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September 2002 Issue

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When luck, not reading and study skills, helps students pass their tests.

By Gary K. Probst


During this summer I came to a surprising realization. Applying the reading and study skills techniques taught in college learning centers are a waste of time to students who have to take tests provided by certain textbook publishers. In order to explain my reason for this surprising realization, I will share with you three of my experiences.

Experience One:

I have never forgotten many years ago two students, who I had in my college reading and study skills class the prior semester, came into my office crying. They just took their first college test and failed. They showed me what they did to prepare for the test. They learned the following information that they wrote on index cards:

  1. all of the new terms introduced in the textbook
  2. answers to all of the objectives given in the syllabus
  3. answers to the questions asked at the end of each of the textbook chapters
  4. information given in the lectures the instructor said what important

They wondered why they failed when they knew all of the information in their textbook and lectures. I was at a loss because I knew of no way of helping them improve their study techniques. The study skills taught and applied in my class were not helpful in passing this instructor’s test. Not knowing what to say, I told them to go and see their instructor.

Experience Two:

A few years later I had the opportunity to analyze the selection test, course syllabuses, and the instructor’s tests used by the nursing faculty. This was because the college’s nursing students were not passing the state licensing examination for nurses. While it was not possible to examine the state licensing examination for nurses, nursing administrators and instructors, by discussing the examination with prior students who had taken it, felt most of the questions asked were on the principle or problem solving level.

Using a taxonomy of cognitive skills I developed, the analysis of the nursing program revealed the following:

Cognitive Level Selection Test  Course Syllabus Instructor Tests
1. Fact 56 80 70
2. Concept 15 20 30
3. Principles 8 0 0
4. Problem Solving 6 0 0

A training program was instituted for the nursing faculty and they were given instructions on how to write test questions and objectives on higher cognitive levels. Also, a reading and study skills program was started for nursing students that was taught by nursing instructors. In a few years the nursing student were passing the state licensing examination for nurses in acceptable levels.


Experience Three:

This past summer I worked with a chairman in analyzing the tests used in his department. The department uses objective tests provided by the publishers of their textbooks. The textbooks used by the department are widely used popular textbook used in colleges everywhere.

What I soon realized was that the reading and study skills taught in college reading and study skill classes or learning centers would be of little use to a student who had to take these tests. This was because the tests measured what I will call “Trivia Pursuits.” While the tests measured knowledge of a few definitions, most of the test questions were about isolated facts. Therefore, I know of no way to tell a student how to prepare for a test that requires this type of knowledge other than memorize the entire textbook.

Since this is not practical or useful, I would like to make the following recommendations:



bulletIn order to help student prepare for a test the learning center staff should ask instructors what knowledge they expect their students to master. Then they should review the instructor’s tests to see what are the actual reading/learning skills are required by the tests.
bulletInstructors and the learning center or reading and study skills program staff must work together to design tests that measure the information and skills that must be mastered in a course.
bulletCollege tests must include a sampling of questions from the new terms introduced that measure knowledge of the terms’ definition, example, cause, and effect. Terms that have the same classification should have comparison and contrast questions.
bulletWhen using publisher’s tests, it must be determine if the questions provided in the test bank really measure the skills and information the students must acquire. Since this is becoming a popular method of constructing tests, the publisher’s questions must be analyzed to determine if they really measure the intended outcomes of the course. The limited sampling I reviewed this past summer did not measure the knowledge required to continue to the next level course or mastery of the course’s subject matter.


I wonder how many good students study effectively but lose interest and fail because of poorly constructed tests. We have all heard the student who says, “I study but it does not help passing his or her tests.” I wonder, “Does luck play an important part in passing some college tests!?”


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