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The Most Common Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make

The Most Common Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make

posted by Karen Quinn, The Testing Mom - July 25th, 2019

NEW! Being Careless and Not Being Prepared
Not Knowing How To Take a Test
Not Managing Information Correctly
Attention Issues

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We are beginning a new series today, similar to the common test taking mistakes younger kids make, but this time it is from another vantage point: older children.  And with it comes new challenges and ways to overcome them.

Most Common Mistakes Elementary – High School Students Make

Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make

Through the years, we at have worked with thousands of parents who are helping to prepare their children for important tests.  According to John Dunlosky, professor of psychology at Kent State University, the most effective way to master underlying abilities is by taking practice tests on to-be-learned materials.   While practicing model questions for a test will help your child master the skills needed to do well on that particular assessment, there is another factor to be considered.  That is, how well does your child know how to take a test?


After working with so many families, we know this for sure. There are 2 critical parts to doing well on any test:

  • The child must have the underlying abilities being assessed, whatever they are; and
  • The child must be able to show what they know during the actual test, and this requires test-taking skills.


That’s right.  Getting that high score on any test requires two completely different skill sets.

When practicing with their children, parents often focus only on whether or not the child has the math, verbal or visual-spatial reasoning skills being tested, and they miss the fact that the child may not be showing what he knows because of test-taking mistakes that are avoidable.

If your child is preparing to take an important test, I recommend that you observe him working through a set of practice questions (we have thousands of these at ).  If you are too busy asking the questions, then have another adult in the house observe your child as the two of you practice.  Do this after you read about the most common mistakes kids make so you will know what to look for.  Then, go back and work on the test taking mistakes you observed him making just as vigorously as you work on building those underlying skills.


Note:  Take your time when it comes to working on test-taking skills.  The common mistakes kids make will not be corrected overnight.  Be aware of them and work on them a little bit at a time as your child prepares for upcoming tests.  Remember to always keep your test prep positive.  That’s the best way to help children master new skills, and you don’t want to add to any test anxiety she may be feeling!


One of my favorite Testing Mom parents, Monica, secretly observed her 9-year-old daughter, Emma, practicing for an achievement test.  The two of us laughed (and cried inside) as Monica described her daughter’s first practice test, where she rushed through the questions and finished a 20-minute test in 8 minutes, getting only 50% right.  After Monica instructed her to use all the time she was given to work on any test, Emma took another practice test.  This time, Monica observed Emma twirling her hair, pretending her pencil was a flute, daydreaming, and putting her head down for a quick nap mid-test.  When Monica told her she had 5 minutes to go, Emma rushed through the remaining questions, and still found extra time to draw an elaborate flower design on the test.  This time she got 55% correct.


After the practice test, Monica went through each mistake with her daughter.  Emma was easily able to correct every error herself when her mom was right there helping her focus on the question.  This told us that Emma could have done much better on the test had she mustered the discipline to pay close attention to each questions the first time around.

Observe your own child working through a practice test or set of questions. 

In the next few posts, we will go over the most common mistakes to should watch out for, and what you might do to help your child avoid them in the future.

Attention Issues

Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make Attention Issues

Inability To Focus 

Clearly this was part of Emma’s problem when she took her practice tests. Tests for young students last anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 hour (with breaks in between sub-tests).  Many young children do poorly on tests because they haven’t built up the “test stamina” it takes to sit still for that long.  Their focus may also wane when they feel tired, hungry, or just not interested in doing well on the test.

Solution: Most children have learned to sit still and focus for longer periods of time by the time they are in elementary school.  If your child still has trouble with this, you might want to work on building up his test stamina.  When you first start working with your child, use a timer to see how long he can concentrate.  If it is only for 10 minutes, that’s fine.  The next time you sit down to work on practice questions, let him know that “yesterday you were able to pay attention for 10 minutes.  Today, let’s see if you can focus for 15 minutes!”  Set a timer and see if he can do it.  If he does, give him a fun temporary tattoo or a little surprise.  Each day, set the timer for longer and longer.  Eventually, your child will be able to sit still and focus for as long as he needs to.  2) Be sure to send your child into the test well rested and fed.  Do not change your child’s sleep schedule in the week preceding the test.  Research shows that even one hour of sleep loss on the nights before a test can impact your child’s score.  Make sure your child eats a hearty breakfast on test day.  3) If the test is important, you want to let your child know that, but without stressing him out.  Let him know that you want him to focus when he is taking the test, have fun, and do his very best – that’s what you expect of him!

Additional Resource: This article by My Degree Guide is a comprehensive list of 25 Scientifically Proven Tips for More Effective Studying.

Rushing Through the Test Like it is a Race 

Kids seem to think that there is some glory in finishing a test first. There isn’t.  You don’t get extra points for this and it usually means that you aren’t being as careful as you should be.  As Monica told Emma, you should tell your child to use all the time she is given for a test.

