Sign up

Not Making the Grade - How to Help Your Poor 'Test Taker'

10 most common causes of what may be called, 'Poor Test Taker Syndrome.'

As this is a common problem, we hear it often from parents. Here is a typical case, including our advice for her. The advice is general, so it’ll be useful for others.

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

There are many strategies children can learn to help them do well on tests. As a parent, you can help your child by finding which strategies are most likely to help them. A good place to begin is to go over the tests so that you and your child can find out what is causing them to do poorly. If necessary, you may find it helpful to include the teacher or another educational professional.

Here are the 10 most common causes of what may be called, ‘Poor Test Taker Syndrome.’

1. Vocabulary. You may find that she didn’t understand the questions because she 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, one of our 9th Graders brought a failed test to us. One question was about a hermit who lived on a secluded island. Because she didn’t know the meaning of two key words, hermit and secluded, she answered as if it were about a hermit crab!

In spite of the fact that it really happened, it sounds preposterous. Why? Because somehow, we adults have managed to amass a huge vocabulary over the years. Surprisingly, many of the words we take for granted are totally missing from that of our children at this stage of their development, like ‘hermit’ and ‘secluded.’ So in the future, while your child is learning a subject, it is a good idea to check that she is familiar with the key vocabulary words. If she gets into the habit of looking up the words she doesn’t know, she may be more successful on her exams. Having said that, in view of the fact that it takes time to look up words, and many kids have more homework than they can finish in a reasonable time, if they ask you, consider telling them the meaning or spelling. Let them know that you’re a great resource.

Tip: By the way, with a computer, ‘looking up’ can now be done with ease. If paper dictionaries aren’t for you, try typing the word or phrase into your word processor, highlight it, and press shift and F7. If you are using the most popular word processors, the definition should appear on the screen. Even better, some online sources have a wonderful new feature. Double click on any word you don’t know and the definition comes up; it even says the word!

2. Concepts. Even if your child memorizes a list of facts while studying for a test, she 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, perhaps during dinner or while driving.

3. Language processing. When she hears or reads something, she may be perceiving the words, but not the intended meaning. This is a little like not knowing vocabulary words like ‘hermit’ we used above, but it is far more general. 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 once in awhile, have her ask her teacher for help. If it happens often, she may have a language processing problem that needs to be dealt with, perhaps with the assistance of school personnel or a private learning specialist.

4. Learning style. Your child may be studying in ways that are not compatible with her learning style. For example, her most efficient learning style may require visual images, but her studying may consist of only reading her notes. So, although she is putting in ample time studying by reading and re-reading words, she may be learning little. She might do better making simple drawings, sketches or even scribbles. Or, she can try using graphic organizers and strategies, so she can convert the text, which is hard for her to process, into images, which are easier for her to process. You need to identify your child’s learning style and help her learn how to study accordingly. To do so, 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 she had studied during the evening, only to find out it is no longer there the next day when she needs to retrieve it during a test. The problem may be that she stops studying prematurely; i.e., before the material makes it from her short-term memory into her long-term memory. Getting information from short-term memory into long-term memory usually takes quite a bit more time, practice and repetition than it does to get it into short-term memory in the first place. The solution? Your child needs to study beyond the point she thinks she knows the material. Also, she will likely benefit from learning additional memory-enhancing strategies. Consider purchasing a book or CD/DVD program on memory skills. (For example, see No. 452 Improve Your Memory Skills, Silbert,

6. Slow worker. Your child may work or process information slowly, and because of that she doesn’t complete her exams, rushes through them without reading or processing the questions, or panics and shuts down. She may simply need more time. Talk to her teachers. Perhaps being permitted to continue for a few minutes after the bell rings or being allowed to come back for a few minutes during lunch or study hall will solve the problem. Sometimes, just knowing that she won’t run out of time will eliminate 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. (For example, see No. 450 Improve Your Study Skills, Silbert,

However, once children learn how to study, they need to use the strategies in order to perfect them and then to make them a comfortable part of their routine. If they don’t, it’s the same as going to a weight-loss centre and then going home and having a huge piece of chocolate cake.

8. Writing. Your child may have trouble with essay test questions because she has difficulty writing clearly. Think about it, does this describe your child? If given the opportunity, she would be able to choose correct answers from a multiple choice list or accurately answer the test questions verbally, but she cannot clearly articulate her thoughts in writing. If that is the case, the problem is not that your child is a ‘bad test taker,’ but simply that she needs to work on her 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. (For example, see No. 453 Improve Your Writing Skills, Silbert,

9. Learning disability. If your child is failing tests, she may have a mild learning disability. Sometimes these disabilities are not identified, and thus are not addressed. If you suspect such disabilities, 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.

Note: For additional information on learning disabilities (LD), contact the Learning Disabilities Association of Alberta, For additional information on AD/HD, CH.A.D.D. (Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder organization) visit


10. Anxiety. Your child may be overly anxious. This may result from one or more of many causes, some of which are described above. She might also be putting too much pressure on herself. Or you might unintentionally be putting undue academic pressure on her. Or, she may be afraid of the consequences of failing – like being grounded, for example, or Dad ‘going ballistic.’ Reducing anxiety is easier said than done. If this seems to be an issue, try to work it out as a family or consider taking your child to a counselor to unravel the cause of her anxiety.

No matter what, if your child is doing poorly on tests, don’t just say, “I guess she’s just not a good test taker.” Instead, try to identify the reasons behind her 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 her test grades will improve, often dramatically.


Linda Silbert, Ph.D. and Alvin Silbert, Ed.D. have written over 40 books and 20 phonics cards games including the award-winning book, Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids (Beaufort Books, 2007). They are also directors of STRONG Learning Centers. For more information visit

Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2022 Calgary’s Child