TEST AND EXAM PREPARATION
“Study smarter, not harder” is the cliché — but it’s true! Our “Preparing for and taking tests and exams” module is thorough and will help you create a customized study schedule and teach you strategies for effectively preparing, no matter what type of test you face.
Looking for something short and sweet? Read our quick tips about exam prep.
If you would prefer anything in .docx or another accessible format, please email us and we can send it along.
FOR EXAM PREP
1. Separate your initial learning (when you focus on increasing your understanding of material) from your studying (when you improve your memory of what you know).
2. Start preparing early, or start now.
3. Be informed about the exam: topics to cover, percentage or value of test or exam, format, length, location, aids permitted
4. Be strategic in studying:
- Identify key topics. Focus on material you don’t know
- Set targets and dates for completion
5. Select, organize and review key material:
- Organize material to distinguish between main topics, sub-topics, and details. Look for relationships, connections or patterns
- Summarize it using charts, tables, mind maps or webs, quantitative concept summaries, or annotated notes depending on the type of material
- Review, aka study, to build your memory
6. Make a study plan, based on number of hours you think you’ll need:
- 3 hour blocks (with a 10 minute break every hour) work well, followed by long break (1.5-2 hours) and do it again – – 9 hours max. a day!!
- Distribute study hours across several days, studying 2 or 3 courses a day
7. Match your depth of study with the test format, and then “teach” someone else:
- Multiple choice tests can tap details, plus understanding connections and concepts
- Essay exams can analyze themes, patterns, your interpretations
- Quantitative problem solving exams assess conceptual understanding, plus fast and accurate computations
8. Write a practice exam, under the same conditions (duration, exam aids):
- Make up your own questions, based on learning objectives of the course
- Use old exams and assignments, review questions from the text
9. Be strategic in writing the exam:
- Take home exams require evidence and evaluation, not just description of facts
- Answer questions you know first, to maximize grades and gain confidence
- Include your essay outline, or diagrams in problem solving exams, for part marks
10. Use relaxation techniques to calm your mind and body, and permit clear thinking.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
FOR EXAM PREP
Rules for organizing your study schedule
Get organized: use organizing tools such as monthly and weekly calendars, “to-do” lists. Organizing tools can be found in our online module Managing Your Time At University.
Start studying EARLY. Decide how many days before the exam you need in order to gather and use information (see Review & Self-testing). Extend your study over as many days as you can manage. The longer you extend this period, the more time you have to review and self-test rather than cramming vast amounts of information into several long, exhausting days.
Let’s see how it works…
Imagine you have 12 hours to “study” for a particular exam.
With the cramming approach: you spend 2 days at 6 hours, for a total of 12 study hours. You have little time to review or self-test because you are busy just preparing the material. Even then, everything is in your short-term memory — easily dumped out of your brain!
With the non-cramming approach: you spread the 12 hours over 6 days at 2 hours per day. This allows for preparing, reviewing (gather and use), and SLEEPING ON IT! While you sleep, you are still thinking but at a different level of consciousness. You are now learning the materials versus temporarily housing them.
- Set aside study blocks of approximately 2.5 hours per subject area per day.
- Add regular, daily review and self-testing to the schedule. Ideally start with reviewing information covered the day before and end with a self-test.
- Include other requisite tasks: sleeping, eating, exercising, relaxing, self-care. Now more than ever, it is important for you to take very good care of your health. Getting a full night’s sleep, eating balanced meals and doing daily cardio activity will stimulate your brain and help you think and focus better.
- Make the schedule as routine as you can (e.g., go to bed at the same time every night, especially during exam study period).
Follow your schedule! Do not let time bandits (including your friends, in person and online!) sway you.
The Study Plan
Why should I start studying early?
Did you know that the human brain learns academic material faster and better if done in brief blocks of time spread over longer periods, rather than in a few lengthy sessions?
For example, you will perform better on an exam if you spend one hour studying each day for 20 days than if you spend 10 hours studying for two days before an exam. Which means that CRAMMING is BAD NEWS!
What if I have to cram?
OK, so sometimes life gets crazy and we end up having to cram. Right? If you have to cram, try to focus on remembering the information you know already rather than trying to learn new information. And here’s the kicker: you will typically NOT remember what you tried to learn the night before the exam, so it’s best to make sure you really know some of the information well. If you do have a few days, try to spread the studying out so you are not doing it all in one day.
How should I plan my exam preparation?
The Study Plan
If you plan ahead, many students have found the “The Study Plan” gets good results. However, five days is really the minimal and we recommend a much longer study plan, if possible. For example, if you have not read any of your BIOL 101 textbook and a multiple choice quiz of over 100 test questions is looming, 5 days will probably not suffice.
Components of the The Study Plan:
- Space out your learning over a minimum of 5 study blocks.
- Divide your material into workable “chunks” (e.g., a chapter, a set of lecture notes).
- During each day, prepare a new chunk. Preparing might be reading and note-taking, amalgamating lecture and textbook information, reorganizing lecture notes.
- Review previous material.
- Use active learning strategies such as questioning, reciting, cue cards, and study groups.
- Use self-testing techniques to monitor your learning.
How much time should I set aside to study?
You might need a minimum of 8-10 hours of studying to get a good mark on an exam. However, the time you need to spend really depends on many things such as:
- the difficulty of the course,
- to what extent you have kept up with the materials during the term, and
- how important this exam is to you.
The Study Plan
Studying efficiently for 5 DAYS is a great goal for many undergraduate exams… here’s how to do it.
A study plan reduces your stress, as it helps you keep on track over the short but intense period of exams, and places a priority on “health balancing” activities.
This section describes a study plan that allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses, distribute your review time, and ensure that all courses get some attention. It includes how to create an exam study schedule using 3 hour study blocks, and how to use 3-hour study blocks effectively.
