Tips for Students Who “Don’t Do Well on Exams”

– Mark L. Mitchell

If you are one of the many students who think you don’t do well on exams, this handout will help you – if you do two things:

  1. Accept that test-taking skills, like most skills, can be improved (Dweck, 2006). If you follow the tips in this handout and have a positive attitude, you can become one of the thousands of students who will become better test-takers this year. So, instead of saying, “I don’t do well on exams,” say, “I haven’t been doing well on tests, but I will get better.”
  2. Find and fix whatever is causing you to underperform on exams. Specifically, you need to figure out which of the following six obstacles has been most responsible for your not doing well on exams and then use these tips to overcome the offending obstacle.

Six Common Obstacles to Success on Exams

studentgraphic-rTo fix a problem, you have to know what it is. Here are six things that students often do that interfere with their ability to perform as well as possible on tests.

1Not studying enough. You’ll never hear any Olympic medalists say, “I practiced for about an hour this year, so I was ready.” Yet, some students study very little, and then act like there is some mysterious reason that they did poorly on the exam. Obviously, the amount of studying you need to do depends on many factors, but the average college student studies 17 hours a week (and many “A” students study significantly longer). Note that if you spend 15 hours a week in class and 25 hours a week studying, you are still only spending 40 hours a week on your “job” of being a college student. (Your post-college job may be much more demanding: According to Harvard Business Review, most American professionals work 72 hours a week [Deal, 2013]).

2Thinking you know it when you don’t: When “knowing” isn’t knowing. For some students, “knowing” means recognizing that they have seen a term. For most professors, on the other hand, “knowing” means being able to (a) define the term, (b) explain how the term differs from other terms, (c) use the term in a paragraph, and (d) apply it to solve a problem. If you assume your professor wants you to know all these things, you should ask yourself whether you know the material to your professor’s satisfaction. If you believe your professor only wants you to memorize information, ask to be sure that your assumption is correct. Similarly, just because your professor says the test will be multiple-choice, don’t assume that your professor is interested only in memorization: Multiple-choice tests are very good at seeing whether you know the difference between related terms, and can also be used to assess how well you can apply concepts.

If your professor wants you to show that you have a good understanding of key concepts, you should be able to explain (without notes) those concepts. Specifically, when you study, each explanation of a key concept should be ADEPT: it should contain an Analogy, Diagram, Example, Plain language definition, and Technical language definition (Azid, 2014). Note that, depending on the course and professor, your definition may need to include (a) the name of the person associated with the concept, (b) how the term differs from related terms, and (c) an evaluation—based on evidence—of the concept’s validity.

3Not knowing what’s important. Your professor probably expects you to know what the most important concepts are and to be able to distinguish main ideas from supporting details. If you are having trouble identifying what is most important, outline the material. In addition, make a list of terms and try to order the terms from most to least important. If you are unsure whether your outlines and lists accurately reflect what is important, ask a classmate or your professor to review them.

4“Studying” without really studying. If you are going to study for a test, you should practice what you will be asked to do on the test. If you won’t be asked to read over your notes quickly or re-read a chapter on a test, don’t “study” by doing those things; instead, study by testing yourself. Although testing yourself is harder than re-reading your notes, remember: No strain, no gain. Put another way, you wouldn’t want your favorite sports team to play their first game without ever having scrimmaged – why would you show up for the test without having taken several practice tests?

Another common and inefficient way of “studying” is to cram. Cramming to prepare for a test is like training for a 5K race by running a marathon the night before the race—you may feel virtuous, but it would have been much better to have run a few miles every day in the weeks leading up to the race.

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 4.13.11 PMPanicking. Is the pressure of the exam causing you to panic? You are not alone—even the great Michael Jordan did not perform at his best while under pressure (Weisinger & Pawliw-Fry, 2015). So, what can you do?

One successful approach is to overprepare, so that you, like Michael Jordan, don’t have to perform at your best to perform well. By testing yourself consistently in the weeks before the exam, you will be able to confidently say to yourself, “I got this.”

