Counterintuitive Ways to Improve Test Scores

I teach a course that ends with a big standardized exam at the end. The first few years I taught it, I used to do test prep by the book. I gave my students a sample exam each quarter. They had 42 minutes to complete 40 of the 55 multiple-choice questions and I counted the results as a test grade. As a class, we would review the questions the following day, sometimes in small-group breakdowns, sometimes as whole-class instruction. The two weeks before the exam we were in full-on, test-prep mode, drilling and killing. I thought I was preparing them for the rigors of the exam. I thought I was exposing them to college-level work. I thought this was a sound instructional practice.

But my scores did not budge.

The logical conclusion was that my students needed more preparation to do better, not less. So that is what I did it. I gave them review packets with question stems and vocabulary words. I printed out Sparknotes summaries of the novels that we read, but that did not help either.

Then, I started making small tweaks to my testing philosophy even though it seemed counterintuitive. my scores rose. I made a few more tweaks and they soared.

In a three-year span I increased my students’ scores by 30%.

Here are the Four Counterintuitive Ways I Improved My Test Scores

1. To Prepare Students for the Test I Forget About the Test

Instead of testing my students with quarterly practice exams, I did not show them a single question until March. Exposing them early often crushed their confidence because they did not have the skills to succeed on such a demanding exam.

Now, I build skills from September to February, putting them in a position to be successful when they see their first sample question in March. They now arrive from a position of strength rather than one of weakness.

2. I Took Away All the Stress

Each quarter ended with a big practice exam right before grades were calculated and reports cards were sent home. Talk about anxiety-inducing fear. So many of my students are grade conscious, and to have a big exam at the end of the quarter, one that tested if they were capable of doing college-level work as high-school students, created tension, fear, and disappointment.

Now I do Multiple-Choice Mondays in March. My students take 10 practice questions each Monday that don’t count for a grade. It is just practice, but practice with a purpose. I use Socrative to record the results, and I use those results as a measurement that informs my instruction. It is a win-win because they don’t have to sweat it and there are no tears, and I get the data I need to inform my instruction that week.

3. Everything Was Implied

I once thought that the best way to prepare students for the test was to directly instruct it. That is why we would review the questions, but instead of exposing my students to many of my students to new learning, many expressed that these review sessions felt like it exposed their failures.

Now, I employ implied instruction rather than direct instruction. I teach the same skills that appear on the exam, it just happens within the context of my normal teaching units, not a quarterly exam. This resulted from reviewing years of practice exams and identifying the key skills that are tested over and over again and developing ways to embed those skills within my regular instructional practice with the novels and poems that I teach.

4. I Joined In

When I gave quarterly exams or in-class essays I would always grade the period before while my current class was writing or taking the exam.

On an early podcast interview with Chris Lehman, author of Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts,  he urged all teachers to write along with their students. Doing so allows a teacher to experience what a student experiences. It is an act of teaching compassion, putting yourself in your students’ shoes and riding along for the struggle to write a thesis, develop topic sentences, and incorporate supporting details.

Now, with every essay I assign and with each Multiple-Choice Monday, I am right their with them writing along and answering close reading questions. It allows me to be more empathetic as a teacher. To a certain extent, I feel what they feel. I experience the frustration of getting a question wrong when the evidence was plainly in sight. I know what it is like to have an idea that needs to be articulated but struggle to find the words to express it. I can also express my thought process to them, modeling the way I work through a question.

Which counterintuitive approaches have you used to prepare your students for exams? Please share your ideas in the comments section below.

  • Tim Averill

    I agree with what Brian has suggested, although I do use the questions, but never for an individual grade. Here’s my strategy:


    • Bad Teaching is answering questions nobody is asking.

    • The smaller the discussion group, the more participants are involved.

    • Students are less threatened and more apt to contribute when discussing in smaller groups.

    • Students explore more deeply the thinking rationale involved in the selection of the answers.

    • The students are engaged in metacognition, the self-regulating of their understanding.

    • The students are doing the “teaching,” and the teacher is facilitating


    • Give multiple-choice test and have students record answer on answer sheet.

    • Break into small groups according to purpose.

    • Choose randomly or differentiate members so that each group has a variation of skill, ability, or personality type according to desired outcome.

    • Students in each group have to come to a consensus on each answer.

    • Students persuade each other by demonstrating the reasoning in the selection.

    • Students must be able to defend and offer evidence for choice.

    • One student from each group has to report out to the other groups in a whole group setting.

    • All groups must have the same answer.

    • If groups have differing answers, they must say “hold” and continue to the next question.

    • After all the questions are asked, the group goes back to the “holds” and negotiates which is the correct answer for the contested items.

    • All groups must reach consensus on the answers.

    • All students have agreed on one answer for each item.

    • Teacher goes through the answer key with the students.

    • Teacher corrects any wrong answer and explains reasoning.

    • All students receive the same grade.

  • Kelly D. Vorhis

    I stopped ‘teaching to the test’ a few years ago and as a result my students’ scores skyrocketed. I focus on building reading and writing skills along with relationships with my high school students and try to make the End-of-Course Assessments as stress-free as possible.

    My answer of “I don’t teach to the test” is always met with silence at state led meetings that focus on mandatory assessments because every other teacher has already given a run down of the numerous practice tests, drills, etc. they do with their students.

    I think #4 is probably the most important for me as an English teacher because I’m willing to get ‘down in the trenches’ with my students reading and writing, and I talk about what I struggle with as a writer all the time in class. I tell my students that I will never give them an assignment that 1) I haven’t worked through myself before assigning to them; or 2) that I will be completing with them, we will be working out the bugs together (I’m delving into project-based learning this year). Students are often speechless when I do/say this, and yet adapt quickly…

    I’ll stop typing here, as I could go on forever. Loving this post!

  • Pam Webb

    I do the same thing and start sprints, small sections in September and go through the year. My students build confidence and skills and say it’s one of the most helpful aspects of preparation. As for essays, those are every other week. None of the practice sessions are graded. Not even the quarterly test of full MC test and one essay. Exposure builds familarity which builds confidence. As for least helpful? I found a 50 question MC on Hamlet–that was a mistake. Way too much overload.

  • Pleasure reading! So many of my students come to my class as reluctant readers, and one of my greatest joys is seeing them discover (or rediscover) reading for fun. And plenty of research says that is one of the best ways to prepare for a test — they build so many skills just from reading great books every day.