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Preparing for and taking a problem solving exam

Succeeding on your exam requires efficient prepation in advance and effective techniques while taking your exam.

Preparing for your exam

Get the big picture to manage your prep time

Go over your course outline, chapter topics, and class notes: make a list of the main topics or concepts in the course. 

  • Review topic by topic; using the semester planner, plan your studies to make sure that you can cover every topic before the exam.
  • Prepare summary sheets for each topic: list concepts, different procedures based on each concept,  procedure steps, exceptions, tricky bits, etc.
  • Test yourself on these summary sheets: explain procedures in words, recall formulas, exceptions, etc.

Practice doing problems under exam conditions

  • Do lots and lots of problems without using your notes or textbooks.
  • If you get stuck, work out what you didn’t know and do more of the same type of problem.
  • Photocopy problems from all the chapters you are responsible for in your text, cut them up and put them in a box; then pull problems to do randomly without notes
  • Do old exams, if you can get them, without accessing your notes and with a time limit. If not, ask your classmates to design exam questions.
  • Solve questions that your classmates have designed (and you have not seen) to simulate an exam situation.

Connect concepts and procedures

Most of us have strong visual memories that kick in when you get stuck under the pressure of an exam. Make hierarchies, flow charts or other types of visual aids to help you retain the information better.

Form a study group with others in your course

Studying with others helps you see problems and information from different perspectives and deepens your understanding of your course. 

  • Explain to each other how to do difficult problems.
  • Predict/design exam questions on the most important concepts.

Effective techniques while taking your exam

Getting started

  • Go prepared with all the equipment you will need: calculator with an approved sticker with ENCS, student ID card, etc.
  • Do a "memory dump" as soon as the exam starts: write down anything you're afraid you will forget.
  • Read directions carefully.
  • Look through the whole exam quickly: mark questions that you know how to do; while your mind is fresh, write down any formulas or information you will need to do any of the problems.
  • Budget your time for each question depending on how much it is worth; e.g. spend 10% of your time on a question worth 10% of the marks.
  • Start with the questions that seem easiest to you. 

Solving problems

These steps will help you find solutions, or get partial points even if you don't arrive at the correct answer. 

  • Read each question carefully; underline key words.
  • Write down what you're given and what you have to find (note the unit); draw a table or diagram if possible.
  • Use lots of space and write big (so you won't miss those negative signs); always show all your work.
  • Respect your time plan; if you run out of time before you finish a question you know how to do, write in point form what you would do if you did have time to finish.
  • If you discover a mistake after you have finished a question, don't erase or cross out the problem. Indicate where the error is and leave it. Also, if possible, note how it would change the rest of your solution. You may have time at the end to redo the problem.
  • Check your answers whenever you can; check units; check that your answer is logically possible. 

Controlling your anxiety

  • Keep your mind focused on positive thoughts: e.g. you can do it, you'll go for part marks on a difficult question, etc.
  • Use deep breathing to keep your anxiety in control at the beginning and throughout the exam.
  • Think about writing exams as a chance to show the professor what you know.
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