How to Create and Use a Practice Test

As final exams approach on the calendar, many students resort to the “cram and jam” method of learning. While this is understandable, it’s also not going to help – cramming never does.

In past posts on this blog, I’ve recommended self-quizzing, which is a scientifically-supported way to get better scores on exams. But I don’t think I’ve ever covered the details of how to self-quiz, so here we go!

There are four things you need to do in order to successfully self-quiz: Make a list of terms and concepts, write good questions, separate making the quiz from taking the quiz, and take and grade the quiz.

We’ll take these steps in order.

1. Make a List of Terms and Concepts

It’s hard to write good questions if you don’t know what you’re writing them about! For one or two study sessions, make a list of all the important terms, concepts, ideas, dates, people, places, events, compounds, equations – whatever it is that you’ll be tested on – and their definitions. Go through your notes and your textbook to create this list, and, when possible, use your own words for the definition unless your teacher demands that you memorize the one given in the book.

2. How to Write Good Questions on Self-Quizzes

Ideally, you’ll know what kind of questions the upcoming exam will have on it, whether that’s true/false, multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, short answer, essay, or equations. Once you know what kind of questions you’ll be facing, it gets easier to create a self-quiz.

Types of Self-Quizzes

You can create self-quizzes using T-charts or flash cards. Flash cards are pretty basic: write the question on one side and the answer on the other. But make sure the question on the one side has all the information – the full question and all possible answers, if it’s multiple-choice, for example. You can use flash cards in many different ways, from going through them alone to asking a friend to quiz you with them to playing various games with them. (And be sure to make physical flash cards!)

If you’re using a T-chart, fold a piece of notebook paper long-ways and crease it. Write the questions on the left-hand side of the crease (and number them), and the answers on the right-hand side of the crease (and number them). When you’re ready to take the quiz, fold the right-hand side (with the answers) underneath, so you can’t see it, and use a new piece of paper to write down your answers. Then use the original folded-over side to grade your response.

True/False Questions

True/false questions have some patterns to follow when you write them:

  • Any true/false question that contains the words “never” or “always” is, by definition, false.
    • Example: George Washington was always the leader of the United States.
  • Make sure that the question isn’t confusing:
    • Example (confusing): Feminism does not mean “women in charge of the world.”
    • Example (clear): Feminism means “women are not in charge of the world.”

Multiple-Choice Questions

Multiple-choice questions usually have three answers that might be true (and one that is) and one that should be obviously not true. Here’s an example:

The feminist movement that emphasized women having the right to vote was the ____ 

a. First Wave (1890s-1920s)
b. Second Wave (1960s-1970s)
c. Third Wave (1980s-2000s)
d. Fourth Wave (2000s-present)

In this case, the years make it pretty obvious: women won the right to vote in 1920, so the answer is (a). For anyone who studied for this question, the obviously untrue answer is (d) (there is no Fourth Wave, at least not yet). But there were three waves, and unless you know your history, you might be guessing whether the answer was the First, Second or Third Wave of feminism, because they’re all at least plausible possibilities.

When you write your multiple-choice answers, one way to give yourself three possible answers is to take answers from other questions you’re writing. For example, if you have three battles in the Civil War to remember, write a question for each battle, but make the choices all three of the battles (and a battle that didn’t actually exist), so you have to remember which battle goes with that question.

You can also write multiple-choice questions where, instead of a definition, you give a description of the correct answer and then list four possible answers:

Kevin steals a donut from the kitchen and blames his brother Jack. Their parents believe Kevin and punish Jack. In this situation, Kevin is _____

a. falsely accused
b. a pure deviant
c. a secret deviant
d. a conformist

Depending on how the question is worded, either Jack or Kevin could be the one whose behavior is described in the set of answers. This allows you to write four similar questions that each have a different correct answer, and it forces your brain to work a little harder to answer the question – which is a good study tactic!

Fill-In-The-Blank Questions

Fill-in-the-blank questions are similar to multiple-choice, but in this case you aren’t given choices for what goes in the blank; you simply have to know it. So in this case you might get a question like:

The _____ of feminism was based on the right to equal treatment with men.

In this case, you have to know the correct answer.

Short Answer Questions

Short answer questions are usually a few sentences to a paragraph, asking you to explain or define something. For example, you might have a short-answer question asking you to explain the difference between secret deviants and pure deviants, or a short-answer question asking you to describe the main points of the Third Wave of feminism. 

To create short-answer questions, write prompts, just like the ones in the above paragraph. Then, for grading your response, write down the main points you should cover in the paragraph as the answer to check your work against.

Essay Questions

Essay questions require a thesis statement, an introduction, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. If you’re given essay questions to prepare ahead of time, make sure you develop a thesis statement and several supporting ideas to “go with” that essay question. Then practice writing a three- to four-paragraph essay on that information, starting with an outline so you don’t get lost. For essay exams, outlining first is a really good idea!

The structure should go like this:

  • Paragraph 1: Thesis statement that introduces the topic, the argument you’ll make about the topic, and how you’ll support it.
    • Example: This essay will compare and contrast the First and Third Waves of feminism. It will demonstrate that the Third Wave could not have happened if the First Wave had not secured women’s voting rights first, by showing how First Wave actions are still central to all waves of feminism and how they directly support the Third Wave. 
  • Paragraphs 2 and 3: Write what you said you’d write in the thesis statement. You might want to compare (show their similarities) the First Wave to the Third Wave in paragraph 2, and then contrast them (show their differences) in paragraph 3.
  • Paragraph 4: Write a conclusion that summarizes what your argument was and how you supported it.

After you’ve written your essay, compare it to the main points you needed to cover.

Equations

Equations are a special case when creating self-quizzes. To practice mathematical equations, use Google to search for worksheets using the name of your course and the specific kinds of equations you need to learn (for example: “calculus worksheet on optimization” or “college algebra linear equations worksheet” will give you lots of hits). Print them out and practice them.

3. Separate Writing the Quiz from Taking the Quiz

In order to practice as you would in a class, you need to give your brain some space away from writing your practice quiz. Ideally, create the quiz as a study session on one day, and wait at least 48 hours before self-quizzing with it.

4. Take and Grade Your Self-Quiz

Take the quiz “cold,” as the first thing in your study session, as if you are taking it on the day of the exam. Unless the exam is open-book or open-note, don’t use your book or notes. If you will only have a limited amount of time for the actual exam, set a timer and stop when it goes off. Do the best you can.

Then grade your self-quiz. Note the questions you did not complete correctly, and create a new self-quiz with those questions.

Keep repeating this pattern (create quiz, wait 48 hours, take quiz, write new quiz on questions you missed) until you’ve passed at least 10% more of the questions than you feel you need to, to get the grade you want on the exam.

Tying It All Together

By self-quizzing, you greatly increase the chance that you will get better scores on your exams (final or otherwise). This is one of the tools that science has shown really works for people who want to improve their exam scores. Try creating your own self-quizzes and see how it works for you!

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