Test-Taking Strategies that Really Work for Teacher Certification Exams

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Test-Taking Strategies for Teacher Certification TestsLooking for some test-taking strategies to use on your upcoming teacher certification exam? A quick internet search may leave you disappointed by generic tips that you’re already aware of. (“Study!” “Be prepared!” “Read the whole question!”) But what about useful strategies that actually work? Better yet, what are some test-taking tips that specifically work for teacher certification exams?

Fortunately, you’ve found the right place to get these questions answered. At 240 Tutoring, our main goal is to help teachers pass their certification exams. We have over 60 years of collective experience teaching students in the classroom and developing curriculum for educators. We are well-versed in teacher certification exams — we know the content, format, question styles, and what the exam creators are looking for in a correct answer. With this knowledge, we’ve developed a list of practical test-taking strategies that will help you pass your exam with confidence.

Top Test-Taking Strategies for Teacher Certification Tests

1. Read the Question FIRST (Usually)

You may have heard to read the answers first, then the question. However, we only recommend doing this when the question prompt is long, such as reading passages or case studies. In those cases, it may be helpful to read the answer choices before the question prompt, so you have an idea of what to be looking for as you read.

If the question is only one or two sentences, it’s actually better to go ahead and read it first. Reading the question first can save you time and keeps you from leaning toward a certain answer choice before you really know what you’re looking for.

As you read each question, try to think about what an ideal answer might be. When you get to the answer choices, you may find that one of the choices closely matches what you already had in mind!

2. Look for Keywords in the Question

As with all tests, it’s crucial that you closely examine each question for important details and keywords. While you read each question, take note of words such as not, except, or select all that apply. These keywords can completely change your answer.

Along with keywords, check to see if the question is asking for a specific educational strategy or protocol, and choose an answer that includes this. For example, if a question asks for the best manipulative to use, make sure your answer includes a manipulative. This may sound obvious, but it’s easy to get distracted by answers that describe a high-quality activity with no manipulatives. Similarly, if a question refers to a 504 plan, make sure to avoid answers that refer to an IEP instead.

3. Look for Keywords in the Answers

The best answer choices will typically be the ones that reflect up-to-date, researched-based teaching practices. Keywords such as intervention, differentiation, and scaffolding can often indicate a correct answer choice. But be careful! These words can sometimes appear in incorrect answers too – check tip number five below.

Use the following keywords and phrases as one way to identify correct answers, but make sure your answer choice is also student-centered, age-appropriate, and directly relates to the question.

  • Student choice
  • Facilitate
  • Manipulatives
  • Variety of learning styles
  • Take ownership of learning
  • Small group instruction
  • Differentiation
  • Intervention
  • Metacognition
  • Growth mindset
  • Graphic organizers
  • Engagement
  • Collaboration
  • Progress
  • Personalized
  • Discussion

4. Look for “Negative Keywords”

Not only can keywords help you identify the right answer, but they can also help you eliminate the wrong ones. Incorrect answer choices will often use absolutes, such as: all, never, always, none, only, every, require, etc.

In the following example, two answers can be eliminated using this strategy (“Only allow students to choose their independent reading books from teacher-selected lists” and “Pick all student reading for them to be sure it is a good fit.”)

Sample Developmentally Appropriate Question

Incorrect answers may also contain “negative keywords” that refer to either outdated, controversial, or ineffective teaching practices. Words or phrases such as homework, worksheets, dictionaries, writing definitions, round robin reading, or memorization can often be good indicators of incorrect answer choices.

Keep in mind that this is just a general guideline, not a universal rule. If you feel confident about an answer choice, despite it having “negative keywords,” go ahead and go with your gut!

5. Eliminate Distractors

In addition to looking for “negative keywords,” you can also eliminate answer choices that don’t directly relate to the question prompt. These answers are called distractors – they may sound like reasonable answer choices and may even have all of the right “education buzzwords,” but when you look closely, they don’t actually answer the question or solve the problem at hand.

In the sample question below, the second choice contains keywords (“scope and sequence”) and key topics (parent communication) that could be used in a correct answer. However, the question itself asks about how to create the best classroom environment. The second choice, despite having key phrases and topics, would not contribute to the classroom environment and can therefore be eliminated.

