How to succeed on university tests and exams

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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.

 

Study effectively for university tests and exams 

Use study space for studying

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. 

Study during your best time of day

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.

Resist temptations to start with low priority 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.

Set study session goals

Determine what you’re going to accomplish before you begin to study. This will help you avoid daydreaming and other time wasting distractions.

Break work into smaller tasks

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.

Create associations

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.

Practice retrieving the information from your memory

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.

From Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?:

  • Memories are formed as a residue of thought. If you want to remember what things mean, you must select a mental task that will ensure that you think about their meaning. If what you want to remember has little meaning, use a mnemonic.
  • Memories are lost mostly due to missing or ambiguous cues.
    • Make your memories distinctive.
    • Distribute your studying over time.
    • Plan for forgetting by continuing to study even after you know the material.
  • Individuals’ assessments of their own knowledge are fallible. Don’t use an internal feeling to gauge whether you have studied enough. Test yourself and do so using the same type of test you’ll take in class.

Teach someone else the information

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.

Check your understanding

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?”

Know what you don’t know

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:

For humanities and social science courses

  1. Read a section of the textbook or your lecture notes.
  2. Quiz yourself on what you just read by writing down the key ideas.
  3. Star or highlight the information you weren’t able to remember in your textbook or notes.
  4. Spend the majority of your study time focusing on the sections you starred or highlighted.

For STEM courses

In problem-solving or math-based courses, rereading notes is rarely ever effective. Instead, spend the majority of your time actively solving practice problems.

 

Recognize when your mind starts to drift

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?

Take short breaks

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.

Take care of yourself

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.

Remember, there is no quick fix

Studying is a skill that takes time to learn. Be patient with yourself as you try these new strategies.

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How to study the night before an exam

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.

If you didn’t prepare throughout the term

  1. Gather information about what's likely to be on the exam. Find out which course material the test will cover. Ask classmates for their notes and find out which topics were emphasized in any classes you missed. Identify what you're struggling to learn or understand and focus on studying those areas.
  2. Depending on the course, you might use one of the following strategies next:
    1. In Humanities and Social Sciences: Identify principal themes, sub-topics, examples and major illustrations, and memorize them. Repetition is the key to memorization. Use every trick you can: word association, rhymes, creating lists and mnemonics.
    2. In STEM: Spend the majority of your time actively practicing problems, focusing on large concepts from the course. Don’t get sidetracked by highly specific concepts or questions.
  3. Be selective. After memorizing major themes, decide what supporting material to concentrate on. You're more likely to remember a narrow range of material covered in depth. Skim the text if there is one or read only the course materials that seem emphasized from your information gathering. If there are many sources of information, try to skim them for high-level ideas or summaries. Take time to review what you've covered.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Get at least six hours of sleep and don’t skip any meals. This will help your brain retain the maximum amount of information from studying and allow you to concentrate and perform on test day.

If you created and reviewed notes throughout the term

  1. Write out a course summary. Reviewing the structure of the course will help you remember, comprehend and retain the material.
  2. Work through your notes and assignments, but just skim the text. This is the best way to set priorities for the time you have to study.
  3. Stay calm and confident: Take study breaks, get at least six hours of sleep and remind yourself that working hard all term really will pay off.

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How to overcome test anxiety 

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.

On the day of the exam

  • Eat well before the exam.
  • Arrive early for the exam.
  • Do something relaxing before the exam, such as meditating or going for a walk.
  • Avoid classmates that may upset your composure.
  • Avoid last-minute cramming.
  • Try to think positively about the exam and the information you've studied.
  • If you review notes before exams, finish your review with the material you're most familiar with to end the study session on a positive note.

During the exam

  • Slow down and be intentional about your breathing. Try some of these anxiety management strategies.
  • Slowly repeat a helpful word or phrase to yourself, like “I can do this.” Avoid thinking negatively about yourself or how you prepared for the exam.
  • When you receive the exam paper, do a “memory dump.” Before looking at any questions, use a scrap piece of paper or the back of the test to write out everything you remember or any concepts you’re worried about forgetting.
  • Before you begin answering questions, read the directions. If it’s helpful to you, take a few moments to take a look over the entire exam before you begin.
  • Pace yourself throughout the exam and note how much time to dedicate to each section.

After the exam

  • Learn from the experience. What helped you feel calm? What didn’t?
  • Keep a record of what techniques worked to decrease your anxiety.
  • Don’t punish yourself for missing a question or not performing at your best. Talk to yourself the same way you would talk to a friend who was worried about their test performance.
  • Remind yourself that it takes slow and steady steps to develop strong test-taking skills. You’re well on your way.

What can increase test anxiety?

