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Catforms Testing Service

Test Taking Skills & Errors

Presented in a Q & A Format

Question 1. Should students be penalized on a test when they make mistakes not directly relevant to the concept being tested?

Examples: circling an answer when writing it down is indicated, pressing down too lightly on an answer sheet, going outside the bubble, mislabeling a math answer (eg, ft instead of ft²)


a. It depends on the teacher's objectives.

i. If part of the overall course objective includes the learning and application of good study and test-taking skills, what appears on the surface to be irrelevant may not actually be so.

ii. If exercising good study and testing skills is a part of the course or class objectives, has the teacher made that clear to the class?

b. It depends on the clarity of testing instructions.

i. Are procedural instructions given clearly, unambiguously, and illustrated, if appropriate?

ii. If the directions are written, is there extra attention given to reading-impaired students to make sure they understand?

iii. Is the penalty for common mistakes, such as mislabeling math problems, clearly stated?

c. It depends on the stakes of the testing

i. If stakes are high, such passing or failing a grade level based on test outcome, concept-irrelevant mistakes should be penalized lightly, if at all. Are you going to retain a student because he did not read and/or follow directions, or because he is struggling with concepts he needs to successfully master?

ii. If stakes are fairly low, such as a lower grade on a report card, procedural errors may be penalized more strongly to reflect the less-formal objectives of the class as well as the formal objectives.

Question 2. Should students be taught test-taking skills?

Answer: Some test-taking skills are essential, whether a test is well-designed or not. Students must learn to read or listen to directions carefully, and to follow them precisely. Any skill that helps students to avoid construct-irrelevant mistakes is worthwhile.

Examples include:

a. Removing mental and physical distractions

b. Approaching the test with a positive attitude

c. Reading directions carefully

d. Asking for clarification if any directions seem unclear

e. Checking back over answers for mistakes

f. Passing over difficult items and coming back to them later, if time permits

Question 3. What about skills designed to take advantage of the weaknesses of poorly designed tests?

These would include looking for:

a. Clues from other test items

b. Options that are obviously different from the other alternatives

c. Eliminating grammatically inconsistent options

d. Using elimination as cues for matching and multiple choice items

Answer: If a test exhibits flaws that a good test-taker can exploit, the responsibility lies with the test, not the student. Any such skills can hardly be considered unethical.

Question 4. What about guessing skills? These would include:

a. Eliminating distractors determined to be incorrect

b. Using partial knowledge to identify possible correct answers

c. Relying on hunches and first impulse responses

d. Randomly selecting answers if out of time or because of a complete lack of knowledge

Answer: Guessing skills are completely ethical. A good test will take guessing into account, and try to minimize its effect. Guessing can, however, reflect partial skill or knowledge, which is directly relevant to the concept being tested. Additionally, a good test will not forbid guessing in any form. No struggles of conscience should add to the stress of taking the actual test. May I or may I not mark this answer? I think it may be right, but I'm really not sure. Or, I am running out of time. Is it wrong if I just mark answers randomly, with the chance that at least a few of them may be right?

Question 5. What about cheating on a test?

Answer: Cheating is not a skill; it is a moral failure that undermines the validity of the test. Cheating is also a concept-irrelevant error, since it produces grades that do not reflect the student’s actual knowledge. Cheating is not the fault of the test designer, although there are ways to combat cheating in test design and administration.

Cheating can take several forms:

a. Obtaining prior unauthorized knowledge of test content

b. Copying answers from another test-taker

c. Bringing "cheat sheets" in various forms to the test

d. Unauthorized review of study materials during the test

e. Exceeding time limits

f. Using calculators when not permitted

g. Using phones or other devices to get unauthorized help from others

Cheating skills should obviously not be taught in any environment.