Create an Exam Study Schedule
This Study Schedule works best when you have a period of time with no classes, such as Commerce mid-term study week, or December and April exams. Studying for mid-terms when there’s no break in classes means studying in addition to regular term work, and it’s often pretty tough to fit it all in!
Ideally, the term work of readings, assignments, quizzes, presentations will be completed by the last day of classes in Week 12, and then you can shift to “study mode.” For classes with unfinished term work, you will need to both finish the course requirements and study during the exam period.
- Find when your exams are to be written and how much each exam is worth.
- Create a calendar starting with the week or two before exams begin, and include three divisions in the day (morning, afternoon, evening) or download the template at http://sass.queensu.ca/learningstrategies/decemberapril-exam-study-schedule/
- Write in your exam schedule, using the appropriate time slot. For example, 9 a.m. exams would go in the first third of the day, 2 p.m. in the middle slot, and 7 p.m. in the last slot. Include the value or percentage of the final mark for each exam. Consider colour coding the different exams, or highlight all exam times, for easy identification.
- Add any fixed commitments, and be realistic. (Your roommate’s birthday dinner? Work shifts?)
- Assign specific hours to the three blocks of time during which you will totally commit to studying. The blocks should be about three hours each, and the study blocks must be separated by two hours, to allow for memory consolidation and down time. Enter those times on the right hand side of the calendar (e.g., 9 a.m.-12 p.m.; 2-5 p.m.; 7-10 p.m.).
- Use the HOURS NEEDED TABLE on the Exam Study Schedule template: for every exam estimate the number of hours needed to Catch Up on incomplete term work that won’t be finished by the last day of classes. Estimate the desired number of hours desired for Studying (making review sheets, drilling, and self-testing). Consider your goals, the difficulty of the course, how much the exam is worth.
- Compare the number of total number of hours desired for Catch Up and Study (divide by three to calculate the number of 3-hour blocks) with the number of available study blocks on your Study Schedule. Does it balance? Do you need to gain study time by reducing fixed commitments? Do you need to reduce catch up or study time for any or all courses (and perhaps reduce your grade expectations also)?
- Starting with your most difficult course, work backwards from the exam date and assign study sessions. Use a pencil as this part is very flexible and you’ll probably change it a couple of times. Count the number of study sessions or hours…does this reach your target?
- Repeat the “working backwards” method for each course. There is no perfect plan: just try to distribute the study sessions for each course across several days, and reach your targeted number of study hours.
- Stick to your plan! Typical problems include:
- losing motivation or energy. Try: studying with a friend, doing something FUN at the end of your day, exercising during your breaks, and remembering your goals.
- feeling overwhelmed and tired. Try: looking at your calendar and seeing when exams are over… take heart! And get some sleep. 🙂
- miscalculating how much studying is needed for a course. Try: redistributing your study sessions, filling in some of the blank periods on your calendar with added study sessions, or reducing expectations.
Key Planning Tips:
- Aim for a sustainable study schedule. This is like training for a marathon; every day counts.
- The 2-hour breaks are essential to maximizing your study plan. They allow your brain to consolidate the information you’ve been rehearsing, and allow you to relax, get food or exercise.
- Plan as many blocks as possible to coincide with when the exam is scheduled.
- Study two or three courses in a day.
- Maximize your memory by distributing 15 hours of study over five or six days, rather than doing a long blitz.
- Study the hardest material during your peak learning times.
- Build in down time.
- Try not to study nine hours a day. It’s OK not to study every available minute!
See How to Use 3-Hour Study Blocks to maximize your efficient use of each block of time.
Keep a positive attitude: “I’ll do my best, and that is good enough!”
How to use 3-Hour Study Blocks
After you’ve made an Exam Study Schedule, your next challenge is to juggle the time you have available (the number of study blocks in your exam study schedule) with the volume of material you have to study, to make a great study plan. 🙂
- Create an Exam Study Schedule, using the template at http://sass.queensu.ca/learningstrategies/decemberapril-exam-study-schedule/.
- For each course:
Count the number of study blocks (not including any catch up blocks you needed).
- Divide your course material into chunks, so that you have 1 fewer chunks than you do blocks of time (e.g., 5 blocks of time> 4 chunks of material; 7 blocks > 6 chunks).
- Chunks can be divided into topics or units, or number of pages, or importance of the material within the whole course, or chapters, or in any other meaningful way.
- If the chunks cannot realistically be covered in 2 or 2.5 hours of solid study, you may need to rethink your Exam Study Schedule to re-allocate the study time you have available, or alter your expectations of your preparedness for the exam.
- Apply proven principles in learning theory to review, study (summarize and drill and do application or analysis questions), and self-test. Find practical study strategies and tips at http://sass.queensu.ca/learningstrategies/topic-exam-prep/.
- Take breaks over the 3 hour block of time, to allow information to be consolidated in your memory (e.g., 50 minutes on and 10 minute break over 3 hours).
- Enjoy non-intellectual activities between 2-hour study blocks to further support the transfer of information from short term working memory to long term storage, as well as to stretch, eat, relax and check your phone. Set a timer if you need to end your break on time!
See the table on the back for a sample plan. Five study days, producing 15 efficient study hours is just an example.
Your plan will reflect your own needs. Many students study between 10-20 hours for an exam (after they have done all the “catch up” on the readings, etc.).
Staying on top of academic demands is a skill that can be developed with coaching and practice. Learning Strategies resources and services can help you build skills in maintaining motivation, managing time, taking good notes over the term, and more.
|Comprehensive Mini Exam
What does it mean to STUDY? Summarize to see relationships and connections between ideas, and drill, drill, drill.
What does it mean to SELF-TEST? Answer practice questions from your text, assignments, Exam Bank or ones you have created based on the course Learning Objectives or tips from your prof about what is most important.
What does it mean to REVIEW? A more general refreshing of your memory, focusing on what you did not know during your self-test of that content.
What is a COMPREHENSIVE MINI-EXAM? A practice exam, written under “real exam” conditions (eg times, formula sheet, open book).
