The dangers of the bad test-taker attribution

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I’ve been thinking a lot about identity and how our identity—whether it’s an accurate reflection reality—influences our behavior. Most recently I’ve been thinking about this after reading Jeff Holmes’ article in the Teaching of Psychology journal on students who have identified themselves as bad test-takers (Holmes, 2021). Holmes opens the article with this statement: “One of the best ways to be bad at something is to tell yourself you are bad at it” (p. 291).

In Holmes’s study of 311 college students, a whopping 91% believed that students who otherwise know the course material can be bad test-takers with 56% of the students identifying themselves as bad test-takers. A third of the students said that someone else told them that they were bad test-takers. Importantly, those who identified as a bad test-taker were more likely to disagree with “I know how to study effectively.” Additionally, “Students who see themselves as bad test-takers…tend to—relative to students who do not possess such an identity—have lower confidence in their broader academic abilities, expend less effort on cognitive activities, and feel entitled to positive academic outcomes regardless of performance” (p. 296). And, yes, those who identify as bad test-takers were also more likely to report test anxiety, even when other variables—such as overall academic performance and study skills confidence—were controlled for.

I could retire early if I had a dollar for every time I had this conversation with a student:

Student: “I studied hard for this test, and I still failed! I’m just a bad test-taker.”

Me: “Tell me how you studied.”

Student: “What do you mean?”

Me: “When you sat down to study, tell me what you did.”

Student: “I read the chapter, then I read it again, and again. Oh! And I highlighted stuff.”

Me: “Tell me what you know about <concept covered on exam>.”

Student: <awkward silence> “I don’t remember.” <More awkward silence> Since I’m a bad test-taker, can I do something for extra credit?”

In Intro Psych, wherever you discuss attributions (e.g., social psych, abnormal, psychotherapy), consider using the bad test-taker attribution as an example. If a student does poorly on an exam and they say, “I’m a bad test-taker,” they are making an internal, stable, and global attribution. Internal: It’s a trait I have. Stable: It’s a trait that’s not going to change. Global: My bad test-taking applies regardless of the test. It is unlikely that a student who makes this attribution will do anything differently on the next test.


Now ask students to imagine a different attribution. After doing poorly on a test, the student says, “I didn’t know that material well enough.” This is an internal, unstable, specific attribution. Internal: The grade was because of something I did. Unstable: If I do things differently, I can get a different result. Specific: This is what happened on this specific test; that doesn’t say anything about the next test. This student has agency. “I’m going to try out some of the known-to-be-effective study strategies my instructor told me about.”

Reiterate to students that in both examples, the result of the first test was the same; both students failed. But who is most likely to fail the second test, too?

To make that second attribution—“I didn’t know the material well enough”—students have to have enough insight into their own knowledge or have to accept that their test score is a reasonably accurate reflection of their knowledge. When students read and reread chapters over and over and over again, the material begins to feel familiar. That familiarity can feel like knowledge. It’s not. It’s the illusion of knowledge. One of the many benefits of self-testing is that it keeps students from deluding themselves while they study. Unless they attribute their poor self-testing to being a bad test-taker.

[Side note: If the student sees test-taking as a skill that can be learned (unstable attribution), then they may choose to work on upping their test-taking skills. A quick Google search of “test taking skills” produced a number of websites with a bullet-point list of strategies. The sites I saw all included some version of “be prepared.” What’s the best way to be prepared? Use solid study strategies to learn the material.]




Holmes, J. D. (2021). The bad test-taker identity. Teaching of Psychology, 48(4), 293–299.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.