At some point college exams will be a memory, something to reflect on, and even, in some cases, chuckle about. The anxiety will be just part of the past, as will the stacks of 3 X 5 flash cards, the long study sessions, and the smell of freshly sharpened No. 2 pencils.

While some people might consider exams a nightmare designed to weed out the faint of heart, it's important to remember that they exist for good reason. Namely, to consolidate learning. Exams provide an incentive to learn. They also give you a purpose for synthesizing the information and ideas you've encoun- tered in a unit or semester—if you didn't go through the steps of reviewing, studying, and testing you wouldn't know the course content as deeply. Exams also serve as important indicators of gaps in your knowledge; in this way, both you and your instructor learn from your performance on an exam.

Of course, exams are an imperfect measure of what a person truly knows—a well-prepared student can have a bad day and a well-intentioned professor can write a bad test. Knowing that exams are imperfect should help ease any anxiety; if you have a bad day and do poorly on one, it's just that—a bad day and one test—not a marker of your ultimate success or failure.

This chapter will:

  • walk you through exam anxiety
  • help prepare you for the days before the exam
  • offer unique strategies for taking various types of exams
  • provide the hows and whys of reviewing a graded exam

Consider This

Dealing with Test Anxiety

Almost everybody gets the pre-test jitters. In fact, some of that nervousness may help bolster performance. Some students, however, experience intense anxiety. According to Greenberger and Padesky, clinical psychologists and authors of Mind Over Mood, "Anxiety can be reduced either by decreasing your perception of danger or increasing your confidence in the ability to cope with threat." When we apply that statement to test taking, we need to ask, "What is the perception of danger?" and "How does one increase confidence in one's ability to cope?"

We'll let you answer the first question for yourself. Here are some tips for increasing confidence in your abilities:

Give yourself sufficient time to prepare for the exam.

Imagine the test as one step in a process (after all, it is!). Notice how successfully you complete each step (the steps might include attending class, taking notes, creating a study guide, completing practice quizzes, and taking the test).

Schedule an appointment with your instructor at least one week prior to the exam if you have questions about any material that confuses you.

Participate in a study group or prepare with another student.

Visualize yourself succeeding on the exam.

Avoid studying with other students who seem intensely anxious.

You can't avoid exams in college, so you'll have many opportunities to face your fears and build up your confidence. If you have such bad test anxiety that you do avoid exams you should make an appointment with your academic advisor and/ or a counselor to discuss how your fear is impacting your studies.

Test Anxiety Worksheet

Preparing for an Exam

The biggest mistake students tend to make before an exam is to disrupt their normal schedules. Preparing for an exam in such a way interferes with familiar sleeping, eating, and other habits and makes it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. Here are some ways to make the most of the night before and the day of an exam:

Maintain a regular diet and sleep schedule. Staying up late and snacking on unhealthy foods can not only diminish your performance on the exam, but also add unneeded stress.

Give yourself sufficient time to gather necessary materials. Doing so will ensure that you have everything you need when you get to the exam and you won't be madly scrambling to get out of your apartment.

Do what you need to do to be alert, whether that's taking a shower, having a real breakfast, or going out for a run.

If allowed, bring a small snack and/or drink into the exam room so that you can maintain energy throughout the test.

Glance through your study materials on the morning of the exam to refresh your memory.


No one will recommend cramming for an exam, but if you do find yourself in such a situation, here's the "right" way to cram:

Maintain a positive attitude. If you attended the class and completed your assign- ments, you should do fine on the exam. Sure, you could do better with more time to study, but you'll do the best you can do with the limited time you have left.

Make efficient use of the time you do have. Focus on the concepts and ideas with which you are unfamiliar, rather than reviewing materials you already know well.

Take frequent, short breaks about once an hour to stretch and walk around a little. This will keep you active, alert, and awake.

Study in a location that encourages concentration, such as a desk or table. Avoid studying on your bed, sofa, or anywhere that will be too comfortable and distracting.

Avoid stimulants like coffee, soda, or others that might keep you alert for a time, but leave you in an extremely drowsy or agitated state.

Eat healthy foods while you are studying and immediately prior to the exam.

Try to get sufficient rest so that you can think clearly during the exam.