  • Not having learned the course requirements, instructor expectations or the exam date or location.
  • Consuming coffee, energy drinks or other sources of caffeine.
  • Not using a study schedule or prioritizing commitments.
  • Worrying about previous performances on tests.
  • Comparing your test performance to your peers’.
  • Striving for perfection.
  • Thinking about other’s expectations for your grades or test performance.
  • Focusing exclusively on your test mark.
  • Assuming you will not perform well or thinking negatively about yourself.
  • Focusing on what might happen if you’re unsuccessful on a test or exam.
  • Using stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, drugs, alcohol, etc.
  • Not eating well or sleeping enough.
  • Poor study habits, such as reviewing content inconsistently, trying to memorize the textbook, studying in a distracting environment, not studying all or skipping class.

Anxiety management strategies

Anxiety is a normal experience. Here are some things you can do to help reduce exam anxiety.

Palming method

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.

Total tension release

Tense your whole body one part at a time:

  • Lift your toes and tense both calves.
  • Tense your thighs and buttocks.
  • Tighten your abdomen.
  • Tense your chest and back.
  • Tighten your arms and clench your fists.
  • Tense your neck and clench your jaw.
  • Tightly close your eyes.

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.

Focus on your legs and feet

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.

Breathe your tension away

  • Focus on your legs and feet. Draw all tensions into your breath and exhale those tensions away from your body.
  • Focus on your abdomen; repeat the cycle.
  • Focus on your chest and back; repeat the cycle.
  • Focus on your arms and hands; repeat the cycle.
  • Focus on your shoulders, neck, jaw and face; repeat the cycle.
  • Focus on your total body tension; repeat the cycle.

Take a deep breath

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.

Mindful breathing

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.

Visit Counselling Services

For more information and techniques to manage anxiety visit the Campus Wellness website. If you experience anxiety unrelated to tests and exams, attend an Alleviating Anxiety seminar as a first step.

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Improve test and exam writing

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.

Know what to expect

 Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, CreateBloom’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:

  1. Create
  2. Evaluate
  3. Analyze
  4. Apply
  5. Understand
  6. Remember

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.

Read the directions

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.

Notice the percentage of 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.

Skim the whole exam and make a plan

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.

Move evenly through the whole exam

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.

Strategies for multiple-choice exam questions

  • Read the question and cover up the answers. Decide on an answer before looking at the options.
  • Read all of the options provided before choosing one.
  • Try not to second-guess yourself. Most often your initial response will be correct.
  • Look for and underline these tricky words, as they can change what the question is asking:
    • Qualifiers: These indicate the statement doesn’t have to be unconditionally true. Examples include often, seldom, sometimes, may, usually.
    • Absolutes: These mean that the statement must meet all conditions. Examples include never, always, only.
  • Negatives: These change the meaning, especially double negatives.

Strategies for essay exam questions

  • Read the essay question more than once.
  • Underline key words in the question.
  • Begin when you have a full understanding of what's being asked.
  • Create an outline, even in point form.
  • Make sure your essay follows the proper format and always finish as strong as you began.
  • Once you have finished your answer, read it over to ensure your answer is substantial enough to earn the total marks allotted to the question.

Strategies for problem-solving exam questions

Exams in problem-solving courses may consist of multiple-choice questions, true/false, short answer or long answer questions.

  • There is no single “right way” to approach a math-based test. You may choose to scan the entire test before you start to determine a plan of action, or you may choose to solve each question in the order it appears. Whichever way you choose, don’t spend more than five minutes on a question you aren’t making progress on. Move on to another question and let your subconscious mind work on it.
  • There are two approaches to multiple-choice questions:
    • Try to eliminate the incorrect answers first, then carefully consider the remaining answers; or
    • Cover the answers and solve first, then compare your answer to the choices provided.
  • With true/false problems consider edge cases first, which can lead you to find a counter example to prove if the statement is false. If you can’t prove the statement false, think about why it may be true.
  • Short answer questions are meant to have short answer solutions. If you find yourself with a solution that is too long or taking too much time to solve, re-read the question to make sure you’re not misunderstanding it.
  • The most important thing to remember on long answer questions is to not leave it blank. Write down assumptions and any solution steps. If you get stuck with numbers that don’t seem to make sense and you’re running out of time, write down in words your thought process for how you would solve it, including which methods you would use and why.

Avoid distractions

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.

Avoid making comparisons

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.

Think positively

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:

  • “I can do this.”
  • “I know the information.”
  • “I studied well.”

These positive thoughts will help calm your nerves before writing the exam.

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How to excel in your courses

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.

About metacognition

  • Metacognition is often referred to as “thinking about thinking.” Metacognitive strategies are techniques that help students become more successful learners.
  • Metacognition allows you to take charge of your own learning.
  • Learners often show an increase in self-confidence when they build metacognitive skills. Self-confidence improves motivation as well as learning success.
  • Metacognitive knowledge is crucial for efficient independent learning for all age groups, because it fosters forethought and self-reflection. Evaluate results and strategies after learning. Then return to step 1 again.

Differences between high school and university

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

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