How to prepare for and write exams
March 2023 | The Learning and Wellbeing Team

Depending on your program, students can expect to have as few as five or six exams in a year to as many as 30 tests. Students in an Arts program typically write more papers than exams. Students in science and engineering write more exams than papers.  Students in Social Science are in between. No matter how many tests you have or what kind of test you are given (e.g.,  a mid-term, final exam, or a weekly quiz), there are a number of things you can do to prepare; several things to keep in mind while writing your exams; a few things to do after the exam. 

How well you do on your exams will depend on a number of factors, which include how well you understand and truly know the material, whether you got enough sleep the night before the exam, and how you manage your worry during the test to what questions appear on the test and how fairly or harshly they are graded.  It is a lot to manage. Let us take you through the wide range of factors that you need to consider throughout the entire process —  what to do to prepare for the test, what to due during the test and what to do after the test is over.  Let’s start with some of the big themes to keep in mind, such as why universities make you write tests, or why you are expected to memorize things, before diving in to the specific things you will need do at every stage of the process, including how to approach multiple choice test questions, as well as short and long answer questions.

Well before the test:
#1. Make sure you are using an effective study strategy
#2. Set aside enough time to study
#3. How do I know that I am ready?
#4. Find out as much as you can about the test.
#5. Get more people on your team. 

Just before the test:
#1. Get 8 hours of sleep the night before the test
#2. Feed yourself before the test
#3. Arrive a little bit early
#4. Minimize your distractions. 
#5. Take four minutes to relax your body and focus your mind

During the test:
#1. Write down how you are feeling before the test.
#2. Keep track of time:
#3. Ask for help if you get stuck.
#4. Be strategic. 
#5. Keep moving if you get stuck.

After the test:
#1. Postpone the post-mortem until you get your results
#2. Avoid social comparison with others
#3. Don’t worry about your results until you need to. 
#4. If the result is not what you expected, talk to the professor. 

Well before the test  

#1. Make sure you are using an effective study strategy
The single most import factor in preforming well on a test or an exam is the use of an effective study strategy. More than anything else, techniques that require you to actively recall your knowledge repeatedly (e.g., flashcards and practise probems), will increase your chance of doing well, far more than re-reading your notes or text book.

#2. Set aside enough time to study 
The study strategies listed previoulsy, namely flashcards and practise probems, work best when they are used repeatedly over a number of occassions (e.g., everday for 60 minutes, before your test).  But that means setting aside time in your day to get in some practise. One of the best ways to do this is to create a storyboard for your weeks leading up to the exam and then another during the week or two of your finals. 

#3. How do I know that I am ready?
The 3+3 rule is the best test of if you are ready. If you can recall what you need to learn three times in a row on three different days, you are ready. For flash cards that means, getting throught the stack 3 times on 3 different days. 

#4.  Ask for practice tests.
Not all professor will provide you with a practice test. Writing test questions that are not to difficult and not too hard is very difficult.  Professors are reluctant to share those so that they don’t have to make up new tests every semester.  Plus, if you have a practice test, you are more likely to focus just on the questions on the practice test which means that 

Practice tests are one of the best ways to deal with test anxiety and get ready for tests. Research reviews show that practice tests can boost student grades between 10 and 20%. Ask your teachers for three practice questions on three different days before the test.

Just before the test. 

#1.  Get 8 hours of sleep the night before the test
Research shows cramming the night before actually does more harm than good. A week before aim for a minimum of 8 hours of sleep each night. Studies have shown that students with As averaged 15 more minutes of sleep a night than B students, 26 more minutes that C students, and 36 more minutes than D students.

#2. Feed yourself
Make sure you have had enough to eat before your test. That means eating breakfast and having a snack just before if you think you might get hungry. Research studies have shown that people who regularly eat breakfast do better, even on the day of the exam.

#3. Arrive early
Arrive to your test a bit early, but not too early (if you can).

#4. Don’t feed your anxiety
Avoid classmates who tend to generate anxiety or worry (i.e., by talking about the test). Try to do something relaxing, such as listening to music, breathing slowly, or reading even better, take 10 minutes to write down your worries.

#5. Take four minutes to relax your body and focus your mind
One of the most important things you can do just before you start your test or exam is to take four minutes to use relaxation breathing and mindfulness to relax your mody and focus your mind

During the test

#1. Keep track of time
If the test is long, you want to make sure that you do not run out of time and that you do not spend too much time on some questions (e.g., multiple choice) and run out of time for others (e.g., short or long answer). 

#2. Ask for help, if you get stuck or are not sure
If you don’t understand a question or are not certain what the question is about, then ask the teacher. The teacher may or may not be able to tell you what it is about, but sometimes they do and can. Just say: “I am not entirely sure what the question is asking, are you able to clarify what is being asked in this question.”

#3. Keep moving
If you have a question that you cannot answer, leave it for now. Move on to a question that you think you can answer. Very often taking a break trying other questions will help you remember.

