I Do Good On Homework But Bad On Tests

"I Know the Material, But When I Take the Test I Go Blank!"



Components of the Test Environment

The Textbook Structure

Key Strategies for Studying

Some Additional Suggestions

Other Resources



It is normal and healthy to feel some anxiety before an exam. Many students, however, complain about "test anxiety", explaining that they went into a test knowing the material but that they "went blank" when they began to take the exam. Or when they receive their test results, they find that they made "silly mistakes". What they think is "too much anxiety" may really point to a gap in their study skills.

Why? When most students prepare for a test, they read their notes or textbooks. As you read along, you may feel that you know (understand) what the author is saying. Understanding what you are reading at the moment does NOT mean that you know it well enough to remember it for a test when the book isn't there to help you. Thus, students may enter a test situation expecting themselves to "know" the material and finding themselves going "blank" when trying to answer a test item.

To be most efficient, each step of your study should be keyed to the test situation itself. So, you first need to prepare to deal with the COMPONENTS OF THE TEST ENVIRONMENT ; then, understand THE TEXTBOOK STRUCTURE. Once you know these elements, you can apply KEY STRATEGIES FOR STUDYING which can help you be both better prepared and more confident when taking a test.


Nearly all tests include three things:

  1. No texts -- you will have to recall the information from memory. No notes. No clues. So, you have to make sure that you not only understand when reading the text but also remember the material from the first time you study it well enough to pass a test! This requires knowing how to use the text structure in studying and being able to solve problems WITHOUT looking back at the book! (see "HOMEWORK PROBLEMS")
  2. Stress-- Taking tests adds stress. And, your performance tends to deteriorate under stress. So you need to learn the material well enough to remember it under stress. For ideas on how to manage the normal stress of any situation, see other topic areas:
  3. "Stressed Out" and
  4. "The Doctor Told me my Stress Caused my..."
  5. Time pressure -- you have studied several chapters and lectures, learned hundreds of facts, concepts, processes, solutions. You'll need to remember this rapidly in the test setting. This is especially important for those tests requiring rapid problem solving



A good textbook is written and printed in a format that can be used to enhance your performance on the tests. USE IT TO HELP YOU STUDY!!!

Why would the structure of the textbook be useful?

When beginning to write a text, the authors make a list of the 15 to 25 most important topics that need to be covered in the text. This list eventually becomes the titles of the chapters in the text. Next, the authors develop a list of 6 to 10 points to be covered in a chapter. Considerable time is spent in refining these, shifting some around, deleting others. These become the headings within each chapter, the chapter sections.

This outline becomes the table of contents published in a text. If you were going to teach the course. You would know what's in the text just from looking at this outline. You would know that is what your students should learn, supplemented by the lectures you would prepare for them.

You are taking the course to learn the material at least well enough to pass the tests. So, the authors fill in the outline for you -- they give explanations, history, examples, derivations, formulas or whatever is needed to educate you on each topic in the chapter.

Each chapter outline will be valuable in at least two ways:

  1. as a check to see how well you remember the chapter after studying it the first time, and
  2. as a way of remembering the material. You remember more details longer if they are organized. The chapter outline usually will provide an organization for text and lecture materials.



  1. Study a small piece of the assignment at a time -- study it well enough to pass a test immediately after studying it. We can hold about 7 or 8 bits of information in our heads at any one time. So we need to learn a piece with just a few concepts or ideas. A section usually is about the "right size" for our brains. So, study just one headed section at a time. Use the textbook structure to your advantage!
  2. Question and study. Turn each section heading into a question and study to answer that question. Remember, the authors put all those words, problems, diagrams, etc. under that heading to tell you what they meant. DO NOT TAKE NOTES OR UNDERLINE OR HIGHLIGHT, YET.
  3. Before proceeding further, test yourself before your instructor does. Stop at the end of that section, look away from the text, and test yourself. Make sure that you remember what you need to remember from that section to pass a test. If you're not sure, go back and check on the material and then test yourself again. TESTING YOURSELF SECTION BY SECTION IS CRITICAL. If you can't pass a test on the material now, when are you going to learn it? You're gambling that you'll have time to go back and really learn it in the future. That often isn't the case as you'll have several tests coming along in other classes at the same time and limited study time. Also, you're gambling that you won't need to understand it for subsequent material in the chapter. Your goal is to learn and remember the material the first time through. Do not be content with just knowing what the authors are saying as you read the text -- you can understand it all but fail a test.
  4. NOW TAKE YOUR NOTES, underline or highlight. Be brief -- just enough for you to recall what you have to remember from that section. Notes are preferable. Put them on the left-hand page of your notebook (if you're right-handed). Put lecture notes on the right-hand page opposite the appropriate reading notes.
  5. Repeat these steps for each section in the chapter: Turn the Heading into a Question
  6. Study to Answer the Question
  7. Test yourself at the end of each section
  8. Review and test yourself on the entire chapter. On the weekend, go back and study your reading and lecture notes. Learn them well enough so that you can look at the chapter outline in the table of contents and remember what you need to remember for each section in the chapter.


