and events in their lives. Read more at Study Strategies for your ADHD Child – EBL Coaching.

To maximize the benefit of these strategies, students should not wait until a day or two before the exam to begin implementing them. Instead, they should plan ahead and start using the techniques well in advance of the test day. The more they practice them, the more internalized the strategies will become, and the closer students will be to achieving test taking success.

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Helping Autistic Students Build Stronger Executive Functioning Skills

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