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South Campus Hall, second floor
University of Waterloo
519-888-4567 ext. 84410
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Learn how to prepare for an upcoming test or exam and how to cope with test anxiety. Book an appointment with a Peer Success Coach for support adapting these strategies for your student life.
Final exams for the winter 2022 term will take place in person on campus. If this is your first time, or first time in a while, writing an exam in-person, review the tips below to know what to expect.
Build an association between studying and your study spot. If you study on your bed, you’re associating sleep with studying – and you may find yourself napping. The Library maintains a guide to campus study spaces for individual and group study.
Are you a “morning person” or are you most productive in the afternoons? Use the time of day when your brain is most alert to focus on schoolwork – especially for more difficult tasks.
Low priority tasks involve completing household chores or mindless homework when you have really important or difficult work to do. Both of these tasks can be used to avoid more difficult work and to exaggerate your sense of accomplishment.
Determine what you’re going to accomplish before you begin to study. This will help you avoid daydreaming and other time wasting distractions.
Take a break after completing one chunk of studying if you’re having difficulty concentrating. It’s better to study for 30 minute intervals and absorb the information, than to study for hours at a time only to feel overwhelmed and unable to get anything done.
Visualize relationships and patterns between the information. Most students study all of the details, but then don’t think about how all of the ideas fit together. Most exams will ask you to demonstrate the relationships between concepts, so prepare for these questions ahead of time.
The first time you retrieve a memory, it travels down a short “road” in your brain called a neural pathway. Every time you recall the same piece of information, it gets easier for that memory to travel down the same pathway. Self-testing or quizzing is one of the best ways to practice recalling information. It can also be useful to create your own mock exam.
Teaching someone else the information you’re studying allows you to discover what gaps exist in your own knowledge. Consider teaching a friend or classmate, or even explaining the concepts out loud to yourself. Try to “Explain It Like I’m Five” by using words and ideas a five year old could understand.
Make sure you engage your brain while you study. If you’re thinking about your weekend plans while your eyes are scanning the words from your lecture notes, you won’t absorb anything. Practice mindfulness and as you study continually ask yourself, “do I understand that?”
Most students study by reading, making notes and then rereading those notes. If you use this method to study, you won’t find out what you don’t know until you get to the exam. Instead, try this:
In problem-solving or math-based courses, rereading notes is rarely ever effective. Instead, spend the majority of your time actively solving practice problems.
When your mind drifts, identify if it has an internal cause (daydreaming, worrying, nervousness, anxiety) or an external cause (friend knocking on the door, phone call, texts). What do you need to do to eliminate these distractions?
The brain can think more clearly after a break. Aim to spend 25 minutes studying, absorbing, reading, thinking or focusing on any mental task, then take a 5 minute break. You can use an online Pomodoro Timer (select “custom timer”) to keep track of your time and remember to take breaks.
Eat nutritious food, get six to eight hours of sleep every night and exercise to improve your concentration. If you don’t treat your body well, your ability to concentrate will suffer.
Studying is a skill that takes time to learn. Be patient with yourself as you try these new strategies.
Although you've been told to avoid cramming, or studying the night before a test or exam, there may be times when you're left with no other choice. If you haven’t managed your time well and find you need to cram, there are some strategies to do your best in a difficult situation. If you created and prepared notes throughout the term, your approach may look different.
Anxiety is a normal experience for university students. If you believe your anxiety is negatively impacting multiple areas of your life, explore Counselling Services resources. If you experience anxiety specific to your courses, studying or exams, the tips below are for you.
Test anxiety is when symptoms of anxiety affect your performance on tests, and may result in emotional and/or physical distress, difficulty concentrating and emotional upset. Symptoms of test anxiety can range from having sweaty palms to stomach aches.
The best way to reduce anxiety about tests or exams is to be as prepared as possible. One proactive thing you can do is reach out to your instructor or TA to learn more about what to expect. However if it’s the day before your exam, complete a sample test or practice questions in an environment similar to the testing environment. On the day of and after your exam, use the tips below.
Anxiety is a normal experience. Here are some things you can do to help reduce exam anxiety.
Place your palms in front of your eyes to cover them, close your eyes if you like, and focus on your ideal safe, relaxing place. In your mind, send yourself there for 15 to 30 seconds. Breathe easily and enjoy the relaxation.
Tense your whole body one part at a time:
Take a deep breath and hold it for five seconds. Let everything relax at once while you exhale and notice the tension leaving your body.
Imagine your legs and feet becoming warmer and warmer. Imagine them becoming heavier and heavier. Continue focusing on your legs and feet. Imagine the tension in the rest of your body flowing downward into your legs and feet, making them heavier and warmer. Emphasize exhalation in your breathing.
Take a deep breath and hold it for three seconds. Exhale audibly all at once and let your head, jaw and shoulders drop. Breathe into your jaw, neck and shoulders, and exhale again into the relaxed state. Repeat the cycle once or twice.
Focus on the tip of your nostrils; notice how the air at that point is cool going in and warm going out. Notice the sensation of air against your skin. Notice if your breath is fast or slow, deep or shallow, rough or smooth.
Good performance on a test is not only determined by your understanding of course material, but also by your ability to manage time, directions and distractions. Depending on how you prefer to approach your exam, here are some strategies to help you do your best work on tests and exams.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is a framework that classifies learning objectives into six cognitive levels of increasing complexity. Instructors use this model to develop test questions, course learning outcomes and assessment expectations.
