Skip to main content
click map TCC Home TCC Library Home

First Year Experience Seminar Online Textbook

This is the main textbook for FYE Seminar to be used beginning Summer 2017

3.4.1 Preparing for Exams

Preparing for Exams

picture of runners at starting line


The test of success is not what you do when you are on top. Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” George S. Patton

Preparing for an exam is much like preparing for a footrace. An athlete doesn’t show up at the starting line of a race unless she has made a plan, practiced running many times, and prepared the days before the race. The same is true for college exams.

Preparation begins in the early weeks of the semester by attending classes, taking notes, marking textbook chapters, and completing homework.  But there are tasks to perform weeks leading up to an exam that reduce test anxiety and aid memory.


3.4.2 EXERCISE: Analyze Your Test - Taking Preparation Techniques

Please follow the link to view the document containing the exercise.   You will need Adobe Reader or Microsoft Office to view the document.  Adobe Reader can be downloaded at: .  You can download Microsoft Office through Blackboard: follow instructions on the “Student Resources” tab.

Read all instructions for the exercise thoroughly.

3.4.3 Getting the Most out of Studying

In this video narrated by Professor Stephen Chew from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, the professor provides concrete examples of good study methods to use before an exam. 

If the video doesn’t play, you may have to update your Flash Player.  If you can’t, or are accessing on a device that doesn’t have Flash Player, click this link to view:

3.4.4 Highlights of Test Preparation

Test-taking is a skill that has to be learned, just like driving a car or learning to play a musical instrument. It takes much practice to learn to parallel park or to play a minuet by Mozart on the piano, but with daily practice, the skill can be honed to perfection.  The novice driver can become a race car driver, and the piano student eventually can become a concert pianist. It requires talent to do these two tasks, of course, but more important it takes a lifetime of practice.

Picture of a race car

Overlearn the material— Overlearning means being able to recall information both accurately and quickly. Because students are often nervous when taking an exam, their anxiety affects their ability to retrieve information from long-term memory.  Also, exams are usually timed, and students need more time to retrieve information under pressure if they haven’t over-learned the material.  By learning the material so well that students can recall information under pressure, they will be able to complete the test in a timely manner with reduced stress.  

Use Elaborate Rehearsal — Elaborate rehearsal involves using many senses and connections to encode information in long-term memory: read it, write it, say it, think it, do it. If students merely hear information in a lecture, they will forget most of this material within 24 hours.  Note-taking requires students to use another sense—the sense of touch, as well as the process, thinking. As we record notes, we put the information down on paper in a way that makes sense to us: an outline, a classification chart, or in a web.  If along with hearing and writing new information a student practices the new process or concept by working in a group in class, the student has used an even deeper learning process to embed this new knowledge in long-term memory.

Using Retrieval and Application Processes

 Picture of a target

We want to hit the target on test day, remembering information quickly and precisely.  To score a bull’s eye, we need to practice using all the different levels of critical thinking that will be on the exam, meaning we need to apply,  analyze, and evaluate the concepts and processes, not just practice remembering them. 

Often students reread chapters and highlighted phrases, reciting keywords as they reread.  This technique is shallow learning, meaning that we merely skim the surface of all there is to know about a concept or process.  Rereading accomplishes little preparation for recalling information quickly on test day while enduring the emotional pressures of an exam. Instead, students need to practice deep-learning strategies. 


To practice deep-learning, try these things:

  • Close your textbook and class notes to see if you can recall the information without looking at it


Picture of a person thinking 

  • Use flashcards to do practice quizzes and keep repeating the vocabulary words you miss
  • Create real-life stories or scenarios that illustrate the concept or step-by-step process you are trying to remember

Picture of a 7 ball

Use the Seven Theory to “Chunk” Information — Trying to learn pages and pages of information for an exam can be frustrating and nonproductive.  Memory has difficulty storing information that isn’t organized into clear units; using labels, or  retrieval cues,  that organize information into units of around seven pieces of information is an effective package for storage in memory .

