Review previous exams

One of the best ways to prepare for upcoming exams is to note and reflect on errors you’ve made on previous exams. This is especially useful if you have already had an exam this semester in the same course or with the same instructor in a previous course. However, it is a helpful process even when you are looking at exams from other courses.

As you look at your previous exam(s), do you notice any of the following?

  • I did not study enough or I studied the wrong information.
  • I experienced symptoms of exam anxiety, such as mental block, panic or inability to concentrate.
  • I made careless errors, like not following the directions or not noticing tricky wording.
  • I lacked test-writing skills: I did not understand what was required or I wrote incomplete answers.

Once you have noticed the patterns in your errors, you can start to develop strategies for addressing them. If you do not understand what kinds of errors you are making or how to address them, consult your TA or instructor.

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?

Develop a study plan

Mapping out a study plan two or three weeks before an exam will allow you avoid cramming and help to alleviate stress!

  • Prepare a list of all the topics you will be responsible for on the exam. You may find it helpful to consult your course outline or your lecture notes.
  • Distribute the topics over the study blocks available to you between now and the exam, allowing extra time for difficult topics. Try to save the day before the exam for a general overview.
  • In your day timer or on a blank timetable sheet, mark in the days and times when you intend to cover each of the topics on your list.
  • Check off topics from your list after you have finished reviewing them. This can help to boost your confidence.

Organize your material for review

For many courses, it is important to understand both the details and the larger concepts in the course material. It is often also necessary to see the relationship between various concepts in the course. There are a number of notetaking and diagramming methods you can use to organize your material in meaningful ways. Here are just a few:

  • Comparison charts: Useful for learning the similarities and differences between theories or concepts.
  • Mind mapping: A diagramming technique that can be used for summarizing a lecture or chapter, getting an overview of a concept, or organizing ideas. To learn how to create a mind map check out Concept Mapping (University of Guelph)
  • Flow charts: Suitable for learning procedures or processes.
  • Numbered lists: Helpful for memorizing traits or characteristics related to a central concept.

Outlines of the headings and subheading in your textbook chapters or lecture notes – Useful for understanding the “big picture” of a chapter or lecture

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.


*See “Identifying Levels of Learning” under Student Learning Commons: Exam Preparation.