Strategies for Test-Taking

by Dr. Emily Levy
(Originally Published in Big Apple Parent Magazine, May 2009)

strategies for test taking

Taking end-of-the-year exams can be one of the most daunting aspects of school. Many students lose well-needed sleep and cringe at the thought of the big test day arriving. By learning some helpful test taking strategies, students can improve their performance on these exams, while helping to strengthen their overall study skills.

Column-Style Study Guides

Learning large quantities of information can be overwhelming for many students, especially when it comes from densely written texts. A helpful strategy for learning this information is to create column-style notes to serve as study guides. Say, for instance, a student needs to learn a text book section about Word War I. He or she should first read that section one sub-section at a time before taking any notes. The student should highlight the main idea of each section in green, or if there is no explicit main idea written in the text, he or she should write an implicit main idea in the margin and highlight that in green. The student 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 or she should create a column-style diagram which might look as follows:

Topic: World War I

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, World War I. 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.

Memorizing Terms

Students are often required 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 with an association 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 learn to link random vocabulary words and terms to various people and events in their lives.

Students should try to avoid cramming these strategies a day or two before the exam. To ease anxiety, they should start applying these strategies well in advance of the test day. By using these techniques they can become active, rather than passive learners, and help prepare themselves not only for one particular exam but for all future exams (and there will be many!) to come.

Dr. Emily Levy is the Founder and Director of EBL Coaching, which offers one-on-one tutoring and intensive summer programs. For more information, visit or call 212-249-0147.

Dear Dr. Levy, My son received an excellent report card. I can’t say enough good things about his EBL tutor. She has done a tremendous job helping him improve his reading and writing skills. Most importantly, she is wise and kind. She is always patient with him. Because of his tutor, my son writes with much more ease.
– Parent