There is no substitute for preparation when it comes to university exams but even a well-prepared student can experience test anxiety or approach an exam inefficiently. Try these tips from How to Get Good Grades at a College or University: Canadian Edition by Linda O'Brien. (We have copies of that booklet available in non-COVID times.)
Manage Test Anxiety
A little stress before an exam is okay because it improves alertness and concentration but if you feel like your anxiety is at the point that muddles your thinking or makes it impossible to sit through an exam, these suggestions may help:
- Sleep well the night before. Staying up all night studying before the exam is not your best option. Your physical brain needs sleep so that your mind can function at full capacity.
- Some students like to visualize themselves going into the classroom, sitting down to take the test, and doing well on the exam.
- Adopt a positive posture when entering the exam room. Chin up, deep breath, and a little positive self-talk can help your confidence. Believe in yourself.
- Relaxation techniques
- Breathe. Controlled breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. When we get nervous our muscles get tense and our breathing becomes shallow. Focus on rhythmic breathing until you relax. Blood flowing to the brain is a good thing!
- Physical stretches or light exercise before the exam can be very helpful. A brisk walk and some shoulder rolls will do. If you have time for a yoga class before the test, go for it.
- Sitting at the exam table, close your eyes and recall a positive memory or imagine some warm sunshine on your skin.
- Put it all in perspective. Your exams are important but they are not a life and death situation. Your life will go on whether you ace the test or struggle with it. Try to focus on the learning opportunity, not just the result, and remember that your value as a person is not determined by any exam.
Be a Smart Test-taker
Regardless if you have studied well, you can score better on tests by being a smart test-taker.
Read the instructions
Seriously. This is so obvious that people ignore it all the time. If you are asked to answer two of three short answer questions, don't answer all three.
Scan and Plan
Before you plunge into the questions, look over the whole exam and plan out how much time to spend on each section and what order you want to write the exam. Jot down any key dates or formulas or memory cues in the margin. Start with the section you feel most confident about.
Don't Get Stuck on a Question
If you encounter a question you are not sure about, mark it and come back to it later. If you run out of time, you'll be glad you spent your time on questions you know.
Check Your Answers
You may be tempted to keep writing until the final second but it is usually wiser to leave a few minutes to review your answers and fix any obvious errors.
- Try to answer the question before reading the answer options
- Read all answer options. Don't just pick the first one that sounds right.
- Look for clues in the answer options
- If two choices are similar or opposite, one of them is likely the correct answer.
- If you really have no idea, guess C or B. They are statistically more likely to be correct than A or D.
- Read all of the questions and start with the one you know best.
- Jot down an outline or keywords before launching into your answer.
- Use the same structure as an essay: introduction including the thesis, paragraphs in support of your thesis, concluding summary
- More is not the same thing as better. Think about the arguments you are making and the order they are in.
- Don't rush your writing. It must be legible to get good marks.
- If you don't know the answer to a required question, write down what you do know about the topic so you might be able to get partial credit for the answer.
True or False Questions
- read the question very carefully. A single word makes all the difference in a true or false question
- look for absolute keywords like always, never, every which tend to indicate a false answer
- probability keywords like normally, often, most are more likely to be true
- if you have no idea, guess true. True is statistically slightly more likely to be the answer.
Open Book Exams
These types of exams should not be assumed to be easier. Yes you have access to the information needed for the answers, but you need to get that information quickly. You will also be expected to think, critique, and analyse the information rather than simply stating facts.
- be prepared with tabs marked and key information highlighted
- if you are allowed to use a notes page in addition to the book, write down anything you know you will need
- start with the questions you know best
Review Graded Exams
If you get your graded exam papers back, don't just look at the grade and file it away. A thorough review of the exam can be a very useful study exercise. If the professor has taken time to write comments, learn from them.
Keep your returned exams with your class notes. They will come in handy when studying for a comprehensive final exam.