QCE Tests: How to Maximise Your ScoresBy Lauren White in QCE
28th of February 2019
My older brother was always told he “didn’t test well.” All throughout his schooling life he’d get feedback from teachers to the effect of “you know your stuff, but your marks don’t reflect that.” And he’d get immeasurably frustrated by the fact that no matter how much he knew and no matter how watertight his understanding of a topic was, he be in the same D+/C bandwidth every time.
Unfortunately, though his school was excellent at catering to his learning style and making sure he had a grasp on the content, they never taught him the vital test taking skills he needed. Beyond a few odd school assembly speeches on why it’s important to keep calm and take deep breaths, he was largely on his own when it came to maximising his grades in assessment tasks.
And even for students with much higher average marks, there is a tendency for people to feel unprepared regardless of how many hours they’ve spent studying for an upcoming test. We might roll our eyes and scoff when our friend who’s been consistently scoring about 98% all year says they’re going to fail next week, but some people are in fact plagued by a seemingly inexplicable fear that everything might go wrong. A student once described it to me as feeling like she’d tossed a coin seven hundred times, and by some statistical anomaly, it had landed on heads every single time. But at any moment, it was bound to land on tails, and her marks and confidence would come tumbling down.
So what can you do to combat this feeling? The easy way out is to just tell you that you need to prepare better… but that’s probably not entirely true. After all, since we’re talking statistical anomalies, it’s entirely possible that you could devote every waking hour to memorising content and doing practice exams for a particular subject, only to find that the exam itself is comprised of all the questions you didn’t practise and can’t confidently answer. It’s not about the content, therefore, but about how you approach test taking. And there are three very important things you should know in order to boost your test taking ability.
1. QCE tests: know what you know
First and foremost, accept that there are things you don’t know. Work hard throughout the year to minimise the amount of stuff you don’t know, but still keep yourself grounded in the knowledge that there might end up being a maths question or an essay topic that is outside the scope of your ability.
Most test taking advice ends here, with someone telling you to just keep calm and do your best. But what does that actually entail? It all comes down to efficiency and not wasting time attempting to gain marks at the expense of definitely being able to earn some elsewhere.
There’s an element of personalisation here in that whilst some people prefer to do the easiest and least time consuming tasks first so as to leave as much time as possible for difficult questions, others will tackle the hard stuff early instead. This is a particularly valuable skill in exams that blend multiple choice, short answer, or extended response questions as you’ll be able to prioritise whichever sections you want.
And sometimes, it’ll just come down to your own brutal honesty. Accepting that a test or a particular question is difficult is the first necessary step to getting through it, otherwise you’ll be mentally berating yourself for not being able to provide a quick and accurate response. Remind yourself that if you’re not able to bypass a certain obstacle within a reasonable amount of time, the smart thing to do is to be pragmatic and either try a new method, or just move on. And granted, there are a tiny minority of ultra smart students across the state who can answer every question confidently, but the vast majority of high achievers are the ones who know what they’re capable of and can make their marks reflect their abilities. Some questions are manageable if you can set aside sufficient time and allow yourself to have a few trial and error attempts first, but others may simply be unrealistic given your current understanding, which is totally fine. Just take it in your stride, and prioritise the marks you know are within your reach.
Incidentally, this can be a useful tactic to aid you in your preparation for tests too. Go through a list of required topics or abilities and be critical about how much you know and how much you don’t. This can help you identify any areas of weakness, but also stops you from needing to spend hours revising the same old content.
2. QCE tests: know what the test wants you to do.
There’s a reason your textbook can’t take the exam for you (aside from the obvious…) and it’s because most exams involve some kind of application of skill, not just simple regurgitation of information. Even in short answer questions for humanities subjects, it’s up to you to be able to select, demonstrate, and apply knowledge.
One of my family friends used to be a marker for a Business subject and he used to joke that he could (almost) always accurately predict a student’s overall score on the exam based on how they answered the first page of short answer responses. If a student was giving low-range answers, then they’d be unlikely to turn things around for the remaining questions. But the ones who were providing too much information by just churning out everything they knew about a given topic were less impressive than those who gave what he called ‘Goldilocks answers’. Not too much, not too little, but juuuust right. And it makes sense – if you were looking for an amazing archer, would you want the guy who shot a hundred arrows at a target and had one of them hit the bulls eye, or the guy who could fire a single shot right on the mark? Because the students who know how to do the latter are definitely the assessors’ favourites.
Familiarity with the kinds of questions likely to come up is a key part of this strategy, so going over practice questions as a means of predicting what might be examined is a great starting point. But it usually helps to think on a small scale about what each individual question, or even each element of each question, is asking of you. Dissect those essay prompts, critically examine those short answer questions, and reread those maths problems several times before you attempt your answers. And, if you’re lucky enough to have some time left over at the end, revisit as many answers as you can and determine how effectively you have answered the question and demonstrated your knowledge. Though this self-evaluation may take awhile at first, the process will become automatic fairly quickly, and before long, you’ll be able to maximise the efficiency of your responses by finding a balance between breadth and brevity.
3. QCE tests: know your limitations and be aware of the time constraints
One of my proudest moments in Year 12 was the end of my last Maths exam. No, it wasn’t because I’d never have to do maths again. It was because when I looked at the last page of extended response questions, I knew straight away that I couldn’t handle it. I later found out that it was just an abnormally difficult section (2013 Maths Methods Exam 2, for those VCE kids brave enough to try) and that over 90% of the state failed to get a single mark for many of those questions. But it was oddly calming. Maths had always been my weakest subject, and I was strangely relieved to be able to look at a question and say ‘nope. I’m not even going to bother.’ So I didn’t. Instead, I scribbled down a few formulae in the hopes of scrounging a pity point or two, and then used my remaining fifteen minutes to go back over the whole paper to find and fix any silly mistakes I’d made.
Even if I had been able to answer those last few questions (which I’m confident in admitting would not have happened, no matter how much time I was given) I would have earned six marks in total. But by going through all those other questions, I found ten marks’ worth of little errors (including the one that will haunt me to my grave: 8-8=4. Good job, brain). In the end, my maths result was still my lowest overall, but I have no regrets about the way I handled that paper because I could not have gotten a higher result in that situation.
The point of this is not to discourage you or glorify my own ineptitude because you obviously want to go into every piece of assessment with as many skills and as much confidence as possible, but in situations where the demands of the task do not match your level of preparation, there’s no sense wasting time lamenting the fact that you should’ve spent more time learning X instead of Y. Good test taking skills are often about making the best of a bad situation (or, hopefully, making the best of an already awesome situation).
So the next time you’re in test conditions and find yourself wrestling with what knowledge needs to be expressed and how best you can express it, consider developing your own test taking approach by refining not only the way you answer questions, but the way you approach tasks in general. The most effective kind of student is a self-aware one, so don’t stress if you don’t consider yourself to be the smartest in your cohort – there’s so much more to scoring highly than raw knowledge anyway. Test taking may not be a skill that’s taught well (or at all) in schools, but luckily it’s one that’s easy to acquire with a decent amount of practice.
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