BEFORE: Preparing for the test / exam

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Self-reflectionSteps in preparing for a test or examStep 1: Be informed about the examStep 2: Be strategicStep 3: Select and organize key informationStep 4: Reviewing and self-testingOrganizing a study scheduleCramming sucks but I still need to do it... sometimes!Memory strategies

Self-reflection questions

  • Am I usually prepared for my tests and exams?
  • How often do I end up cramming when I don‘t want to?
  • Do I have the necessary skills and strategies to help me prepare well? Do I know how to prepare a study plan? i.e.
    • select the central information?
    • organize my time?
  • How good are my memory strategies?
  • Do my memory strategies facilitate long term memory and recall?


If you are prepared for a test, you will do better than if you aren’t prepared*. Really knowing your stuff means that you have learned your material, i.e., you can apply and use it in a meaningful way.

* there are exceptions such as severe test anxiety brought on by non-academic factors.

It‘s also important to recognize that different courses require different kinds of learning. The three most common types of learning used in university are:

  1. Memorizing
  2. Understanding concepts
  3. Problem-solving

For information on the three types of learning, go to Different Kinds of Learning.


The strategies in this section include how to:

  • be informed about the exam
  • select and organize central information organize a study schedule and follow it
  • put regular review and self-testing into your study routine deal with cramming
  • improve your memory strategies

Preparing for different test types such as multiple choice, short answer, and essay exams will be covered in the next section.

Steps in preparing for a test or exam

Step 1: Be informed about the exam

Step 2: Be strategic

Step 3: Select and organize key information

Step 4: Review

Step 1: Be informed about the exam

What do I know already?

  • Do a “data dump.” Write down everything you know about the course. The goal is to jumpstart your brain and get you thinking about the subject matter.

What does the professor expect me to know?

  • Look at the course objectives on your course outline or syllabus. Are any topics or sections given more emphasis? For example, a topic that has been covered for a number of weeks needs to be prioritized.
  • Does my professor have special interests that might influence the topics, format, etc.?

What are the ‘logistics’ of this test?

  • Format: test types; breakdown of questions (e.g., 50 multiple choice, 5 short answer)
  • Weighting: What percentage of the final mark is the exam worth?
  • Topics to be covered
  • Emphasis on material not yet tested compared to previously tested materials

What can past assignments and tests tell me about this test?

  • Look at old exams, assignments, and tests for questions types, topics, and key concepts.

What do I still need to complete?

  • Compiling lecture notes
  • Completing assigned readings (textbooks, articles)
  • For math & science: having solutions to problems; finishing labs

What other study aids do I need?

  • Past exams, study guides
  • TA or prof., study group

Step 2: Be strategic

Set targets: What content is to be reviewed by what date?

Begin with most difficult content.

Order the content: this depends on your professor’s instructions and your learning goals. Evaluate the quality of your review. If you don’t have time to study everything, focus on a selection of material and learn it really well.

Step 3: Select and organize key information

Here are four steps to help you select the right information to study.

  1. Identify the key information (concepts, ideas, issues, sections)

Preparing Summary Sheets for Studying – aim for one summary sheet per major topic in the course.

  1. Understand the key information

Research shows that students who generate their own test questions perform better than students who answer prepared questions or just read. Generating and answering your own questions helps you to elaborate on the key ideas, going beyond surface reading and rote memorization.

For more information on elaborating, go to Understanding Key Information: Elaboration Helps.

  1. Organize the key ideas with their supporting information

How do the key concepts interrelate? What supporting information do I need to help me understand the main idea?

Use a Cornell note and/or a concept or mind-map to connect and distinguish key ideas from supporting points. For information on how to make and use a mind map or Cornell notes as a study tool, go to our online Reading and Note-making module.

  1. Remember key course information

To remember and recall the material on the exam, you will need to review, review, review and then self-test. Continue to Step 4 (“Reviewing and Self-Testing”) for more information.

Step 4: Reviewing and self-testing

To facilitate understanding and learning, regular and systematic review during the term is necessary. Although students know the value of reviewing, due to such things as poor time management and procrastination, many students leave reviewing till just days before a test. Self-testing should also be applied during your review of materials so that you can gauge the extent of your learning. Keeping up with readings, and regular review also greatly reduce stress!

What is Review?

Review is a two-way process of information gathering and information using.

Information Gathering ← Information Using

During the review process you switch back and forth between these two functions.

Information Gathering: Read through all the sources of information: lecture notes, books and articles, labs, old exams, handouts, workbooks, study guides, etc.

Information Using: Test your understanding of the information. Use a variety of strategies while you review. The strategies you choose will depend on the nature of the material, and your learning style.

Some popular review strategies:

  • summary notes (e.g., tables, mind maps, headings with bullet points cue cards),
  • analyze types of questions and answer questions on old exams, practice problems,
  • do a mock exam,
  • make up your own multiple choice questions,
  • use memory strategies (e.g., make up mnemonics or visual stories to link words/ideas together),
  • rewrite,
  • recite out loud,
  • generate new examples to illustrate concepts,
  • apply a concept to your own life experience, and
  • teach a friend.

Adapted from: Fleet, J. et al (1990). Learning for Success: Skills and Strategies for Canadian Students. Toronto, ON: Harcourt Brace Janovich.

Tools: Self-Testing as a Study Strategy

Organizing a study schedule

With a well-conceived and realistic study schedule, it is very possible for a student to prepare for many exams at the same time and have time to take care of their other important needs, such as sleeping, eating well, and exercising. The Tools below will assist you in this task. Good luck!

Cramming sucks, but I still need to do it… sometimes!

Dire consequences of cramming include:

  • not having enough time to associate and integrate new information to prior learning
  • not having time to recite and elaborate means you might not see important connections
  • if you fail the exam or course or wish to continue in this field of study, you will have to study the same information again. And, that takes more time…
  • if you’re very stressed, information can elude you during the test
  • you’re probably exhausted from not sleeping enough, right? Lack of sleep causes cognitive impairment. In other words, you’re not thinking clearly!

Ok, but let’s get real. Most students have to cram sometimes. With this in mind, go to But What if I Have to Cram? for helpful hints to maximize your learning when cramming.

Memory strategies

With the large volume of information that university students must learn, there is no avoiding memorization. Students with good memory strategies find retaining and recalling information much easier. Memorization is a SKILL, not a talent, so you need to have good strategies and practise them regularly.

Luckily, we have a tool for that! Read Memory Strategies for Exam Prep.

For more excellent memory strategies, go to the Tools section of our online Reading and Note-making module.