Ace Any Standardized Test (SAT, GRE, MCAT) For Free

The original purpose of the standardized test was to level out the playing field for applicants to degree programs. As we all know, the magnitude of expensive prep programs and materials have tipped the balance in the favor of those that can afford them. Nevertheless, there is still a way to uncrack these tests without spending such a large sum. The great thing about standardized test prep is that a lot of the things you learn while studying can also help you in all your other academic work as well.

At home test preparation requires some effort, especially motivation to do well in the first place. For many test preparation classes, this is the job of the instructor. The instructor supervises performance and supports improvement. However, if you are self-disciplined enough, you can be your own teacher.

The first step for at home prep is to develop a realistic study schedule. If you plan on studying for the SAT during the school year, you must assign a day and/or time that you will stick to until your test date. Ask yourself: how long will you give yourself before your registered test date to study? 6 months? A year? Will you be willing to study daily in small increments or study weekly in larger ones? Planning is another thing that you pay test prep companies to do for you and if this already seems overwhelming to you, check out my time management section. I must warn you that I’m still working on this section (I have only 2 articles up at this point), but if you would like some personalized advice, please feel free to email me.

The first thing you can do to improve your English score is to memorize vocabulary. My favorite tool for this task is Visual Education Study Card sets. Instead of buying the SAT vocabulary, I highly recommend the English I and II cards. The great thing about VisEd is that they include a sentence using the word on the flashcard, which made it easy for me to learn the definitions as well as incorporating these words are best used in my own writing. So in a lot of ways, this method kills two birds with one stone: you are improving your verbal score plus improving your ability to write concisely. Also, you do not need to buy these vocabulary sets. You can always make your own vocabulary flashcards inexpensively by pulling up test-specific vocabulary lists online.

Although it may seem like a mundane task, vocabulary is one of the most important aspects of any standardized test and you can never learn too many words. If you go for the VisEd card sets, there are a total of 2,000 words to be memorized. Whatever you may choose as your vocabulary test prep, do recognize that vocabulary is important in both the critical reading and grammar sections of the test. It improves comprehension of passages, elucidates on grammatical usage of words, and reveals redundancy.

Learning 2,000 words may appear impossible, but this is when your time management comes into play. For example, if you are committing your entire 10-week summer to the test and want to learn all of the words by then, you will need to memorize 200 words/week. This means 40 words/day if you want your weekends off. It took me about an hour to really get the words down.

You will also need test preparation books by any major test prep company. These can be found at the library for free and the sample tests, the most important part, copied quite cheaply. Otherwise, you can always purchase them used or new. I have also found that the these books do not normally vary much year-to-year, but it is more helpful to use books that are geared towards a newer version of the test such as the new 2400 SAT rather than the old 1600.

Getting as many of the sample tests and their answer keys with explanations is key to doing well on standardized tests. Finding a resource that provides real previous tests is even better. But in the end, once you have a method to build your vocabulary and your practice tests, you are set to start.

Increasing your vocabulary will surely affect your performance, but there is still that dreaded reading comprehension section. There is a solution to this. For me, I always did well on the reading comprehension because I outlined every passage while reading. By outlining, I mean quickly writing down a summary of each sentence. For instance, the following passage is Sparknotes’s current example:

Galileo Galilei was born in 1564 into a Europe wracked by cultural ferment and religious strife. The popes of the Roman Catholic Church, powerful in their roles as both religious and secular leaders, had proven vulnerable to the worldly and decadent spirit of the age, and their personal immorality brought the reputation of the papacy to historic lows. In 1517, Martin Luther, a former monk, attacked Catholicism for having become too worldly and politically corrupt and for obscuring the fundamentals of Christianity with pagan elements. His reforming zeal, which appealed to a notion of an original, “purified”

Christianity, set in motion the Protestant Reformation and split European Christianity in two.

My outline would look something like this:

-Galileo was born in Europe when there was cultural boom and religious upheaval.

