Tompkins Cortland Community College

Baker Center for Learning

Exam Taking Strategies

Just Before the Exam is Handed Out

In general, anything you plan that makes you feel in control of the situation will be helpful.

Many students report to me that the 10-15 minutes before an exam is very stressful. Sometimes the stress is compounded by being surrounded by lots of other nervous students. If so, consider coming as early as possible, staking out your seat, and getting out of the room. You might consider having some kind of a routine to follow just before the exam - bathroom, drink, and breath of fresh air, for example.

If you decide to do a last-minute review, consider preparing a review sheet or study cards in advance with something you are certain will be on the exam. Many students have told me that just scanning their notes or book is a bad plan. This is because they may see something they think they should have studied more or missed completely, causing a lot of anxiety. Sitting near a friend is usually not wise because it can be very distracting.

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When You First Get the Exam

There is no right or wrong procedure here. Again, think about having a plan so you will feel in control. Many students briefly survey the exam first, reading general directions and getting the whole picture. Others will find a blank space on the test paper and write down some formulas, key information, etc. before ever looking at the test (for instance, drawing and labeling the parts of a plant and an animal cell in biology). Some students try the easiest questions first; others do the toughest ones first. Some read the essays and then do the multiple-choice questions hoping to find some useful information. Others do the essays first, figuring that they would rather be rushed on the multiple choice, if time runs short.

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Useful Strategy: the exam time-order plan

Whether or not you are concerned about finishing an exam in the allotted time, this strategy makes sense. It is very difficult to gauge elapsed time during an exam. In addition, people leaving the exam early may cause confusion and stress. So, try to make a plan for the timing and order. For example, let's say you have surveyed the exam and have two short essays and 20 multiple choice questions. You have 50 minutes to complete the exam. You make a plan - "I'll do the two short essays first; I have about 10 minutes to do each (2x10=20 min.) Then, I'll do the multiple choice for 20 minutes (1x20=20)." That leaves me 10 minutes to spare. That's the plan. So, you are working through the exam and you go "Oh my gosh- I think I've spent too much time on this first essay. You check you watch and see you have spent 15 minutes - yes, you are running behind. Or, you check your watch and only eight minutes have gone by - no, you are doing fine. Or someone leaves after 25 minutes and you have an "Oh my gosh, I'm not going to finish" attack. Again, you can see where you are and how much time is gone and make an accurate assessment.

Also, ask the instructor for help if you are unclear about what a question is asking for or if you are unsure your answer is sufficient. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by asking!

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Before You Hand in the Exam

As obvious as it seems, it makes good sense to read the directions again to be sure you have answered the appropriate number of questions and done so in the correct way. Make sure each item is clearly numbered and labeled. If time allows, reorganize and rewrite any essays as neatly as possible. The research shows, and my personal experience confirms, that this effort pays off.

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Techniques for taking multiple choice and essay tests:

Essay Exams

Read the directions carefully and at least two or three times. It is not uncommon for a student to lose points because they did not answer exactly the right question or they left out a part of the answer. For example: putting the definition but forgetting the example, or putting the causes and forgetting to put the effects.

Don't forget to put in the basic material (e.g., definitions, descriptions, examples) even though it seems obvious. The instructor usually wants to see that you have clearly understood this material. Ask the instructor if you are not certain whether this material should be included.

If you run out of time, jot down anything you can: an outline, key words and phrases, etc. Most instructors are looking for anything they can find so they can see you have some understanding and can give you partial credit.

Consider the following "essay answer strategy":

  • Read the question, mark key words, and read it again.
  • Brainstorm information for the answer. Jot down the information.
  • Reread the question to make sure you are on track.
  • Condense and organize the information. Put like information together and order the information.
  • Write the essay. Immediately jot down any new information that comes to mind while writing.
  • Reread the question to make sure you have answered it completely.
  • Proofread the essay - checking for complete sentences, spelling, punctuation, etc.
  • Rewrite the essay as neatly as possible.

Multiple Chioce Tests

Consider reading the stem (question part) twice. If you can mark on the test paper, try reading, marking the key terms, and then rereading. Key terms include negative words (not, except, etc) and direction words (example, definition, causes, etc.). Covering up the choices (answers) when reading the stem helps many students stay focused. You can also try to answer the question from your recall and then compare that to the choices given. If you uncover the choices one at a time, you may find it less confusing and more likely you will consider all the possibilities. Cross off or mark ( / to cross off, T for true, F for false, ? for maybe) each choice as you go along. Doing this keeps you more involved and therefore less distracted. Circle the number of any question you need to come back to.

The issue of changing answers comes up often. Here's what I say based on my experience. As obvious as it may seem, don't change answers without a rationale. What I mean is don't change just because you now think "C" is a better answer. Ask yourself: "Why do I like 'C' better than 'D' now?" If you can give a logical answer, then change. Otherwise, leave your original choice.

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