Student’s exam scores can also be affected by not pacing themselves when answering questions throughout the exam (Thomas & Baker, 2011). If students spend too much time on several questions, they may not be able to finish the exam or resort to wild guessing at the end of the test and unnecessarily lose points.
Guessing or changing answers. Before taking any test, the student should know if there is a penalty for guessing. Most nursing tests do not have a penalty for guessing, and thus, students should make a guess. Students have a better chance of answering the question correctly when they can make an informed guess or can eliminate several incorrect answers.
Students may risk making an error by changing an answer. Changing answer from incorrect to correct only improves the answer 50% of the time (George, Juller, & Bartz, 2016), and students who are anxious or are not well prepared tend to change their answers more often. If students recognize that they have made a mistake and change the answer are likely to answer the item correctly (Frank, 2020).
Faculty can help students manage each of these factors by orienting the students to taking tests at the beginning of the curriculum, in each course prior to taking an exam, during the course by using ungraded practice test questions and when returning the test to the student for review. Each of these moments offer opportunities to teach students how to develop the metacognitive strategies required to be a successful test-taker.
Teaching students to learn test-taking skills before they take a test: Test-taking readiness assessment
There are several strategies faculty can use to help students be successful test-takers before they administer a test. One strategy is to conduct an orientation to test-taking at the beginning of the program, and/or at the beginning of each course. The session could include a discussion and demonstration using several types of test questions to teach the students about.
- The structure of a question on a nursing test: the scenario, question (stem), answers.
- The cognitive function required to answer the question (apply knowledge; analyze data; evaluate, or create).
- The nursing action needed (develop a teaching plan/care plan; interact with the health care team; give a report, calculate a drug dose/IV drip rate).
- The step and type of a critical thinking, nursing process, or clinical judgment model to use to answer the question (assess/recognize cues, form a hypothesis/make a nursing diagnosis, etc.), use a management process (delegate, communicate).
- Basing an answer on best nursing practices.
- How to select the correct answer; guessing; changing answers.
- Strategies to manage distraction, anxiety, pacing.
Strategies to use as class preparation and during class
Faculty can offer students opportunities to take ungraded, self-directed practice tests. For example, faculty can, using a learning management system, offer an ungraded pretest/practice test before students come to class. Students can also be directed to use test questions that are included in ancillary materials that accompany a textbook. During class, faculty can embed practice questions in PowerPoint slides after each “teaching segment”/ “theory burst” and help the students parse the question and determine the correct answer. Faculty can also take advantage of teaching/learning technology such as polling and interactive software such as Padlet or Jam Board to provide students an opportunity to practice and receive feedback while working alone or in groups to solve case studies. To ensure that students are not only learning and practicing the application of content, faculty can ask the student to use a test-taking readiness questionnaire when they are taking practice tests, using questions from test review books or using online tests. (See Figure 1, Test-taking Readiness Questionnaire which you can adapt for your specific needs).
Figure 1: Test-taking readiness questionnaire
- I understand the structure of a test question: I can identify relevant and irrelevant information in the scenario; when I read the question, I understand what the question asking and how the question relates to information in the scenario and information from sources such as the electronic health record, nurses notes, a prescription, or lab reports.
- I can identify the type/format of a question and the best strategy to use when answering this type of question.
- I can recognize the cognitive function required to answer the question (know and apply information; analyze data from various sources; evaluate outcomes of care; or create a shift report, teaching plan, or staffing plan.
- I understand the process to use to answer the question such as the steps of a clinical judgment process, and can establish priorities for patient care.
- I can use anxiety management and time management strategies that work for me.
- I understand when I should guess or change an answer.
Teaching students to improve test-taking skills after they take the test: Exam wrappers
Faculty also have an opportunity to help students improve their test-taking skills after they take a test. Typically, faculty conduct a post-exam review with students, with the entire class, in a small group or by appointment. Unless structured carefully, these test reviews can end up with students challenging answers to earn more points, rather than having students focus on why they did not answer the question correctly. Using exam wrappers can change the focus of the review session from challenging a question to developing test-taking skills.
An exam wrapper is a structured questionnaire used by students to identify which factors influenced how they answered the question. The goal of using exam wrappers is to help students develop metacognitive skills to improve their test-taking abilities (Schuler & Chung, 2019). When using an exam wrapper, students identify the strengths and limitations of their test-preparation strategies; reflect on the link between exam preparation and their test score; identify patterns and reasons for incorrect answers and determine changes they can make in their approach to preparing for the test and answering the questions correctly. (See Figure 2 for an example of an exam wrapper which you can adapt for your specific needs).
Although faculty can use the exam wrapper in a variety of ways, here is one approach. To use an exam wrapper, students bring the exam wrapper to the test review session. While maintaining exam security, students review their scored test and answer the questionnaire. Faculty can then guide the students to self-reflect, discuss with a peer, or invite the student to meet individually for further discussion. When working with a group of students, the entire process should take about 10 minutes. To maintain exam security, faculty can collect the exam wrappers and the test at the end of the review session.
Post exam reviews with students using exam wrappers also give faculty an opportunity to discuss the content of questions which most students answered incorrectly and suggest strategies that would help students answer a particular type of question. Exam wrappers are most effective when they are used consistently across the course and curriculum as students develop their metacognitive skills for test-taking. The emphasis is on what the student did to prepare for the test, the types of mistakes they made, strategies that may be more effective, and how they will prepare differently for the next test.