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Top tips for students who underperform in exams

10 DEC 2021

Have you ever heard students say that they don’t do well in exams? Do some of your students struggle to show what they know in tests?

Help is here. Cambridge International’s research team have reviewed the evidence about the strategies that help students to do well in exams and put together some handy hints to support your students to achieve success in their tests.

Test-taking skills

At Cambridge International we take great care to avoid measuring skills such as how quickly a candidate can write under timed conditions, or how good they are at making clever guesses with multiple-choice questions without really knowing the answer.

However, it is challenging to assess students’ knowledge and skills of a subject area without interference from a range of factors. On the day of a test, candidates might feel nervous and make mistakes. They might:

  • mis-manage their time
  • miss or skip questions
  • fail to follow the instructions
  • make errors through nervousness.

Such instances can leave students feeling frustrated because they couldn’t do their best. In these cases, candidates’ results are affected by weak test-taking skills.

The good news is that test-taking strategies, which are the skills and approaches that candidates can use before and during a test to improve their outcomes, can get better with practice. Preparation and practice can help learners feel confident that their test results will reflect their ability in a subject, rather than measure their test-taking skills.

Preparing for success

Here are some top tips and tricks for pre-test preparation.

  • Practice makes perfect: High achieving pupils often practise with past papers. Less successful students do not look at previous papers, or they might flick through the content without attempting the questions.
  • Prepare with peers: Top achievers are more likely to ask their teachers or peers for support with tricky topics ahead of tests.
  • Confidence is key: Feeling well-prepared is linked to better test outcomes. Preparation can also reduce test-anxiety which can affect students’ performance.

During the test

There is plenty that students can do during the test to improve their performance.

  • Perfect pace: Depending on the timings of the test, slow and steady might not win the race, nor will being too quick and hasty. High-attaining students usually work at a moderate to fast pace striking the right balance between speed and accuracy.
  • Attempt an answer: Students who submit more complete tests are likely to get better results. That is because those who attempt challenging questions have a chance at gaining marks for their efforts, whereas those who skip questions can’t be rewarded.
  • Best to guess: For multiple-choice questions, if there’s no penalty for incorrect answers, it’s best to make a guess. However, not all guesses are equal – before guessing, students should look carefully at the answer options to see if they can eliminate any that they know are wrong.
  • Review and rectify: High-attaining students are more likely to check their answers at the end of the test.

Tips for teachers

  • Keep practice in proportion: Dedicating a lot of classroom time to test-preparation might not be wise. Although some pupils may benefit from being familiar with test formats, too much focus on test-taking strategies can lead to narrow ‘teaching-to-the-test’ approaches. This exam-focussed style of teaching is not clearly linked to improved student outcomes and can limit learning.
  • Encourage enjoyment: Research shows that there is a link between enjoyment and test-attainment.  Motivate your students to find fun in the learning and assessment process and encourage them to enjoy having the chance to show off what they’ve learnt.

This article has been published from Cambridge International’s blog and was written by Dr. Jude Brady.

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