Exam Tips

Although these tips are addressed to my own students, most of these tips will also apply to students at other schools.

The Learning Center has a three week mini-course specially made for how to take a college-level exam. It is called, ACDV B70D ``Study Skills: Test Taking'' and it usually begins the week before the first astronomy exam. Look in the ``Academic Development'' course listings at the beginning of the semester's schedule of classes. What follows are some universal tips adapted from a publication by Glynis Boultbee and are some of skills you will develop in the ACDV B70D class. I have condensed and modified her publication for the students at the community college where I teach. Contact her to get the full article.

Students who get intensely anxious about exams usually feel that way because they feel they have no control in the exam situation. As a result, they'll blame the instructors, poor questions, difficult material, etc. That negative attitude causes them to lose even more confidence and a downward spiral begins (or continues).

There are ways for the student to take back control. The problem may be lack of preparation (problems with time management, notetaking, studying, etc.---skills learned in other ACDV B70 mini-courses!) or difficulty with exam writing (an inability to read questions systematically, to budget time appropriately, etc.---skills learned in ACDV B70D!).

Although your brain has to do the work on exams, if the rest of the body isn't ready, student performance suffers. It is important to separate symptoms from problems. Is poor concentration causing poor exam preparation which is causing sleepless nights? Or are poor sleeping habits causing concentration difficulties which are causing poor exam preparation? Once the student has determined what the real problem is, they can get on with the business of generating solutions and evaluating them.

Taking the Guess Out of ``Multiple Guess'' Exams

  1. Define the problem: Reading the question stem completely and carefully is the crucial first step. Before looking at the answers, students must understand what the ``problem'' is (preferably by restating the question stem in their own words). One technique is to cover the answers and then read the question stem. Students must, therefore, consciously remove the paper before moving on to the next step.

  2. Generate solutions: In multiple choice exams, the instructor generates the solutions. The students must read each answer carefully and make sure they understand all the choices.

  3. Evaluate solutions: Usually one or two choices can be eliminated immediately. After the initial elimination, students may need to go back to the question stem to ensure that they clearly recall the ``problem''. They can then carefully review each of the remaining answers. If the students know their material, this step whould be fairly straightforward: simply evaluating the ``solutions'' carefully, and, above all, systematically.

  4. Make the decision: The best ``solution'' to the ``problem'' will become clear during the evaluation step. At this point, however, many students are tempted to throw out the systematic approach in order to try to second-guess the instructor. If they do so, they forfeit their control over the process and the quality of their answers plummets!
Initially, students may worry that this systematic problem-solving approach will take too much time. However, when they try it, they realize how much time they have wasted in the past.

For further information, contact one of the staff at the Learning Center. There are a lot of them available eager to help you reach your goals and improve your success in any college course you'll take.

Multiple-Choice Testing Smarts

The following tips are adapted from the The Emerging Learner video series put out by the TeleLearning division of the Dallas County Community College District. Doing well on a multiple-choice exam means making the right moves while taking the exam.

If after going through the steps of the previous section and you find that you still do not know the answer, it is okay to guess. You may know more than you think you know---perhaps something in the test (e.g., previous questions) may help you figure out the answer. Ask yourself, what in the test can help you with the test? Leaving a question blank gives you an absolute zero chance of getting the question correct.

It is okay to change answers, but only if you have a good logical reason to change it. Hesitate in changing your answer if you only have an emotional reason. Let the exam help you out. You can learn a bit about the material even as you are taking the exam. Sometimes, several questions will be about the same topic. Looking over the answers for the questions will usually show you which single answer is in common with the questions.

When studying for multiple choice exams, try to anticipate what questions will be asked (e.g., modified quiz questions). Focus on the details of the material. Some instructors will give you a review sheet to help you out with this. Use that review sheet---the instructor has a very good idea of what will be on the exam!

In summary, the ``testing smart'' skills you need for multiple-choice exams are:

  1. Make informed guesses. Look over the exam and get the context.
  2. Change answers if you have a good reason. Be flexible.
  3. Focus on details and try to predict questions.

Relieving Test Anxiety

The following tips are adapted from the The Emerging Learner video series put out by the TeleLearning division of the Dallas County Community College District. If you get sweaty palms, cannot concentrate, get nauseous, etc. while taking an exam or even thinking about taking an exam, then you suffer from test anxiety. Some amount of nervousness about exams is normal, but test anxiety is an extreme version of it.

Do not focus on the symptoms. There are usually two sides at work in those who suffer from test anxiety. One part thinks you will fail and that you are not worthy. The other part of you blames yourself for being so test anxious. It is a vicious cycle. How can you stop the negative spiral and not get anxious about exams?

  1. Turn off the negative self-talk.
  2. Avoid the ``doom mongers''---those who say the test is hard or will be hard. Avoid family members who will intensify your feelings of failure.
  3. Get some exercise in the few days before the exam. Decrease your intake of caffeine and get enough sleep. Fatigue only intensifies anxiety.
But does not getting nervous or anxious about the exam give you ``an edge''? Students who believe that their anxiety will help them do better are confusing anxiety with effort. Getting worried will not help you do well in any situation. You will waste mental energy on being worried and thinking of all of the negative possibilities, that you will not have the energy nor the time to think clearly about the problem(s) at hand.

Past poor exam performances have a major effect on test anxiety. People usually relive those negative experiences. Despite those negative past experiences, you need to divorce yourself from the past and move forward. If you are returning to school after an extended time out of the classroom, you have changed since you took those classes long ago. You are not the same person you were in high school or several years ago.

What if you blank out right in the middle of an exam? Do some deep breathing or a relaxation exercise. You will not ``waste time'' by calming yourself down! In fact, you will be more productive and cover more material.

Unfortunately, spending more time studying for an exam does not lessen the anxiety while taking the exam. The anxiety will always be there. Realize that you will have it, so you can prepare for it and manage it. You need to stay in a rational place.

In summary, channel your nervousness correctly, a positive attitude is essential, and avoid negative thoughts and people. Give yourself a break and decide that you can do it. Be realistic---do not expect miracle cures overnight. It will take time for you to learn how to manage your test anxiety.

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last updated: August 31, 2013

Is this page a copy of Strobel's Astronomy Notes?

Author of original content: Nick Strobel