That's the basic strategy. Minor modifications may be needed but overall it takes just these simple steps. Practice them until they become your way of studying.



Testing yourself section by section is critical!

  • 20% - that's what you'll remember two weeks after reading something if you just read it and set lt aside.
  • 50-65% - that's what you'll remember in two weeks if you test yourself right after reading.
  • 75-80% - that's what you'll remember two weeks later after testing yourself two times.

Testing yourself after each section (Test 1) and at the end of the assignment or chapter (Test 2) puts you in the 75-80% category. When midterms come, you'll be reviewing just to get yourself from about 75% to nearly 100% rather than the usual practice of having to re-learn most of the material.

If you think that you don't have that much time. . .

There's no quicker study strategy than the key ones offered for learning and remembering knowledge well (unless you are one of the rare persons with a photographic memory). With this strategy, your initial study might take 20 to 30 percent longer than you are currently taking. However, when reviewing for major tests, you'll know the material better and will spend less time reviewing before tests.

Take Notes, Underline or Highlight?

Preferably take notes. Take your notes only after you have tested yourself at the end of each section -- step three above. When you take your notes (or underline or highlight) while reading the material the first time, chances are you'll take too many notes (or underline or highlight too much). Waiting until you've read the entire section and testing yourself helps identify the most important points, so your notes are more focused.

Homework Problems

The Usual Strategy: Students usually read the two, three or four sections assigned and then turn to the problems to be solved. The problems are solved with the book open -- referring to the appropriate section. This way, you could solve every homework problem correctly and still fail tests because you know what you're doing with the book in front of you but not necessarily learning the material well enough to remember it during a test without the book to help you.

Recommended Strategy: Homework problems are to test if you not only understand the assignment but also remember what you studied well enough to pass a test.

Use the key strategy described above to study the assignment. Then, solve the problems with the book closed, referring back only occasionally, as needed. Use homework problems as a test -- solve the problems with your book closed. Sure, you'll need to refer back to it for some points - but just the ones you need to be refreshed on.

Lecture Notes

Put your text notes (notes on your assigned readings) on the left-hand page of your notebook (if you are right-handed). If you're left-handed do the opposite. Then, take your lecture notes on the right-hand page, opposite the appropriate section of notes from your reading. If the lecturer says only what's in the text, just star (*) it, meaning "This was discussed in class so it might be important. Know it!"

When preparing for tests, then, you'll have reading and lecture notes side-by-side for your study. Your lecture notes on additional material will be with the reading notes on the same topic.


Any system will need modifications to fit particular student and instructor styles. Experiment until you find patterns that work best for you and the styles of each of your instructors.

For example, some instructors lecture from an outline, so taking orderly class notes is a breeze. For other profs, you might need to go over class notes after class and, using a red pencil, identify important points and sub-points.

If you have one of those classes in which tests are based primarily on lecture notes, your homework will be studying lecture notes using the key strategy described above. Apply it to the lecture notes and use the text just to fill topics discussed in class.

Reviewing for Tests

Your review for tests should be as much like the test situation as possible.

Most tests require you to recall material from memory and to solve problems or write answers rapidly. So, your test preparation should give you practice in doing those things.

