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'Tis the season... the exam season

You're making a list, and checking it twice... an exam prep inventory list that is...
Published by Julia Lane

Read on for tips to help get you through this exam season, curated from across the SLC's exam resources: 

Tips on when to study:

  • Many students claim to be most productive at night; however, most people are actually more focused and productive earlier in the day (i.e. morning, afternoon, and early evening). Tasks like reading a textbook or a journal article, writing a paper, or working on an assignment require a great deal of concentration, and the ability to do focused tasks tends to decline as the day goes on.
  • Be realistic when setting aside time to study (e.g., it is likely unrealistic to schedule study time after 5 hours of lectures or after an 8-hour shift at work).

Tips on the study environment:

  • Most students tend to find it easy to get distracted and to procrastinate when they study at home. Studying outside of home is often more effective.
  • Some students find they focus best with a bit of noise in the background, in which case a coffee shop or a group study area of the library (e.g., the 2nd floor of the Bennett library) may work best. Other students prefer total silence when studying, in which case a quiet or silent study area (e.g., the 6th floor of the Bennett Library) may be optimal.
  • When possible, eliminate distractions like a cell phone and/or laptop by not bringing them, turning them off, or, at least, putting them away during study time.
  • Avoid listening to music while you study (especially while doing readings), as it will take up some of your attention and thus make your studying less effective.

Tips on reviewing and practice testing:

  • Review notes from lectures and readings within 24 hours of learning the material, and then weekly thereafter.
  • Spend at least an hour per class per week just on reviewing (this is an important part of the 2-3 hours/credit/week that students are recommended to spend on schoolwork outside of class time).
  • When testing yourself, first push yourself to come up with an answer without consulting your notes or readings (even guess if you have to), then check your answer—this will foster better retention of the correct answers/solutions, as well as help you determine what content you need to spend more time on.
  • When doing weekly review, go back to previous practice questions that you mastered earlier in the semester and test yourself with them by mixing them up with questions from other chapters.
  • If practice questions are not readily available, make them up yourself or enlist classmates to make them up for each other.

(These tips are taken from the resource "How to Study Efficiently and Effectively")

Be informed about the exam

The more you know about the format and emphasis of an upcoming exam, the better prepared you can be. you can become more familiar with your exam by asking yourself the following questions:

  • What is the format of the exam? Multiple-choice? Short answer? Essay? Open book? A combination?
  • How long is it? How much time will I have to write it? How many questions will there be? (This will alert you to exams that are time-crunched, or conversely, ones that will allow time for planning.)
  • What percentage of the overall course grade is the exam worth? (If it’s worth a lot, it deserves a lot of your attention!)
  • What topics have been emphasized in the lectures?
  • Are practice exams available?

Practice as you will perform

Try to replicate as much as possible the conditions of the exam-writing situation. Find or make-up practice questions that are of the type that will be on the exam*; put your books away (unless it is an open book exam) while you complete the practice questions; work under timed conditions. You may even want to visit the examination room to get comfortable in the space. This is an effective strategy for addressing exam anxiety.

There are a number of ways you can find or create practice questions:

  • Answer chapter review questions in your textbook
  • Turn the headings in your readings and lecture notes into questions
  • Use questions from the textbook study guide or web site
  • Participate in a study group and ask each other questions based on the material
  • Make flashcards with a question on one side and the answer on the other, then quiz yourself
  • Write outlines for any sample essay questions provided by the professor
  • Make “Cornell notes”: Draw a line down your page about one-third of the way from the left edge; write questions in the left column of your page; write the answers to your questions directly across in the right column; cover up the answers and quiz yourself.

(These tips are from the SLC resource "Exam Preparation: Five Key Strategies")

Prepare an exam prep inventory 

Watch this short video that explains what an exam prep inventory is and why and how to prepare one. 

Deep processing:  Make it meaningful

Frequent review is the key to memory, but how you review matters. Just mindlessly scanning over text on a regular basis is of limited use, as is trying to memorize wording without thinking about its meaning. A better approach is deep processing. This involves thinking about the material in the following ways:

  • As you are reading, stop after every paragraph, assess your retention of the material by trying to state the main points in your own words, and think about the information in ways described below.
  • Relate what you are learning to your prior knowledge from earlier in the course, other courses, or just general knowledge. Elaborate on the new information by thinking of your own examples, and thinking about how it is similar to and different than other material you have learned.
  • Relate what you are learning to your personal experience. For example, think about how a concept in Economics may impact your personal financial well-being. Or in a Chemistry class, think about applications to pharmaceuticals or consumer products you, or a family member, use.
  • Find or develop questions for yourself about the material, in the same format in which you will be tested (e.g.: multiple choice, essay, True/False). Think about what questions you would ask if you were the professor. Exchange questions with classmates and review the material through answering questions.

(This tip is from the SLC resource "Improve your Memory")

Tips for managing exam anxiety: 

Use test-taking strategies

  • Do a “memory dump” of information you are afraid you will forget on the back of the exam when you first receive it.
  • Read through the exam at the beginning and figure out how much time to spend on each question, according to what each question is worth.
  • To build confidence, start with questions you know rather than focusing on the ones you don’t.
  • Start with any multiple-choice or True/False section to gain clues that might help you answer other questions.
  • Take 30-second “mini-breaks” at specified points during the exam to use a relaxation strategy such as closing your eyes, relaxing your hands, and breathing deeply.

If your thoughts are racing and your mind becomes cluttered with worries:

  • Don’t focus on getting rid of the anxiety because that will only feed the anxiety;
  • Mentally yell “STOP” to break the cycle;
  • Take a 30-second “mini-break”;
  • Concentrate hard on a specific sensation (e.g.: the hum of the lights in the room) to clear your mind of anxiety; OR
  • Be with your anxiety – concentrate on your physical symptoms. If you can completely experience a physical sensation, it often disappears.

Use anxiety reduction techniques

  • Learn and practice, on a daily basis, relaxation and visualization techniques so they will come easily to you at exam time.
  • Check SFU's Health and Counselling Service's resources on stress and relaxation.
  • While preparing for the exam, visualize a positive exam-writing experience. Seneca College has helpful techniques on memory and the SLC has additional resources on exam anxiety.

If your exam anxiety is serious and persistent, visit Health and Counselling Services at MBC 0300, 778-782-4615.

(These tips are from the SLC resource "Exam Preparation: 8 Strategies for Reducing Exam Anxiety") 

Looking for other exam advice? You can still book a learning consultation at the SLC. 


Wishing you a productive, prepared exam season. 

- Your Student Learning Commons 

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