Define the Challenge

Some of the anxiety associated with test-taking comes from fear of the unknown. Since you cannot know in advance what questions will be asked on an exam, it's easy to be overwhelmed by the possibilities. Actual knowledge about an upcoming test can help to counter nervousness.  You can assemble a surprising amount of information about how your tests will probably unfold that will help you focus your studies.

Define the Exam

You have several avenues available to help you to find out pertinent information about upcoming tests. Actively use the subject syllabus and website and the notes that you take in class to figure out what will be covered on your tests (consult available Resources). Don’t hesitate to ask Professors, Recitation Instructors, Teaching Assistants, and others, any and all of the following questions about upcoming tests: 

  • How much time will you be given to take the exam?
  • Can you bring a calculator or formula sheet? Notes?
  • Will it be open book?
  • What will the format of the test be? Will it be multiple choice, short answer, essay, problems, or a combination of these? If combination, what is the breakdown (for example, 40% short answer, 60% essay)?
  • What percentage of your final grade is this exam worth? Do not dwell on this, but use it to gauge the amount of effort you plan to put into preparation. Should you spend 20+ hours preparing for a test worth 15% of your grade, at the expense of two other exams worth 30% each? 
  • What will the exam cover? Textbook or online readings? Lecture content? Handouts?
  • Will this test cover one unit (material taught since the last test) or is it cumulative (everything taught in the subject so far)?

Use the Resources You Have

While an instructor will probably not provide an exam outline, you do have the next best thing—the subject syllabus and websites.

  • It's a good idea to mark up the syllabus to show when each topic will be tested. Use different color highlighters or another system that works for you.
  • The subject website will offer several tools for review, including: lecture notes and slides, grading schemes, bibliographies, study hints, and possibily recorded lectures as well.
  • Check OpenCourseWare for similar resources from past versions of the subject.
  • As you study, you will likely have questions, so organize your thoughts and approach the instructor or TA during office hours. Instructors do not want students to be frustrated by their exams and will usually answer any reasonable question about a test. Questions about the coursework and exams show that you care about the subject and your progress, and also that you are thinking ahead. 

Remember that an instructor might have different expectations for each test, especially for the midterm and final exam. Never assume that subsequent tests will be administered in the same fashion as the first.