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Not making the grade?

This is a common problem – we hear it often from parents. Here is a typical case, including our advice for this parent. We have made the advice general, so it can be useful to you if your child is a ‘poor test taker’ too. 

“My daughter does well on her homework, studies for hours, and then does poorly on tests. She’s not a good test taker. Is there anything I can do to help her?”

There are many strategies children can learn to help them do well on tests. You can assist your child by finding which strategies are most likely to help them. A good place to start is to go over the tests with your child so you can find out together what is causing them to do poorly on them. If necessary, you may find it helpful to include your child’s teacher or another educational professional in this process.

Here are the ten most common causes of what may be called ‘poor test taker syndrome’:

  1. Vocabulary. You may find that your child didn’t understand the questions on the test because they didn’t know the meaning of some of the key words. It is surprising how often kids get confused because they do not know commonly-used words. For example, a ninth grader brought one of their failed tests to us. One question was about a hermit who lived on a secluded island. Because they didn’t know the meaning of two key words, hermit and secluded, they answered the question as if it was about a hermit crab. This may sound preposterous to you. Why? Because adults have amassed a huge vocabulary. Many of the words adults take for granted are missing from that of children at this stage of their development, like ‘hermit’ and ‘secluded.’ In the future, while your child is learning a subject, it is a good idea to check in with them to make sure they are familiar with the key vocabulary words. If your child gets into the habit of looking up words they don’t know and understand, they may be more successful on future exams. If they ask you about a word they don’t know, tell them the meaning or the spelling of the word; let them know that you’re a great resource.
  2. Concepts. If your child memorizes a list of facts while studying for a test, they may not understand the concepts behind the facts. One way to reinforce the concepts children learn in school is to discuss them as a family during casual conversation, like during dinner, while driving to school, etc. 
  3. Language processing. When your child hears or reads something, they may be perceiving the words but not the intended meaning. This is a little like not knowing vocabulary words, like ‘hermit.’ Language processing issues involve missing the meaning of phrases made up of simple words, each of which is well-known to the child. If this happens occasionally, your child should ask their teacher for help. If this happens often, your child may have a language processing problem and may need assistance from school personnel or a private learning specialist.
  4. Learning style. Your child may be studying in ways that are not compatible with their learning style. For example, your child’s most efficient learning style may require visual images, but their studying may consist of only reading their notes. Although they are putting in ample time studying by reading and rereading words, they may be learning little. They might do better making simple drawings, sketches, or scribbles, or your child can try using graphic organizers and strategies, so they can convert the text into images, which are easier for them to process. You need to identify your child’s learning style and help them learn how to study accordingly. To identify your child’s learning style, you may need to seek the advice of school personnel or a private learning specialist.
  5. Memory. Your child may go to sleep fully understanding the material they studied that evening, only to find out it is no longer there the next morning when they need to retrieve it during a test. The problem may be that they stop studying prematurely, before the material makes it from their short-term memory into their long-term memory. Getting information from short-term memory into long-term memory usually takes more time, practice, and repetition. The solution? Your child needs to study beyond the point they think they know the material. Also, they may benefit from learning additional memory-enhancing strategies.
  6. Slow worker. Your child may work or process information slowly, doesn’t complete an exam, rushes through an exam without reading or processing the questions, or panics and shuts down when taking an exam. They may need more time to complete an exam. Talk to your child’s teacher. Being permitted to continue for a few minutes after the bell rings or being allowed to come back for a few minutes during lunch, for example, may solve the problem.
  7. Study skills. Your child may have poor study skills and work habits. There are many ways to learn effective study skills, from reading study skills books to taking a study skills course to seeing a learning specialist for a few sessions on study skills. However, once your child learns how to study, it’s imperative that they use the study skills strategies in order to perfect them and make them a comfortable part of their study routine.
  8. Writing. Your child may have trouble with essay test questions because they have difficulty writing clearly. Does this describe your child? If given the opportunity, they would be able to choose correct answers from a multiple choice list or accurately answer the test questions verbally, but they cannot clearly articulate their thoughts in writing. If this is the case for your child, the problem is not that your child is a ‘bad test taker.’ Your child needs to work on their writing skills and/or be given the opportunity to take the test orally or using another assessment technique. As with other areas, there are many ways to learn effective writing skills, from books to taking a writing skills course to seeing a learning specialist for a few sessions on writing skills.
  9. Mild learning disability. If your child is failing tests, they may have a mild learning disability. If you suspect a mild disability, seek the advice of school personnel or a private learning specialist. If accommodations are needed that involve the school, they can be based on a casual agreement with the teacher or principal, or they can be more formal.
  10. Anxiety. Your child may be overly anxious. This may result from one or more causes, as described in this article. They might be putting too much pressure on themselves, you might unintentionally be putting undue academic pressure on your child, or your child might be afraid of the consequences of failing - like being grounded, for example, or their parents ‘going ballistic.’ Reducing anxiety is easier said than done. If this seems to be the issue, try to work it out as a family or consider taking your child to a counselor so you can all work together to unravel the cause of your child’s anxiety.

If your child is doing poorly on tests, don’t shrug your shoulders and say, “I guess they’re not a good test taker.” Instead, try to identify the reasons behind their poor test scores. Once you identify the cause(s), your child will be able to learn effective strategies to overcome or to compensate for them, and their test grades will improve, often dramatically.

Dr. Linda and Dr. Al have helped thousands of kids achieve school success by helping them learn how they learn, including overcoming anxiety, attention deficits, learning disabilities, and other obstacles that can prevent learning on their way to academic success. For more information, visit


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