I’m dubious of the effectiveness of last-minute test prep. It might help final scores on the standardized exam, but I’m not 100% certain that it does. That said, I still conducted test prep class days because A) it might help! and B) there was a decree from above to do so. So there you have it: test prep was happening. My question is “how do we make the experience better for students and better for learning?” We have the skeletal structure of the standardized (often multiple choice) items. We want kids to become familiar with the verbiage of the questions. But we also want students to not be bored and unhappy.

So rather than throw up my hands, puff air our of the corner of my mouth, and throw a review packet at them, here are some things I tried to make the weeks we had of test preparation slightly better.

(note: as a teacher from Texas, the original problems are most often taken from released Texas exams; you might want to consider PARCC practice exams if that’s your jam).

  • Remove the question. Provide the problem setup, remove the question and ask “what question do you think they’ll ask?”

Original Problem:

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  • Item Analysis. Ask students to see if they can identify why the test writers chose the three incorrect multiple choice answers that they did.

Original Task:

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  • Turn the words into gobbledygook. Turn the questions into gobbledygook and see if they can still get it (or at least some of them) right.

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One of my favorite quizzes I ever gave was during test prep week. I handed out a quiz that was 10 questions and was barely readable. I turned most of the words into greek (by switching the font to symbol). I usually left the equations and numbers alone. Students were all “you serious Mr. Krall???!!!!”.

Initially they tried to decode the words – you can kind of make out the words from the greek symbols – but eventually they attempted other techniques, like plugging in numbers or sketching things out. Afterwards I gave them the actual items and we compared how right they were, despite it being initially unreadable. Obviously my preference is that they read the items carefully and understand what it’s asking (one little “NOT” or “perpendicular to” could throw everything awry).

This was fun because even if my students were able to get just a few of them it (hopefully) to NOT give up at the first sign of a complicated or unfamiliar word. Also, I’ll fully cop to cherry picking which problems got “symbol’d” (or “wingding’d”). You obviously can’t do this for all problems, but you can do it with some. And all it takes is a couple correct answers on gobblygook questions and you’ll build that persistence, if ever so slightly.

Original Task:

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My version

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Or here’s one from the released Algebra 1 PARCC practice exam:


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Gobbledygook version:

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  • Scavenger Hunt. That thing where you post the answer above another problem, then they have to go find the solution to the bottom-problem and go around the horn until they arrive back at the starting point.

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  • Give the answers, have students to create the question. 

Original problem:

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Certainly follow-up with the big reveal to see what they actually asked. You could even potentially give them hints (i.e. “the original problem includes a data table”).


The following two examples are cribbed from other blogs that I’d like to share here. I personally didn’t conduct either of these, but they seem like they’d go along well with preparing for a end-of-course style exam.

  • Choose your own problem (from David).

I shared this during my NCTM Adaptation talk but it works especially well for long, awful problem packets.

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Clearly some of these techniques work better than others for particular problems. These are a few strategies to potentially prepare kids for the fun of examinations. What are some of the strategies you try?

6 thoughts on “Better (or at least less destructive) Test Prep

  1. I used your first technique and a variation on the second during review for the AP Calculus exam this week.

    I added another category: for questions that aren’t computational but rather matching [i.e. here is the graph of f(x), which graph shows its derivative], I asked the kids to describe the *qualities* that they would look for in the correct answer.

  2. This sparked a memory of a talk Diane Briars gave at the CIME workshop in 2013. You can watch her talk and grab slides here: https://www.msri.org/workshops/696/schedules/16574

    The bit of relevance is on slide 6 where she notes that “test scores are lower in schools where teachers spend large amounts of time on test prep.” Much of her talk is advocating for good instruction as the best test prep, and I think your adaptations above are great evidence of such.

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