Tips to Improve Performance on Standardized Tests

For many students, standardized tests can stir up feelings of inadequacy, worry, and shame, not to mention physical manifestations—such as headaches, stomachaches, and tightness in the chest—associated with anxiety. And while a thorough understanding of the subject matters is certainly the best way to help ensure a good score, there are other factors that can impact test results. From getting a good night’s sleep and fueling your brain with the right nutrition to calming your nerves and using some tried-and-true test-taking techniques, we’ve got some tips to help improve your student’s performance on standardized tests.

Before the Test

#1: Help your student manage their anxiety.

For many students, the higher the stakes, the greater the anxiety, and standardized tests often come with a lot of pressure—from parents, teachers, coaches, college admissions officers, and the test-takers themselves.

We know that when stress levels rise, the body produces cortisol, which courses through the veins and really impacts cognition. We can teach kids breathing and mindfulness exercises so if they start to feel stressed right before the test, they can calm their nervous system down. Another way to help them manage anxiety is to talk to them about the value of those tests. Remind them that standardized tests are measuring the curriculum, not the kid.

Read More: 5 Breathing Techniques That are Easy for Kids to Help Them Calm Down Quickly >>

#2: Boost their critical-thinking skills.

Critical-thinking skills are an essential part of test-taking but unfortunately, so much of modern-day learning is simply rote memorization. 

A lot of times they learn content, but they don’t learn how to apply that content outside of the situation in which they’ve learned it. So one way to help them ‘learn how to learn’ or to teach them critical-thinking skills is to use books like Critical-Thinking Detective. The book is a series for grades 4 through 12 with lots of cool activities that help kids problem solve, think critically, and learn how to learn.

#3: Make a game of studying.

If you choose to help your student study, look for ways to make it fun. This will not only increase their chances of remembering the material, but also help alleviate some anxiety and create positive associations with pre-test brush-ups. 

A quick Google search will give you some ideas for “gamification” in learning, but consider implementing these basic elements: 

  • personalization
  • points and rewards
  • levels and progression
  • and competitions (which might include competing to beat their own top score).

#4: Teach them some basic test-taking skills.

There are some general tips that can be applied to almost any type of standardized test, as well as a few that will depend on whether the test is on a computer or paper. Here are some important strategies to help your kids grasp:

  • Read through the entire test first to get a gauge of how long it is and what types of questions it has
  • Carefully read each question and all possible answers, especially if they contain key words like “not,” “every,” “all but,” or “except.”
  • On multiple choice tests, typically two of the answers will be far-out wrong, so go ahead and eliminate those and choose from the remaining answers.
  • Pace yourself according to the time allotted. If you find yourself taking too long on one section, move on and come back to it with the time you have left at the end.
  • If the test doesn’t have to be completed in order, answer all the questions you know first, then go back to figure out the rest.
  • Leave a few minutes at the end to go back over your answers and look for mistakes or missed questions.

#5: Ensure they get enough sleep. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 9 to 12 hours of sleep for 6- to 12-year-olds and 8 to 10 hours for teens, although the quality of sleep is just as important. If your student has trouble falling asleep at a decent hour, consider implementing good habits, such as a consistent bedtime, darkening the room, removing electronics, and adding physical exercise during the day. 

Sleep acts like a car wash for the brain. It cleanses the toxins that have built up in the brain as we use neurotransmitters throughout the day. It also helps us consolidate memories and generate more neurotransmitters which are essential for learning and recall.

The Day of the Test

#1: Feed them a nutritious breakfast.

The brain needs good nutrition for maximum function and studies have shown that kids who eat breakfast the morning before a standardized test have significantly higher scores in math, spelling, and reading than those who don’t. Good nutrition can boost concentration, memory, energy, and mood, so plan for plenty of time to feed them a high-performance breakfast before they head out the door on test day.

#2: Encourage a brain dump.

Tests often require students to remember formulas, dates or other facts. Encourage your student to immediately write down the most vital pieces of information on scratch paper as soon as they get started on the test. This can help free up their thinking, alleviate some anxiety, and provide them with a “legal” cheat sheet to refer to as they’re testing.

Remember, while a low score can be heartbreaking for both the student and parents, it’s never helpful to shame a student for failing to excel. Instead, focusing on praising efforts over results. Your relationship—and your student’s confidence and sense of security—will be better for it. 

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