Exam Study Tips

Goodbye, BC Provincials! Yes!

Phew! The BC Ministry of Education has decided to axe nearly all secondary school provincial exams (for the time being anyway–Ministry of Ed decisions are known to change quite frequently–if you doubt me, see below for an example of changes over the years). So no more “provincial exams” except for the grade 12 English courses, English 12, English 12 First Peoples, Communications 12, and the French language equivalents: Français langue première 12, Français langue seconde immersion, and 12 Évaluation de numératie.

I Don’t Need to Learn to Study for Big Exams Anymore–Right?

Awesome! Students don’t really need to learn to study for big exams anymore, right? Well, don’t get so excited just yet. To start with, those grade 12 English and/or French exams are often really important for getting into your college or university of choice. Then there are still teachers who design classroom exams that are similar in format to provincial exams and are just as difficult, if not more so. And without exam practice at the secondary school level (or homeschooling without exams, if that is your educational path), you may find yourself in shock when you face mid-terms and final exams in post-secondary educational institutions.

A Bit of History

When I was a secondary school student, I never wrote a provincial final exam, as I’d always received “recommends” due to sufficiently high marks in my classroom work (See? the rules keep changing). So I blithely signed up to write the “Provincial Scholarship Exams” that happened to be introduced in my grade 12 year. I chose History 12 and English Literature 12. And yes, I did get sufficiently high marks (just barely) to get the $200 scholarship money (which could be spent any way I wished–I bought my first car, a sweet little 1964 Valiant, which carried me to and from college classes very nicely). But I’d have received much higher marks if only I’d known how to study for those kinds of exams. And then my post-secondary exams (and marks) were even scarier–until I finally buckled down and learned the tips and tricks of the exam trade.  I sure wished I had learned them (and practised them) sooner.

So … Herewith Some Exam Study Tips…

Practice Exams:

If your teacher (and/or the Ministry of Ed) provides you with “practice exams,” you’ll want to take advantage of them. They will give you a really good sense of what to expect in the real exams, and point you in the direction of things you need to know (yes, course content, but also exam formats, tricky type questions, and more). So, with your practice exam in hand:

  • Go through the exam, and do all the questions, then mark the exam, using the marking system provided.
  • Go back and re-do the questions you got wrong the first time. Mark your 2nd effort.
  • If you still got some questions wrong the 2nd time, ask your math tutor or teacher for help, as well as studying the appropriate section in your textbook and doing lots of practice questions.
  • But if you got those difficult questions right the 2nd time, analyze what you did differently. Why did you get it wrong the first time and right the second time? For example:
    • Did you read it incorrectly?
    • Did you read it too fast?
    • Did you get the answer right in your “figuring” but then mark the incorrect multiple choice answer?
    • Did you remember how to do it the 2nd time, but didn’t remember the 1st time? What happened between times to help you remember? Or it might mean you DO know the process, but you need to practice it more so it is really memorized and automatic.
    • Watch for patterns–do you often just hurry too much? Slow down! Or?
  • Keep in mind, for the actual exam, what caused you problems with the practice exam, so you don’t make the same kinds of mistakes.

Now It’s Time to Study for the Exam (And Practice Again!):

  • Spread your study time over at least 4 or 5 days, rather than “cramming” at the last minute. The night before the exam, relax, get a good night’s sleep, and have a good breakfast. If you really feel you must do some studying the night before, just skim over your practice test answers one last time and/or the topics you have most difficulty with.
  • First focus on the questions you got wrong both times; get help, and practice, practice, practice.
  • Then focus on the questions you got wrong only the first time, and practice them too.
  • Some practice exams follow up with a separate section in which sample answers are given for the paragraph or essay questions in the practice exam, along with marks and the reasons for the marks. Study these carefully, and compare them with the answer you gave on the practice test. Figure out how you can follow the example of the “good” sample answers to improve your own written answers–and rewrite your answer(s) until you feel that your answer would get a good mark.
  • Go through your class notes, assignments, and the tests you took during the term. Look for and do extra study on:
    • topics you had trouble with in assignments or class tests
    • topics that are in the textbook or in the course outline but your teacher didn’t cover (or just skimmed over) in class–if they are in the course outline, they can be on the exam
    • the kinds of question formats you had most difficulty with: multiple choice? essay questions? “show your work” questions? Practice, practice, practice.
    • If you have difficulty with sentence, paragraph or essay writing questions, ask your teacher or another qualified person to read your “practice” answers and suggest ways you can improve your writing ability. Look back at old written assignments and written test questions, read the teacher’s comments carefully, and learn from them.
  • When you feel you have your “problems” figured out, take another practice exam. If not available, create your own practice exam, using the same format. In fact, this is often a superior method, as you are reviewing the material while creating the exam (and you’ll find out that creating a good exam is a tough job).
    • If there are still areas you’re having problems with, focus on those areas again.
    • Use the practice exam to get used to the format and timing.  If you finish well ahead of the provided exam time and yet made quite a few mistakes, maybe you are in too much of a hurry. Slow down; read each question twice to be sure you understand it before answering it.
  • For exams that are designed by the classroom teacher (or by the professor in college or university), keep on the lookout during class time and in handouts for “hints” about what the teacher might be wanting. It is important to read and listen to understand the kind of information the teacher gives, because often these things will turn up in the exam questions in some way.  For example, your teacher might give a handout with many terms, definitions, and examples–or refer to these kinds of things mentioned  frequently in class. Keep track of them, then test yourself on them as you study. There’s a good chance that these are things your teacher considers very important and will put on the exam.