Study each of the chapters and associated lecture notes. Study each chapter so you can set your notes and text aside and recite to yourself what you need to know. Essentially, you'll have the outline for that chapter (that appears in the table of contents) in your head.

Tests Requiring Rapid Solutions to Problems

First, learn the class material as described in "KEY STRATEGIES".

Then, do some rapid problem solving without the book. Most problem courses require that you solve problems on tests much more rapidly than when doing homework. To prepare for this, try some rapid problem solving. Time yourself. Or, better yet, study with a student who is doing slightly better than you in the course. Each of you can copy a problem and then race to see who solves it first. Do this for at least 20 or 30 minutes for at least three nights before the test.

As an analogy, basketball players don't practice in slow motion all week long (we often do our homework problems that way, though) with play diagrams in front of them (we have our books in front of us). Rather, they simulate game conditions for part of their practice. Students can simulate test situations and come out winners!

Silly Mistakes

Do you make silly mistakes, such as 2 + 2 = 5, or forget to carry signs? Most students do.

One reason: homework problems are solved at a leisurely rate while tests require rapid problem solving. The best way to prepare for the test is to simulate it. Devise a system for practicing rapid problem solving as part of your review for the test.

Another silly mistake is not taking time to read each test question thoroughly.

Objective Tests

Again, learn the material first using "KEY STRATEGIES". Then, simulate a test. Have a friend predict questions and ask you to answer them without referring to your notes. Trade places -- you ask the questions. Do this only after you've reviewed the material.

Essay Tests

Review the material first using "KEY STRATEGIES". Then, predict questions you think will be on the test. Use any clues the prof might have given, including sample tests if made available by the professor. Or, consider forming a study group with other students in your class and brainstorm themes/topics which you think may be most important. Then, outline your answers to the questions. Study these until you know them. You won't predict exactly what questions are on the test. But, chances are that you will predict most of the points/topics that are needed to answer the questions on the test.



Academic Assistance Center, 101 Holton Hall, Kansas State University, (785) 532-6492

Counseling Services, 232 English/Counseling Services Building, Kansas State University, (785) 532-6927.

Other Counseling Services topics on Stress: "STRESSED OUT" AND "THE DOCTOR SAID MY STRESS..."

See our CS LINKS page for other resources

Originally written in 1989 by David G. Danskin, PhD, University Counseling Services; modified and adapted in 1997 by Dorinda Lambert, Ph.D. for use on the Internet.

HELP YOURSELF is created by Counseling Services
copyright 1989, 1997 by Kansas State University

The Myth Behind "Poor test taking"

Learning how to study

There seems to be an epidemic of “poor test takers” who routinely get A’s on their homework but fail miserably on quizzes and tests. Looking at their grade sheets, you’ll see a few D’s or F’s for tests and quizzes scattered among a sea of A’s for homework. Parents shake their head in confusion because their children manage to get high marks for doing their homework but those good grades aren’t reflected in their low test scores.

Parents often meet with their children’s teachers in search of explanations for these disparate grades. As the director at Merit Educational Consultants, I often hear parents’ claims that their children do their homework and receive excellent grades but that they are just “poor test takers.” Although test taking does require some skills, these students aren’t poor test takers. Claims like this are misconceptions. With the exception of students with learning differences or test anxiety, the problem isn’t poor test-taking skills; rather, they simply don’t know how to study for tests. When students learn how to study, they can achieve much higher exam scores that accurately reflect their academic potential.

Homework scores don’t always indicate how well students know the curriculum/material, either. Some teachers simply give credit to students for attempting to do the work. Others don’t correct the students’ work, so even though they did the assignment, there’s a possibility that every answer was incorrect. Even when the teachers do correct the homework assignments, the actual exercise may not guarantee that the students are learning the concepts. With their iPods blaring and their cell phones ringing, many students can mindlessly fill in the blanks and skim books while they go through the motions to complete their homework as quickly as possible.

Consider this. A math teacher may introduce a new concept and provide several examples on the board during class. Then when the students go home that evening to do their homework, they simply review their class notes, plug in the formula, and zip through the problem sets. So what’s wrong with this? The students are just going through the motions. They probably don’t understand why they’re using that particular formula for that type of problem. Then the following day when they learn a new concept in class, the teacher once again gives examples and sends the students home with a new formula to use to solve the equations for that day. A week later, when the students take a quiz or test, they do poorly because they aren’t sure which formula to use. In other words, they didn’t really understand what they were doing; they were on automatic pilot while they did the work.