-Even the popes succumbed to the pressures and gave into their immorality

-Martin Luther later appeared to denounce Catholicism and it’s corruption and proposed a more “purified” form of Christianity

-This led to the split of Christianity into Catholicism and Protestantism.

Now the question:

Which of the following was not a reason for Martin Luther’s attack on the church?

a. pagan elements in its practices

b. the amorality of its leadership

c. its excessive attention to piety

d. its corruption and worldliness

e. the political involvement of the popes

As you can see, the answer cannot necessarily be found in the outline (i.e. I did not include that Luther had an issue with pagan elements in it) but by the act of outlining, it has increased your comprehension by having to mull over the content of the passage. Also, you can see that knowing the definition of words such as ferment and strife could have significantly improved your comprehension of the purpose of the passage. The answer to this question is C.

Generally, this works best with non-narrative passages, where you will most likely be given a question speculating the author’s opinion and/or argument. The outline format could work with narratives as well, but the trick is moreover identifying points of ambiguity in the passage, such as vocabulary words, that will most likely be questioned in the multiple choice.

There are many other methods you can find in test prep books, but I find this one the most effective. The secret is to find the method that you are best at, which can only be figured out by practicing as much as you can. Realistically, your outline will not look like the one I have typed above because of the time constraint. My outlines normally were sloppily written phrases or words, but they were well worth the effort. This plan can serve as a disadvantage at first since it will take longer to finish a section. However, it enough practice, I’m sure you’ll be able to pick up the pace.

With the math portion, I suggest that you go over all the algebra and geometry rules that are summarized in test prep books. Usually, any test prep book that has an overview of topics can do the trick and if you find that there is one topic, such as right triangle rules, that you do not know make sure you have them hammered down by test time. For any difficulties in the math section, they best way to conquer them is with PRACTICE. Practicing increases your speed and familiarity with common mathematical problems as well as the identification of trick questions.

When taking practice tests, I think the best way to start off is to time how long it takes you to complete each section rather than trying to beat the clock. This way, you’ll know by how much you will need to speed up. I can almost guarantee that your speed will increase with enough practice and the time limitation should not be stressed unless you are experiencing circumstances where your speed is not increasing as much as you hoped.

While taking these tests, it is important to write down your answer and how you feel about this answer. Are you sure? Unsure? Make sure you do this because this is the best way to be able to gauge your correctness during the actual test. When you go back and correct the test, do not just mark the wrong answers and give yourself a score. Go over the detailed answers of every question, if available, and if you got the question wrong, jot down why you got it wrong. Was it a concept error? Attention to detail? Time constraints? If it is a concept error, make sure you take note that you will need to relearn this concept. If it was more logistically, make sure you read the passage more carefully next time and take your time with those types of questions.

There are stories out there of people that have been out of school for years and managed to score in the 98th percentile for both the math and english portions of the GRE. I do not think it is impossible to do well on any standardized test without shelling out the big bucks to test prep companies. It is very possible and the secret ingredient is practice. If you would like more tips and help, please let me know at .

How Do Study Skills Improve Standardized Test Scores?

Educators are under enormous pressure to have students perform well on standardized tests. Since standardized tests assess students’ mastery of state benchmarks, it is well known that the best way to improve scores is to provide clear instruction of those benchmarks.

As a result, teachers and administrators are spending vast amounts of time “mapping” their curriculum, carefully aligning their instruction to match state expectations. However, the most solid curriculum map in the world does nothing to ensure that students will learn that content effectively.

In other words, you can teach all the right content, but that does not guarantee that students are “getting it.” Or, that they will “keep it.”

Imagine the path to Benchmark Mastery is a freeway. The students enter the freeway as the teacher introduces the Benchmark to the class. They have a series of reading assignments, lectures, homework, and assessments to complete along their journey.

But, at each mile-marker, there are obstacles that can interfere with their progress towards Benchmark Mastery. Some students overcome these obstacles, but at every interval, several are forced to take the nearest exit ramp. Very few students will actually reach the final destination.


The teacher had done his part. He has followed his curriculum map, covered the benchmark, and provided plenty of instruction, practice, and assessment along the way.