Studying for multiple exams: Expanding the Study Plan
Frequently, several exams are scheduled in a short period of time, and it is very helpful to develop a study plan that allows you to consider how much time you may need for different courses, distribute your review time, and ensure that all courses get some attention. A study plan reduces your stress, as it helps you keep on track over the short but intense period of exams, and places a priority on health-balancing activities.
Steps in building the study schedule:
- Read about the 5-Day Study Plan. (In the Preparing for and Taking Tests module.)
- Create a calendar starting with 1-2 weeks before class ends. Use 8.5×11 inch paper.
- Starting with the first free day after classes are over, draw yep horizontal lines within each day on the blank study calendar. These spaces will become three study times (e.g., morning, afternoon, and evening or whatever fits your best learning times).
- Write in your exam schedule, using the appropriate time slot. For example: 9 a.m. exams would go in the first third of the day, 2 p.m. in the middle slot, and 7 p.m. in the last slot. Include the value or percentage of the final mark for each exam. Consider colour-coding the different exams, or highlight all exam times, for easy identification.
- Assign times to the three blocks of time during which you will totally commit to studying. The blocks should be about 3 hours each, and not longer than four hours. The study blocks must be separated by two hours, to allow for memory consolidation and down time. Enter those times on the right hand side of the calendar (e.g., 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; 3-6 p.m.; 8-11 p.m.).
- Look realistically at the amount of work due during the last weeks of term. An ideal goal is to have all term work (readings, assignments) completed by the end of classes. Start exam studying as soon as you can.
**If you are behind in term work (which is not unusual, so don’t get distressed!) try to stay in pace and current with the lectures, and catch up later. This suggestion is less useful for sequentially taught courses, however, like physics and math.
- Consider how many hours of study you may need for each exam. This will depend on many factors, such as:
- Value of the exam and your goals for the course,
- Difficulty of the material and how up-to-date you are, or
- Significance of the course (e.g., a core course or required mark for Honours).
- Starting with your most difficult course, work backwards from the exam date and assign study sessions. Use a pencil as this part is very flexible and you‘ll probably change it a couple of times. Your memory for the material will be greatly improved if you distribute 15 hours of study over five sessions covering four or five days, rather than doing a blitz of two 8-hour days. Count the number of study sessions or hours… does this reach your target?
- Assign study periods that coincide with the time of each exam, so that your mind is able to function well under the exam conditions (e.g., study in the morning for 9 a.m. exams). Also, schedule your peak learning time for your most challenging studying.
- Repeat the “backwards planning” method for each course. There is no perfect plan: just try to distribute the study sessions for each course across several days, and reach your targeted number of study hours.
- Be efficient in your studying during each session: work 50 min. with a 10 minute break; be strategic in focusing on key content (refer to the course’s learning objectives); focus on what you do not know; make summary sheets of major concepts and their applications; repeat to move information into your long-term memory. Studying focuses on accuracy + speed of accessing your memory or performing calculations.
- Use the 2-hour breaks to allow your brain to relax, consolidate information, and get food or exercise. Exams are like a marathon – you need a balanced training schedule!
- A good schedule lets you study two or three courses in a day. It has the targeted amount of time for each course, or close to it. It contains unscheduled or empty study sessions. Exams are stressful, so take advantage of the more unstructured part of term and see a movie, hang out with friends, cook tasty and nutritious food, gets lots of exercise and SLEEP. It allows for a whole day off, unless your exams are too compressed. And it can be sustained over the entire course of your exams.
- Stick to your plan! Typical problems include:
- losing motivation. Try studying with a friend, doing something FUN at the end of your day, exercising during breaks, and remembering your goals.
- feeling overwhelmed/tired. Try: seeing when exams end…take heart! and get some SLEEP.
- miscalculating how much studying is needed for a course. Try: redistributing study sessions, filling in some blank periods on your calendar with added study sessions, or reducing expectations. Keep a positive attitude: “I CAN DO THIS!”
But what if I have to cram?
Even with good planning, there are times when you have to cram. Here are some helpful hints.
Pick out the most important points and learn them really well. Use 75% of your cramming time to drill key points and 25% on the rest.
Make a plan
Time is short. Choose what you want to study; determine how much time you have; and set strict timelines.
Use mind map review sheets and cue cards
Condense the material you have chosen to learn into mind maps. Practice by redrawing the mind maps. Put each separate key point from your mind map onto cue cards and drill yourself regularly.
Recite, Recite, Recite
No time to move information into long term storage so repetitive recitation is the order of the day! Recitation will burn the facts into your brain. One way to do this is to tape-record yourself and then play back the tape before you sleep and again when you awake.
When you cram, you are not learning the information well. Therefore, if you experience anxiety during the exam, you may forget what you have studied. Use relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety.
Don’t “should” yourself
If you start your cramming session beating yourself up with statements like, “I should have studied earlier,” by the time you get to studying you might feel too guilty and depressed to continue. Instead, accept the truth: you would be in a better position if you had started earlier. Then, tell yourself you will do so next time! Remind yourself that you are human and will learn from your mistakes.
Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 185
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
FOR EXAM PREP
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
FOR EXAM PREP
Multiple choice exams
What to study?
For explicit comprehension questions, focus on memorizing terms, definitions, facts, and concepts that can be stated in a succinct way.
For application questions, practice applying the concepts and/or procedures to new situations. Think deeper and focus on the Big Picture (this takes longer than basic comprehension questions).
How to study?
Study in short blocks (20-30 minutes with a 5-10 minute break) over many days. Review daily. Answer the study guide.
What to study?
Focus on the major themes of the course to get the Big Picture: think deeply to understand how the main ideas and details are related. Elaborate, compare, evaluate the materials. Generate possible exam questions and answer them in writing (or if you don‘t have time, make a detailed outline for each).
How to study?
