Teaching the Top Terrific Test-Taking Tips

By Kristy Mall on April 25, 2012
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

Spring has arrived, and that means it's time for standardized testing! As you enter the review phase of the year, take the opportunity to teach your students some top-notch test-taking skills. I usually put them on a piece of paper and laminate them so that students can keep them. I have actually had students who not only used them in grade school, but also on the ACT and SAT as they continued their education!




Brain Research

Brain research shows that students will do better if they stay hydrated, eat breakfast, are allowed to stretch, move, yawn, or laugh (it increases oxygen to the brain!), and if you put a hand on their shoulder as they are testing (this helps them engage). Give them a break between tests, and let them eat a snack. Chewing gum is also a great way to keep them focused, too. Some of mine test better if they are standing up!


On the Test

1. Read the Directions.

One of the biggest mistakes that students and test-takers make is not reading the directions thoroughly. Have students underline key points and words, and any examples.


2. Read the Question Thoroughly.

Underline key words like "not" and "never." One of the biggest mistakes that you can make on a test is to misread the question.


3. Find the Traps.

My students love finding the traps. (I present it as a way to outsmart the test maker!) We find them in every subject area. Students fall into common traps when they put the answer you would get if you added instead of subtracted, as the problem asked, or when they find the sentence that is correct when it says to find the one that is NOT correct. As you check your practice tests, have students point traps out so that you can help them be more aware of them.


4. Eliminate the WRONG Answers.

If you don’t answer the question, you miss it. Period. Guessing is definitely better than a guaranteed miss. I teach my students to eliminate all of the answers that they know are not right by drawing a line through them. Then they will either have the right answer or have narrowed the choices down. If they still have no idea, at least their probability of guessing right has improved. If they have three left, they have a 33% chance of guessing the right answer; two left gives them a 50% chance of guessing it.


5. Read EVERY question!

Obviously, you have to read the question thoroughly in order to choose the correct answer and find every potential trap. Also, the answer to a question may be revealed by a later one. That happens more than you would think! For instance, a question may ask students to identify whether a passage is a poem, story, fable, or play. Two questions later, the test may show an example of a play and ask, “In the play to the right, who is the narrator?” From this, you would know how a play looks for the previous question.


6. Read the Passages and Underline the Answers in the Text.

The test is not going to ask you a question whose answer isn’t found in the text. Have your students look back in the reading passages and UNDERLINE their answers. That way, they have to go back, and they have to think about what they are underlining — meaning that they SHOULD get it correct!


7. Your First Choice is Usually Right!

Studies have shown that your first choice is usually the correct answer. I find that very important to point out to my top students because they will often talk themselves out of the correct answer. I like to remind them that these tests are made for the average student, so they shouldn't rely on the extensive background knowledge that they acquired on their vacation for an obscure answer. The test maker is looking for a standard answer that most students will be able to find from information on the test.


8. Always Double-Check Your Answers and Your Numbering.

I have taught for 19 years. I have had at least one student mis-bubble on the wrong line EVERY SINGLE YEAR!! It isn’t as though I don’t warn them. Thus, during our tests, I walk around and check to be sure that a) they are on a page that has the number that they are ready to mark, and b) I don’t see any skipped lines. You can have students place a blank Post-it Note under the bubble that they are about to fill in. You can also have them look at each number, then check the number on the answer sheet, then solve the question, then double-check the numbering, and then go to the next question. It actually only adds a few more seconds to their time, and it catches mistakes before they are too far down the column.


9. NEVER Skip an Answer.

Leaving a bubble blank is the easiest way to misnumber or get confused on your bubbling. For our test, students are allowed to write in the book. Have them make a guess and then put a giant star or identifying sign in the book to show that they need to go back and check this question later. If they run out of time, at least they have a guess.


10. Always Look Closely at the Charts, Graphs, and Pictures.

I am always amazed when students don’t read a chart or look at a picture to help find the answer. It is so incredibly important to look at the visuals carefully. They also have to read the key, scale, and any other information provided. One huge mistake they make in the math section is not looking at the value of the sign on the chart — for example, X represents 5 people. These are easy ways to determine answers!

Finally, don’t put so much pressure on them that they fall apart. Encourage them, be positive, and remind them that they can do it!

Studies have shown that these little tips will help their test scores. I wish you and your students the best on their tests and hope that these tips have helped!


These are great tips, thank you! I would love if you could update them for digital test-taking as most of us are doing now.

Wow!! That helped to so much!! Thank you for covering this!!

love this! thank you!

That was so helpful!!!! Thanks! I never thought of having students stand and didn't know about the brain research, but it makes sense!

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