The problem is, the students don’t know HOW to learn! Take a closer look at some of these obstacles to see how they push students off course:

Mile Marker 1: Reading Assignment

Exit Ramp: Students cannot comprehend the information in the text. The technical structure and advanced vocabulary of a textbook will derail 80% of students, right out of the gate!

Mile Marker 2: Class Lecture

Exit Ramp: Students do not know how to take notes effectively. They struggle to understand the “big picture,” therefore do not know how to identify key points, let alone create an effective study guide.

Mile Marker 3: Homework

Exit Ramp: Students do not do homework, or do it poorly. Even “good students” do not know how to do homework properly. They do homework just to “get it done.” They do not engage effectively in homework to learn from it. Meanwhile, “struggling students” are frustrated because homework takes too long. They often decide it is not worth their frustration.

Mile Marker 4: Chapter Test

Exit Ramp: Students memorize information for the test, but forget it by the next day. They only know one method for studying: cramming!

Destination: Benchmark Mastery

Some students will avoid all of the exit ramps and reach Benchmark Mastery for the short-term. The problem is, the Standardized Test is three months away…


Students are never explicitly taught how to study or learn effectively. Our education system expects them to just “get it.” However, students can apply strategies to homework and studying, just as they do with sports or video games. Someone just needs to show them what to do!

Imagine if students knew how to effectively read textbooks, take excellent notes, and complete homework efficiently? Imagine if they knew how to study so that they were LEARNING, not just memorizing and cramming?

Then, the situation would look like this:

Mile Marker 1: Reading Assignment

Since students know simple, time-saving strategies for reading a textbook, they do the reading. Most importantly, they UNDERSTAND it!

Mile Marker 2: Class Lecture

Students have reviewed the textbook and understand the “big picture,” so they can identify key points. They know shortcuts for taking notes and write down important information. Their notes are now an effective study guide.

Mile Marker 3: Homework

Students know strategies for getting their brain into “high gear.” They can now complete homework faster AND learn from homework at the same time.

Mile Marker 4: Chapter Test

Students are ready! They have been learning information every step of the way and have no need to cram. They know how to use their textbook to review, they have created effective study guides from their notes, and they have learned from errors on homework assignments.

Destination: Benchmark Mastery

Since the students were equipped to LEARN the content (instead of memorize), they have retained the information for the long-term. They can recall the information quickly. Now, they are ready for those standardized tests!

Three Keys to Preparing for Standardized Tests

The recent SAT cheating scandal involving Long Island high schoolers and college students has raised alarm bells across higher education. How could students from top notch Long Island schools pay college students to take their SATs for them? How wide spread is this practice, and how long has it been going on for?

For those of us in the field of education, and in particular test prep, the New York incident comes as no surprise – it is the natural evolution of a system which has placed an extremely high value on the results of a single test. It has created an arms race among students who are driven to exploit any means (both legal and illegal) to increase their odds of admission to their college of choice. For better or worse, this is the current environment which students (and their parents) have to deal with – and the reality is that standardized tests are one of the most important factors in college admissions.

While the importance of standardized tests may change over the long term – for now, the idealistic idea pioneered by Harvard University to liberalize the admissions process is the most serious hurdle high school seniors will face.

Given these conditions, what are students to do? What priorities should students set, and how should parents help them get there with their integrity intact? There are three simple rules for navigating the college admissions process and the SAT/ACT – and this applies to the GMAT, LSAT, MCAT and GRE as well. These rules are designed to take the stress out of the college admissions process, and make it possible for anyone to achieve a higher score on the SAT/ACT.

1) Think Long Term

2) Maximize Repetitions

3) Tailor Your Learning

Think Long Term – Begin your formal test prep activities one year before the exam date. Every good test prep process begins with learning the ins and outs of the SAT or ACT. This requires a thorough review of each of the question types, the scoring method, and the format of the exam BEFORE ever doing a practice question. This is a relatively low pressure, low stakes way to prep and feel comfortable with the exam.

