Why Make a Practice Test?

Credit: Bundesarchiv - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-13800-0006,_Berlin,_Frauen_beim_Selbststudium,_Weiterbildung.jpg

When studying for an exam, knowing the material is not enough. It helps tremendously to have practice with the types of questions that will be asked on your exam.

One of the best ways to get this practice is to create a mock-up test, writing the same type of questions you'll see on your exam. After you've made this test, try taking it yourself, in a similar environment as in your exam––for example, give yourself an hour to answer all the questions (no checking facebook!) while sitting at a desk.

We learn by doing. You will improve your ability to take these sorts of tests when you're not  under pressure. You will also get greater insight into how to write a good test, and what your professor might be looking for in each answer.

How to Get Started

If you're studying for a class's test, ask your professor for copies of past exams, as well as sample questions that will help you study.

Try to make an appointment with him or her to discuss the exam and ask questions about it. Take notes––this will not only help you remember, it will show him or her that you're paying attention.

If you're studying for a standardized test, such as the SATs, the GREs or something else, try picking up a study guide. Google for practice tests, e.g. "SAT practice tests" or "SAT sample questions."

It helps to have as many sample questions as you can, without suffering from overload. 20-50 questions are probably enough to begin with.

Creating the Right Environment

First, eliminate distractions. No youtube videos, no chatting with friends, no distracting or too-energetic music. If you find you need some kind of accompaniment to keep boredom at bay, try finding some complex but relaxing music, such as music by J.S. Bach or Joseph Haydn.

You'll want to set up a schedule of some kind. If you find it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time, try taking a 2-minute break every 10 minutes. Use a stopwatch, or a website like e.ggtimer, to make sure you work the full 10 minutes, and don't take a break that takes up the entire evening.

If you have other things that must get done, e.g. mailing a letter or going to an appointment, set a small goal to accomplish before you do those things, e.g. "I will write 5 practice essay questions before I mail the letter." Even if it's a small goal, reaching it will give you a small sense of victory and accomplishment.

How Many Question Types Are There?

by Jean Greuze Baptiste.
Credit: National Gallery of Scotland

If making a practice test seems too daunting to you, start by identifying how many types of questions there are. Test questions come in many forms, including:

  • Essay Questions
  • Short Answer Questions
  • Multiple Choice Questions
  • True-False Questions

Beyond that are the types of questions used. Here are a few old stand-bys:

  • Word problems - "If Train A is going from London at 40 miles per hour, and Train B..."
  • Simple math problems - "Solve for x."
  • Open-ended questions - "Do you think stem cell research should be federally funded? Why or why not?"
  • Knowledge questions - "Name five causes of the French Revolution."
  • Simple answer questions - "Who was the 21st President of the United States?"
  • Definition questions - "What is a protozoa?"

Try to figure out the question types that you will have to answer on your own test. What types show up in the sample questions you have available to you?

Making Your Practice Test

Start by writing a test much longer than the one you will have to take. If you think it will be 20 questions for an hour-long test, write 30 or 35 questions.

Refer to the books, articles, class notes etc. when writing the questions. You can even make, say, 20 questions for class notes, 20 questions from the book, 20 questions from handouts, and pick the best ones.

If your professor has told you what the focus of the test is, make sure your practice test reflects that focus. Don't make a test with lots of questions from the book if he all but told you that it's 95% based on the lectures.

Don't be afraid of writing questions that aren't "good enough." You can always go back and edit them.

Once you have written a rough draft, print it out (or xerox it, if you've written it by hand) and edit it. Say the questions aloud––I guarantee you'll find a few errors.

When editing your test, it really helps to go through the test with a red pen, marking things you want to change. (Don't like red? Use green.) Somehow this makes editing much easier than looking at characters on a screen.

Once you have a workable draft, write up the test in Word, Pages or another word processing program, so it looks like the actual test. You can even put the name of your professor in the header.

Taking Your Own Practice Test

Library of Congress Reading Room
Credit: trialsanderrors on flickr

Give yourself the same amount of time as you will have for the real exam––even for an extra-long test.

A stopwatch or a program like Minuteur can help. So can a quiet environment such as the library. If you can get access to an empty classroom, even better.

Create, as best as you can, the conditions that you will take the test under. If it's an open book test, bring your books. If you're allowed a page of notes, write that page of notes and bring it with you. If you need a blue book for the real test, use it for the practice one as well.

Write your answers from scratch. Even though you know the questions already, you'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to answer them alone.

Do your best!

Working With Friends

Team Work
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Exchange practice tests with friends. You could even borrow an empty classroom, exchange tests and all take each other's tests during the same time block. After you're all finished, go out for coffee, relax and grade/discuss each others' tests.

How Many Practice Tests Should I Make?

While one test is work enough, if you're studying for something really important or difficult, such as the MCATs, try making several practice tests. There's no "upper limit," so make as many tests as are likely to be helpful to you, without burning yourself out.

Good luck and happy studying!