14 ways to help kids and teens do better in tests regardless of how well they know the material

Jeb*, aged 14, came to visit me wanting to do better in tests and exams at school.  He was a smart kid and learnt concepts well – but he just didn’t do well in timed test situations.

As child psychologists, we work with both kids and teens to help them achieve their best at school.  We can’t help them learn the content itself, but we can help with increasing motivation, managing distraction, improving attention and concentration and with what psychologists call “test taking technique”.  The good news for many young people is that making small changes to how you study, and what you do before and in a test situation can make a huge difference to results.

I worked with Jeb on figuring out some better strategies he could use in tests.  We practiced them in session.  He walked away saying he felt much more confident.  I had all my fingers crossed!  And happy day, this week I got an email from him to tell me he’d got full marks in his latest science test.  Hooray! Couldn’t help but do a private little fist pump the air in my office J

Here are 14 ideas you can talk through and practice with your child/teen before they sit tests or exams.  Please note – not all of these ideas will apply to your young person: what works willdepend on the material, the child and the type of test being sat.  Also, there are too many here to work on all at once. You’ll have to pick the most important, discuss them and help them practice them on more than one occasion.

But they do work!

Test taking tips

1.      Help the young person get enough sleep the night before if at all possible.  Sleep is more important than cramming (unless they know nothing at all of the material) for getting the best possible results.

2.      If it’s a multiple choice test – remind the young person - don’t look for a “right” option, look for the very best option.  In multiple choice tests, there will often be a few “right” options which often fool kids or younger teens who are used to quickly looking for something that looks right.

3.      For multi-step or complicated maths questions – write down first what you know, then the next step, then the next step.  It’s tough to convince students to do this because it’s faster and therefore easier to do the steps in their head.  Most people don’t really like writing out their thoughts/assumptions/what they know already – and would rather skip ahead to getting the answer.  But this is far more likely to lead to errors.

4.      Teach kids the idea of “backwards checking” for maths questions.  In other words, take your answer and put it into the question to see if it works.  Eg: Q If John has thirty apples and gives Simon twenty, how many does John have left?  A: 10.  We can check this by asking – if John has ten apples and Simon gives back 20 to him – how many will he have now – 30.  

5.      Once young people know how to backwards check, they can use this in multiple choice questions.  Teach kids and teens the idea of working out an answer to multiple choice questions by using a process of elimination.  In other words, take each option and see which ones “work” in the question.  This might seem obvious to us as adults, but kids often need to be shown how it works.

6.      In humanities or essay questions, ask children and teens to underline the most important words in the question before they answer.  Tell them to especially look out for the little important words like “not”!

7.      Teach young people to do rough time plans.  Make sure they have access to a clock or timer or watch during the test/exam and work out roughly how much time they will have for each question (if older teens).  For younger children or shorter tests when a time plan isn’t feasible, teach them to always stop their work five minutes before the end to check their work. 

8.      For younger children, don’t stop at telling them to “check” their work but instead teach them how to effectively and carefully check.  One way to do this on spelling tests/writing tests is by putting a finger under each word/letter at the end of their test to ensure they keep their eyes on the page as they check.  Another way to effectively check is to leave a time gap between writing something and checking it.  Another way to check effectively is to read over work imagining that you are reading it for the first time.

9.      For hand writing based tests, tell kids/teens to leave plenty of space between their words so that if they need to go back later and add in/cross something out, there is plenty of space.  For the same reason tell them to not cram in words at the end of the line or even hyphenate words across lines where possible.

10.   For children/teens who have access to working out paper in tests, teach them to use it effectively.  In other words, allow enough space (ie start at the top of the page) when working things out, write in one section of the page for each problem, and neatly cross it out when done.  Many errors are made in working out paper when children/teens write illegibly or run out of space.

11.   Help kids and teens practice completing tasks at the same speed required in tests/exams.  If you know they will have 20 minutes to write a narrative in a particular test, then get them practicing 20 minute blocks of writing time.  If you know they have to do a spelling test where they only have 30 seconds or so per word, help them to learn to write a word and check a word (preferably higher up in the list) in a 30 second time span.

12.   Teach kids and teens to prioritise getting questions they know done first and coming back to the ones they get stuck on.

13.   Teach younger kids good posture in tests/exams and how to keep their eyes on the paper.  Sitting close to the table and having their materials in easy reach does make a difference.  Often children are partially lying on the desk, or sitting so far away they have to stretch or spending lots of time looking at the ceiling.

14.   Eating protein before a test/exam situation is linked with greater success.  Eggs and bacon for breakfast!

Hopefully some of these ideas will help the young people you know or work with.  For parents, we can learn a lot about what our own child/teen needs help with in test/exam situations by simulating a test situation at home and just watching how they work.   You’ll probably see other areas not listed here – gradually and kindly coach young people in these skills. 

Kids and teens may well learn these skills eventually on their own - but as parents can speed up this process and help them show their true skills and talents.

Developing Minds News.........we are in the midst of renovations here in both clinics.  Very soon our Wayville and Aberfoyle Park clinic will have extra rooms.  We'll have 6 at Aberfoyle Park and 4 at Wayville.  I love the process of choosing colours and furniture and trying to make our spaces as comfortable and fun for our clinicians and clients to work in.  I love the process of co-ordinating tradespeople slightly less....but fingers crossed we will be done soon.

If you ever want to drop by and see our clinics, feel free to do so.  If you ring the clinic ahead of time, we can let you know when you can have a look at our rooms.

Here are a few photos...more to come.