Study harder. When our children do poorly on a quiz or test, this is usually our first reaction. Obviously, the child didn’t study enough. Right? Maybe, but maybe not.

Often, studying harder¬†is not the answer. Tests are frequently an arbitrary measurement of ability. At their best, they help quantify children’s retention, comprehension, and application of material within a limited framework. At their worst, they are frustrating, demoralizing, and counterproductive to authentic learning.

For children who attend school, tests are a regular part of life. For classroom teachers, this is the most effective, efficient, and seemingly equalizing way to determine levels of skill and mastery. Everyone gets the same test. Everyone has the same chance at success. Unfortunately, this is simply not true. Test-taking is its own skill, but somehow, that small reality has gone largely unrecognized in traditional education. Children who excel are the children who understand how to apply the material within the framework of a test. Children who do not excel often struggle to successfully take tests, but that does not always mean that they do not comprehend the material. Mastering material is one skill. Mastering test-taking is another. When we recognize this as parents and educators, we can help our children become more successful students.

For many homeschoolers, test-taking is not a regular part of the curriculum. Children learn and demonstrate mastery through a variety of oral, written, and creative expressions. Often, this does not include taking tests. However, this does not mean that homeschoolers never take tests; many do. It just means that the test is not the focus of learning. Homeschooling frees children and parent-teachers to focus on the experience of learning without the demands of test requirements. Because many homeschoolers do attend school for at least part of their education, and because many are also college or trade school-bound like their traditionally-schooled peers, test-taking skills are still worth developing. For homeschoolers, this can usually be delayed until middle or high school.

Understanding that successful test-taking is its own skill in an important first step in boosting confidence. Often, children in traditional schools do not maximize their class time to improve retention and move toward mastery. Helping children understand that improved focus during the school day increases the likelihood of success not only on tests, but in all their work, is an easy and important first step.

Have you ever tried to get a distracted child to focus by simply saying, “Focus!”? I have. It doesn’t work. Children are concrete thinkers, so they need concrete tasks. Note-taking, tracking along in the book with a finger or black sheet of paper, completing assigned work in class, creating flash cards, and organizing them on binder rings are all concrete tasks students can do to increase their learning.

To equip children for test day, studying should focus on content keywords, process of elimination, and the careful reading of questions, directions, and answer choices. Test anxiety is real, and children often panic when a test is placed in front of them. Children who understand how tests are structured and know what to expect have less test anxiety and perform better.

Often, children mistake staring at a book for studying. Of course, this isn’t effective studying at all. When children understand how to maximize class time, use concrete tools, and prepare for test day, they enhance overall learning, not just their test grades. Ultimately, authentic learning, not passing tests, is the goal of good education.

Happy studying!