When teachers announce upcoming tests, some allow students to make “cheat sheets,” which can be index cards or full 8 ½” x 11” sheets of paper filled with notes that the students can use during the tests. It’s remarkable how much information students can squeeze on to their sheets of paper. Other teachers give students study guides that define exactly what will be on the tests. Obviously, both of these systems – along with “going through the motions” while doing homework – fail to encourage students to learn the material that they should be responsible to know.

Most students prepare for their tests by cramming or simply reviewing their notes the night before. They think that by reading through their lecture notes and homework assignments, they’ve done all they need to do to ace their exams. What they don’t understand is that their brains can’t absorb all of that information in such a short period of time, so they can remember only superficial concepts. Cramming doesn’t give the students enough time to thoroughly understand the concepts so they could apply their knowledge in solving difficult questions on a test.

Even if they’re one of the lucky few who can cram the night before for a test and pull an A, what they memorized for the test probably didn’t go into long-term memory; so, when it comes time to study for the final exam, they’ll have to relearn everything again. And worse yet, when these students advance to the next class the following year, they’re setting themselves up for failure because they skimmed the surface of the previous class and don’t have the foundation they need to succeed in courses that require previous knowledge.

When students enter college, they will be expected to have retained basic information from high school courses and apply it to increasingly complex theories. Additionally, students must be able to assess what they need to study without depending on the professor to do so for them. Many a college professor is frustrated by student requests for study guides or open-book tests exactly because it suggests surface-level regurgitation instead of analysis, which is what students must do to succeed.

So how can a student ace a test? It’s really quite simple: the five-day plan. In order to get a perfect score on a test, they need to comprehend, not just memorize, the material. For English or History, that means that they need to have time to read the chapters, highlight important information, rewrite their notes in outline form, make flashcards, and test themselves. This will take time because their brains need time to absorb the information.

Five days before the exam, re-read the sections that will be covered on the test. If they own the book, they can highlight it and mark it up to help them remember important facts. Four days before, the students should rewrite their lecture notes in an outline format and add important information from their readings and lectures. Three days before, make flashcards from their outlines and notes, and begin testing themselves. Two days before, take a practice exam from the book or online and review their flashcards. Make a list of questions they’re not sure about and ask their teacher before or after class the next day. The night before the test, review the text, lecture notes, outline, flashcards, and practice exams. With this comprehensive approach to studying for tests, your child will be sure to ace the test.

Not all children learn the same way, so adjust the plan to work for your child. Some students learn best when they rewrite their notes while others may prefer to record lectures and listen to them. Experiment with various systems but stick with the 5-day plan. By allowing your children’s brain to comprehend a little bit each night, they will finally learn the concepts, and they’ll be able to retain them in their long-term memories.

Besides improving their test scores, they’ll be able to ace their final exams with considerably less studying and stress. Students who continue to review all of their notes once per week for the duration of the quarter or semester really come to know the material and typically do very well on midterm and final exams.

Inasmuch as learners have to practice when and how to use math formulas or recognize iambic pentameter in poetry, they also have to practice time management. Use the Merit Planner to block out time for different tasks the five days prior to an exam. That way, students don’t become overwhelmed trying to keep track of their study plans for multiple tests in all of their classes. By using the Merit Planner, all they need to do is complete the tasks each day that they’ve scheduled for themselves. And by the time they get to college, they will have already learned how to successfully manage their time. It’s really that simple. If you need help getting started, watch the Merit Planner video for free tips.

The Merit Planner is available on our website. Merit’s Time Management Specialists are available both online and onsite to help students take control of their learning and test-taking skills. Get started now so your child can start acing their tests!

Susan Tatsui-D’Arcy is the director at Merit Educational Consultants. She offers study skills seminars and tutorial sessions to help students learn how to get A’s. She is also the author of The 21 st Century’s Mother’s Guide to Managing Your Time and Taking Control of Your Life!www.meritworld.com; (831) 462-5655




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