Use mindmaps and graphic organizers which organize around the central theme. Study in longer blocks (e.g., 2.5 hours: 50 minutes, 10 minutes break, 50 more minutes). Start far enough ahead of the exam for the information to percolate in your mind.
What to study?
Focus on solving problems and identifying the underlying concepts. Try to see a pattern (e.g., look for problems that cluster around the same theme to reduce the number of problems you will need to do). Practice by answering old exams, test, labs, and homework questions.
How to study?
Allow for long study sessions and breaks (2 hours with a 30 minute break).
More on essay exams
- Generate possible essay topics
- Write thesis statements
- Write 3-4 main points
- Organize evidence for each main point
- Write a few mock essay exams
1. Generate topics
Look at topics given for the course. Look at old exam questions. Look over your lecture notes and predict possible topics. Focus on areas that were given emphasis and/or repeated themes.
2. Write thesis statements
The thesis statement is your purpose, aim or argument in the paper. Identify the instruction word first (e.g., analyze, compare, etc.). This will help focus your thesis statement. For example,
Topic: Effects of globalization on the Canadian textile industry
Instruction Word: Discuss (Argument: pros/cons)
Thesis: Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly produced in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences [Argument-Against] of globalization to our local textile industry.
3. Add main points to each thesis statement
Identify 3-4 main points which defend the thesis statement. Using the example above, three negative effects might be: 1) Canadian job losses, 2) local manufacturers must keep costs down, and 3) export market suffers.
Write these main points into topic sentences. A topic sentence has two parts: topic and purpose. Usually a topic sentence appears at the beginning of a paragraph.
Determine the order for each main point.
- Random order: any order will do.
- Chronological order: there is a time line. Used for describing a process, history, etc.
- Logical order: one idea needs to be explained before the next can be understood.
- Concession order: argument or strongest points go at the end where the reader is more likely to remember them.
An example of a topic sentence on Canadian job losses: “Our textile industries’ closure led to massive job loss [TOPIC], with workers now facing poor employment prospects [PURPOSE].”
4. Organize evidence for each main point
After stating your topic sentence, add evidence/facts to your main idea. Go over your lecture notes, readings, research on the topic as if you were doing research for a term paper.
Under each topic sentence list your evidence. Listing allows you to memorize your evidence in chunks. Use memory devices to assist in retaining this information.
Types of evidence include statistics, examples, case studies, anecdotal information (use sparingly), observational notes, expert quotes, illustrations, graphs.
Here‘s some evidence for our example on job loss:
- In Ontario 82% factories closed since 1980s
- 50,000+ jobs lost
- only half have full-time jobs
- Bob Owens, CTWA representative—many long-term unemployed, not retrained
5. Write a mock essay exam
See how long it takes you to put it all together. Time yourself.
Spend most of your time on the BODY. That‘s where the majority of the marks lie. Therefore, do NOT write the conclusion first (as some would argue). Leave 5-10 minutes to proofread your writing for careless mistakes.
When finished the mock exam, self-assess the essay. Do you think it would pass?
The job losses example: Putting it all together
Due to globalization, Canadians can now buy cheap clothing, mostly manufactured in developing countries. However, buying cheap clothing does not mitigate the dire consequences of globalization to our local textile industry. Globalization has produced three significant negative effects on our Canadian economy: massive job losses; struggling local manufacturers with poor bottom lines; and poor export sales due to high costs of Canadian made goods.
Firstly, the closing of our textile industries has created massive job loss with many workers now facing poor employment prospects: unemployment, casual, or part time work. In Ontario since the early 1980s, 72% of textile factories have closed representing over 50,000 job losses. Moreover, of these 50,000 workers, only half have found full-time, permanent jobs. Bob Owens, CTWA representative, reported that many of these workers face long-term unemployment with little hope of retraining due to age, language, and education issues. Without jobs, a cheap sweater from China is meaningless.
Secondly, in order to compete globally our remaining Canadian textile business…
Essay exams: plan before you answer
1. Read the exam directions carefully
Do you need to answer all the questions? Can you choose between questions?
Are there any time limits?
2. Make summary notes on the back of the exam sheet.
Before reading any exam questions, unburden your mind by quickly jotting down on the back of your exam booklet ideas, details, formulae, sequences, etc. that you have memorized but think you might forget. This is almost like making a summary of your summary sheets! Aside from getting down your ideas, this is a positive action that gets you involved in the exam and, thereby, builds self-confidence.
3. Plan your time.
How much time should you allot to each question?
Plan the number of minutes per question and stick to it.
4. Read all the questions.
Before you start writing anything, read ALL the questions. If you can choose between questions, select those for which you are best prepared. As you read the instructions to the question, underline or circle key words or instruction words. For a list of instruction words, go to Instruction Words for Essays & Examination Questions.
5. Jot cues alongside each question.
While reading each question, quickly note a few words or phrases that immediately come to your mind. Later, when you begin writing, use these jottings and those on the back of the exam sheet to organize your answer.
6. Start with the easiest questions.
Starting with something you know at the beginning will inspire self-confidence, help you relax, and think clearly. Success begets success!
7. Leave time at end.
Leave about 10-20 minutes at the end to read over your exam. Correct any glaring errors and misplaced ideas or words which would hamper comprehension of your answer and potentially lose you marks.
Adapted from: Wauk, P. (1989). How to Study in College. 4th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 293.
Instruction words in essay and short answer questions
Analyze: Examine the statement or subject in a critical manner. This involves breaking the subject into separate parts and discussing and interpreting each part (e.g., cases, key factors, results, and then demonstrating how each part fits together to form the whole).
Assess: Briefly describe the subject, analyze the positive and negative characteristics, state results or consequences. Using these points to support your answer, offer an opinion or judgment on the value or the character of the subject.
Cite: Make mention of, bring forward as proof (e.g., Cite the reasons the philosopher Hobbes gives for saying that humans are inherently selfish and competitive).
Compare: Present similarities or resemblances between two things. Emphasize these similarities but also present differences (e.g., compare the British and Canadian parliamentary systems).