#4. Be strategic
Read through the entire test first. Usually, you do not have to answer the questions in order. It can be motivating to answer questions that you know you know first. Get them out of the way first and then move on the questions that are more difficult. 

When you start to panic and worry …

#5. Take a deep breath 
If you become overwhelmed with worries or panic, take slow deep breaths. Research on relaxation breathing shows that taking 5 to 10 slow deep breaths can reduce your worry and panic almost immediately.

#6. Fact-check your worries, doubts and what-ifs
It is easy to start worrying that you will not do well, others will do better, that you might even failing the test and that other will think you are stupid. But those are just thoughts. The only fact that is true is that you are writing a test. It is too soon to think about how you did. And too soon to think about how other students might be doing. Stay focused on the answering the questions

Dealing with test anxeity

Writing tests and exams is stressful. Most students experience some degree of anxiety while writting a test and as many as 40% say that their test anxiety gets in the way of doing well. Not surprisingly, test anxiety is one of the top ten factors that will influence your grades. With so many tests and exams over the course of your program of study, getting a handle on your test anxeity is one of the most important things you can do to boost your grades.  

Learn how to use relaxation breathing to manage your stress, worry and test anxiety. Read more >>

After the test

#1. Postpone the post-mortem
Too often, upon finishing a test, students will start going over the test and try to figure out what questions they got wrong. It is a risky activity that more often or not will just make you feel bad. There will be lots of time to go over what went wrong, just not before you get your results back. Your time will be better spent on other activities. So, hold of on the post-mortem until you actually know how you have done. 

#2. Avoid social comparison with others
A little bit of social comparison with classmates can be helpful in keeping you motivated. Knowing that other students have started studying for their exams or working on their papers can motivate you to stop procrastinating. That kind of social comparison is helpful because it can motivate you to get going on a deadline that has not yet passed. In contrast, comparing yourself to others in terms of what grade they got on the exam will, more often than not, just make you fill bad. If you find out you did better than another student, that student will feel bad. If you find out that you did worse, you will feel bad. 

So, take a pass on sharing your grades and comparing yourself to others. Focus on your plan and nothing else. If someone asks how you did, just say that you think you did okay.    

#3. Don’t worry about your results until you need to. 
Worrying about something that hasn’t actually happened yet doesn’t serve you well. Worrying is usually wrong or much, much worse than it needs to be and will keep you from spending your time on other, more important things. So, sit tight and hold off worrying about something that you don’t know for a fact has happened yet.

#4. If the result is not what you expected, talk to the professor.
If you do receive a grade that was unexpectedly bad, make an appointment to review your test. Poor grades can be the result of a number of factors, in addition to just not being ready for the tests. Multiple choice tests are often scored incorrectly. Short-answer questions can be graded too harshly. Final scores on tests can also be tallied incorrectly. Before assuming that the poor grade is actually the result of not being prepared, rule out all of the other possibilities first.

Dealing with failure

Failing a test is very common at college and university. If you ask a first-year class at university, about 33% will say that they have failed a quiz or a test. On some mid-term exams, in difficult courses, like calculus and chemistry, the failure rate on the first mid-term can be as high as 50%. That’s brutal.

Failure, whether it is a hard fail (e.g., less than 50%) or a soft fail (e.g., less than what you were hoping for, is part of university and college. What you do next matters most.

Learn how to deal with setbacks and failure. Read more >>. 

How to answer multiple choice questions

The most common mistakes that students make on multiple-choice tests include:

  1. Students spend too much time on one question
  2. Students panic over not knowing the anwer to a single question
  3. Students overthink and second-guess their answers 
  4. Students don’t ask for clarification about what a question means
  5. Students spent too little time preparing for applied knowledge questions (as opposed to knowledge recall questions).

There are two types of multiple choice questions. There are questions that require you to recall what a term means, the name of person or an event, a certain fact or finding, and there are questions that require you to apply your knowledge in a new way or different context.

If you were asked who discovered the forgetting curve, you would have to pick Hermann Ebbinghaus out of a list of names. If you were asked how much information did Ebbinghaus believe a person will typically forget by the end of the day, you would have to say about 70% unless the information was rehearsed. These are knowledge recall questions. 

However, if you were asked what does the forgetting curve tell us about how students should prepare for exams, you would have to apply your knowledge about the forgetting curve to preparing for an exam and mention that the forgetting curve indicates (a) that information is quickly forgotten unless it is rehearsed and (b) that the amount that is forgotten each time is less and less (but still forgotten). This means that rehearsing the information once in the week before the exam would not be enough. To maximize your perforance on the test you would have to rehearse the information repeatedly, ideal on consecutive days.   This would be an applied knowledge question. 

Here’s how to approach multiple choice questions that you are not sure of how to answer. 

