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Exam timePreparing for Exams?
Focus on questions, not just answers

by Mary Wilson

Well, it's exam time again. Your notes are organized, the reading's done, and now you've got to study for the exam. Dreading the ordeal? Here's a trick good students use to get ready: think like an instructor instead of a student.

Preparing and answering practice questions will help you focus on what's important and boost your confidence. Follow these three steps to be ready come exam day:

Step 1: Identify the most significant parts of the course. Not everything is equally important. Begin with the most important areas.

Does the course syllabus or outline include goals for the course? There's your first clue. Review them to remember what your instructor thinks is crucial. Look at the course outline and think about what actually went on. If your history class spent three weeks discussing factors that led up to the American revolution, and only a couple of days on life before independence, it's a good bet the exam will have a similar focus.

Now turn to your notes. If you've been faithfully making notes in lectures, the number of pages on each topic will give you a hint about the importance of each area.

Your last crucial source for identification of key points is your textbook, or other assigned readings. Don't read them again now! Your purpose in this step is to develop a rough map of the territory, not to explore all the highways and byways. Scan the titles and chapter heads to remind yourself of some of the most significant areas.

Step 2: Identify the kinds of questions that will be asked.

There are several ways to identify the kinds of questions you'll find. Ask your instructor — the most reliable source for what kind of questions are and are not on the exam. Often the subject will give you a clue as to the type of questions you'll encounter. You're less likely to find essay questions on a math test than on a lit final.

If you've taken an exam from this instructor before, review it. Were the questions multiple-choice? Short answers? Analytical essays? Chances are the instructor's style won't have changed a lot. Check with the library or the student society to find out if there is a file of old exams available. Don't search for answers — just for questions. Don't try to predict which of the old questions will be asked. That's usually a time-waster, since most instructors change their exams. Instead, try to get a feel for the way questions are asked.

But don't spend too long on step two. To be confident answering the kinds of questions you'll be facing, the real confidence-booster is writing some yourself.

Step 3: Develop practice questions and answers.

Start with the easy ones — short answer questions. Begin with the most important section of the course. Look through that section of your notes, and course readings. If you find headings like “Three reasons…” or “Five factors…” count yourself lucky. Questions like “What are the eight characteristics of a successful marketing campaign,”" or “List three factors that prolonged the economic depression of the 1930s,” are found on many a midterm and final.


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