Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Use Practice Tests to Prepare for Standardized Tests

Casey Konstantin
If you follow trends in education, chances are you've heard about the importance of practice tests. To sum it up: Exciting research about memory has indicated that the best way to learn something is to take practice tests instead of traditional studying. Many education-centered magazines, newspapers, and blogs have been reporting on this idea and, for related content, you can access other posts we've written about this subject:
Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Taking practice tests to prepare for run-of-the-mill, in-class exams--such as a biology midterm written by the teacher--can be tricky, since ready-made practice tests don’t typically exist for tests of this kind; in these cases, we encourage students to make their own practice tests. But students preparing for a standardized test can access pre-made tests through a variety of sources. In the old days, students bought books of practice tests from companies like Kaplan, Barron’s, and The College Board. But increasingly, practice tests are available online, often for free.

The quality of free online practice tests varies, but there are some gems out there. For example, The College Board website offers practice questions for the AP exams and practice questions and a full-length, online practice SAT test. Students preparing for the ACT will find The Princeton Review’s full-length practice test useful. And Varsity Tutors has recently launched a very good “one-stop-shop” practice testing site  with access to practice questions, questions of the day, and sample tests for a multitude of exams, including the SAT, ACT, GRE, GED, ISEE, SSAT, and AP. Many of the tests feature a useful content instruction option that explains how to find the answer to several practice questions and problems; students can start here, then move to the flashcards to practice. As an added bonus, it’s possible to create a free account that will track one’s progress through the content.

Some online practice tests include a timer function. While this is not essential, it can be very helpful as students get a sense of their work pace in anticipation of a timed exam. One feature that is essential, however, is access to thoughtful explanations for correct answers. It’s important that students know more than whether they were right or wrong, and good practice sites will explain why the right answer is the best choice. Very good sites will even explain why the wrong answers are incorrect, tempting though some of them may be.

To make the most out of practice tests, students should keep the following points in mind:

  • Make sure the format of your practice test matches the format of the actual test. If you’ll be testing on paper, print out the practice test and take it with a pencil. Signed up for a computer-based test? Taking it on the screen is fine. 
  • Take the test under time constraints – at some point. For students who are nervous testers or those first encountering the test format, it may be a good idea to start out with an untimed practice round to test the waters. Students should be sure to take the test at least once under the time constraints they’ll face on the actual test day, though; it’s important that they know whether their natural pace is appropriate, and working under simulated pressure will help them feel more comfortable when taking the real test.
  • Make sure practice conditions match test conditions as closely as possible. Don’t curl up on the couch with a laptop to prepare for a computer-based test; sit at a table or desk in a quiet, distraction-free space instead. Have scratch paper ready if the test allows it. Don’t snack or drink while working. It’s important to gain familiarity with testing conditions, not just the test format and content.

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