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Top tips for students who underperform in exams

Cambridge Learners  Teaching strategies   Exam tipsteaching strategiesTest-taking skills

Have you ever heard students say that they don’t do well in exams?

Do some of your students struggle to show what they know in tests?

Help is here. Cambridge International’s research team have reviewed the evidence about the strategies that help students to do well in exams and put together some handy hints to support your students to achieve success in their tests.

Test-taking skills

At Cambridge International we take great care to avoid measuring skills such as how quickly a candidate can write under timed conditions, or how good they are at making clever guesses with multiple-choice questions without really knowing the answer.

However, it is challenging to assess students’ knowledge and skills of a subject area without interference from a range of factors. On the day of a test, candidates might feel nervous and make mistakes. They might:

  • mis-manage their time
  • miss or skip questions
  • fail to follow the instructions
  • make errors through nervousness.

Such instances can leave students feeling frustrated because they couldn’t do their best. In these cases, candidates’ results are affected by weak test-taking skills.

The good news is that test-taking strategies, which are the skills and approaches that candidates can use before and during a test to improve their outcomes, can get better with practice. Preparation and practice can help learners feel confident that their test results will reflect their ability in a subject, rather than measure their test-taking skills.

Preparing for success

Here are some top tips and tricks for pre-test preparation.

  • Practice makes perfect: High achieving pupils often practise with past papers. Less successful students do not look at previous papers, or they might flick through the content without attempting the questions 1.
  • Prepare with peers: Top achievers are more likely to ask their teachers or peers for support with tricky topics ahead of tests 2,3.
  • Confidence is key: Feeling well-prepared is linked to better test outcomes 4. Preparation can also reduce test-anxiety which can affect students’ performance.5

During the test

There is plenty that students can do during the test to improve their performance.

  • Perfect pace: Depending on the timings of the test, slow and steady might not win the race, nor will being too quick and hasty. High-attaining students usually work at a moderate to fast pace 4 striking the right balance between speed and accuracy 4.
  • Attempt an answer: Students who submit more complete tests are likely to get better results. That is because those who attempt challenging questions have a chance at gaining marks for their efforts, whereas those who skip questions can’t be rewarded 4,6,7.
  • Best to guess: For multiple-choice questions, if there’s no penalty for incorrect answers, it’s best to make a guess 5,7. However, not all guesses are equal – before guessing, students should look carefully at the answer options to see if they can eliminate any that they know are wrong 3,5.
  • Review and rectify: High-attaining students are more likely to check their answers at the end of the test.2

Tips for teachers

  • Keep practice in proportion: Dedicating a lot of classroom time to test-preparation might not be wise. Although some pupils may benefit from being familiar with test formats 8,  too much focus on test-taking strategies can lead to narrow ‘teaching-to-the-test’ approaches. This exam-focussed style of teaching is not clearly linked to improved student outcomes 9 and can limit learning 10.
  • Encourage enjoyment: Research shows that there is a link between enjoyment and test-attainment 6.  Motivate your students to find fun in the learning and assessment process and encourage them to enjoy having the chance to show off what they’ve learnt.

We hope these tips will support your students to do their best during tests.

If you’re interested in exploring more ways to help your learners improve their thinking and study skills, our March 2022 online Cambridge Schools Conference theme is ‘Thinking about thinking’. Workshop sessions are taking place up to 17 March and you can register for free on our website. Recordings of the workshops will also be published on our website.


1.         Stenlund, T., Eklöf, H. & Lyrén, P.-E. Group differences in test-taking behaviour: an example from a high-stakes testing program. Assess. Educ. Princ. Policy Pract. 24, 4–20 (2017).

2.         Hong, E., Sas, M. & Sas, J. C. Test-Taking Strategies of High and Low Mathematics Achievers. J. Educ. Res. 99, 144-155,192 (2006).

3.         Nikolov, M. Test-taking Strategies of 12- and 13-year-old Hungarian Learners of EFL: Why Whales Have Migraines. Lang. Learn. 56, 1–51 (2006).

4.         Bornholt, L. J. An Analysis of Children’s Task Strategies for a Test of Reading Comprehension. Contemp. Educ. Psychol. 27, 80–98 (2002).

5.         Peng, Y., Hong, E. & Mason, E. Motivational and cognitive test-taking strategies and their influence on test performance in mathematics. Educ. Res. Eval. 20, 366–385 (2014).

6.         Twist, L. & Sainsbury, M. Girl friendly? Investigating the gender gap in national reading tests at age 11. Educ. Res. 51, 283–297 (2009).

7.         Clemens, N. H., Davis, J. L., Simmons, L. E., Oslund, E. L. & Simmons, D. C. Interpreting Secondary Students’ Performance on a Timed, Multiple-Choice Reading Comprehension Assessment: The Prevalence and Impact of Non-Attempted Items. J. Psychoeduc. Assess. 33, 154–165 (2015).

8.         Fuchs, L. S. et al. The Importance of Providing Background Information on the Structure and Scoring of Performance Assessments. Appl. Meas. Educ. 13, 1–34 (2000).

9.         Li, H. & Xiong, Y. The relationship between test preparation and state test performance: Evidence from the Measure of Effective Teaching (MET) project. Educ. Policy Anal. Arch. 26, 64–64 (2018).

10.       Watkins, C. Learning, performance and improvement. 1–16 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/257936773_Learning_Performance_and_Improvement_Research_Matters_series_No_34 (2010).

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