Some do's and don'ts of chemistry tests: Prepare, write and reflect

From our combined experiences as coordinators and instructors of large first-year chemistry classes, we have noticed that students need not only to master subject-specific concepts and problem-solving skills to be successful, but also to think deeply about effective study habits, time management and test-writing skills. Indeed, during individual meetings with students after each initial term test,1 we spend more time talking about these ideas rather than chemistry concepts. The tips presented in this article focus on test-writing strategies that will be of significance to high school and first-year undergraduates. However, preparing and writing university tests is rather different than in high school due to a greater course workload, and often requires some alternative approaches. In addition, given the pace of university classes, it is crucial that undergraduates learn from their test experiences. Post-test self-reflection allows students to pinpoint where they struggled conceptually, as well as to hone their test-writing techniques (including stress management).

While many high school teachers already discuss exam-writing tips, students should be aware that these strategies will become increasingly important in their academic future. It is our hope that teachers will share these ideas with their students prior to the examination period, and in preparation for future university studies and assessment. Some key “do’s” and “don’ts” are highlighted here, based not only on our observations but also on feedback from students.

Before (Preparation):


  1. Use posted information to guide test preparation. As a test approaches, it is critical to attempt the harder assigned problems under “test conditions” (i.e. using only allowed aids, such as a calculator, molecular model kit, equation sheet and a pen or pencil) to ascertain a real sense of progress in understanding the material. If students are unable to do the problems, it is a realistic indicator that more studying is needed. Students should never be trying questions for the first time on a term test but must have attempted the problems beforehand with the aid of resources (such as notes, the textbook solutions manual or a teaching assistant) — first attempts on a test are a recipe for disaster.
  2. Write one or two past term tests. These are readily available for many courses and should be written under controlled conditions to assess the test format and timing, and to build confidence. It is important that studying from old term tests does not replace working through assigned problems and lecture notes, as they do not cover all of the current material taught each semester.
  3. Be sure to find the test location ahead of time and be clear on any instructions given beforehand, such as materials needed and seating information. It is quite possible that students will have a class or laboratory scheduled immediately before a test, and it is imperative to know how to get to the test location in the time available.
  4. Have materials (pen, pencils, student identification, etc.) ready to avoid last-minute panic. It sounds obvious, but writing implements will not be available at the test room!
  5. Rest, eat and drink sufficiently to minimize stress to improve focus and problem-solving skills. Neglecting fundamental well-being will not pay off during a test, and often leads to decreased performance.


  1. Study new concepts the day of a test. It is reasonable to review core ideas and principles, but unrealistic to try and learn entirely new material.
  2. Get to the test room an hour before and study notes with friends. The atmosphere outside a test centre is often tense, and can cause students to second-guess their preparation. It is important to stay as calm and focused as possible.

During (Writing):


  1. Realize that extra time will not be given during university tests and examinations, unlike in some high school courses. Managing time effectively can be a challenge for students, and it is important to budget time based upon the mark allocation of the test. Keep in mind that cell phones cannot be used as timepieces, as possession of unauthorized electronic devices is an academic offence. Although test rooms have clocks, they may be difficult to see clearly.
  2. Read every word of every question. Each semester students lose marks unnecessarily for not answering the questions asked, or for not following clearly-stated instructions. Underlining key words can help, and if a question asks for multiple tasks, make sure all are complete.
  3. Think carefully before starting to write an answer to a question. Counter-intuitively, this tip is most crucial for students who tend to struggle with time on tests. Thinking is fast, but writing is slower, especially when correcting mistakes or starting again in answering a question.
  4. Start with questions that are more straightforward. Many tests are a combination of multiple-choice and short-answer free response questions. In general, students appear more comfortable answering short-answer questions rather than multiple-choice ones and should attempt such questions first, even if they are positioned at the end of a test.
  5. Be neat and draw precisely. The markers can only grade what is in front of them, and what they are able to read. Anything illegible will be graded as incorrect.
  6. Think carefully before asking any questions in a test. In nearly every case the answer will be “use your own judgment”, or a variation thereof. Test invigilators are not allowed to answer questions for students, or to explain the meaning of specific terminology. In addition, asking questions uses up valuable time.


  1. Panic. Every student, even those who are well-prepared, has had the experience of flipping through a test, feeling unable to think about anything and panicking. It is critical to remain calm and focused (deep breaths can help!). Each test will have questions over a range of difficulties. Answering an easier question and using that to build confidence in writing the rest of the test is a good strategy.
  2. Leave a test early. It is easy to make routine mistakes that will be found during the checking process. Use all the time available as wisely as possible.
  3. Leave anything blank on the answer sheet. There is usually partial credit awarded for responses that have some merit. However, no marks can be assigned for empty boxes.
  4. Write too much information. Answering the questions asked (and only those questions) is vital. Adding superfluous, irrelevant detail will not result in additional marks, and uses up time. Extra information that is incorrect can result in an overall lower mark.
  5. Keep writing at the very end of a test after being instructed to stop. This is also an academic offence, as a student doing so is seeking to gain an unfair advantage. Bear in mind that there will never be any extra time provided at the end of a test.

After (Reflection):


  1. Access the “model answer” key and understand any mistakes that were made. This means the test is being used as a learning tool, rather than simply as an assessment tool. Part of succeeding at university is to avoid repeating mistakes, and students will certainly be re-tested on the same concepts during the final examination and future courses. Filing the test paper away and ignoring it represents a missed learning opportunity.
  2. Reflect on what was effective in terms of studying and test-writing. An essential aspect of being a productive university student is developing study and test-taking skills. Use the time after tests to evaluate what worked and what could be improved.
  3. Search for post-test help from instructors and other students. As described in a recent Chem13 News article, there is significant assistance readily available outside the classroom in many different ways, even in large first-year university science courses.1


  1. Dwell on “wrong” answers for the rest of the day/evening/over several days. Hanging around the test room discussing the perceived correct responses with friends will not change the test answers and can negatively impact student outlook. Maintaining a positive attitude is important while still learning from the test experience.
  2. Lose perspective, or build up any single test out of proportion. It is helpful to review the course marking scheme and appreciate that each student is evaluated many times and in different ways. For instance, in our first year chemistry courses, students write two term tests and a final examination, and the relative weight of those evaluations is determined by each individual’s performance. However well or poorly a student performs in a first term test does not completely define their final course grade.
  3. Think that things will “magically” get better. Students who do not receive the test grade they were expecting need to be proactive in making changes in studying and test-writing, so that their mark can improve. Support is available for all students who seek it out.1


Our experience with first-year chemistry undergraduates has made it clear that students need to think more about test-taking skills in order to maximize their performance during evaluations. While many of the tips seem intuitive, we find that the students we meet with individually are very responsive to these suggestions and routinely report that following them has a significant impact on their future test scores in chemistry and other subjects.


  1. K.B. Quinlan, A.P. Dicks, Chem 13 News, Beyond the “lecture” theatre: First-year chemistry learning resources, April 2015, pages 14 – 15.