Student-Centered Sample Question

6. Answer ALL Questions (But Make a Note to Come Back to the Difficult Ones)

On teacher certification exams, it’s better to guess on a question than to leave it unanswered. If you’re stuck on a difficult problem, choose the most reasonable answer and move on to the next question.

Keep a running list of the questions you are unsure of. If you have spare time at the end of the exam, go back to these questions. A fresh look at the question may give you new insight, or a later question on the exam may have jogged your memory. If that’s the case, change your answer accordingly. However, if you still aren’t sure, don’t change your answer. Overthinking and changing too many answers might actually hurt instead of help.

7. Look for the Most Student-Centered Answer 

When in doubt, choose an answer that will be most beneficial to the student(s). These answers will often be interactive, engaging, and individualized to different students’ needs. Ask yourself, “Who does this directly benefit?” If the benefit is mostly geared towards the teachers or administrators, chances are this is not the correct response.

In this example, two choices can immediately be eliminated using this strategy (“decreases the cost to the school district” and “decreases the time the teacher must spend on instruction”). Each of these choices focus on how technology benefits teachers or the school district, not on how it benefits the students. The first choice (“allows students to complete their homework more quickly”) does describe a benefit for students. However, it focuses on homework as opposed to actual student learning, making it another incorrect answer choice.

Sample Question Negative Keywords

8. Make Sure Your Answer is Developmentally Appropriate

Always pay close attention to the age or grade level referred to in each question. Many teacher certification exams cover a wide range of grade levels, and the best answer choice will depend on the age of the students in the question. What’s best for a sixth grader is not what’s best for a kindergartener, yet both of these grade levels are often included in the same exam.

In the example below, reading “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” could be a valid choice for a pre-kindergarten class. However, the question asks about second-grade students, making this an incorrect choice.

Sample Distractor Question

If a grade level is not specified in the question, make sure you are choosing an answer that is fitting for students in the grade range of your specific exam.

9. Know How Much Time to Spend on Each Question

Before going into your exam, find out how much time you’ll have for the overall test and for each subtest, if applicable. Subtract about ten to fifteen minutes from this time to allow for reviewing and checking your work. Then, divide the remaining time (in minutes) by the number of questions on your exam or subtest. This will tell you about how much time you can spend on each question.

For example, if your test has a five-hour time limit, this means you have a total of 300 minutes to complete the exam. If you take away fifteen minutes to check your work at the end of the exam, this means you have about 285 minutes to actually answer all of the questions. If this exam has 135 questions, this means you have just a little over two minutes to spend on each question. Keep in mind, however, that this time will vary from question to question. Some questions may take longer, while others can be answered quickly.

Don’t get caught up in checking the time after every question – this will only lead to additional stress. Instead, think about how long it will take you to answer 10 – 15 questions. In our previous example, each question should take about two minutes to answer. This means you should answer about fifteen questions every thirty minutes. Checking your progress and time after every 10 – 15 questions will help you stay on track and keep you from running out of time at the end of the exam.

10. Know How to Approach Constructed-Response Questions

Many teacher certification exams also include constructed-response questions or essays. (To find out if your exam includes a constructed-response question, check our free test series resources or the exam blueprint published by the creators of your exam.)

When it’s time to answer a constructed-response question, make sure you read the prompt carefully and that your response fully answers all parts of the question. It’s easy to get slightly off-topic while writing your response, but doing so will result in a lower score.

You should also pay close attention to word limits on your constructed-response questions. Most constructed-response word limits require that your answer is straightforward and concise. You may have an excellent response in mind, but if it goes beyond the word limit, you won’t be able to include all of your thoughts in the allotted space.

For additional tips, check out our article on how to answer constructed-response questions. We also include exam-specific tips in our study guides, and many of our guides also include sample prompts and model responses.

With these test-taking tips in mind and a strong knowledge of your exam content, you’ll be ready to ace your certification exam! Remember, these strategies are designed to help you on the day of your exam. They should always be combined with a study plan designed to fit your needs.

Check out our study guides for comprehensive, test-aligned study materialthat has been created to help you pass your exam. Not sure where to start or how much to study? Try one of our free practice tests by selecting your exam series, then your specific exam.

Need help passing your exams? 240 Tutoring helped 49,649 educators pass their exams last year — and we are ready to help you!

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