 If, for instance, you are trying to memorize the order of the levels of critical thinking in Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, create a mnemonic device to remember the stages, such as a sentence that uses the first letter of each word.

R – Remember:              (Remembering)            

U – Understanding        (Understanding)

A – applied                   (Applying)

A – aids                        (Analyzing)

E – every                      (Evaluating)

C – Creature                 (Creating)

3.4.5 Taking Objective Exams

Picture of multiple choice test and pencil


 True-False Test Tips

  • Always answer the T/F questions even if you must guess because there is at least a 50% chance of guessing correctly.

  • Pay attention to absolute qualifiers, such as never, only, always, and none. These words allow for no exceptions to the rule; therefore the words usually make a statement false. Words such as usually, sometimes, and often are qualifiers, too, but these words allow for exceptions.
  • Watch for negative statements.   Also, when a question contains a double-negative, cross through the two negatives and read the statement as a positive one because two negatives equal a positive. 


             It is not unrealistic to plan the majority of study time for an exam the night before the test.

             Now cross out the two negatives and read the statement as a positive one:

              It is not   un realistic to plan the majority of study time for an exam the night before the test.

Multiple Choice Test Tips

In multiple test questions, there is the stem of the question and many distractors.  It is the job of the student to read the stem and select from the list of distractors the appropriate answer, a daunting task.  Try some tips to help you choose the best answers for this kind of test question:

  • Read the stem of the question and try to answer it without looking at the distractors; then read the list of distractors and choose the one closest to the answer you predicted. This technique is good for students with low self-confidence, who often know the material but have little faith in their own knowledge base.  The task builds self-confidence, too.
  • Read all the possible answers and choose the most inclusive answer.  Often there are several correct answers, but it is your job to choose the best answer, the one that includes the most information that is correct information.
  • Avoid unfamiliar terms.  Often a professor will include words in the choices that have nothing to do with the course to see if you are truly familiar with terms related to the topic or if you are simply guessing at answers.  If you have attended all lectures and have read the course materials, you will know when a word hasn’t been covered in class, and avoid choosing this term. 

Picture of three doors and person with key

  • When two possible answers are very similar, the correct answer is usually one of these two choices.  In seeing whether or not students know subtle details of a concept or theory, the professor will likely create two correct answers, but one answer has more correct information than another.  Choose this response.
  • Write down the criteria in the margins when you must evaluate statements based on set criteria.  The most difficult multiple-choice questions require students to evaluate possible answers based on set criteria. 


             Example:  Choose the long-term goals that meet all the criteria for goals:

               a.   Buy a Honda Accord.

               b.  Buy a new house with two bedrooms, a garage, and a yard for the kids.

               c.   Earn a degree in nursing and work at a hospital by the end of the summer semester two years from now.

               d.  Earn an Associate of Liberal Arts with a 3.5 GPA by the end of next year, fall semester.

               e.   All of the above

               f.    Both c and d.

 If a student jots down the three criteria for long-term goals (a single item that is measurable and has a completion date), the student can rate each statement based on the criteria.  For example, in the question above, “a” doesn’t have a completion date; “b” doesn’t have a completion date; “c” is measurable and has a completion date but it is two goals; and “d” is the only one that meets all the criteria.  Taking a few seconds to record the criteria in the margins reduces the stress caused by higher-level critical thinking questions.  

Short Answer Questions

Short answer questions on an exam should be written in formal sentences using correct grammar and mechanics that supply overviews as well as examples and concrete details.  A good rule of thumb is to write at least a couple of sentences for each point; therefore, a five-point question should contain 8 – 10 sentences.  (Note:  Always include an example even if not asked to do so.  Be sure to use the stem of the question in the response so that the sentence makes sense without  If the description or definition you provided is vague or unclear, a precise example illustrates to the professor that you understand the process or theory and can use it in a situation.) 