Strategies for Taking an Exam

Having a game plan to follow on exam day will make the experience less stressful. The following are strategies that should be help you through the exami- nation process.

Arrive early. Have your materials ready and find a comfortable seat. In fact, sitting in your regular sit can help you recall information.

Relax and think positively: I can do this. I know this stuff.

Dress appropriately. This seems silly, but being too hot or too cold can easily
distract you.

Preview the exam. When you receive your exam, take a few minutes to look it over. Make sure you check each page, front and back, so you don't miss a section. This will allow you to determine the amount of time you should spend on each part.

Read the instructions carefully. It takes time to do, but it's critical. There have been countless points lost by not following directions, points lost because students only wrote one essay when two were required, or wrote "T" instead of "True" and got marked down, or failed to write their answers in the required format.

Start with what you know. Some exams questions must be approached in sequence. However, some exams you can skip around and answer the questions you know first. There are advantages to doing this: it builds confidence, maximizes the number of points you'll earn, and allows you more time later in the test to tackle the really tough questions. Also, answering questions you know immediately might help jog your memory for those that are more difficult.

Write legibly. Instructors can't grade what they can't read. If your instructor has to squint and puzzle through big chunks of your writing, she or he will give up and only give you points for those parts he or she can read. Take the time to write clearly.

Show your work. Leave a record of your thought process so your instructor can see how you arrived at your answer. Sometimes you'll get partial credit for taking the correct steps even if you ended with a wrong answer.

Concentrate. Easier said than done, but try to zero in on your exam not on the sniffles and coughing coming from your classmates.

Don't panic if you don't know the answer to a question. Skip that question and come back to it after you've answered the ones you know. It's usually best to attempt an answer even if you're pretty sure it will be wrong. You might get partial credit if you can demonstrate some knowledge related to the question.

Learn from the exam as you take it. On many exams, questions build on one another or provide clues for other questions' answers.

Take time at the end of the exam. If possible, give yourself a chance to review your test after you complete it.

Hand in your test on time. Students have received a score of zero for not turning in a test on time. Don't take a risk.

Types of Exams

In this section we'll discuss ways of approaching the most common types of exams you'll encounter: essay, true/false, multiple choice, open book/open note, take-home, and oral exams.

Essay Exams

  • Read all questions thoroughly before you begin. Answer questions you feel most comfortable with first.
  • Make a quick outline of key points and ideas before you begin writing. This will help prevent the "Oh no! I'm writing my conclusion and I finally know what I want to say!" experience.
  • Get to the point. Make your focus clear from the outset of your essay and maintain that focus throughout the body paragraphs.
  • Leave extra space between paragraphs and in the margins of your answer, in case you need to add additional information later. This isn't always possible, as some essay tests have a page limit and you won't be able to afford any blank space.
  • Use specific, relevant details to support your point and prove your under- standing of the material. Cite course materials if necessary.
  • Use transition words and phrases to signal a shift in ideas. (e.g., "Not only..., but also..." or "Another example is...") These transitions will make your essay smooth and easy to read.
  • Write legibly. Your instructor can't grade what he or she can't read.

True/False Exams

  • Skim over all the statements before you begin. Answer the statements you know first then return to those you don't know.
  • Pay attention to wording. Read the statements very carefully: if any part of the statement is false, you need to mark "False." Some wording, such as the use of double negatives, can be very confusing.
  • Watch out for key words or qualifiers such as "all," "most," "sometimes," "never," or "rarely." Although the answer to a statement may appear to be true at first, the addition of one of these key words can change the meaning of the statement and make it false.

Multiple-Choice Exams

  • Skim over all the questions before starting the exam and answer those you know the answers to first.
  • Anticipate the answer as you read the question, then find the available choice that best matches your answer.
  • If you are unsure of the answer to a question, read over all the answers provided. Use the process of elimination to narrow down your choices.
  • If there is no penalty for incorrect answers, guess on those questions you don't know. If there is a penalty, it may not be worth the risk to guess.