  1. Eliminate answers that are obviously wrong. This often leaves you will two answers that are close.
  2. Circle the key concepts in the question and see if that helps. 
  3. If you are not sure about what the question means, ask the professor
  4. If you are still not sure, continue with the other questions. (Sometimes answering other questions will make it easy to answer the question that you were not certain about. There is no point wasting more time on that question now. Do other questions and then comeback). 
  5. If you really don’t know what the answer is or keep going back and forth between two questions, then pick one. (Usually there is nothing to be lost from guessing). 
  6. Remind yourself that you don’t have to know the answer to every question and you can still do well. 

How to answer short and long answer questions.

The most common mistakes that students make on short and long-answer questions are as follows:

  1. Students fail to answer one or more parts of the question
  2. Students do not write nearly enough
  3. Students make a claim (e.g., sleep is important) but do not illustrate how (e.g., interrupts the final stage of REM)
  4. Students write answers that are extremely hard (e.g., have no structure)

Here’s an example of how to answer these kinds of questions:

Question 1. What are the different factors that can affect your sleep that we learned about in the lecture on sleep? (6 points).

Step 1: Identify the important parts of the question
These are four pieces of information in this question which you need to consider in answering it. For this question, you would circle (a) different factors that (b) affect sleep, (c) learned in the lecture and (d) 6 points.

Step 2: Make a short list of ideas
Just before writing your answer, write down a short list of ideas (e.g., light, caffeine, alcohol, etc.). But don’t forget to write down the factors that can improve sleep (e.g., exercise, room temperature)

Step 3: Answer explicitly, structure your answer and give examples.
Start by stating that there are several factors that you believe are important. This communicates to the reader that you have a lot of points that you wish to make.  

There are several factors that can improve and diminish your sleep.

Now work through your points using First, Second, Third, etc. This reminds the reader that you have several different points to make. Simply by counting them off (e.g., First, Second, Third …), the reader will think that you have many points and is less likely to miss them. 

First, light can disrupt or postpone the natural release of melatonin, a hormone responsible for telling your body that it is time to sleep.  As the sunset, your body naturally releases melatonin. If you spend too much time on a phone or tablet just before bed, the light from the screen will inhibit the release of melatonin. As a result, your body is not told that it is time to sleep. 

Second …


Also, notice that for each point (e.g., First, Second, Third), you have stated an important factor (e.g., light can disrupt the release of melatonin), but you have also explained how (e.g., at sunset, the body will typically release melatonin as the sun goes down. Melatonin interferes with that process).  

Students asked us:
Why do I need to memorize information when I can look it up online? 

Students regularly ask why they need to memorize something if they can look it up online. It is a great question that needs to be asked and answered all the time. The answer is that there is a fundamental difference between understanding a concept and knowing it so well that you can use that piece of knowledge in other contexts and can recognize other contexts in which that piece of knowledge might be used, as well as all of the important implications that should be considered when applying that knowledge.  Knowing something really, really well is about being an expert is all about. 

Let’s take an example. 

Throughout the 2019-2022 pandemic, everyone became well acquainted with rapid screening tests. They were a part of our daily lives, designed to let us know instantly if we had COVID-19.  These tests were a bother–offset by their benefit. However, the benefit of these tests depends on their accuracy. Students in health sciences (e.g., epidemiology), sciences (e.g., biology) and social sciences (e.g., psychology) all learn about the sccuracy of tests, the false-positive rate, as well as their sensitivity of the tests (e.g., how well they detect people who have a condition like COVID). Most students understand the concept, but fewer students can explain it in a non-technical way. Even fewer students would know how to actually calculate sensitivity, and only a handful would be able to explain the difference among sensitivity, false-positives and the positive predictive value of the tests. 

Anyone of us can look up what those terms and most of us would understand them. That’s not the goal of university and college. Universities and colleges want you to be experts — really know what these terms mean, be able to explain them, know when to use them, know why it matters and what the implication of what all of these measures of accuracy mean.

That’s why you need to memorize it (and then some).  

Why do universities make you write tests?

Tests and exams are not designed to stress you out. Even if they do, that is not the many purpose. serve a number of purposes.  riting tests and exams is stressful. Most students experience some degree of anxiety while writting a test and as many as 40% say that their test anxiety gets in the way of doing well. 

Testing serves a number of goals. First, it provides students with feedback both on how they are doing but also on how performance will be graded. A mid-term worth 20% is worth alot but not so large that a student cannont recover from a less than desirable grade. Second, it provides students will a clear goal and timeframe in which to master the material being taught. As stressful as this can be, especially, if you are not well-prepared, it does accellerate the rate at which knowledge is learned and mastered. Third, it keeps students accountable. If you know that what you are learning will be tested formally, you are more likely to put in the work to really learn it and not just understand it. Fourth, testing allows post-graduate programs, such as social work, dental hygiene, psychology, law, grad-school and medicine identify the best students. It is far from perfect and not the only consideration in being selected for post-graduate studies, but it is important.  

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