Solution: THIS TECHNIQUE WORKS – TRY IT WITH YOUR CHILD!  Monica used this technique with Emma, who went from getting 50 – 60% correct on practice tests to getting 90 – 95% correct.  Emma has now learned to take her time on tests and homework and to answer questions to the best of her ability the first  She also knows how to go back and check her work.  Here’s how it works:

1) If you give your child a set of questions and she seems to be rushing, go back through the questions and mark each one that has an incorrect answer.  Then, tell your child to go back and correct the answers.  If you find that she cannot correct her mistakes, this tells you that she is having trouble with the underlying material and you need to work on that.  If you find that she can easily fix her answers with you by her side, you know that the mistakes she made were because she was rushing.  Do this a few times after each set of questions your child completes.

2) If you’ve marked mistakes on several sets of questions and your child continues to make mistakes she can later fix easily – she’s still rushing and just waiting for you to help her.  Now you need to need to practice some “tough testing love.”  Next time, give the questions back to your child and say, “There are 4 mistakes on this page.  Go back and find them and correct them yourself.”  Go through each page on the practice test and do this.

3) Eventually work up to saying “There are mistakes on this page.  Go back and find them and correct them.”  Go through each page and do this.  Once you’ve done this a few times, your child will realize it is better to take her time and get the questions right in the first place, rather than to have to go back and search for all her mistakes and fix them. This technique teaches your child to check her own work on tests and homework.

Being Distracted by the Students Around Him

Many kids spend much of the test time looking around to see how other kids are doing. They think that other kids are working faster than they are, or that the test seems to be easier for them.  While watching other kids, they are losing valuable time on their

Solution: Tell your child not to look at other students while taking their test.  Let him know it is a waste of time to do this and it will slow him down.

Come back Friday for more tips!

Not Managing Information Correctly

Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make Not Managing Information Correctly

Not reading and following the directions 

Many kids skip the directions and go right to the questions, which may lead to them answering every question in a set wrong.

Solution: 1) When doing practice questions with your child, have her read the directions out loud and explain to you what she is being asked to do before she begins to work through the questions.  2) Teach your child to say to herself, “I have enough time to read the directions carefully,” when starting any test.


Not reading the question itself thoroughly to see what it is really asking

If you go over questions with your child after the fact and you see her continually having “aha” moments when she re-reads the questions, and then she is able to answer them correctly, she may be making this mistake.


Solution: 1) Encourage her to slow down and read each question more carefully.  2) Teach your child to say to herself, “I have enough time to read this question carefully,” when approaching each new question.


Not reading charts or looking at relevant pictures above the question

It is common for inexperienced test-takers to skip the directions, the charts, the pictures – everything above the question itself and head right for the question, trying to answer it without looking at any of the supporting information being presented.

Solution: Teach your child that questions with charts and pictures must be considered together. Explain to him that he is expected to refer to the chart or picture when answering the question.


Skimming passages on reading comprehension tests or not going back to consult passages when answering reading comprehension questions

Many kids think they should spend their test-taking time on the questions themselves, and not the reading passages. Many also think that once they read the passage, they are supposed to use their memory to answer the question.

Solution: When you go over questions with your child after the fact and you see him having to re-read and search through the passage to find the answer, he is probably making one of these mistakes.  1) Encourage him to slow down and read the passage more carefully the first time.  2) Let him know that he is supposed to refer back to the passage to answer the question – these are not memory questions.  3) Tell him that reading comprehension questions usually require him to think, so if the answer seems to come straight out of the passage with no thinking required, he should give it a second look to be sure.  4) It helps some kids to skim the questions before reading the passage so they will know what to look for when reading.  You might try this with your child to see if it helps.


Not taking notes on multiple choice and multi-step math questions – trying to do the problem in his head

Often, kids will take whatever 2 or 3 numbers are in a math question and try to add, subtract, multiply or divide them to get an answer – any answer. They won’t read the actual question.  And even when they do read the question, they will try to answer it in their heads.

Solution: If you go over questions with your child, ask to see his work on scratch paper for math questions.  If it doesn’t exist, he is making this mistake.  Even if it is a multiple-choice test, encourage him to work through the problem on scratch paper to determine the answer.  Explain to him that math word problems are usually NOT so straightforward that the numbers in the problem itself will lead straight to an answer.  Often there are a few steps to go through before solving the problem.  Teach him to write out each step on scratch paper before choosing the right answer among the choices presented.

Not Knowing How To Take a Test

Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make Not Knowing How To Take a Test

Choosing the Most Obvious Answer 

This is a real “rookie” mistake that young kids often make.


1) When you walk through practice questions with your child, explain to her that the person writing multiple choice tests always puts obvious answers into the list to “trick” kids who don’t want to think too hard.   Tell her not to fall for that trap!

2) Also, when doing practice questions with your child at first, have her consider every answer choice one by one.  Ask her to explain to you why the right one is correct and why the others are wrong.  This will help her get used to going through each individual answer before making her choice.


Not Eliminating Clearly Wrong Answers

When she has to guess, she is just making random guesses among all the answers.

