Writing Tests and Exams at University

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Self-reflection and IntroductionBecoming self-aware

Self-reflection questions

  • How do I feel about taking tests and exams?
  • Do tests and exams help or hinder my overall performance in a course? What are my past experiences with tests and exams?
  • When have I done well?
  • When have I struggled?

The aim of this module is to help you succeed in the world of formal testing.  For most university students, taking a test or exam is not a sought-after event. Being assessed under strict time constraints while sitting with hundreds of your closest personal friends is awkward at best and frightening at worst. It is true that some anxiety can motivate and keep you focused; however, excessive and unmanageable test anxiety can cause poor performance. Some students ‘blank out’ or freeze during a test. Others try to avoid the test by not showing up at all or writing as quickly and minimally as possible in order to escape the testing environment.

Formal testing is by no means the best mode of assessment. However, tests and exams are deeply embedded in the university academic culture and will continue to be part of student life into the future. So, if you can‘t beat them, why not learn to live with them!

Disarm tests! Remove misconceptions and take their power away

Grades don’t measure your intelligence. They measure how you scored on a test. That’s all!

Grades don‘t measure creativity. Tests are the antithesis of the creative process as there is little time or encouragement for thinking ‘outside of the box.’ Being too creative may result in penalties.

Grades don’t measure your self-worth. Yet, we give tests the power to determine how we feel about ourselves (e.g., “If I fail a test, I’m a failure.” or “If I do badly on a test, I’m a bad person.”)

If you do badly on a test, you are just a person who did badly on a test. That’s all!

Don’t exaggerate the pressure on yourself

Tests are not a matter of life and death. Even a low score on an important test is not the end of the world. It usually means only a delay.

This module will help you to learn valuable test-taking strategies to support your own academic success. So read on!

Start with Becoming Self-Aware. Then, strategies and tools for before, during, and after the exam.

Source: Ellis, D. (2000). Becoming a Master Student. Canadian 3rd edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 167.

Becoming self-aware

Before you start to crack the books, spend some time doing a self-assessment of

  • Your expectations and goals for the course (including this test)
  • Your study and learning skills
  • Your mind and body
  • Your external resources
Set-Up Skills Mind & Body Resources
What are my goals for this exam? How do they fit into my overall goals for the course? What kind of student am I (e.g., need a long time to review, like to cram, studying in a group/alone)? How is my attitude right now? In general? Specific to this course/exam? Do I have all the necessary information and resources to succeed?
What is my entrance mark going into this exam? How much more do I need to meet my goal? Do I know how to study? Do I have good study skills and strategies? How motivated do I feel right now? Will procrastination pose a problem? Do I have the help I need to succeed (e.g., study group, TA/prof, family/friends, learning strategist)?
When should I start studying?Do any courses take priority? What exam types are easier/harder for me (e.g., multiple choice, long answer)? Do I need to learn new skills to manage the test format? Can I handle any test anxiety that might occur? Do I have a quiet study space?
Do I have the necessary time management skills to plan and organize an exam study schedule? How is my concentration right now? Do I have strategies to help keep focused? Am I physically prepared to handle stress? Are my friends encouraging me to do my best?

Now that you are more aware of yourself as a test-taker, it’s time to consider strategies to help you do your best on tests and exams. The strategies are grouped around three time frames:

  1. Before – Preparing for the test
  2. During – Taking the test
  3. After – Debriefing and celebrating the test

We have also included extra information in a Tools section at the end.