About Tests
A Study Guide


What are your tests like? Most of my tests consist of multiple choice questions with up to 5 options. Sometimes, a short essay will be included at the end of the test. Some of the standardized test questions that come with the textbooks will be used in the construction of tests. The maximum length test I have ever written was 50 questions, often they're shorter than that. I try to write questions that will discriminate between good and poor students, between students who have studied, and those who have not. I sometimes use different forms of the test that look the same, in order to spot copying on tests. Some questions may test your memory of definitions, particularly questions from the text. However, I tend not to emphasize definitions, particularly in questions that are written to cover class lectures. I try to emphasize the application of concepts. The same goes for the memorizing of lists; if a list includes more than 5 items (thus requiring more extensive memory work) I usually won't ask you to reproduce it by rote memory on a test, the exception being when I emphasize a particular list in class. My tests go beyond mere memory work, and ask you to integrate and apply what you know in order to choose the right answer. I prefer "conceptual" questions over "factual" questions, and "factual" questions over "definitional" questions. While you will probably find some of each on my tests, this gives you an idea of the types of questions I prefer.

How closely do you follow the text? In all but beginning and introductory classes (that is, in classes with higher numbers, such as 280, 350, 420, etc.), the professor's role is more than that of merely reiterating and elaborating on the textbook. Beginner's classes may need a high amount of duplication between text and lecture, but in higher level classes the professor's lectures should sometimes furnish additional and alternate sources of information that doesn't overlap the text. When this "non-duplication" occurs, you should know the lecture material and the text material. Don't make the mistake of thinking that unique and different information in lecture means the text won't appear on the test, because it most certainly will! Questions referencing the text will be on the test that weren't covered in class at all, just as questions about lectures will appear that weren't in the text. Students are expected to teach themselves from the text if the professor chooses to present other information in class on a certain topic. So think of the professor's lectures as additional and different information, instead of a mere duplication of the text.

How difficult are your tests? I've been told that my tests are challenging and difficult to "fake." I've overheard students comment about my tests: "You had to do more than just learn the material, you had to know how to apply it." (That's a good definition of a "conceptual" question.) Some students who were not pleased with their scores have told me that my tests are "tricky" and "too hard." For many questions, the correct answer does not jump out at you, unless you have mastered the material. Some students feel that psychology and communications are topics of common sense, and that correct answers are easy to spot on tests if you "have a good feel for people" (which virtually everyone thinks they have naturally). This is a classic example of the self-serving bias and the hindsight bias in action. To the contrary, much of psychology and communications concentrates on information that is either not obvious, or is counterintuitive. The material found in the social sciences is much less "obvious" than most people think! David Meyers, the famous social sciences textbook author, tells students:

"...When you read the results of experiments in your textbooks, the material seems easy, even obvious. When you later take a multiple-choice test on which you must choose among several plausible conclusions, the task may become surprisingly difficult. 'I don't know what happened,' the befuddled student later moans. 'I thought I knew the material.'"

That's the unique nature of the social sciences. It only seems obvious, in hindsight. (Update: since posting this advice, I've had numerous students tell me they ignored it because they thought this section pertained to other people, not themselves, because...you guessed it ... they thought they had "a better feel for people than average" and could rely on their expert intuition to guide them. Reminds me of the story of a guy who rented a car in a city he'd never visited, and the rental agent asked him if he wanted a map. "Why would I need a map?" he asked. "I've been driving cars since I was 16 years old. I know what I'm doing." Moral of the story: being a human doesn't make you an expert in psychology; knowing how to speak doesn't make you an expert in communications.)

What if there are bad questions on the test? The way I handle bad test questions (questions where the class as a whole performs poorly) is to effectively throw out those that seem to confuse the majority of the class. I usually do this by reducing the test's denominator or by curving upward, which does essentially the same thing. Because I take care of bad questions in this way, it is therefore very uncommon for me to give back points to individuals for ideosyncratic readings of test questions. Ideosyncratic readings are uniquely personal, sometimes convoluted, "reading into," or parsing of the meanings or words in questions in an elaborate, unusual, uncommon, or excessively literal way until the student can claim an ambiguity. Obfuscation of this sort is a talent cultivated by attorneys--however, this isn't a court room, and most of us agree on what the meaning of "is" is! Please understand that a professor must attempt to be universal and timely in the way he or she redresses issues of this sort.

