Using Practice Exams for High-Stakes Exam Preparation

July 1, 2015 Kristen Hicks

Licensure and accreditation agencies depend on high-stakes, licensure exams to determine a student’s readiness for the professional workforce. In order to measure which students understand core concepts and competencies well enough to take on the responsibilities of nursing, law, medicine and other high-stakes fields, they’re required to pass these exams.

However, one of the criticisms of relying on exams is that we’re testing how well students take tests as much as what they know. An otherwise bright, knowledgeable student could be foiled by feeling too much stress on test day, or even by something simpler, like the distraction of sitting in an uncomfortable chair for hours on end. The best way to alleviate some of those concerns is to put students in the position of experiencing exactly what these high-stakes exams will be like before the pressure’s really on – or at least come as close as possible.

Tips to Provide a Realistic Practice Test

Many of the rules for the different licensure exams are similar, but the details differ. Unless you’re already very familiar with what test day for your students will look like, take the time to really understand what’s allowed and isn’t for the licensure exam your students will be taking.

1. Arrange seating similar to what students will experience.
You probably can’t use your school’s classrooms as they are during the practice test. You’ll want to move the desks so that there’s enough distance between them to limit any over-the-shoulder cheating.

2. Check that they brought IDs and anything else required.
Almost every type of licensure exam will have requirements to ensure students are taking the test under the right name. You should require students bring a picture ID and anything else your licensure exam requires. Some may ask students to sign a form committing to honesty. Try to replicate what the time leading up to the exam will be like exactly.

3. Require prompt attendance.
Most licensure exams have strict rules about tardiness. Students that are 30 minutes to an hour late are sent away and expected to sign up and pay a second time to take the test. Be just as strict about the rules as the proctors on the day of the real test will be.

4. Ban inappropriate items.
For most licensure exams that will mean cell phones, calculators, any note paper, their bags, and things like hats and coats. It may also include food and drink and jewelry. Have a spot where they can leave items they brought, but aren’t allowed to keep with them during the test.

5. Allow appropriate items.
This will vary for different tests (and often for different states), but some licensure exams may allow pillows to help make the chair more comfortable, pens and pencils for making notes during the test, a watch, or some food and drink to help students get through the long testing period. For students using computer-based testing (an increasingly large segment of them), laptops would also go on the list.

6. Use the same computer-based testing software the licensing organization uses.
Having some familiarity with the software they’ll be taking the big test on in advance can be helpful for many students. Have them use the same testing program the licensure board uses for the actual exam. For many licensure exams, that’s Examsoft, but be sure to double-check what it is for your exam.

7. Provide the standard instructions before starting.
Usually there’s a list of rules and guidelines read out before students begin taking the exam. Try to follow this as closely as possible.

8. Be strict about the time restrictions and breaks.
This can be an important part of the learning process for many students. Knowing what to study is one thing, knowing not to drink too much water so you don’t get distracted by bathroom breaks is the kind of lesson you only get in practice. Getting used to the physical and mental aspects of sitting and focusing on a test all day is one of the hardest parts to prepare students for.

9. Assign a comparable number of proctors and have them diligently maintain silence and keep an eye on student movements.
This completes the replicated experience. You’ll want the same number of people per room that students will have keeping an eye on them during the licensure exam, and you’ll want each of those proctors to be strict about withholding the rules.

The experience obviously won’t be exactly what students will go through on exam day–you can’t do anything to replicate the anxiety levels of the real thing– but you can make it come as close as possible. A realistic practice test can help your students go into their licensure exam more mentally prepared for all the trappings of test taking that are harder to study for than the material itself.


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