From most to least complex, the six cognitive levels are:
As a student, you can use this model to develop potential test questions or to think about your course content in different, more complex ways. For example, you might create questions or think about a topic using Bloom’s Taxonomy as a guide to increase the complexity. You can then explain to others as a way to practice retrieving the material, similar to a testing situation.
It’s easy to skip the directions when you’re anxious about an exam. However, the directions may have the key to your success. Make sure you know what’s required before you start each section.
The percentages are a clue to how much time you should dedicate to each section on an exam. Spend the majority of your time on what will gain you the most marks.
Review the entire exam before you start to figure out how much time to spend on each section. Start by answering questions that are easy to answer to build confidence in your abilities before moving to the harder ones.
Don’t waste time on questions you don’t know how to answer; make your best guess and move on. You can come back to the question if you have time later. Be aware of bouncing between questions. Take time to think about or process what each question is asking before you move on.
Try not to rush through your exam either. When you rush you may not use the best logic. Think about each question before you answer.
In some tests and exams you may not be able to preview the entire test, go back and double-check your work, or skip a question that you’re unsure about to return to later. Here are some tips to help if you encounter this type of test format:
Exams in problem-solving courses may consist of multiple-choice questions, true/false, short answer or long answer questions.
Other students or exam proctors will likely make noise around you during an exam. Choose to not let the noises distract you or make you angry. If this is a concern for you, practice focusing with a little distraction by studying in an area with some background noise (e.g. at the library, in the Student Life Centre). You may also choose to bring earplugs to use while you write your exam.
It may make you nervous if other students start handing their exams in early. Don’t worry about what others are doing - they may be handing in their exam early because they didn’t study well enough. Avoid making assumptions and focus on your own exam. If you need all of the allotted time to complete your exam, that’s okay. That’s why the time is available for you.
Try to be confident in yourself and your abilities. Choose to focus on positive thinking on the day of the exam. Try to talk to yourself like you would to a good friend in the same situation. For example:
These positive thoughts will help calm your nerves before writing the exam.
Many online courses include open book, or take home, exams instead of regular in-person tests and exams. Students often have misconceptions about what to expect from open book exams and we’ve addressed some of the most common ones below. Just like regular exams, you will need to study and take steps to prepare ahead of open book exams.
Learn about some common misconceptions about writing open book exams.
You need to do more than just copy out information from the textbook or your notes to answer exam questions online. Your instructor will require that you know and understand the information. They will be testing your ability to find and use information for problem solving and to deliver well-structured and well-presented arguments and solutions.
You should study just as you would for any other exam (if not more!) to prepare for an open book exam. Writing an open book exam means you must fully understand and be familiar with the course content and materials. Being well-prepared can also increase your confidence in finding the information you need throughout the exam while making the most of your time.
You must be able to find, interpret and apply the information from your textbook and notes to the exam questions. Simply copying chunks of the textbook or a part of your notes to answer a test question will not be sufficient or acceptable. Your instructor most likely expects you to demonstrate originality and critical thinking, and they may ask you to cite your materials to avoid plagiarism.
In an open book exam, it can be helpful to have a condensed set of notes that includes brief summaries. You should have all of the available resources and materials you need in front of you in order to answer the test questions. However, it can be easy to get carried away and then feel overloaded and overwhelmed. Carefully select your resources and organize them for quick reference.
Throughout the term you’ll need to do the following to be successful on open book exams:
As the exam date approaches it’s important to know what’s expected of you and what you can expect during your exam. Can you answer all of the following questions about your exam?
Once you know what to expect and what you are and aren’t allowed to use as resources during your open book exam, you should prepare and organize your resources and materials. Open book exams are usually timed, and you won’t want to waste time searching through piles of information. Try a few of the following strategies ahead of your exam:
Prepare your resources and materials:
Organize your resources and materials:
Check your technology and be mindful of how you set up your exam writing environment:
Do you know how to learn? Many students don’t. Specifically, they don’t know how to look inward to examine how they learn and judge what’s effective.
University tests and exams, and your instructor’s expectations, will be very different from what you may be used to from high school. Review the table below to learn about some key differences between tests and exams in high school and university.
|High school test and exam expectations||University test and exam expectations|
|No significant "distractors"||Select from among significant distractors|
|Recall or even just recognition||Describe, outline a pathway or sequence|
|Straightforward definitions; little or no multi-step reasoning||Multiple steps of reasoning within a topic|
|Only one correct answer||Require a depth of understanding that enables you to choose all the correct options|
|Narrow in scope; little or no integration across topics||Integrate material from different topics within the course using information in a new context|
|Predict outcome using several pieces of information; interpretation of data, graphs; compare/contrast|
South Campus Hall, second floor
University of Waterloo
519-888-4567 ext. 84410
Request an authorized leave from studies for immigration purposes.
The University of Waterloo acknowledges that much of our work takes place on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishinaabeg and Haudenosaunee peoples. Our main campus is situated on the Haldimand Tract, the land granted to the Six Nations that includes six miles on each side of the Grand River. Our active work toward reconciliation takes place across our campuses through research, learning, teaching, and community building, and is centralized within our Office of Indigenous Relations.