Maximize Repetitions – Do as many test prep questions as you can in order to get familiar with the patterns and habits of the question writers. This doesn’t require you to buy a ton of books or download massive databases of questions. As long as you get coverage across all the common question types, doing the same questions over will build the confidence and pattern recognition necessary to succeed.

Tailor Your Learning – You should avoid the cookie cutter approach at all costs. If you are testing at a high level on the math, but struggle with the verbal – attack the low hanging fruit! For you, an hour’s worth of verbal prep will yield more of a score improvement than an hour of math prep – so focus on the right things. Don’t waste your time (and money!) learning skills that will not help you improve your score. Do spend time practicing question types where you don’t feel as comfortable, and always look for new ways to relate to the material.

Above all, stay focused – don’t spend time practicing concepts you already know or which won’t be on the test. Once you’re done studying, relax and be confident that you’ve done your best and that is all you can ask.

The Bell Curve and Standardized Tests

I have long been a proponent of finding alternatives to standardized tests, including the use of portfolio assessment and other authentic assessments that measure real learning and not the ability to choose the correct answer. Along this line, I had a conversation a few days ago with another educator about the concept of the bell curve and how intelligence, as it is viewed, can be a more accurate determiner of achieving proficiency.

While I do not believe that the current view of proficiency being propelled by many educational “leaders” is an accurate view of what learning has actually occurred, I thought I would delve a little deeper into this other educator’s viewpoint that if the bell curve is a sound theory, and if students are spread along that curve, how will all students achieve the numerical score that indicates they are proficient? In 1968, sociologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen decided to test the theory that perceived intelligence is in actuality a self-fulfilling prophecy. To put it concisely, Rosenthal and Jacobsen convinced several teachers to give a test they called “The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition.” Rosenthal and Jacobsen randomly picked students who had been given this test, but told their teachers they had been identified as students who were expected to do very well academically. Test scores from the teachers, behavioral observations, and even a second administration of the test showed that these randomly chosen students did much better than the rest of the class. The reality was, however, that these students were more academically gifted only in the mind of the teachers, and the results were revealing.

This study may not have abolished the idea of intelligence as based upon a “standardized test” but it does go a long way to invoke questions about how reliable a measure any standardized test may be.

As for the bell curve, there is still ongoing discussion about the legitimacy of that particular statistical concept, mainly due to a noticeable rise in IQ over time, making the initial view that the mean IQ score should fall somewhere around 100 (the Flynn effect).

According to J. Atherton, there may be other, more compelling factors that influence educational growth, including motivation, opportunity, background, and teaching.

This debate I had may not be solved in so short a piece as this, and it may raise more questions. What is the next step? Perhaps, these questions need further study. In any event, however, these questions do tend, at least in my professional opinion, to shed doubt upon the real benefits of standardized testing.


Atherton J S (2011) Learning and Teaching; Intelligence [On-line] retrieved 1 April 2011 from Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the classroom. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston

7 Standardized Testing Hacks From Cognitive Science

Let’s face it, for many teachers this time of year can be a nightmare of anxiety and stress due to all of the standardized testing that takes place in the spring. Whether the tests your students have to take are low stakes or high stakes; whether they are state tests or national tests; and whether or not you yourself have some personal stake in the outcome (maybe the scores are tied to promotions or raises, for example), you always want your students to do well.

I’m going to do some assuming here (and yes, I know the old saying about “those who assume”). I’m going to assume that you have done what you can prior to testing day to prepare your students to do well. This includes teaching your curriculum well, making sure your curriculum is in alignment with the test, giving students some advance guidance about the structure of the test and of individual test items, and including similar items on your own classroom tests to give your students some familiarity with how to answer them.

OK. Let’s say that you’ve done all of that (good for you!). Now it’s the day of the test. Is there anything else you can do this late in the ballgame to make sure your students do a good job? Well, if you look to cognitive science for the answer, you will see that yes, indeed, there are actually a number of things you can do to help maximize your students’ performance. Today I will give you seven great testing day “hacks” that you can incorporate with very little effort or expense. Sound good? Sure! Who doesn’t like something that’s cheap, easy, and effective?