At what level of detail do you test? That's a hard question to answer...the sample questions below should give you some idea. The portions of the text that are most likely to be referred to in the tests are those that (surprise!) are emphasized in class. But I generally include some text-based questions that I haven't emphasized, to reward students who have done a superior job of mastering the text. If you are looking to reduce your study time, and are willing to receive less than a top grade, then my advice is to first study the areas of the text that have been emphasized in class, and secondly to concentrate on the rest of the text.

How about a study guide? You're reading it right now! I don't use teacher- or TA-led test reviews which take up class time. This strikes me as "spoon-feeding" for a class with only one or two textbooks, and a poor use of time that could be used to cover new material. The only study guide I provide is the one you are reading here (although, in my humble opinion, it's a darn good study guide). This isn't a remedial class, and students are expected to show initiative in preparing for exams. Good students will master the text and the lectures (and the student reports or presentations, if the class has them). Your university has asked me to discriminate between superior and inferior performance--that's my job as a professor. I have been asked to create something like a "free market" where bright students who invest in studying receive the top grades. I accomplish this in part by running a classroom where students arrange themselves on the grading scale according to the amount of independent effort they expend in mastering the material, and the results they are able to produce on exams and homework assignments. Tests are usually somewhat easier at the beginning of the semester (no guarantee), when I give you a chance to get accustomed to my testing style. Don't expect your test scores to get higher over the semester, unless you increase your effort, because subsequent tests usually get a little more challenging rather than a little easier.

When you finish one of my exams, you may not feel like you've "aced" my tests. That's because I use the dipstick method of testing:

"The stick has to be longer than the oil is deep, in order to see how far up the stick the oil goes."

In other words, you're not expected to be able to answer all the questions. I always include a couple of new or difficult questions; don't obsess over them, I toss out the questions that most of the class misses, or curve the test, which does essentially the same thing.

Do you curve your tests? Yes. I curve from the middle of the class, not the top. So a couple of geniuses in the class won't ruin the curve. Statistically valid, unit-free z-scores are used in the calculation of grades (score minus mean divided by standard deviation), which provide closer conformity to a true normal distribution--even though grades are more difficult to calculate this way.

Standard grades categories:
92-100 % = A; 90-91 % = A-
88-89 % = B+; 82-87 % = B; 80-81 % = B-
78-79 % = C+; 72-77 % = C; 70-71 % = C-
68-69 % = D+; 62-67 % = D; 60-61 % = D-
59 % and below = F

How about letting me look at some of your test questions? Here are some questions I have pulled from various past classes, with the correct answers marked with a small arrow (<-) . Since these are probably not questions from your class, don't be alarmed that you don't know the answers. These questions are here for you to see the type of question that's likely to be asked, not the content, which will vary from class to class. Many of my questions ask you to find the answer that is not correct, or the option that does not belong with the other options, so be sure to read the setup of the question carefully and look for phrases like "which of the following is not..." and "all but which of the following...". The reason for this style of questioning is that it presents primarily true options to the student (for example, 4 true statements and 1 false statement). If you knew that the false statement was false, but you only knew that 3 of the 4 true statements were true, then you would have been able to get the answer right and learn something new during the test. With the other style of questioning (where the student looks for one right answer among four false answers) the chances of learning anything important during the test are much less likely. The "all but which" style of questioning focuses more attention on what's true than what's false.

Here are some examples:

According to our text, affective-based ads are effective for all but which of the following reasons?
a. Warmth ads seem to be effective because they show actors feeling the way people want to feel, rather than the way life really is-and creating a fantasy life for the viewer sells product.
b. Some of the most powerful emotions that advertisers can tap are: compassion, nostalgia, intimacy, hope, pride, and belongingness.
c. Researchers believe that affective spots influence people by tapping into images already present in the receiver, so that people respond to the images or experiences associated with the product or candidate.
d. One of the most important tasks for campaigners is to communicate a clear, consistent positive image of the candidate and a negative image of the opponent, and to do it as early in the campaign as possible. Soft, emotional ads can help forward the positive image that must be maintained for a candidate.
e. All of the above are true. <-

In the above question, you'd want to determine whether each option is T or F. In this case, "a" - "d" are all T, so "e" is the correct answer.

Your friend Max recently failed a class. Was his failure his own fault, or attributable to external events beyond his control (such as an extraordinarily difficult professor)? According to Kelley's attributional model, which of the following would not be factored into your decision on how to attribute Max's failure?
a. Asking Max whether or not he felt responsible for the failure (which could indicate lowered self-esteem if he answered yes). <-
b. Asking whether Max had gotten good grades this semester in all his other classes but this particular one.
c. Asking whether Max had consistently attained good grades throughout his college and high school years.
d. Asking if most of the other students in Max's failed class got failing grades as well.
e. All of the above would be factored into a decision, according to Kelley's attributional model.