Another thing you can do is reduce the pressure you are putting on yourself. You can recognize that everyone else is also being affected by pressure, recognize that the points you lose due to panicking are probably not that many (and certainly would have a minimal effect on your GPA, much less your life), and remember that you have strategies for dealing with panic. More importantly, focus on showing what you have learned rather than focusing on what grade you might get. Some suggestions:

  • If you are still feeling stressed during the exam, try seeing yourself as “psyched” for the exam rather than nervous. Think about how the pressure of the exam may improve your performance by causing you to be alert, careful, and focused (Jamieson, Mendes, & Nock, 2013).
  • If you are having trouble concentrating, take a minute or two to “hit the reset button” by taking a few deep breaths, thinking about a particularly happy moment, or imagining that you are at home taking a practice exam. Then, return to the exam.
  • If your thoughts are racing, write down those thoughts on your test or on scratch paper. Writing down thoughts that are irrelevant to the question you are answering may clear those distracting thoughts from your head; writing down relevant thoughts will help you focus on information that will help you answer the question.
  • If you feel like you don’t know anything related to the test questions, remind yourself that, if you studied, that can’t be correct. Indeed, the opposite should be true: If you know the material, your professor wants you to do well. So, think about what you know (it may help to think back to when you were studying the material or to imagine explaining what you have learned to a friend). After focusing on what you know (rather than on what you don’t know), think about how what you know applies to the test questions. To build up some confidence and momentum, scan the test and answer the simpler questions first. If your test has multiple-choice questions, eliminate some of the obviously wrong answers—and see whether some of the questions contain clues for answering other questions.
  • If the options for many of the multiple-choice questions seem the same, you can do three things.
    1. First, turn the multiple-choice questions into a fill-in-the-blanks question by writing down an answer to the question before you read the options. Then, see which of the provided answers matches your answer.
    2. Second, if you are torn between two answers, write down an explanation for why one answer is correct but the other answer is also correct. Usually, writing such explanations will lead you to conclude that one answer is clearly correct.
    3. Finally, remember that if there is only one right answer and two options are truly identical, neither can be correct. They are either not identical or both incorrect.

6Choking. Obviously, panicking—your mind going blank, being completely unfocused, or being filled with self-doubt—can be a problem. However, some students have the opposite problem—choking. In choking, students lock on to their first interpretation of a question or their first approach to answering a question, and they don’t let go. Whereas panicked students often feel lost and either don’t see a path to the right answer or don’t know which path to take, students who are choking take the first path they think of—and will stick to that path, ignoring almost any signs indicating that they are on the wrong track. Whereas the student who is panicking may fail to read the question, the student who is choking may misread the question. When answering questions, panicked students may go blank or doubt that their answer is correct. Students who choke, on the other hand, have an answer—but they don’t consider whether it is the correct one.

If you have a history of giving the right answer to the wrong question, carefully read the questions. As you read each question, underline key words such as not, always, never, describe, list, define, evaluate, and contrast. If the question makes no sense to you, slowly reread the question. Then, imagine you are the professor and you are writing the question. Why did you write this question? What do you want students to show you? In addition, review the key concepts your professor has emphasized and consider how they could help you answer the question.

Before writing down your answer, imagine that your initial approach to the question is wrong. If so, what approach or answer would you give instead? In addition, imagine being your professor grading your answer. What might your professor wish you had done differently? Or, imagine your professor is reviewing the test in preparation to give it to the class. What would your professor say the question was designed to show? What kinds of answers would your professor like? What kinds of answers would your professor find disappointing?

Final thoughts

Preparing to take a test is like preparing to do anything: Although practice doesn’t make perfect, good practice makes for better performance. If you have practiced what you are going to do, you will do better than if you haven’t. Most people do less well than in practice (nerves!), but if you have practiced consistently and well, you should be prepared to do well.

To turn that preparation into performance, do what all successful athletes, musicians, and performers do—warm up and then get focused. Right before a test, warm up by quizzing yourself (or having a classmate quiz you), then take some deep breaths while you imagine yourself doing well on the test. Good luck!


Azid, K. (2014). Learn difficult concepts with the ADEPT method. Retrieved from

Deal, J. J. (2013, September 12). Welcome to the 72-Hour Work Week. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Dweck, D. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., & Nock, M. K. (2013). Improving acute stress responses: The power of reappraisal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 51-56.

Weisinger, H., & Pawliw-Fry, J. P. (2015). Performing under pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most. New York, NY: Crown Business.

Mark L. Mitchell is professor of psychology at Clarion University. He has written several books including Research design explained (now in its 8th edition), Writing for psychology (in its 4th edition), and Lifespan development: A topical approach.





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3 Responses to Tips for Students Who “Don’t Do Well on Exams”

  1. Pingback: Helping Four Types of Students Who “Don’t Do Well On Tests”: The Unprepared, the Improperly Prepared, the Panicking, and the Stuck | Hand in Hand

  2. Pingback: Study Guides and Guiding Study | Hand in Hand

  3. Pingback: Ten (Unproven) Ways to Build a Growth Mindset | Hand in Hand

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