No professor or teacher seeks to trick you with an examination. We administer them so that you, the student, can demonstrate the concepts you have learned in the class and practice the skills you have cultivated. Here are a few strategies for you to consider as you prepare.

Envision

You probably would be wasting time to guess at the specific questions you will find on an examination. You can, however, find tremendous benefit by envisioning the kinds of questions you will be answering. To assist you, consider the architecture of the course and use your skills of deduction. 

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Course Architecture: In the humanities, professors often structure their courses and syllabi like one might arrange an essay. They typically will begin with general and theoretical introductions to the topic or orient the syllabus around a common theme or argument. The course readings and class meetings follow a logical sequence, connected to that central idea. Answer a few questions to help you envision what you might expect on an examination. 

  • Knowing a bit about course architecture, return to your syllabus; read it like you would a book’s table of contents. How does the course begin, and how does it end?
  • In particular, what does the syllabus enumerate as the course objectives?
  • Are there key words on the syllabus that the professor frequently mentioned in class meetings or in your readings?
  • As you review each of the major topics or units of study listed in the syllabus, consider each one individually. How does it connect to the central theme of the course?
  • Can you turn each topic listed on the syllabus into a question? 

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Deduction: Many students prepare for examinations by trying to remember every piece of information they have encountered in their texts, in lectures, and in their research. Without building a proper theoretical foundation, they pile mounds of data together in hopes of building an intellectually durable framework. Try the other way round. Focus on the major themes of the course, and use them to help you organize the many pieces of information you have encountered in your readings and in class. 

Practice

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Now that you have envisioned the examination, sit down and practice what you will be doing during the test. For an essay examination, for instance, try some of the following.

  • Draft an introductory paragraph for some of the possible questions you have identified.
  • Make an outline for answers to some of the possible questions.
  • Practice aloud with a friend or a classmate. Have someone ask you some of the possible questions, and try to answer them.
  • If you possess the inclination, try writing out complete answers to some of the possible questions.

General Principles for Examinations: Your Responses

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Translate the “question” into the form of a question, if necessary.

Professors often white exam “questions” not as interrogative sentences but as a general statement you should assess. Take the statement and turn it into a question. Organize your responses as an answer to the question.

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Translate a big question into smaller, subordinate questions.

Examinations often ask sweeping questions, requiring you to evaluate big ideas, large spans of time, or complicated and multifaceted concepts. Use your subordinate questions to help you organize the information you know and your response.

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Re-order the questions on the examination.

While sitting for the examination, don’t allow yourself to waste time pondering the answers to difficult questions. The professor’s ordering of the questions is often arbitrary. Re-order information, as necessary, to aid you in composing comprehensive answers to each question.

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Structure your responses to each question.

Cultivate a variety of formulae to help you organize your answers to free-response questions. The following guide represents three possibilities. 

Decreasing Importance

Begin with the most important information. Gradually taper your answer to the less important information. Many newspaper stories are organized this way. 

  • Pro: If you fear you will run out of time, this approach will help you focus your attention on the most important information. 
  • Con: This approach requires focus from you, as there is not necessarily an organic flow to the information you present. That is, you have to organize from scratch instead of relying on chronology, etc. 

Descriptive or Chronological

Move systematically from beginning to end. Demonstrate command of each idea in a balanced, organized way. 

  • Pro: Organization will come easier to you. You're relying on the natural progression of time—what happened, to whom, and when. 
  • Con: If you are unclear on some of the details, a descriptive approach may reveal that weakness. 

Compare and Contrast

Clearly identify the two ideas being compared and contrasted. Alternate between them in concise, organized paragraphs. 

  • Pro: You usually can focus on a few concepts or themes and use them as the common basis for comparing and contrasting. 
  • Con: You must know roughly equivalent information on each topic in order to maintain balance.

General Principles for Examinations: Procedural Issues 

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Manage your time.

Knowing how much time you have allotted for the entire examination, divide your time into smaller blocks for each portion. Begin with the easiest questions. 

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Read the examination’s instructions carefully.

After reviewing the instructions, underline key words or phrases to help you remain focused. Remember, professors often place important information in the instructions to help you during the exam.

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Focus on the central ideas.

Once you understand the questions being asked, in the margin, quickly write down key words and phrases that you know will figure into your answer. Use them to frame an outline for your responses, and check off each item once you complete that portion of your answer.

 

This document is based on exercises prepared by the Bureau of Study Counsel, Harvard University; the Learning Strategies Center, Cornell University; and the Academic Skills Center, Dartmouth College.