Test-Taking Strategies for the Darkest Hour

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You probably already know how this semester is going to shake out more or less – which classes you’ll do well in and which you just hope to walk away from with your dignity intact. But, it’s not time to give up on the classes you’re struggling with just yet.

If taking any test feels bad, taking one when you aren’t confident with the materials is even worse. Some level of stress or anxiety is natural, (it’s your body telling you that what you’re doing is important!) but uncontrolled stress has been proven to make you do worse on tests. So, even if you know you aren’t going to ace the content, adjusting your studying and test-taking strategies to minimize stress can help you do better.

Read through these tips for addressing common testing anxieties and hopefully find a strategy or two that can maybe make things less bad this week.


I never feel like I have enough time during a test.


Look back on previous tests, practice tests, and homework to figure out what  types of questions are tripping you up the most. Learn to spot items that will take you longer, and prioritize as you are taking the exam. Some people do the easy stuff first. You can also watch the clock and decide how much time you are going to sink into a difficult question on the first pass. Do as much as you can (especially if you can get partial credit!) and then move on. You can always come back  if you have time at the end.


I have no clue what the instructor is going to put on the test.

Confused Math GIF 1

Go through previous exams and assignments with an eye for structure not content. What types of questions are likely to be on this final? Are exam questions different from homework questions? How? 

For example, if the instructor puts multi-step synthesis questions on exams but not in homework, make sure to take a step back from the details as you study and think about what synthesis/big picture questions you might be asked. 

Another thing – don’t be afraid to ask the instructor for clarification, but ask well!

“Hey Prof, how should I study for the exam?” will probably not get you the best answer. Instead, tailor your questions to particular topics or problem types you’re struggling with, and be as precise as possible. 


There’s one part of this test I know I’m going to do bad on.


If there’s something  that you really won’t magically learn at the final hour – make peace with that. Don’t let it psyche you out and put you off-balance for the parts of the test you can do. This test is not the end of the world. It does not define your worth as a person. We all know that cramming and then doing a test in a haze of anxiety is not the ideal way to demonstrate your knowledge and abilities.. If it’s something that you’ll have to know in future semesters, try to be proactive and seek out tutoring or other help before it gets to this stage again. For right now, accept that you’re in a very stressful situation, and all you can do is your best.


I feel like I’m memorizing a big pile of facts and they just keep slipping out of my head.

There are a lot of studying tips out there – there’s even a whole Crash Course on YouTube. One of the key strategies for improving memory is to attach meaning and points of connection to the things you have to memorize. 

Sorting things into groups can help you build connections between facts. If you’ve got flashcards, play with grouping them in new ways. For example, instead of going through US Presidents in order, separate them into “Who was president during a major war” and “Who was not.” Then think of other categories and sort them again.

Another great technique is talking  out loud! Talking through a math problem, and explaining why you’re doing every step, for example, can help you identify things that are memorized but not understood.


Bonus PSA: Remember there’s a body attached to your brain.

Everyone always says it, and it’s easy to ignore, but really, seriously: Sleep, food, and water are necessary. Having a body that’s out of whack increases stress, decreases your working memory, and leads to stupid mistakes

Pay attention to your body while you’re taking your exam too. If breathing feels hard, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. If you’re sitting like a gargoyle, do a big stretch, roll your shoulders, and find a more relaxed way to sit.


  • Clara Noomah

    Instructional Designer
    Clara Noomah is a designer, educator, and creator who has been working in education for over a decade. Her work at eCampus centers around making the student experience at UAF more inclusive - she is the departmental lead on accessibility, and works on faculty development initiatives that highlight diverse voices and equitable teaching practices. She also has experience with developing STEM courses that include online labs.

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