1. Episodic/Contextual Memory: Why “Where” Is So Important

The first issue to consider is where to administer the test. I understand that, if you are a classroom teacher, you may not have much input on this question. But if your administrator(s) want to schedule the testing, for convenience sake, in a place other than your classroom (such as an auditorium or cafeteria), you need to speak up and see if your students can be tested in your own classroom. Why? It has to do with episodic (contextual) memory.

You see, when we learn facts and ideas (semantic memory), we also process other details about our surroundings (episodic memory) along with that information, and it all becomes part of that same memory trace. And when it comes time to retrieve the facts and ideas, having “cues” around us in our surroundings can help us with that retrieval.

For example, a student might be stuck trying to retrieve a piece of information on the test. If he or she is in the same location where the original learning took place, some little detail about the surroundings (seeing the same poster on the wall, sitting in the same location in the room where the original learning took place, recalling something that happened in the classroom on the day of the initial learning, etc.) can serve as a stimulus to help access the semantic memory of the needed information. For this reason, studies have consistently shown that students score better when tested in the same location where the initial learning took place (Schacter, 1996).

So, if your administrator(s) have scheduled the testing of your students to take place anywhere other than your classroom, have a conversation about what I have just shared. It may be that they are simply unaware of the research. Even if they won’t move the large group testing for everyone, you might be able to have your students exempted and have them tested in your own room (maybe you could sell it as a “research study”). Believe me, this could make a big difference in your students’ scores!

2. Circadian Rhythms: Why “When” Is Also Important

Now, while we’re talking about messing up all of your administrator’s best-laid plans for testing day, let’s talk about the best time for the testing. Most school districts do large-scale testing in the morning, usually starting as soon as the school day gets rolling. For younger students (elementary through pre-adolescents), this schedule is just fine. That’s because the circadian rhythms (daily arousal rhythms) for younger students matches with the rhythms of most adults. That is, once they are fully awake and at school, they are usually good to go until they hit the dreaded mid-day slump when energy drops to lower levels. All of this means that younger students will tend to do their best on tests if tested anytime in the 7 a.m. to noon window.

But teens are a different matter. Research has shown that starting with adolescence and lasting through early adulthood, circadian rhythms shift approximately one hour later (Millman, 2005). This is not news to anyone who has ever tried to teach teens early in the morning, of course. As a result, testing high school students starting at the very beginning of the day is a recipe for under-performance. Starting no earlier than 8 a.m. (and 9 a.m. would probably be even better) and running the testing through about 1 p.m. would be the best schedule for these students. What should you do with that extra time between 8 and 9 a.m.? See Tips 3 and 4, below.

If you teach teenagers, and your administration has not taken the arousal patterns of your students into account when setting up the testing schedule, you should have a discussion with them about circadian rhythms and testing performance. And again, if the testing schedule has already been set for the majority of students, perhaps you can get a waiver to have your students tested when they are fully awake (and, of course, in your own classroom).

3. Before the Test: The Power of the “Brain Dump”

OK, we’ve addressed the two big scheduling questions–where and when–that can radically impact your students’ scores on standardized tests. Now let’s talk about some very effective things you can do with the time right before the test starts to prepare your students to do their best.

One thing you can have students do is a couple of quick, simple writing exercises within the thirty minutes before the test. First of all, one study has shown that having students do a quick (ten minute) expressive free writing about how they feel about the upcoming test can reduce test anxiety and lead to better performance (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). This study showed that simply having students write about their worries about the test boosted scores by more than 10%!

Another quick writing exercise that can help is called a “brain dump,” which consists of having students write down everything they can think of about the subject matter to be tested. For example, if the testing session is going to cover science content, simply have students write down all of the science facts, formulae, etc. that come to mind, as quickly as they can. They won’t have time to write down all that they know in 5-10 minutes, of course (well, let’s hope not), but this simple writing activity helps them access prior knowledge to prime them for success and can calm students’ fears that they don’t know the material.

