On Bad Test-Takers

Credit: iStock.com/AntonioGuillem
Credit: iStock.com/AntonioGuillem

“One of the best ways to be bad at something is to tell yourself that you are bad at it” (Holmes, 2021, p. 293). This applies to students who believe they can’t take tests. “Despite the prevalence of the bad test-taker as part of the popular academic lexicon, there is no specific definition of this term and little research on the concept” (p. 293). What’s generally assumed is that a bad test-taker has studied and does understand the material, but something about the testing environment prevents the student from demonstrating that knowledge. This assumption also rests on the idea that test-taking involves a natural ability, not given at birth, that skill development will not remediate.

How many students identify as bad test-takers? Do these students hold other beliefs about themselves and learning? More than 300 undergraduate students answered survey items that explored those questions. They responded on a variety of measures that included questions about test anxiety, self-efficacy, academic entitlement, study strategies, and motives.

A whopping 91 percent of the cohort believed that students could do poorly on tests even when they knew the material. Over half of that group expressed the strongest possible agreement with a statement to that effect. Fifty-six percent reported that they themselves were bad test-takers. Thirty-five percent said that someone else—a teacher or guidance counselor, for example—had told them they were bad test-takers. These students also expressed great skepticism about the value of tests, with 70 percent agreeing that standardized tests measure test-taking ability.

The researcher makes this point about the findings:

Students completing this anonymous survey were not trying to get sympathy from a professor or get an adjustment to an exam score. Therefore, they stood to gain nothing . . . by representing themselves as bad test-takers. This suggests that referring to oneself as a bad test-taker is not simply an excuse employed by students hoping for special treatment after struggling on an exam. (p. 297)

The review of research included in the article does make clear that although not much work has been done on bad test-taking per se, there are lots of related findings. For example, students with high exam anxiety consistently perform less well on exams, and exam anxiety strongly correlates with the bad test-taker identity. “This correlation shrunk only modestly after controlling for several relevant variables including general academic self-efficacy and broad academic performance” (p. 296). The identity also correlated negatively with self-efficacy and effortful cognitive endeavors (such as disliking and avoiding challenging academic tasks), and it correlated positively with academic entitlement.

Students who identify as bad test-takers end up with a constellation of factors that not only negatively affect exam scores but also impinge on academic success generally. Research has not yet explored whether a bad test-taker identity actually exists, but even so, an array of studies would caution students against taking on that identity—for reasons that start with that opening quote. Additionally, research on exam performance consistently links it to study strategy choices. In this survey, the responses of bad test-takers correlated with “I know how to study effectively.” The researcher thinks this hints at some of awareness of study strategies’ relevance. Self-proclaimed bad test-takers also endorsed superficial rather than the deep approaches to study that we equate with understanding and retention. Research also finds that poor exam performance is often the result of students overestimating their level of preparedness and curtailing study before they should.

Overcoming such a widely held student belief (assuming some generalizability for these findings) won’t be accomplished by teachers proclaiming its folly. The belief affords students an important protection. It allows them to believe they have mastered material even when exam scores fail to verify that conclusion. But teachers can start picking at the assumptions—asking for evidence, pointing out the links between beliefs and behaviors, and wondering what excuses the identity provides. Teachers can challenge students to explain content they missed on the exam, regularly discuss appropriate levels of preparedness, and lay out study strategies they encourage students to try.

Exams are ubiquitous and consequential for college students. It makes little sense to head into them with a self-imposed handicap, yet they do. What about your students? How many of them claim this identity and do they understand its implications? If they think they can learn the content in the course, they can acquire study strategies repeatedly shown to improve exam scores.


Holmes, J. D. (2021). The bad test-taker identity. Teaching of Psychology, 48(4), 293–299. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320979884

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