Contrast: State the ways in which the subjects are not similar (e.g., Contrast the Canadian parliamentary system with the American system of government).
Criticize: Make your own judgment about a subject, defining its merits and shortcomings. Give evidence for what you say (e.g., Criticize the conservative argument that NATO countries must maintain troops in Afghanistan for global security). Say what you think, why, and support your judgment with evidence.
Define: Tell the meaning or significance of the term (e.g., Define and state the significance of ‘gerrymandering’ as it applies to the Canadian electorate system).
Describe: Mention the chief characteristics of a situation or retell the central features of a story (e.g., Describe Dante‘s The Inferno).
Discuss: Give a complete and detailed presentation of the topic. Describe the subject, provide reasons on both sides of the argument or for various views held about the subject (e.g., Discuss the implications of a separate Palestinian state).
Distinguish between: Define each term to show the main differences between them (e.g., Distinguish between the following film genres: mystery and horror).
Elaborate on: Provide more specific details regarding the subject. Note the connection with or the impact of this subject on other related areas of thought.
Evaluate: Appraise the issue giving both advantages and disadvantages. Quote other sources if possible and include your opinion. Always support your opinions with evidence.
Explain: Give an interpretation of the subject which clarifies it. This may mean analyzing the causes or reasons for an event or situation (e.g., Explain the Communist Chinese government’s shift from a closed economy to a market economy).
Illustrate: Give specific examples of something which demonstrates the meaning or situation (e.g., Illustrate what is meant by ―the middle way in Buddhism).
Interpret: State the meaning in simpler terms, using your own judgement (e.g., Interpret George Bernard Shaw‘s ideas of heaven and hell in Man and Superman).
Outline: Organize your answer into main points and subordinate points. Make a short summary using headings and subheadings (e.g., Outline the wave particle duality of light).
Relate: Show the connection between the ideas mentioned in the question; how one influences the other. This does not mean compare and contrast (e.g., Relate the American and the French Revolutions).
State: Explain precisely (e.g., State the three dimensions involved in Weber‘s model of power).
Trace: Show the main points from the beginning to the end of an event (e.g., Trace the rise of Islamic fundamentalism at the end of the 20th century).
Beware of two potential dangers!
- Writing too little: too general, not enough evidence. Outcome: don‘t get full marks.
- Writing too much: repetition, too much evidence. Outcome: run out of time.
How to prepare
- Review lecture notes and readings.
- Make a list of important terms and their definitions. Cue cards are useful here.
- Relate each term to the general ideas of the course. Mind-maps help. Add supporting evidence.
How to write
Short-answer questions are organized like a main idea paragraph in the essay exam:
- Identify the direction word.
- Main idea—translate into a strong, focused topic sentence.
- Evidence—check how many points are assigned to guide you. 3-4 sentences with evidence should suffice.
- Summary Sentence—recap the gist of the paragraph.
Take-home essay exams
Purpose: to test understanding and expression, not retention of information.
How to prepare
- Know the prof’s expectations.
- Anticipate possible questions.
- Know where you can find resources (e.g., library materials, websites). Ensure all your notes are organized.
- Organize a work schedule. Leave yourself lots of time for finishing the take-home.
- Write a polished paper: well organized, argued, and clearly written.
- Translate the problem into your own words. This will help you understand what the question requires.
- Perform opposite operations
- Analyze the problem before you begin to solve it.
- Draw a picture or diagram to help you visualize the problem.
Multiple choice: Revered or feared?
Do you like multiple choice tests or fear them?
Although some students like having the possible answer given to them, many students find multiple choice questions very difficult. Why?
Interestingly, it‘s not the content that is difficult but the structure.
Why is the structure so difficult?
- There are many questions to answer and the topics are often scrambled and shuffled.
- Ideas from lectures and/or readings may be reworded in different/unfamiliar ways.
- Very often the question is not asking for simple recognition of ideas but asking you to go beyond straight memorization and apply knowledge from the course, make an analogy, solve a novel problem. Professors assume you are capable of memorizing details.
What are the different question types?
Type 1: Explicit knowledge question
Tests knowledge taught in lectures and texts (about 1/3 of the questions!)
Study Strategy: can simply memorize
Level of Difficulty: easiest
Type 2: Finer detail question
Asks you go to beyond straight memorization of concepts and see how the details relate to the concept. For example,
Which of the following is not related to the process of elaborative rehearsal?
- adding details to ideas and concepts
- analyzing component parts of an idea
- restating knowledge in your own words
- practicing remembering the information
- none of the above
Study Strategies: elaborate and draw connections between the concept and its evidence.
Level of Difficulty: Medium (i.e., more difficult than Type 1).
Type 3: “Thinker” question
Tests your ability to understand the relationship between a theory and its evidence and then apply this understanding to ―cope with a hypothetical relationship. For example,
In the study by Bahrick and Hall (1991), we find that graduates of college mathematics courses recall high school math knowledge for many years after. According to Bahrick and Hall, which of the following would you expect to be true of a group of university graduates who did not take math courses at university:
- they would recall their math from high school to essentially the same extent as those who took math courses in university
- most would recall little or none of their high school math 50 years after
- they would recall best those things which they learned more about in their university course
- both b) and c)
- all of the above
Study Strategies: practice recalling the theory, elaborative review, and some creative thinking (i.e., what might change in a variety of slightly different circumstances from those presented in the theory)
In-test Strategy: read the question twice to ensure you understand it correctly. The question stem is made up of two parts: 1) the context reference for the question (tells you to think back to something you’ve studied) and 2) the question part. Pause after the first part and recall the theory or research study. Next, because the alternatives in this question are usually quite long, try reading the question part of the stem followed by each alternative, to keep clear on what you are being asked.
Level of Difficulty: Hardest. These questions are appearing more and more on multiple choice tests, so don’t avoid preparing for them!