Solution: When going through a new type of question with your child, show him how to immediately eliminate answers that are absolutely, definitely wrong.  At first, talk him through how you would do it.  Then, ask your child to show you how he would do it.  Show your child that after you eliminate answers that are clearly wrong, he only needs to focus on the one or two leftover possibilities when he answers the question.  It makes test taking easier!


Leaving Answers Blank when He didn’t Know the Answer

He is not making a best guess among the choices.

Solution:  If you talk through practice questions with your child, see if he is eliminating absolutely wrong answers before choosing an answer.  If not, remind him to do this and to only choose an answer among the remaining possibilities.  Explain to your child that he will get a 0 on the question if he skips it and he will get a 0 on the question if he misses it.  It’s always worth making a best guess because he just might get it right. 


Not Watching the Clock and Pacing Himself.

Solution: When you first start doing practice questions with a child, you needn’t time him.  The main point is to be sure he knows how to work through and answer that type of question.  When it gets closer to the test, you might give him practice questions with similar time constraints that he will have when tested.  Remind him when he goes into a test to find out how much time he will have on the section he is working on.  If it is 20 minutes and there are 10 questions, he can spend 2 minutes on each question.  Tell your child to always do this calculation before he starts a test so he will know how to pace himself.


Getting Stuck on one Question and Spending too much Time on it.

Young test takers will get stuck on a hard question and fail to move on, losing valuable time for upcoming questions they can answer.


1) Teach your child that if they are stuck on a question for a minute or two, make a quick best guess, check it lightly to the side (if it is pencil and paper) and then physically move on.  You can always go back to it later if there is time.

2) Not only should your child physically move on, they must mentally move on.  Some kids will let a hard question early in a test upset them and affect their performance moving forward.

Tell your child, “There are always ‘stumpers’ in a test that give everyone trouble.  Don’t worry about them.  You can come back to them later (if it’s a paper and pencil test).  Every question on the test is worth the same, so be sure you answer everything that you do know before going back to those ‘stumpers.’”


Not Going Back to Review Questions She was Unsure about if She has Time at the End

Tell your child to use all the time he is given to work on the test. If there is time at the end, he should not turn his test in early.


1) Teach your child to use all the time he has to take the test.  If he finishes early, tell him to go back and check his answers.  That doesn’t mean retaking the test.  He can just go back and check the questions he wasn’t sure about (it helps to lightly check those with a pencil along the way, or jot the numbers down on scratch paper if that is possible).

2) And, if he finishes significantly sooner than everyone else, and there is a lot of time left to take the test, go back and review everything.  Let your child know that finishing a test very quickly is not going to be rewarded and could mean that he rushed through the test and missed several answers.

We’ll be back on Thursday to finish up this wonderful series!  Tell us in the comments how this series has helped YOU!

Being Careless and Not Being Prepared

Test-Taking Mistakes Older Children Make Being Careless and Not Being Prepared

Being Careless

Working through a math question on scratch paper, then transferring the answer incorrectly onto the test.

Solution: If you go over questions with your child, ask to see her work on scratch paper for math questions.  Check to see if she transferred the answer correctly.  If not, she is making this careless error.


Bubbling Errors

This can be everything from not filling in bubbles completely, accidentally filling in 2 bubbles on the same row and losing his place, filling in the wrong bubble number and (again) losing his place.

Solution:  Tell your child that these are carelessness errors that are very easy to make at any age.  Be sure to do the bubble lesson we have on  The questions on the lesson are easy because the point of the lesson is to make sure your child knows how to fill in the bubbles that match each question.  Tell your child to be very careful when filling in bubbles and to regularly go back (every 3 or 4 questions) and check to be sure she is matching the right question with the right bubble.  It’s easy for even a college student to skip a line of bubbles or fill in two bubbles on the same line, so watch out for this!  [I know because I did this on an important exam in college and completely lost my place!]

Not Being Prepared

Not knowing the underlying materials 

If your child is taking a test in school that he is able to study for, this article covers the most effective way to master to-be-learned materials. According to the article, the research shows that doing practice tests before the actual event is the best way to master materials you will be tested on.

Solution: Monica, the mother of 9-year-old Emma, creates practice tests for her daughter from the review materials her teacher sends home before a test. After Emma studies the materials, Monica will give her different types of tests covering the same information.  Some are multiple-choice, some are short essay questions, some are vocabulary-matching questions – she has Emma answer questions about the same content several different ways over many different nights before the test – there is no cramming.   In the past, Emma regularly bombed her tests because she froze up when the material was presented to her on the test in unexpected ways.  Ever since Monica began integrating these practice tests into her daughter’s study sessions, Emma has been going into tests feeling confident and acing them!


Having Test Anxiety (Mental Preparation) 

If your child regularly has issues with tests taken at school, it may be that she’s psyching herself out when she needs to be performing at her best. Feeling that you know the underlying material is one of the best ways to manage test anxiety. Make sure that your child is taking several days to prepare for the test and not waiting until the last minute. If your child struggles with test anxiety, there are excellent articles online with many ideas on how to overcome it.

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[…] to TestingMom, “Many kids skip directions and go right to the questions, which may lead to them answering every […]

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