Picture of someone writing with a pen


Tips for Short Answer Questions

  • Circle the direction words and answer according to each one; answer all parts of the question.  If the question asks to define a word and provide examples of it, as well as explaining the example, don’t simply write down what the word means.  Short answer questions worth 5 – 10 points each often contain 2 – 3 parts.  Be sure to answer each part even if you have to guess at it. 
  • Never leave a short answer question blank. If you don’t know the answer to a question, look over the exam and see if you can find information on the test to help you answer the question.  It is difficult to create a test without giving students some of the information covered in the course, and you can use that information as an advantage. Also, try to reason and use logic to answer a question.  For instance, if asked to describe the SQ3R reading process, and you don’t know the exact word that each letter represents, write your own reading strategy that is likely part of this reading strategy; you may receive at least partial credit for the response.
  • Be sure to use the stem of the question as part of the response in short answer.  The professor should be able to understand your answer without rereading the question. For example, in a question that asks students to Define and exemplify the three phases of a self-regulated learner as defined by Barry Zimmerman, the first sentence of the student response will likely be: The three phases of a self-regulated learner as defined by Barry Zimmerman are forethought phase, performance phase, and self-reflective phase. 


Picture of Person moving gears

When Students Don’t Know the Correct Answers

Guessing is something everyone has to do on an exam at some point in a college career, but the trick is to guess using logic and common sense.  Here are tips that may help students make better choices when they have to guess:

  • Go with your first instinct (unless you know you misread the question or you found the correct answer somewhere on the exam). Research indicates that over 70% of the time when students change an answer, they change from the correct response to a wrong one.  Remember that the subconscious helps us when we get stuck and can’t remember information or recall something because we’re under stress.  Trust your instincts.
  • When two choices are similar on a multiple choice, choose one of these as your response. As mentioned in the multiple-choice section, professors are often measuring whether or not you know the fine details of a concept or theory, so two answers will be very close in meaning, and the correct one is usually one of these choices.
  • When there are ranges listed on an exam and you have to guess, choose one in the middle range.  For example, if asked how many hours should a student plan to study for every one hour in class and the range is 1, 3, 5, or 6, choose either 3 or 5.
  • When you don’t know the answer to a question, mark it in the margin and return to it later.  You may find the answer to it on some other part of the exam. 
  • Try to reason out the response using logic.  If you are asked on a psychology test to describe three strategies for conflict resolution and you don’t know the response, think about the techniques that you used recently to resolve a problem with a friend, spouse, or parent, and write those as the steps. 

3.4.6 More on Study Strategies

If the video doesn’t play, you may have to update your Flash Player.  If you can’t, or are accessing on a device that doesn’t have Flash Player, click this link to view:

3.4.7 Taking Essay Exams

Picture of a roadsign with two arrows: one points toward Failure; one toward Success

Often success or failure in a college course depends on a student’s ability to write well during a timed essay exam. 

 Highlights of an Essay Question Response

  •  Professors expect students to answer an essay question in an organized method using complete sentences, concrete details, and paragraphing.
  • An in-class essay exam should look like a formal essay written in composition courses and use all parts of the essay.
  • There is not time to write a formal introduction, but in a sentence or two write the main idea and a summary of the points that the essay response addresses.
  • In the body paragraphs, be sure to support statements with examples and explanations of those examples. 
  • In a sentence or two, summarize the information presented in the essay response.


How to Use a Blue Book for an Essay Exam    Picture of a blue book

A composition test booklet can be purchased at the Campus Book Store and makes a perfect template for an essay exam that must be completed in class.  If students are nervous about taking essay exams, using a blue book formula will provide a tool that can be practiced at home. 


1.  READ the directions carefully and CIRCLE the direction words. In this way you will be sure to answer all parts of the essay question according to the professor’s directions. “Define” or “list” is a much different response than one required by the words “explain” or “compare.” 

2.  Make a JOT CHART using the inside of the blue book cover, jot down all the ideas you want to include in your response, making sure to list one idea per line.  (Don’t worry about the order or judge the ideas as good or bad, just jot down a possible response for each part of the question.

3.  OUTLINE the material you want to use by going through your jot chart and numbering the items in the order you plan to write about them,  crossing through items or examples that you don’t want to use in your answer.

