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The 7 secrets to acing your exams

Feeling the burn? These tips will keep you on track
December 6, 2019

The 7 secrets to acing your exams

It’s been said before, and it’ll be said again: exams can be stressful.

A lot depends on the time you devote to your studies, how much effort you put into reviewing it all — and, of course, on those few key hours in which you draw on your new-found knowledge.

But with the right game plan, exams can be a smooth and relatively painless process.

We asked two experts for advice: Juliet Dunphy, interim associate director of the Student Success Centre, and learning specialist Jennifer Banton.

Here are their tips.

7 exam-taking essentials 

1. Map out your study time

Forget cramming: it takes many hours to study effectively for a major exam. Schedule one or two three-hour study blocks every day for two weeks before the main event. Studying with someone else can be motivating, too.

If you have several exams in a week, clearly define the study blocks in your schedule. Cut down on socializing and, if possible, cut back on non-related work hours.

At this point, you should be reviewing what you already know — but you still have time to improve in any weaker areas.  

2. Test your knowledge

An exam calls for you to bring out information on cue, so practice doing that in advance.

Don’t just go over and over your books: reading is passive and doesn’t measure how well you know something. Instead, break course material down into major concepts and sections. From there, test yourself to find out what you’ve already mastered and what you need to return to.

When reviewing items you aren’t retaining as well, look for how the ideas connect. Make charts, concept maps and diagrams. Do practice problems, and summarize your problem-solving steps.

All of this is active reviewing. Aim to understand concepts rather than memorize material; concentrate on learning ideas well enough to be able to explain them to someone else.

Once you’ve learned something, schedule time later in the week to test yourself on it again. That way, you’ll be sure you really know it. And be sure to revisit material you don’t know as well as you’d like to.

3. Schedule in a final review

It’s the day before the exam. The time to learn the information has passed! 

Focus on what you already understand. Review your summary sheets and concept maps, adding to them where necessary; this will help you recall key details. Do more self-testing, and talk yourself through the material.

4. Create brain space

On exam day, take some time to collect yourself. Don’t study right up until the last moment: information overload might cause you to blank out at the worst possible moment.

Show up to the exam at least 15 minutes early with all the required materials.

Other students may be joking around and quizzing each other outside the room, but don’t join in: put in your earbuds and listen to relaxing music. This is one time when you really will want to walk away from the crowd.

Also, don’t forget to eat well beforehand. Stick to healthy food — nothing greasy or heavy. Eggs and fruit are ideal.

5. Set your own course

You’re in the room, and you have the exam. Before you even look at it, though, use the blank side of the booklet, or the scrap paper provided, to write down any ideas you’re worried you might forget.

Next, survey the entire exam and identify where points are heavily weighted. Decide where you want to begin. Start with an easy “warm-up” question, or jump right into the hardest part: whatever works best for you.

Plan your answers, and figure out how much time you’ll spend on each section. If you decide not to follow the professor's order of questions, mark the answers clearly and make sure you get to everything.

Finally, remember to breathe!

6. Finish strong

Save time to review your answers. 

Read the questions again, and check to see if you have answered all of them. If you are missing any, write a brief note to the professor saying that you ran out of time, and provide a quick outline of what you would have included. Hey — you might pick up a point or two.

7. Move on

When the exam’s over, congratulate yourself for having done your best, and then forget about it for the time being. If you are worried about the result, keep things in perspective: a poor mark on any exam will not stop the world from turning. 

When the exams have been corrected, get your exam back, or at least ask to see it. It might teach you something for next time.

If you have had serious or chronic problems with exams in the past, book an appointment with one of the learning specialists at 
Student Learning Services, part of Concordia’s Student Success Centre. They’ll be able to provide you with individualized support.

Feeling stressed? Turn anxiety into action with these 9 simple strategies.

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