To answer the above question, you'd need to remember that Kelley's three-part attributional model looks at distinctive situations ("b") consistency of behavior ("c") and consensus of others ("d"). Just knowing that it's a 3-part model eliminates "e". Kelley's model doesn't say anything about felt responsibility or self-esteem, so "a" is the psychobabble distractor option that's false. Often, the distractor option will sound educated or insightful, or politically correct and sensitive, or will incorporate off-topic "pop psychology" or a current cultural fad to throw you off the trail if you haven't studied. Our culture goes through cycles of obsession regarding various quasi-psychological topics, so watch out for high-minded but potentially irrelevant options that include concepts like "self-esteem" or "diversity" or "empowerment" or "egalitarianism" or "hegemony" or other noble-sounding concepts that have nothing to do with the question at hand. Don't allow me to use your own biases, prejudices, and preconceptions against you!

Which of the following statements is not associated with the "cognitive response revolution" in the study of persuasion?
a. It's not what you do or say to someone, but how they respond, that counts.
b. Discover the internal "dialogs" or "autologs" within the target of influence to persuade them.
c. Ideal persuasive messages are most likely to be the result of a consensus of expert persuaders.<-
d. People may respond either centrally or heuristically to a persuasive attempt.
e. All persuasion is essentially self-persuasion.

Again, your best strategy is to treat this question as if it were five separate T/F questions. Mark each option "T" or "F." Option "a" is very typical of the cognitive response model, so it's true (notice it even has the word "respond" in the option). So is "b," (which doesn't have the word "respond" in it, but nonetheless deals with a person's response), "d," (which also has the word "respond" in it) and "e." Option "c" is the opposite of cognitive response model thinking. Option "c" places the emphasis on the sender ("expert persuaders") rather than the receiver, whereas all the other options emphasize the receiver, not the sender. So "c" is false, thus the answer.

Which of the following is not correct about norms in teams?
a. Norms are emerging consensual standards; it takes awhile for them to form.
b. Humans are largely unaware of the norms that control their behavior, like a fish is largely unaware that it’s wet.
c. Researchers have identified descriptive norms, such as stopping at a stop sign; and injunctive norms, such as facing to the front of an elevator. <-
d. The famous researcher Sharif demonstrated that group norms about entirely ambiguous stimuli (such as the autokinetic effect) will tend to converge after about 4 meetings.
e. The famous researcher Newcomb was able to demonstrate that professors, by controlling norms on campus, were able to shape the political attitudes of students—and that these attitudes (which were traceable by voting records) lasted for decades.

Regarding the above question: one of the difficulties in learning about the social sciences is the need for precision of topics. You can't allow your knowledge of one area or effect to "bleed over" into another, because the effects may be different. For example, in the above question, option "c" is clearly the incorrect answer (in fact, the definitions are exactly reversed). But some students thought that "a" was incorrect, because they confused the concept of "group norms" (which emerge gradually) with the concept of "ingroup outgroup processes" (which can happen very rapidly). But they are markedly different concepts. If the student oversimplifies, and erroneously remembers "people draw rapid conclusions in groups," the question may be missed if the student also misremembers what descriptive and injunctive norms are. Here's another hint, buried within the question: option "a" and option "d" agree with each other; both options propose a developing, rather than an instantaneous norm. Since only one option can be false in this question, the clever student would look elsewhere than "a" or "d". Notice one other thing that's typical about my questions: I refer to the researcher's names (Sharif and Newcomb) as a memory aid, but if you remember the story and the results associated with the study, then the researcher's names are not vital to answering the question. Would I ever be so devious as to insert the wrong researcher's name, and thus make the option false? No, your class isn't about researchers, or who they are--your class is about discoveries within the social sciences.

Consider the following potential definitions of attitudes. Which best describe attitudes? (u) pre-packaged thought sets; (v) a mediator between observable stimuli and observable responses; (w) objects of knowledge, such as probabilities and likelihoods; (x) learned, global evaluations of an object or idea that impact thought & action; (y) objects of thought on dimensions of affect (z) desirable means and ends of action.
a. u, v, x          b. w, x, y, z            c. v, x, y<-         d. v, w, x, z           e. u, v, w, x, y, z

Here's a case where several definitions of attitudes were discussed in class and in the text. Again, precision is necessary to answer this question. "u" was the definition given for ideologies, "v" was a definition of attitudes discussed in class and given in the text, "w" is a definition of beliefs, "x" was the text definition of attitudes; "y" was an alternate definition of attitudes given in class, and "z" was a definition given for values. So v, x, and y were all definitions given for attitudes.