4.  WRITE on one side of the page only, using double-spaced writing.  (Double-spacing the writing allows you to add words, cross out words and make corrections, etc. in the space above your writing.) Write clearly and legibly.  Use the numbered jot list as an outline for your writing. Keep the left side pages blank to insert additional information into your essay when you revise and recheck your response (indicating the insertion point in the essay with a *). Writing on one side of the paper and double-spacing the answer also leaves plenty of room for the professor to make comments and corrections when grading, and a professor’s feedback is essential to improving the items you missed on an essay exam.

5.  REREAD AND REVISE when you are finished.  Reread your response and make corrections.  Check to be sure that you sufficiently addressed every direction word you circled and responded to all parts of the question.  If you’ve forgotten a sentence or two, if you want to add an example, or if you need to expand a portion of the writing, make an arrow to show the point of insertion within your text, draw the arrow out to the left margin, and add the information on the opposite page, which you have left blank for this purpose. 

6.  PROOFREAD your answer for technical and mechanical errors and correct these. 

3.4.8 EXERCISE: Practice Models for Answering Essay Questions

Please follow the links to view the documents containing the exercise and essay questions.   You will need Adobe Reader or Microsoft Office to view the document.  Adobe Reader can be downloaded at: .  You can download Microsoft Office through Blackboard: follow instructions on the “Student Resources” tab.

Read all instructions for the exercise thoroughly.

3.4.9 EXERCISE: Student Practice: Writing Essay Question Responses

Please follow the link to view the document containing the exercise.   You will need Adobe Reader or Microsoft Office to view the document.  Adobe Reader can be downloaded at: .  You can download Microsoft Office through Blackboard: follow instructions on the “Student Resources” tab.

Read all instructions for the exercise thoroughly.

3.4.10 Stress and Tests: A Formula for Coping

Picture of science beakers with liquid

Taking tests is a stressful experience for most students, and many students don’t see the point in exams.  Remember that taking a test provides an opportunity for students to see the concepts, theories, or processes covered in the course that they still haven’t mastered.  Students may find they understand basic concepts, but if asked to create their own version of that concept, they cannot apply it to real life situations.  Even more critical, a student may not be able to analyze and judge the difference between an exemplary model of a concept and one that is merely competent. A good example of this process can be seen in the essay exam practice that students completed.  Were you able to discern the subtle differences between essay two and essay three?  Can you see why one is an “A” response and one is merely a “C”? Tests provide a reflective overview of our mastery of material, rewarding us for information we’ve mastered and notifying us of items we still need to learn.

Practicing meditation can help students overcome test anxiety.  Here is a video that describes a “One Moment” meditation.  Practice it and use this method to control stress before and during an exam.  You will also find it helpful to use throughout your day whenever you feel overwhelmed or anxious. 

If the video doesn’t play, you may have to update your Flash Player.  If you can’t, or are accessing on a device that doesn’t have Flash Player, click this link to view:

3.4.11 A Final Thought

Finally, learn to live in the moment, accepting college for what it is: uncomfortable.  If students aren’t uncomfortable in a classroom at any time, they aren’t learning anything.  Each time we challenge our brains to accept a new perspective or master a skill or process it hasn’t done before, the brain sends us into a state of confusion and frustration.  Within moments we become overwhelmed.  When we realize that perseverance is the key to succeeding in college, we feel fortified with new determination.  We face feelings of stress and walk through them.  Watch the video by Professor Duckworth on Ted Talks and hear what this psychologist has to say about college students and “grit.” Link to transcript here.

If the video doesn’t play, you may have to update your Flash Player.  If you can’t, or are accessing on a device that doesn’t have Flash Player, click this link to view:

Metro Campus Library: 918.595.7172 | Northeast Campus Library: 918.595.7501 | Southeast Campus Library: 918.595.7701 | West Campus Library: 918.595.8010
email: Library Webmaster | TCC Acceptable Use Policy | MyTCC | © 2016 Tulsa Community College