(Answers: 2. e; 3. d)
MORAL OF STORY:
Multiple choice tests are NOT simple. They require a rigorous approach to study.
Multiple choice exam strategies
Key concepts for multiple choice exam preparation
Memorization/recall and recognition of details are not enough. Focus on complex levels of thinking: understanding, connecting, applying, analysis. Practice: Use old exams, study guides.
Strategic approaches to writing multiple choice exams
Breathe, focus and perhaps ― dump information you are worried about forgetting. Check timing – how many questions? average time per question?
1. How to approach the exam overall: The 3 Pass Method
Pass #1: Begin by answering the questions you know, in the exam booklet, then transfer the answers on to the Scantron sheet, in groups of 10 questions.
Code the answers you don‘t know (e.g., use a “?” for the ones you have some idea about but need more time to think about, and an “X” for the ones that you have no idea about at all. Move on to questions you feel more confident about. Feel good! You’ve just earned marks!). 🙂
Pass #2: Next, return to the questions marked with the “?” and answer these directly on the Scantron, so you don’t misrecord any questions.
Pass #3: Checking the time left, begin guessing the ones marked “X” on the Scantron.
2. How to approach individual questions
- Read the stem SLOWLY
- Process it by underlining key words
- Cover the answers
- Predict answer. Not there? Then process the options (e.g., Is this the most correct?)
- Eliminate wrong answers, and select the best option
3. Strategies for guessing (a LAST resort)
- Avoid answers with extreme values – either numbers or statements
- Choose inclusive answers (e.g., all or none of the above)
- Choose the longest answer
- Choose b or c
If there is no penalty for incorrect responses, and no time left, when all else fails, randomly fill in the Scantron.
Adapted from: Learning Skills Programme. (1997). Preparing for Tests and Exams. Counselling and Development Centre, York University, Toronto. pp.10-15.
Writing the multiple choice exam: Ready, set, go!
- Breathe and calm yourself
- Survey the exam
- give yourself a bit of time to go back to hard ones
- mark where you should be done halfway
- Determine the ground rules
- read the directions
- is there a penalty for guessing? If not, GUESS!
- Read questions carefully, slowly, start from the beginning
- Cover up the options. Do you already know the answer?
- Underline key words to focus your attention
- Read all the options. Choose the BEST answer – there may be multiple correct ones!
- Eliminate options if you know it’s definitely wrong
- Watch for qualifiers (e.g., all, usually, almost, good, best, normally, etc.)
- think about how they define or limit the stem or options. Be alert to unstated qualifiers which define an option (e.g., “Birds fly south in winter” means ALL birds).
- Watch for negatives
- two negatives make a positive (e.g., “It is atypical for children NOT to go through the following stages” = “it IS is typical for children to go through…”)
If after all that, you still don’t know …
- Use Educated Guessing
- for compound options (e.g., “all of the above”), select the compound including simple options about which you are certain
- avoid extreme values, either numbers or statements
- change answers only if you have a good reason to do so
- check for lookalike options. One of them is usually OK.
- “all of the above” can be a good guess
- options looking foolish, incongruous or unfamiliar or usually incorrect
What to do if you hit a WALL?
- Mark difficult questions and come back to them – don’t let yourself get stuck
- Keep your process active (re-read question, make marks, write notes…you can do this!
Special techniques for math and science tests
1. Translate problems into English.
Putting problems into words aids your understanding. When you study equations and formulas, put those into words, too. The words help you see a variety of applications for each formula. For example, c2 = a2 + b2 can be translated as “the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other 2 sides.”
2. Perform opposite operations.
If the problem involves multiplication, check your work by dividing; add, then subtract; factor, multiply; square root, square; differentiate, integrate.
3. Use time drills.
Practice working problems quickly. Time yourself. Exchange problems with a friend and time each other. You can also do this in a study group.
4. Analyze before you compute.
Set up the problem before you begin to solve it. When a problem is worth a lot of points, read it twice, slowly. When you take time to analyze a problem, you may see computational shortcuts.
5. Make a picture.
Colour an elaborate picture or diagram if you are stuck. Sometimes a visual will clear the mind.
6. Estimate first.
Estimation is a good way to double-check your work. Doing this first can help you notice if your computations go awry, and then you can correct the error quickly.
7. Check your work systematically.
When you check your work, ask yourself: Did I read the problem correctly? Did I use the correct formula or equation? Is my arithmetic correct? Is my answer in the proper form?
Avoid the temptation to change an answer in the last few minutes–unless you’re sure the answer is wrong. In a last-minute rush to finish, it’s easier to choose the wrong answer. If you redo a solution, do not erase the original answer—just draw a line through it.
8. Review formulas.
Right before the test, review any formulas you’ll need to use. Then write them on the margin of the tests or on the back of the test paper.
Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. p. 183.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
FOR EXAM PREP
Overcoming test anxiety
Instructions: Read through each of the strategies below. Check off the strategies for overcoming test anxiety that you use now. Then highlight the ones you would like to start using.
In the weeks before
- Put exam into perspective.
- Determine the value of the text/exam in terms of the course grade.
- Calculate your existing grade and determine what grade you need to reach your goal.
- Calculate how much work is required to get the grade you really want.
- Know your stuff. Don’t Cram!
- Manage your time well and organize a study schedule. Stick to it as much as possible.
- Ask for help from TA, senior students, the prof, your friends – join a study group!
- Self-testing: review, do old exam, take a mock exam.
- Try doing a mock exam under strict time limitations.
Practice relaxation daily
- Do deep breathing and muscle relaxation.
- Imagine success and coping with challenges.
Use positive self-talk and affirmations
- Tell yourself you can do it!
- Sleep well, eat well, and exercise.
- Review your material. Do NOT add any new information. It’s too late to learn it now.
- Continue all the same relaxation and imagery practices as above and add MORE!
- Imagine yourself coping before, during (handling it well and any possible negative effects), and after.