These two quick writing exercises serve as great warm-ups to testing and help to put students in a more relaxed mood and positive state of mind–which can go a long way toward better performance.

4. Attention, Take One: Arousal

Alright, we’ve addressed the best location and the best time of day for the testing, and we’ve talked about a couple of quick writing exercises to put your students in the right psychological frame of mind going into the test. But there’s another major issue that comes into play during the testing situation–attention. A standardized test is a big challenge to our attentional systems, and we need to do what we can to make sure that students are able to focus their conscious attention on the test in order for them to do well.

There’s not room in this article to go into any depth about the complex interplay of human attentional systems, but here’s a quick overview: there are basically three types of attention that come into play in a learning (and testing) environment. The first is arousal, which is our baseline level of wakefulness and mental sharpness. The optimal amount of arousal for academic work is a moderate level or just above (not so much that we are stressed out, not so little that we are drowsy or “foggy”). The second type of attention is focused attention. This is what teachers usually mean when they ask students to “pay attention”–that is, we want students to focus their attention on the academic task we have set for them. And the third type of attention is stimulus-driven attention. This is our built-in, constant scanning of the environment that alerts us to movement, sudden sounds, and any other stimuli in the environment.

How we manipulate conditions just before and during testing can go a long way toward maximizing the amount of focused attention students can bring to the test. Let’s start with arousal first, and then we’ll discuss the other two systems in the next section. Like I said above, on test day we are shooting for a moderate level of arousal. If testing starts early in the morning, your students could probably use a little waking up to reach an optimal level of arousal. And perhaps the best way to wake up both the body and brain is aerobic exercise. Getting respiration and heart rate up for 10-12 minutes can both raise arousal and reduce stress, both of which can lead to improved academic performance.

Not only does aerobic exercise affect the general level of arousal, but it can also have a number of other positive side effects. For one, exercise increases noradrenaline in the brain, which promotes a narrowed focus and improved memory–just what you want on testing day. In addition, one study found that having students run at a moderate pace on a treadmill for 12 minutes prior to testing greatly improved students’ selective visual attention, a key component in being able to focus attention on a reading task (like a standardized test). This simple intervention led to a dramatic improvement in test results–and the effect lasted 45 minutes (Tine, 2014)!

Now, I know you probably don’t have treadmills in your classroom, but simply having students jog in place at a moderate tempo for 10-12 minutes beside their desks should be enough to raise arousal, reduce stress, and prep visual attention for the task ahead. It only takes a few minutes, it’s free, and it works!

5. Attention, Take Two: Removing Distractions

OK, let’s say you have followed all of my suggestions above leading up to the start of the test. Your students are in their own classroom where they feel comfortable and have contextual cues around them to help them remember what they’ve learned; they are alert because (1) the school has taken circadian rhythms into account when scheduling the test time and (2) because they have just jogged in place for 10-12 minutes right before sitting down to take the test; and they are feeling confident because they have done a little writing as a “brain dump” both to express their fears about the test and to access prior knowledge.

All of this is fantastic, but now it’s time for the test itself to actually begin. Are there some things you can do during the test itself to positively impact scores? You bet! First, let’s return to our discussion of attention. We dealt with arousal in the previous section. Now we need to talk about the battle between focused attention and stimulus-driven attention.

I use the word “battle” consciously, because that’s what it is–a constant struggle the mind engages in when trying to focus on a task. We try to exert conscious control to shine the “spotlight” of focused attention (that’s the metaphor that’s often used) on the academic task at hand. At the same time, our stimulus-driven attentional system is always at work in the background, monitoring our environment for anything that could pose a threat to our survival. Of course, there aren’t really any threats to our survival in the testing environment (I hope), but our stimulus-driven attentional system doesn’t know that. This system evolved to keep us safe, and anything that moves quickly, especially in our peripheral vision, or any sudden sound will alert us to shift our attention away from our current focus (in this case the test) to the new stimulus.

