The title of this post is a question that students ask too rarely, and when they ask it, they usually don’t ask it well. So here are some quick thoughts on why and how to ask this question.
If you don’t know what’s on the test, you don’t know what to study. If you have no idea what’s going to be on the test, then you really haven’t been engaged in class. More commonly, students have some idea what’s going to be covered on the test, but they don’t know the specifics.
During the course of a large unit in, say, a history or biology class, you’ll probably cover more information than could be squeezed into a single exam, so the teacher will be making some choices about what to include on the test. And any students who are playing the game of school strategically will want to focus their study time on only that which will be tested.
Furthermore, knowing exactly what’s going to be on the test is especially important if you’ve waited until the last minute to study. Last-minute cramming is a game of triage where you can only spend time on a handful of topics, so asking what’s on the test can help you choose those topics wisely.
Okay, so maybe I’ve convinced you to ask. If that’s the case, then please don’t just walk up to your teacher and say, “What’s on the test?”
Instead, build a list on a piece of paper of the topics you think might be on the test. Be as specific as possible. Think about big categories and the subcategories within them. Use your book, your notes, and other resources to help you make a decent prediction. And then bring this piece of paper and a pen or pencil with you when you talk to the teacher. Make sure it’s a good time to ask, and be ready to receive an answer (have pencil and paper at the ready).
You’ll have a much more productive conversation with your teacher if you do this. It shows that you’re engaged with the content, and that you’ve made your best effort to predict what’s going to be on the test. It demonstrates that you’re trying to be an active agent in your own education. You’re not making the teacher do all the work. Instead, you’re making it easy on them, and you’re saving them time. Because of this, you’ll often be rewarded with helpful information.
As long as the test isn’t tomorrow, you still have time to ask the teacher, but we generally recommend asking as soon as possible, which is probably earlier than you think. Studying works best when there’s time to work your way down the mastery path using spaced repetition.
In fact, start building your list of test topics on the first day of each new unit. You don’t have to wait for the teacher to announce the date of the test. The test is always coming. And then, on the day it’s announced, you’ll already be prepared to ask what’s on the test.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.