Taking Exams

Effective test taking skills are an important part of achieving overall academic success. College exam questions may be objective, essay, or problem-solution style.  Some courses even combine different types of questions on the same exam.  Here are some ideas for successfully preparing for and managing each type of exam question:

Objective Exams:

Multiple-choice, true/false, and matching questions are all example objective test formats.  There are many different styles of questions but in each case there is only one correct answer.

To prepare effectively it is vital to focus on mastery of the information and details covered in lecture and in the textbook.  When you study it is vital to avoid rereading or looking over notes and text - rewrite or recite information.  Concentrate on terms, lists, links from one concept to another and then reword and rework information to personalize it - think of your own examples.

During the exam:
  • Take the test three times - 1st answer what you know, 2nd concentrate on harder questions, 3rd just before you turn it in, go ahead and guess on the ones you haven't been able to answer.  Be wary of changing an answer - often your first response is the right one.
  • Watch out for language that suggests an absolute (never, only, always, etc.)  There are not many of those in life and they may signal that the choice should be eliminated or considered false.  Language that qualifies a choice (usually, most, some, etc.) can be an indicator that it is true.

Essay Exams:

Essay questions can range from broad and open-ended to specific and focused.  Some faculty provide the questions ahead of time so you can prepare, others may give you a choice of questions on the actual exam.  In every case they require organizing and writing a well framed response.

To prepare effectively it helps to analyze course content and look for broader ideas that cross a number of specific class sessions.  Look at course objectives or chapter titles and headings to find broader themes.  Predict questions if they are not already provided.  Practice answering by actually writing out a response.  Get your ideas down to a key word outline to help you remember what you want to say.

During the exam:  
  • Use a reflective statement based on the question as your introduction. Make sure you clearly lay out the direction your answer will take from the beginning.
  • Organize your answer to avoid missing a part and pay attention to the direction words in the question so your response provides the needed information.  Explain does not mean the same thing as list. 
  • Pretend you are writing to someone who knows nothing about the material - lay out your reasoning, mention all the connections, spell out what you mean.  Be sure to use the language of the course - vocabulary is an important reflection of your understanding and it does count.

Problem - Solution Exams:

Math, accounting, & physics problems, circuit analysis, and chemical equations are all examples of problem-solution format questions.  In each case you must analyze the problem, decide on the appropriate approach to get to a solution, and then follow through with application of that process.  Often you have to show your work.

To prepare effectively, practice is essential.  Courses that incorporate problem-solution exams typically include regular homework assignments.  It is vital to do that work whether it is collected and graded or not.  Review of concepts from your notes or textbook is not enough.  Working and reworking all possible problem types beyond the point of mastery is the key to success. 

During the exam:
  • Immediately write down on the exam paper any formulas that you think you might need.  It's important to do that before you get wrapped up in your first problem.
  • Work at a steady pace.  Time is often a factor so it's important not to get bogged down on one problem.
  • Check your work before you turn in your exam.  Carelessness can cost a lot of points so take the time to look for the simple errors.