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Learning Success Guide: Strategies for Thinking, Learning, and Writing

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For better or worse, testing has been a focal point of education for a long time. Yet little is done to prepare students for the act of test-taking. Sometimes it feel like there is an expectation: because you've taken tests before, you should be good at them.

But that's not always true.

In this section, you’ll discover preparation strategies to help make test-taking easier. If you want to share recommendations and strategies of your own, please email them to

Preparing for a Test

Studying is the most important thing that you can do to prepare for a test--and in our Learning Success Guide, we've devoted a lot of time and space to learning and study strategies. But for studying to be effective, it's better to do it a little each day.

Here's a 2-page interview that explains why Rote Learning and Memorization are not the best ways to learn or study. The html full text link will be on the left of the entry.

In addition to studying, other forms of preparation can impact your success as well.

  • Physical Health: Rest well the night before an exam. Eat a good meal. Stay hydrated--you might even bring a water bottle. The balance of sleep, hunger, energy, and hydration are all important for a good test-taking mindset.
  • Mental Health: Reflect on your good preparation. Combat negativity with those reflections, meditation, walking, stretching, breathing deeply, and other calming or mindfulness-oriented practices. 
  • Tension Levels: Stretch and relax tense muscles. Practice deep breathing. Choose a familiar seat or place within a room, if possible.

Learn more about test taking in this 4-minute video from the Cornell University Learning Strategies Center.

Test-Taking Principles

Beyond test content, these four principles should guide you as you take your test:

  • Understand your time limit: No test lasts forever. If you know how long a test will last, you can determine how much time to commit to the various sections or questions. 
  • Read the questions carefully: Understanding a question is the first step to answering it. Reading each question also lets you know what questions you’re most comfortable with and gives you a time management strategy--answering the easy ones first!
  • Lower stress and discomfort as best you can: Yes, tests can be stressful, but taking the time to stretch your fingers, breath, or even close your eyes and relax will go a long way toward keeping the tension down.
  • Check your work: Re-read questions. Make sure the answer you provided fits comfortably with each. This is also a great time to make sure you didn’t miss any questions or misinterpret any directions. 

MWCC Clock

Understanding Questions

The basis of any test relies on the answering of a question. If you don’t understand the question, then you’re already in a bad position. There are several ways to look at every question, but Cornell University has a method of deciphering questions based on how straightforward they are.

Think of a traffic light. Then consider every question to be either red, yellow, or green. These will indicate how much preparation you should need before attempting to answer the question.

A ‘red’ question is a question that requires ‘critical thinking;’ applying knowledge that you had to a new situation, making inferences with knowledge that you know or interpreting new information based on previous knowledge. This is not a question where the answer is as simple as repeating information that you have learned. Here you need to actually apply it. To study for ‘red’ questions, discussing the subject with classmates, plotting out various connections to different topics or ideas, and reflecting on what you’ve learned will give you your best shot here. 
A ‘yellow’ question is a more detailed question, likely more of a short-answer question, requiring a little more effort, but boiling down to the same idea as the ‘green’ questions. Either you know the answer to this or you don’t. But careful wording and preparation can help here, so ‘Slow Down’ and think this one out. Memorization is important, but more likely, memorizing and understanding the ‘key concepts’ of a class is what matters most here.
A ‘green’ question is a factual question, with a straightforward answer. This might be multiple choice, usually only one or a few words and are a sign to ‘Go Ahead!’ Either you know the answer or you don’t. Studying with flash cards, self-quizzing and other repetitive methods works best here.

Converting Math Word Problems into Numbers

Often math problems are listed not in a numerical form (9 + x = 7), but rather in a word problem instead. Math word problems can be unintentionally misleading, especially if you’ve been in a flow, working through numerical problems before you reach a word problem.


When tackling mathematical word problems, your first step is to read it carefully and identify all of the variables that are present. 


For example; Sean has been tracking how much gasoline he uses. Over the past two years, Sean has used 300 gallons of gas. This year, he used 100 gallons of gas. How much gas did he use last year?


There are three numerical values that are listed. 2 years, 300 gallons over those two years and 100 gallons in one of those years. Now that you have all of those numerical values separated, you simply need to find the relationship between them.


We know that Sean has used 300 gallons in those 2 years total and 100 gallons in this year. Since there are only 2 years, the 2 is actually a numerical value that we don’t need. It simply represents the total. Since we know that 100 gallons plus whatever gas was spent the year before will equal 300 total gallons, we can write that as– 


                                                100 + x = 300


From that point, the problem has now become a numerical problem and be easily solved. Always identify the numerical values, then ask the relationship that each one has, before seeing how the answer, which is usually a missing variable (x), can be placed into the equation.

Answering Multiple Choice Questions

Almost every multiple choice question can be considered a ‘green’ question. It has one answer, definitively, and requires no lengthy responses or critical thinking. But despite seeming easier, multiple choice questions can have their own pitfalls that must be avoided.

  1. Start by reading the question carefully, watching out for double negatives, twists in meaning or unnecessary information that might unintentionally confuse you. 
  2. Then attempt to answer the question, regardless of the answers provided. If the answer that you’ve come up with is there, it’s likely right, but not a bad idea to double-check all the same.
  3. The question itself may provide clues, allowing you to cross off answers that are clearly wrong. If it asks for an answer that is a noun, the adjectives and verbs that are listed are incorrect answers.
  4. If you’re uncertain about an option, leave a small mark next to it, so that you know that you can return to it and pick between the best option available to you. 
  5. When stuck between a couple choices, feel free to move on and come back later. There may be clues in subsequent problems or you might have a clearer perspective when you return. Just remember to look over questions you didn’t answer when you review.

learn more about taking multiple choice tests from Mike Chen at the Cornell University Learning Strategies Center in this 6-minute video.

Writing Short Answers or Timed Essays

Every short answer or essay question will fall under the category of either ‘yellow’ or more likely ‘red’ questions. The most important principle to remember here, is time management.


When responding to a short answer question, typically a few sentences is all that’s required, anywhere from two to five sentences. Due to the short nature, these questions rarely require a large amount of ‘critical thinking’ because there is not enough space to answer such a question.


Remember to follow the same procedure; read the question carefully, ascertain what kind of answer you’re looking for, then answer it to the best of your abilities.


Essays, particularly timed essays require a much more significant management of time. Almost every essay will end up a being a ‘red’ question, requiring critical thinking and the application of knowledge that you’ve learned throughout the class. 


Read the directions especially carefully with essay questions. It is an easy mistake to answer a question that is parallel or close to the actual question, because it is more appealing to you. Make sure that you are answering the actual question. 


A good preparation for writing an essay is listing out your thesis and every bit of supporting evidence that you have for that. This way whenever you feel as if you are drifting or straying from your topic, you can look at the written strategy that you have for yourself–a main point and every bit of support for it. If you prefer to outline, you can create an outline with your thesis and evidence instead. Make your thesis early on and separate each piece of evidence into different paragraphs where each can be thoroughly explored. If you have time while reviewing your test, checking for spelling or grammar errors can be useful here.

Test Preparation Guides

There are a lot of study guides out there for a variety of Tests. Here are a few e have on reserve or in the stacks of LaChance Library.


Simon, E. Accuplacer Study Guide 2022-2023: Test Prep with Practice Exam Questions and Skills Application for Reading, Writing, and Math


College Entrance Exam Board. CLEP Official Study Guide


Dashe, A. ATI TEAS Study Manual







I checked all of our links to the CPT and ESL study guides and we do have a few that need to be updated, although weirdly the Reading section is still current to what College Board has. Here are the current versions.





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