Best Practices for Practice Tests

It happens at least once a month. A frustrated test-taker sends me their regrets—they have failed the exam! And they just cannot understand how-on-earth-they-could-have-failed-when-they-scored-100-on-all-the-practice-tests!

First—I feel your pain, failed test taker. This is no fun at all—and as a teacher I feel I have failed a bit myself. But…I know where this conversation is going. I have seen it many times before. So, I pick up the phone and let them vent a bit, and then gingerly ask: “So, that practice test you scored 100 on…how many times did you take it?” This is inevitably followed by something like this: “I took it TEN TIMES!”

Enough said. I get it, you took the practice test over-and-over again until you scored 100. That is an excellent way to learn some content (active retrieval and spaced repetition and all). However, if you take the same test ten times, you are NOT assessing your readiness for test day. 

There are several different ways to take advantage of practice tests, and you should decide which you intend to use before you dive right in. Consider these three distinct uses:

  • To assess how well you know the content: Taking a practice test can let you know how well you know the material and can provide a basis for planning the rest of your studies. In this case, you can take a practice test towards the beginning of your studies—or at a convenient mid-point—and use your results to inform the areas that you should focus on as you create and implement your study plan. 
  • To use as an item bank for study content: After you take a practice test, go back and revisit the questions you missed. However, do not just memorize the answers. That will only help you on test day (or in real life) if you encounter the same questions with similar options. Instead, strive to understand the content as well as its context and really learn it. If the original question was a true/false question—make sure you can explain why it was true or false. If the original question was a multiple-choice question, try to learn not only the correct answer—but why it was correct, and why each distractor (incorrect option) was NOT correct.
  • To assess your readiness for test day: To make use of this valuable option, you need to practice a bit of self-control as this will only work if you can approach a practice test under simulated exam conditions. This means—first and foremost—that you are taking a specific practice test for the first time, sight unseen. It also means that you use the same timeline parameters as defined for the actual test, and (unless it is an open-book or open-note exam), that you do not have any books, notes, maps, or cheat sheets in view. You can further mimic the testing environment by sitting at a desk or table, keeping the noise level low, dressing as you would for the actual exam, and trying your best to avoid interruptions (a “do not disturb” sign on the door might be in order—if you can swing it).

Once more, for effect: Practice test results will NOT assess your readiness for test day if you have previously taken the exact same exam (although, as described earlier, this is a valid way to study content).  It is a good thing to score a 100 on a practice test when your previous score was 60—it proves that you mastered previously unknown content. However, if you want to assess your readiness for test day…start with a new exam. 

Here are a few other benefits of using practice tests:

  • Using practice tests can help to ease your exam anxiety.  Scoring in the 90s-plus on practice tests and quizzes can boost your confidence and help keep you calm on exam day.
  • Using practice exams can also help increase your mental endurance; testing can be surprisingly exhausting. Using practice tests (especially in simulated exam conditions) can give you an excellent understanding of how you will perform under extended periods of mental focus. If you have a difficult time remaining alert towards the end of an hour or two, this is a good indication that your study plan should include some flexing of your mental endurance—think of it as building up your test-taking muscles.
  • More good news: taking practice tests that use the same format as the actual exam (multiple-choice, short answer, true/false, essay) is likely to improve your score on the final test—no matter what combination of the three approaches (discussed above) that you use. This is due to a phenomenon known as Transfer-Appropriate Processing. Put simply, this means that we are more likely to remember (retrieve) information in the same manner in which it was encoded.

Practice tests can and should be part of your study plan. Taking practice quizzes and exams is a highly effective method of active learning—just be clear on how you are using them and how you are interpreting your results.

P.S. One final caveat: consider the source. Make sure you are using a quality product. I won’t name names, but I have seen a whole lotta so-called practice tests and quizzes floating around the internet that amount to little more than “the blind leading the blind.” Ideally, seek out a set of practice tests created by subject matter experts based on the course content and the format of the actual exam. If you are taking a class—ask your instructor!

The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas…

About bubblyprof
Wine Writer and Educator...a 20-year journey from Bristol Hotels to Le Cordon Bleu Schools and the Society of Wine Educators

One Response to Best Practices for Practice Tests

  1. Pingback: Go Around Again! | The Bubbly Professor

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