- Do 5-10 minutes deep, abdominal breathing.
- Do 5-10 minutes of stretching and moderate exercise (e.g., walk to your exam venue).
- Drink water. Avoid coffee, cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, unhealthy food (sugars and fats).
- Avoid highly stressed people/situations.
- Listen to calming music.
- Do a guided visualization (e.g., a safe place).
- Repeat your positive affirmations.
During the exam
- Examine the marking scheme and plan to divide your time evenly among the available marks (i.e., 10 minutes of your time on 10% of the marks). Following timelines gives you a sense of progress and feedback on how you are doing. It’s better to write a 75% answer on all questions than having a perfect answer on 50% of the exam.
- Build Confidence: Peruse the whole exam and then do the easiest stuff first.
- Close your eyes for a minute and visualize success.
- Walk yourself through it using calming and coping statements and affirmations.
- Set mini-breaks at specified points (e.g., close your eyes, relax your hands, take a deep breath).
- Accept that you are anxious and that some stress is necessary/good.
After the exam
- Affirm your strengths and successes.
- Evaluate what strategies worked the best.
Other things I do to help with my test/exam anxiety:
What can you add to this list of strategies? What has worked well for you in the past?
ACTION PLAN for overcoming test anxiety
Based on the strategies above, what kinds of things will you try in the future?
Letting go, part 1: Physical sensations of anxiety
You can calm the body by focusing on breath. Concentrate on the air going in and out of your lungs. Experience air passing through your nose. If your breaths are short and in your chest, imagine a balloon in your stomach and begin to take longer, deeper breaths. Imagine the balloon expanding as you fill your abdomen with air and the balloon deflating as you exhale.
2. Scan your body.
Sit or lie comfortably and close your eyes. Slowly scan your body starting with the top of the head to the tips of your toes. As you focus on each muscle group, notice if they are relaxed or tense. Gently massage tense areas with your mind and tell the muscles to relax.
3. Tense and relax.
You can use this before or after a body scan to relax tense muscles. Find a muscle that is tense and increase the tension by contracting the muscle for up to 5 seconds. Then release for 5 seconds. Notice the difference between tension and relaxation. Repeat up to 3 times. With each repetition, you might notice the tense muscle getting more relaxed. You may wish to tense an individual muscle (e.g., your left hand, or muscle groups like your hands and arms together).
4. Use guided imagery
Once you‘re relaxed, take a quick fantasy trip to a place where you feel totally safe—a place you know or a place created in your imagination. Close your eyes and get comfortable in your chair or on the floor. Spend several minutes imagining yourself in this beautiful, peaceful setting. Use all your senses. Be specific. For example, if you are walking on a beach, hear the waves lapping onto the shore; feel the warm sun on your skin, smell the fresh breeze, etc.
5. Describe it.
Instead of placing it aside, focus directly on your anxiety. If you are feeling nauseated, dizzy, etc., concentrate on that feeling. Describe it: size, colour, shape, location, weight/volume, etc.
6. Accept and be with it.
As you describe your anxiety in detail, don’t resist. Accept that it is there right now and just be with it. If you can completely experience the sensation, often it will disappear. This technique has been used successfully for people suffering from acute and chronic pain.
7. Exercise aerobically.
Before your test or exam, do some exercise that gets the heart pumping. You‘ll need about 15-20 minutes of aerobic exercise. Why don’t you consider riding your bike or jogging to the exam venue? This is an excellent way to reduce body tension just before sitting down to write a test.
Letting go, part 2: Dealing with thoughts of anxiety
1. Visualize success.
Our bodies react to our thoughts. So, if you are having thoughts of failure, you increase your chances of doing poorly. Counteract negative thoughts by seeing yourself succeeding. To create a powerfully positive visualization, engage all your senses. Imagine what you will do, see, hear, and say. Mentally walk yourself through the imagery seeing yourself succeed at each stage. Repeat this visualization daily up to and including the day of the test.
2. Praise yourself.
When you talk to yourself positively, your anxiety decreases and increases your chances of success. Build a list of positive but realistic affirmations and repeat them daily. Say, “I am very relaxed. I am doing a great job on this test.” As a reminder, hang them up in a visible place.
3. Replace doom with pleasure.
You can‘t be anxious and relaxed at the same time. So, try replacing thoughts of doom and gloom with pleasant thoughts. When you notice yourself worrying, substitute the thought with images of things you love to do and/or people you like to be with. Prepare a bank: brainstorm a list of 20 ideas then pick several activities that seem especially pleasant and elaborate on them.
3. Use humour to overtake catastrophic thinking
Rather than trying to force yourself to stop worrying, have some fun with your fears. Take the fear to the most absurd limits. For example, you might say to yourself, “If I fail this test, I will fail the course. If I fail the course, I will get kicked out of school. If I get kicked out, I’ll never get a good job. If I never get a good job, I’ll be poor. If I’m poor, I’ll be eating out of a dumpster. If I have to eat out of a dumpster, etc.” Continue catastrophizing until it becomes so ridiculous that you find yourself chuckling. Then, go backwards through your list to find a reasonable level of concern.
This technique helps to discipline your mind and take you away from worries. Focus your attention on a specific object, something you find interesting. Examine each detail of it: its colour, shape, smell, taste, temperature, weight, etc. During the exam, take a few minutes to listen to the soundscape in the exam venue. Perhaps you would like to listen to the hum of the lights overhead. Another focusing practice you can try is the “three feelings at five times” technique where you see, hear, and feel five things and name them. In the exam room, you see five things (e.g., I see a green sock); then you hear five things (e.g., I hear a cough), finally, you feel five things (e.g., I feel cool air on my face). You don‘t judge or evaluate, just name. When you are done, repeat the cycle. Accept and be with it.
As you describe your anxiety in detail, don’t resist. Accept that it is there right now and just be with it. If you can completely experience the sensation, often it will disappear. This technique has been used successfully for people suffering from acute and chronic pain.
