Anyone who has ever been tested knows that nobody succeeds in bringing their best performance to every single challenge, particularly the ones that matter most. Yet, despite how utterly commonplace underperformance is, most people seem surprised when it happens and ill-prepared to learn from the experience.
Like most educators, Professor Richard M. Felder was all too familiar with this phenomenon among his Chemical Engineering students. Unlike the rest, he took solid, productive action by formulating what has become a legendary Test Preparation Checklist that students can use to audit their preparation after a disappointing score. I often recommend this resource, but recently realized that the checklist applies more accurately to the kinds of classroom tests Felder administered than the standardized tests we help students prepare for.
Consider this the first version of a Standardized Test Preparation Checklist that should ideal for any student or educator assessing the primary causes–and obvious remedies—for disappointing test scores:
As you consider your test preparation in light of the scores you earned, answer each of the following questions as honestly as you can. If you answer NO to many of them, your disappointing score should not be too surprising. If there are still a lot of NOs after the next test, your disappointing grade on that test should be even less surprising. On the other hand, if you can answer YES to each question after your next test, you’ll likely be thrilled with your results.
1. Did your mode of preparation (e.g. self-study, book, class, etc.) match your learning needs and style?
2. Did your chosen mode of preparation come with a history of the level of results you were seeking?
3. If you worked with a live teacher or tutor, did you seek out someone with high enough levels of expertise and experience?
4. Did you make a serious effort to understand content and strategies at the moment of instruction?
5. Did you ask enough questions about problems and exercises you didn’t fully understand?
6. Did you participate actively in group discussions (contributing ideas, asking questions) when possible?
7. Did you reach out to your teacher or tutor before or after instruction when you were having trouble with something?
HOMEWORK & REVIEW
1. Did you make a serious effort to master the material on your own time?
2. Did you seek help with review problems as needed, or at least check your solutions with others?
3. Did you embrace concepts of deliberate practice by working on high-level content that challenged you to improve?
4. Did you employ proven methods of retrieval practice like flashcards and quizzes to facilitate retention and retrieval?
5. Did you learn enough from homework and review to solidify your progress towards your goal in advance of testing?
1. Did you take timed practice tests and adhere to the timing?
2. Did you take your tests all in one sitting at a time of day approximating that of the official test?
3. Did you take advantage of proctored testing or simulate official testing conditions to the best of your ability?
4. Did you use official tests during practice testing?
5. Did you take your practice tests rested, ready, and eager to do your best?
6. Did you experience interruptions or adversity during practice testing that compromised the benefits of practice?
7. Did you take enough practice tests to solidify your progress towards your goal in advance of testing?
1. Did you get a reasonable night’s sleep before the test? (If your answer is no, your other answers may not matter.)
2. Did you pack everything you needed for your test at least one day earlier?
3. If you needed a calculator or digital device for your test, did you bring that device charged and in excellent working order?
4. If you needed a calculator or digital device for your test, did you bring the same device that you practiced with?
5. Did you eat the right foods before your test and pack the right foods for during your test to ensure proper energy and focus?
6. Did you arrive at your test site, if applicable, early enough to register in a relaxed fashion?
7. While waiting for your test to begin, did you engage in predetermined activities to establish the right levels of calm, confidence, and focus?
8. During the test, did you apply all the strategies you learned or were taught (two different things)?
9. During the test, did you manage time as predetermined and practiced?
10. During the test, did you block out distractions and maintain focus at all times?
11. During the test, did you advocate for yourself as needed in the case of unforeseen circumstances, unexpected interruptions, or proctor error?
12. During the test, did you manage breaks as predetermined and practiced?
13. Did you encounter anything on the test itself that you did not or could not have prepared for?
14. Were you distracted or distraught over anything that happened before the test, e.g. breakup, extracurricular activity, or family crisis?
(Did I miss any obvious questions that should be asked before or after a standardized test? Let me know!)