During the Exam:

  •  If you aren’t sure of an answer, you can leave it blank, and go on to answer other questions; then, when you are done, go back to the questions you skipped. Often, doing the other questions will remind you of how to do the “skipped” questions. (Occasionally, you will be told you must answer every question; in this case, put in an answer, but if you have time later, go back and double-check the ones you were doubtful about).
  • Read all the questions carefully before answering: read once and answer in your head, then read a second time. Do you agree with your first answer? If so, write it down. If not, read a third time–then answer with the best answer you can give.
  • Don’t rush. Read every question carefully–and in multiple-choice type questions, read all the choices, so you won’t be tricked by an “almost right” answer. It’s better to answer the majority of the questions correctly and not quite finish the exam, than to rush through and get a lot of answers wrong.
  • Be careful with multiple-choice questions. You are looking for the “one right answer.” There may be several “almost” or “partly” right answers–but find the right one. Also watch out for “trick questions” that use “double negatives” or other methods to throw you off. Read the opening statement of the question twice to make sure you know what it is asking.
  • If you complete the exam and still have time left, go over all the questions again, to make sure you read each one correctly, and recorded the correct answer (look out for “silly mistakes” and “typos”).
  • If you had to “guess” at an answer, and still aren’t sure about it after re-reading it, it is usually best to leave your “first guess” as the answer.
  • Especially for exams like English or Social Studies, where there are essay questions as well as multiple choice questions, it is wise to skim through the test first, and note how much each section is worth; then make yourself a little “schedule.” If you are taking too long on one section, set it aside and do the other sections that have higher mark value; then if you have time, go back and finish the section on which you were taking too long.
  • But this “scheduling” also applies to math and other subjects.  Planning ahead only takes 5 to 10 minutes and can make a big difference in your results.
  • When you are skimming through before you start the exam, look for sections for which you are sure you know the answers, and make sure you answer them. Save for later the “tough” sections which you’re not sure about.
  • For questions you are not clear on, you may actually be having trouble understanding the question format, more than not knowing the answer. Break down the questions into all their parts; learn to examine the questions carefully and answer all parts of them.
  • A hint for essay (or even paragraph) questions: first, read the question very, very carefully–2 or 3 times. Then make yourself a good outline before writing your answer. Use arrows to show how different points are connected to each other. Then stick to the outline as you write. If you run out of time, you can put a little note at the end, referring the marking person to your outline; from what you have already written, they will know your writing style, organizational ability, and other writing skills, and they can quickly see, based on the outline, your knowledge of the topic and where you are going with the essay.
  • If you still have time once you have finished the exam and have checked your answers for accuracy of information, re-read your sentence, paragraph, and essay questions and correct spelling and other grammar issues. This can make a difference in your mark, especially in English exams. If some words are “scrawled” and difficult to read, cross them out and rewrite them neatly–all markers will be pleased.
  • Note that you do not have to have perfect grammar in written answers, but you do need to write in a “clear” and concise manner that answers the question accurately. If you are to give an opinion or perspective, make sure you back it up with good reasons. And don’t repeat yourself over and over, just trying to fill up space. A relatively short answer that is clear is much better than a rambling answer.
  • Even if you feel that “writing” is your strong suit and you’d rather start with the long-answer questions, doing the multiple choice type questions first (or at the least, skimming through them) can give you some good hints on ways to answer written questions.

What other exam study tips would you add?

Please share them in the comments! Thank you!

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