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November 24, 2009

Math-Test Taking: A Study Guide

Nick Diaz

Two weeks ago I listed the causes of math-test anxiety and the ways a student should deal with such a condition. In this column I’ll list some strategies that may lead a student to improve his math-test-taking skills.


Taking a math test is different from taking tests in other subjects. Math tests, whether at the middle, high, or college level, not only require that a student recall the information, a student must also demonstrate his ability to apply such information. Multiple-choice tests, for example, usually test on recall; if one does not know the answer, then one can conjure an educated or wild guess, and thus have a chance, however remote, of getting the correct answer.


Math tests build on each other; on the other hand, history tests often do not test a student on previous material. Most math tests are speed tests, where the faster a student is, the better grade (roughly speaking) one can receive. Most social science tests, however, are designed for everyone to finish.


Math-test preparation and test-taking skills are different from preparation and skills needed for tests in other subjects. A math student needs to have a test-taking plan and a test-analysis plan to demonstrate his knowledge. Students with these plans earn better grades compared to students without them; such has been my experience as a math teacher. Math instructors want to measure a student’s math knowledge and understanding, not the student’s best-taking skills.


Attending class and doing homework – is it enough?


Many math students and teachers believe that attending class and doing all the assigned homework ensures an “A” or a “B” on tests. This is, unfortunately, not necessarily so. Doing all the homework is very different in many ways from taking tests:


1. While doing homework, there’s little anxiety. A test situation is just the opposite.


2. A student is not under a time constraint while doing homework. Most tests should be completed in one hour or less.


3. If a student gets stuck on a homework problem, the textbook and notes are there as resources. This is not true for most math tests.


4. Once a student learns how to do several problems in a homework assignment, the rest of the problems are similar. In a test, the problems are usually in random order.


5. In doing homework, students have the answers to at least half the problems in the back of the textbook. This is not true for tests.


6. While doing homework, a student has time to figure out how to use the calculator. During a test, one can waste valuable time figuring out how to use the calculator.


7. When doing homework, a student can call on a study buddy, or ask the tutor for help, something which may not be done during a test.


I generally advise my students not to develop a false sense of security by believing that they can earn a good grade by just doing homework. Tests measure more than a student’s math knowledge.


Steps to improve math-test taking.


Below are a number of steps that any math student, at any level, should follow:


1. Using a “memory data dump.” A student receives a test. First thing to do is turn it over and write down the information that a student has placed in his mental “cheat sheet.” Writing down this information is not cheating. The data dump provides memory cues for test questions. My students do this all the time, at my suggestion.


2. Previewing the test. A student should look through the entire test to find different types of problems and their point values. Putting a mark by the questions one can do without thinking – these are the items one should first attempt.


3. Answering easy questions first. Student should solve, in order, the problems marked while previewing the test. Answers to these should make sense. For instance, the answer to a problem of trying to find the area of a given polygon cannot be negative; the answer to a land-rate-distance problem cannot be 2,000 miles per hour.


4. Temporarily skipping difficult problems, then reviewing them toward the end. When working the skipped problems, a student should think about how other similar problems have been solved. While reviewing skipped problems, a student may have the “Ah, ha!” response The “Ah, ha!” response should be followed immediately by an attempt to solve the problem. If a student waits to finish the problem, his “Ah, ha!” response could turn into an “Oh, _____!” response.


5. Reviewing the test. Answers in math do not have “dress codes.” I’ve found that the odds of changing a correct answer to a wrong answer are greater than the odds of changing a wrong answer to a correct one. On the other hand, reviewing a test often prevents loss of test points on errors a student could have caught upon careful review.


6. Using the allotted test time. There is no prize for handing in a test first; many students who turn in their tests last do earn “A’s.” No student should leave the test room unless he has reviewed each problem at least twice.


7. Stapling scratch paper to the math test. The advantage of this is being able to demonstrate to the instructor that a correct answer was merely miscopied. If a student does get the problem wrong, it will be easier to locate the errors when the teacher corrects the test. This should prevent a student from making the same mistake on the next test.


Many students and parents believe that evaluating a student’s math knowledge and understanding should be accomplished in other ways than tests. Yes, there are other ways for a teacher to evaluate a student in a given mathematics class – class participation, homework completion, projects, presentations. Yet math-test taking is, in my opinion, the most effective way for a teacher to evaluate a student’s performance. Math tests will not go away.


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