For this reason, we need to do everything we can to eliminate distractions that might call out to the stimulus-driven attention system. For example, school bells should be turned off during the entire testing time if at all possible. No announcements should be made over the intercom system. The classroom door should be kept closed to keep students’ attention from wandering to someone walking down the hall. If there are windows in the classroom, curtains should be closed to keep students from noticing what’s going on outside. Such little actions can go a long way toward helping students maintain focused attention for longer stretches of time.

And if you have been using background music during individual seatwork in your classroom, by all means use that same music quietly in the background during testing. This will help filter out other distracting ambient sounds in the testing room itself (such as shuffling feet, tapping pencils, and turning pages).

6. Using Brain Breaks to Refocus

If you’ve done everything suggested in the previous two sections, you will have gone a long way toward maximizing your students’ attention on task during the test. But there’s one more important aspect of attention that you need keep in mind: the human brain is not built to employ focused attention for long stretches of time without a break. At some point, mental fatigue is going to kick in and your students’ focus will fade. If you are prepared for this, you can be proactive and reset your students’ “attentional clocks” to allow them to refocus.

To do this, simply plan short “brain breaks” into the testing window. Just ask your students to stand up, put on some energizing music, and have your students do some kind of movement, from simple stretching on the light end of the scale to more vigorous movement such as dancing, walking to touch each wall of the room, or doing jumping jacks. This doesn’t have to take long at all. One or two minutes will re-energize your students’ bodies and minds and allow them to refocus on the test. Have the students sit back down, take a few slow, deep breaths with their eyes closed, and then start back in.

7. The Good Side of a “Sugar High”

Finally, it can be helpful to provide your students with a little glucose (blood sugar), which will help them sustain energy, focus attention, and better access memory over the testing period (Krebs & Parent, 2005). One study actually looked at the effects of giving students a little peppermint candy to suck on during the final review for the test and then repeating this procedure during the actual test (Barker et al., 2003). Believe it or not, such a simple, inexpensive action can help students maintain focus (especially if you explain to them in advance what you are doing and why) throughout the test.

Putting It All Together: An Integrated, High-Performance Testing Day Protocol

So there you have it–a “master plan” for test days that you can cheaply and easily implement and that can greatly impact student scores. Here is a quick review of what we’ve covered:

Step 1: Prior to test day, work with school administrators to make sure that your students can be tested in the classroom where the initial learning took place.

Step 2: Prior to test day, work with administrators to make sure that the testing times match your students’ circadian rhythms.

Step 3: Starting 20-30 minutes before the test, have students do two 5-10 minute writing exercises: (1) have them write about their feelings about the upcoming test, and (2) have them write down everything they know about the subject matter to be tested.

Step 4: 10-12 minutes before the test, have students stand up and jog in place (or do some similar moderate movement that gets heart rate up).

Step 5: At the beginning of testing, make sure as many distractions as possible have been removed from the testing environment. If you’ve been using background music during seatwork during the school year, start the music right as testing starts and make sure your playlist is long enough to cover the entire testing period (minus the time you will turn it off for brain breaks).

Step 6: Every 15-30 minutes (watch your students’ body language to know exactly when to do this) have students pause, stand up, and move around a bit to some energetic music before sitting back down and refocusing.

Step 7: About 30-45 minutes into the testing period, when the effect of the pre-testing aerobic movement is beginning to wear off, give students a piece of peppermint candy to replenish glucose stores. Repeat every half hour or so for longer testing windows.

Adding these steps to your current test preparation protocol will give your students the opportunity to do their very best. Here’s wishing you the very best of luck with your testing!


Barker, S. et al. (2003, December). Improved performance on clerical tasks associated with administration of peppermint odor. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 97(3, Part 1): 1007-1010.

Krebs, D. L. & M. B. Parent. (2005, March). The enhancing effects of hippocampal infusions of glucose are not restricted to spatial working memory. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 83(2): 168-172.

Millman, R. P. (2005, June). Excessive sleepiness in adolescents and young adults: Causes, consequences, and treatment strategies. Pediatrics, 115, 1774-1786.

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