5. Zoom out.
When you are in the middle of the test or exam, zoom out. Imagine you are a film director dollying a camera out and away from the object. The point of this is for you to imagine yourself floating away and viewing your situation as a detached outside observer. If you are extremely distressed, zoom yourself out even further. See yourself rising above and beyond the exam venue to encompass your city, country, the planet, etc. From this big picture vantage point, ask yourself if the test/exam is worth worrying about. An alternative is zooming out in time. Imagine yourself one week, one month, one year, one decade from now. Assess how much the current situation will matter when that time comes.
Adapted from Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp 175-177.
Guided imagery for test anxiety
Use the following imagery before AND during your tests and exams.
Imagine Success—seeing yourself doing it well
Imagine yourself in an exam room. It’s the day of the test. You see yourself sitting in your chair.
You notice your surroundings. You hear the other students shuffle in their seats. You feel the desk. You feel the pen in your hand. You see the test being handed out. Now, the exam is in front of you. You are looking over the exam calmly and confidently. You discover that you know all the answers. You feel relaxed, happy. Now, you are writing quickly. The ideas are flowing from your pen with ease. You are now finished and you close the exam and calmly put away your writing tools. Finally, you are handing in the test with a big smile on your face. The proctor smiles back. Savour this feeling.
Adapted from: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin p 178.
Imagine coping with your stress
- Relax: deep breathing, muscle relaxation, safe-place imagery
- Imagine yourself before, during, and after the test/exam
- Add coping statements (see attached sheet with examples of coping statements)
Before/Preparing for a stressor
You imagine walking into the exam venue.
“When I get to my seat, just think about the situation, not my anxiety… When I get the exam, I will calmly look over the question and then start to organize my time… I will think rationally and not allow my anxiety to take over… I’ve done well on exams before so there’s no reason I can’t today …Breathe and relax…I am ready to meet this challenge.”
During the exam/stressor
You imagine seeing the test/exam paper in front of you. You open to the first page and look over the questions…
a) Confronting and handling a stressor
“I am feeling my anxiety rise…I have a lot of coping strategies I can call on…This is a reminder to use my coping exercises: Take a slow deep breath. Ahhhh. I can meet this challenge.”
b) Coping with Feelings of Being Overwhelmed
You imagine that you look through the exam and don‘t know some or quite a few of the answers. “This is very upsetting…My heart is starting to pound… I should expect my stress to rise sometimes…What if I blank out!… My stress is a signal. Take a deep breath and slow things down…I can be anxious and still deal with this situation …Time for problem-solving. Find a question I know and start there… Breathe into my belly and feel deep relaxation …Ok, let’s start with this one first…Good…”
After the exam/stressor
You imagine that you did ok on the exam/test.
“It worked. I got through it without blanking out! I did feel stress but I managed it. Good for me!”
You imagine that you didn’t do very well on the exam/test.
“I didn’t do well. That’s okay. I handled my stress better than ever before. I’m proud of myself for trying my best.”
Adapted from Meichenbaum, D. (1985). Stress Inoculation Training. New York : Pergamon Press.
Math & science anxiety: What’s behind it?
Outdated mental pictures
- People who like math and science are really smart. Labs are full of nerdy-looking guys.
- Math is about logic, not imagination.
- There‘s only one correct way to do a math problem or science experiment.
- I’ll never be good at math. I just don’t understand numbers.
- I can’t function in a science lab.
- I’m a word person, not a numbers person. I’m not smart enough.
Poor reading skills
- Math and science courses follow the format of the text very closely. Mastering the text and staying current with the assigned readings will go a long way to reducing your anxiety!
Doing it alone
- Trying to learn math and science alone can lead to confusion and frustration. To do well in these subjects requires active involvement with others.
Inadequate current knowledge and/or learning strategies
- Math and science are cumulative and, therefore, not having an adequate base of knowledge or skill in the subject may lead to a fear of failure. Also, not knowing how to learn (i.e., the best learning strategies), may also lead to anxiety.
Not being prepared
- for homework or assigned readings for class labs
Adapted from Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. pp.179-182.
Overcoming math & science anxiety … you can do it!
First off, you have to deal with the negative self-talk. Try these three steps:
- Be aware of the negative statements. Write them down.
- Determine the veracity of the statement: Is this really true, or just your fears talking?
- Create a new statement that affirms your ability to succeed.
e.g., “When learning math, I proceed with patience.” or “I’m a good learner, even if I make errors.”
Learn how to learn
Learn from specific to general
Many subjects require you move from an overview of concepts to detail. However, jumping to conclusions in math or science is dangerous. Instead, try to comprehend one specific concept before moving on to gradually build up a picture of the whole. Sometimes you may feel you’re going backward! Math and science principles often contain exceptions and conflicting evidence.
Focus on the big picture questions
Pause regularly to ask: “What is this all about?” “What basic problem am I trying to solve?” “How is this applied in daily life?”
Read slowly and actively
Slowly: Math and science call for attention to detail which requires you to read slowly and carefully. A single paragraph might need to be read several times. You also need to read the sections as they are laid out in the text, as concepts build upon each other in a sequential order. Regardless, start by previewing headings, diagrams, and sample problems to get an overview.
Actively: Math and science are not just knowledge, but also activities. When you read, you should also DO. Active reading includes studying visuals (e.g., diagrams, charts); copying (e.g., diagrams, equations); and working out examples. Sometimes examples are the main points.
Use cooperative learning
Speak up in class: ask questions, have homework prepared, voice your thoughts. Get extra help from your T.A. and professor. Join a study group. Work with a good ‘problem solver‘. Ask them to speak their steps and thoughts out loud, and then compare to your method.
Use lab sessions to your advantage
Lab work is often critical. Be prepared: know what the procedure will be and what materials you’ll need. Bring your notebook to record and summarize your findings.
Adapted from Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin..pp.179-182.
STRATEGIES AND TOOLS
FOR EXAM PREP