Open Book/Open Note Exams
These can be the most difficult tests to take, perhaps because students underesti- mate them. Here are some tips to help you succeed on this type of exam:

  • Study for open book/open note exams just as you would for a closed book one. Many students under prepare because they know they'll have access to their materials.
  • Organize your notes and mark your textbook before the exam so you don't spend precious time searching for information.
  • Read all the questions first, then answer the ones you know immediately. You may want to confirm you know the answer by checking in your materials, but it's not always necessary.Open book exams
  • Use your materials. Your instructor expects more detail and diligence than he would of a closed book test. Use direct quotes if appropriate, cite sources whenever possible, and include specific details if you have them and they're relevant to your answers.

Take-Home Exams

As with open book/open note exams, many students fail to prepare sufficiently for take-home exams. Here's how to succeed on them:

  • Organize all study materials, such as notes, reading, and homework assignments.
  • Review the exam thoroughly before you leave the classroom. If you have any questions, ask the instructor. Also, ask if and how the instructor can be contacted if you have additional questions later.
  • Do thorough work. Instructors have higher standards for take-home tests than for in-class ones.
  • Stay focused. It may be tempting with all of the time you have for the assignment to write more or do additional, unnecessary work. Develop thorough responses to the question(s), but don't waste your time—or your instructor's—with unrelated information. 
  • Take-home examsUse your materials.Your instructor expects more detail and diligence than she would of a closed book test. Use direct quotes if appropriate, cite sources whenever possible, and include specific details if you have them and they're relevant to your answers.

Oral Exams
These tests are more common during graduate school, but you might encounter an oral exam as an undergraduate.

  • Prepare materials for the exam just as you would for an essay or other test. Your oral exam answers should have key points and support for those points.
  • Make sure you understand the requirements and expectations.
  • Practice with another student, if possible.
  • Time yourself when you practice if your oral exam will be timed.
  • If your instructor allows a few moments to gather your thoughts before you launch into an answer, use that time.
  • Be concise and clear with your response. Use signal words to help your listener follow your ideas. ("Another piece of evidence that supports my point is..." or "My second rationale is...") Avoid rambling.

Check it Twice!

Before you turn in your exam, double check it to make sure you've taken care of the details. Some common mistakes are easily avoidable. Follow these steps every time:

Make sure your name, student identification number, and other required information are included on your exam.

Double check the Scantron/bubble form (if applicable) to verify you've filled in the correct bubble for each question.

Review the exam and instructions a final time to ensure that you have fulfilled all the requirements.

Review Your Graded Exam

You probably won't post your graded exam on the refrigerator, but you definitely should review it. Why? One reason is to check for any mistakes in calculations your instructor or TA might have made. The other, more powerful, reason is to learn from the mistakes you made and the test itself.

The following tips will help you effectively review your exam:

Calculate your score to verify that the grader computed it correctly.

Review the exam for answers that were marked wrong but you still think are correct. Rework the answers, this time with all the resources available to you. If you cannot arrive at the correct answer on your own, ask for assistance from the tutoring center or your instructor.

Analyze the test itself: Where do the questions originate? Lectures? Textbook? Assignments? This will make it easier for you to focus your studying for the next exam for that instructor.

Correct each of the incorrect and partially correct answers to better under- stand why they were wrong or what they were missing. Sometimes instructors provide model answers to assist students with this process.

Schedule an appointment with your instructor to discuss any questions you may have and to ask for his or her advice on studying for future exams.

Exams are a necessary if not entirely pleasant part of the learning process. Stay focused on your ultimate goal—learning—and you'll be able to diffuse some of the stress exams cause. Approach each class hour and study session with a desire to learn, and tests will become just another step in the process.

Exams Exercises

  1. What is your standard method for studying for exams? Rate its effec- tiveness on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is least effective and 10 is most effective. Explain your rating.
  2. What tips from this chapter are you most likely to try? Why?
  3. What style of exam (essay, true/false, multiple-choice, etc.) do you find most difficult? Why?
  4. Describe an excellent test you've taken: one that challenged you, truly assessed your knowledge, and taught you something valuable. Discuss with a partner.
  5. Read the following statement, then discuss the following questions with a partner or group:

    Students tend to focus too much on the grade associated with an exam and not enough on the value of learning in preparation for it.

    Do you think this statement is true?

    What can instructors and institutions do to help students focus more on the value of learning?

    What can students do to help themselves focus more on the value of learning?


for more resources and exercises.