How can I do better on the next exam? After each test, several students will appear in my office asking the age-old question, "How can I do better on the next exam?" The main answer to that question is not complicated: "Study harder than you did last time." Most students will then tell me it isn't possible to study any harder than they did last time. (You know how this script goes.) So I decided I'd let a student answer the question for me. This student earned a "C" on her first test and was very disappointed. Then she earned 100% on her second test--a dramatic improvement! So I asked her to reveal the secret of her success. Here is her answer:

  • I read each question and all the answer options carefully.
  • I eliminated the incorrect answers as I read through them.
  • If I wasn't sure of the correct answer on a certain question, I'd skip it and move on. I'd come back to it at the end, knowing another question might jog my memory in the meantime. If I still didn't know the answer, then I'd eliminate all the options that seemed similar, and picked the one that didn't seem similar to the others.
  • I stopped reading into questions and second-guessing myself. I just went with my first answer.
  • I read the book and highlighted the chapters my first time through, then I re-read and studied the highlighted (important) parts. I read the book and studied it quite thoroughly.
  • I took good, thorough notes in class and studied them over and over again. My recommendation is to study, study, study!

What do I need to know for a test? You should know all material assigned as reading (which may include student reports or presentations in some classes), and the material presented in lectures (including the material from student presentations or reports, if they are a part of the class) to do well on the tests. I've noticed that students often do best on questions from lecture, so be sure to emphasize the text in your studying. Lectures are usually simplifications, generalizations, and overviews of topics that can be treated in more depth and detail in text. I rely on the tests to motivate your reading of the text assignments, so don't expect to ace the tests if you just come to class and take notes. My lectures may or may not overlap the reading--it varies. As mentioned above, I tend to follow the text more closely for lower level classes (299 and below), and overlap with the text less for higher level classes (300 and above).

Test Policies: Tests may not be taken early and may be taken later only when USC policy allows it. The USC approved conditions under which a test may be taken late without penalty, to my knowledge, are:

  • You are ill and you have a legitimate health care provider document your illness.
  • There is a documentable death in your immediate family.
  • There's a gray area regarding OCAAA/SAAS sanctioned student athletes regarding specific competition dates--if you are a student athlete registered with USC's OCAAA/SAAS, please alert me at the beginning of the semester regarding your status and your competition schedule. To date, this gray area does not apply to students serving in supporting roles, only to athletes.

Missed tests play havoc with my grading system, which needs all scores in place before a test is curved. Missed tests therefore delay grade feedback for the entire class. If you do not have a USC-approved excuse for missing a test, you can take a makeup test with a 10-point penalty. Under all circumstances (excused or penalty) if you take a test late, the latest day you are allowed to makeup the test is the day you return to class, and the test must be taken either (1) during the prof's or the TA's office hours on the day you return to class (or during office hours on the day nearest your return to class, if for some reason office hours are not held on the day you return to class) or (2) during the class itself, on the day you return to class. If you decide to not make up the test during either option listed above, for any reason, you forfeit the exam! Requests to take your test at Disability Services must be submitted in writing a week before the first test. Tests are not available to take home (because I reuse questions) but you may review your tests during office hours with the TA or the prof. Finals are not cumulative--the vast majority of information on the final will be new questions you've not encountered before. Just like every other test, the final may not be taken early. The final exam date will be on the day specified by the schedule of final examinations.

Remind me to talk about scantron forms before the test. We need to be using the right ones. No 'blue book' is necessary.

Where are the test scores posted? In the Drop Box, where they are available as a downloadable .jpg or .pdf or .png file, a couple of days after the tests have been graded. You'll find the link to the Drop Box on the main syllabus page.

What do I need to get on the next [test/assignment], in order to get a/n [A/B/C] in this class? Look in the Drop Box for a spreadsheet named "WhatDoIHaveToGet," which will help you run various scenarios regarding your final grade.

Who grades the tests, reports, presentations, and papers? Years ago I did it myself, but so many students hated me when they got low scores, that now I give all tests, papers, etc., to my dog Willy, and he does the grading. He's not terribly accurate, and is prone to leaving mysterious stains on the papers, but on the other hand, he's hard to hate.

Copyright © 1999-2006 by Kelton Rhoads, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.