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Types of Exams

Types of Exams

Different Exam Types

There are many different types of exams, ranging from multiple choice, short answer, in-class essay style, take-home essay-style, problem-solving and calculations, to any mix of the above! No matter what kind of exam you're facing, your best strategy is always to thoroughly understand the course material. Then, review and study with the type of exam in mind, if you can, and practice applying your knowledge through self-testing in the same format. Check out some study strategies below for different exam types.

Studying for a Multiple Choice Exam

  • Review the course syllabus and compile all the relevant materials together.
  • Identify and understand key concepts and themes, how they connect, and how to apply them.
  • Generate possible exam questions yourself. Look at previous tests/assignments to get an idea of the question format as well as the depth of details.
  • Test yourself frequently as you study, and in the same format as the exam (e.g., time limit, with or without review).
  • Practice questions/problems in a random order, instead of everything from one chapter at a time. Questions may also be presented this way on your exam.

Types of Multiple-Choice Questions

Question TypeWhat is it Testing?How to Study?
Recognition/ RecallKnowledge from lectures and text.Test yourself by recalling information without looking at your notes or by teaching concepts to another person.
ComprehensionHow concepts are related to each other, compare or contrast information.Elaborate and draw connections between concepts and evidence.
Elaboration and ApplicationYour understanding of the relationship between a theory and its evidence and applying this understanding to a hypothetical situation or case study.Practice solving problems, creating your own examples, elaborating and thinking creatively.

Writing a Multiple Choice Exam

Getting started

  • Enter your information (name, student ID, etc.) before answering the questions.
  • Read the instructions carefully and read each question at least TWICE.
  • For Scantron exams, try marking your answer on both the exam booklet and the Scantron as you go so you can refer back to the exam paper if you find a mistake on your Scantron.

Managing your time during the exam

  • Divide the time accordingly for each question (e.g., If you have 75 MC questions and 90 minutes to complete, ideally you would want to spend 1 minute for each question and the last 15 minutes to review your work).
  • Leave at least 15 minutes at the end for review – set an alarm if you can or keep an eye on the clock.
  • Don't stay too long on one question. If the exam format allows you to go back, work on the easiest questions first and mark the difficult ones clearly so you can come back to them at the end. When you can’t go back and forth between questions, pick a response and move on.

Strategies for Identifying the Answer

Understanding the question

  • Look for all key terms and information in the question; underline them if you can.
  • Make sure you clearly understand what the question is asking you to do.
  • Eliminate the incorrect options first so they don’t distract you; cross them out if you can.
  • Translate any double negatives question (e.g., Which of these is NOT a FALSE statement?)

“Cover-Up” Strategy

“Modified Cover-Up” Strategy

When you don’t know the answer: making an educated guess

  • Avoid extreme values – few things are ‘always’ or ‘never’ true. Instead, chose moderate statements (‘a few’, ‘often’) or numbers in the middle of the range.
  • Select ‘all of the above’ if you think at least one of the options is true and ‘none of the above’ if none of the options look familiar or plausible.
  • Check for look-alike options or opposite options; one of them is usually the answer.
  • Options which seem foolish or completely unfamiliar are likely incorrect.
  • Go with your gut instinct if you really have no idea, move on to the next question, and let it go.

Study Guidelines

  • Short answer exams usually expect details.  Cue cards and study notes work best for this type of format.
  • Don’t ignore the big picture themes and concepts as this information will help you to organize, remember and recall the information.

Writing the Exam

  • Read the instructions carefully.  Do you need to answer all the questions or do you have a choice? 
  • Read through the entire exam and budget your time based on the marks allocated to each question.  As you read each question underline the key or ‘instruction’ words.
  • Start with the easiest question.  This will help you relax and think clearly.
  • Print neatly and legibly and on every other line.  This will help if you need to add information later. 
  • Make sure to follow the format requested by the prof.  If you can write point form make sure you give enough information so that the marker will understand your answer (not just one word answers).  If you must write in sentence/paragraph format don’t write too much – this isn’t an essay exam.  You answers don’t need to be literary and include flowery language (leave your metaphors at home).  Keep your answer on topic and to the point.
  • Don’t be afraid to use diagrams, flow charts or graphs to help express your answer.  However, unless expressly instructed otherwise, always accompany these with an explanatory sentence or two to make sure the marker fully understands the ideas you are relating.
  • Leave time at the end to read through your exam.  Correct any errors and misplaced words which could hamper comprehension of your answer.

Study Guidelines

  •  Focus on studying from the top down.  Understand bigger concepts or themes first and then work to fill in the details and evidence. 
  • Understand how concepts and ideas are related.  What is similar, different, and incompatible?  Do some revolve around a central assumption or theme?
  • Generate possible exam questions and then answer them in writing.  Check the syllabus to see what the central themes or goals of the course are.  Your essay question will likely have something to do with these.  Also focus on ideas or areas that were given particular emphasis or attention in lecture.
  •  Use mind maps or graphic organizers to visually organize the material.
  • Start studying early so you can let the information ‘percolate’.

Writing the Exam

  •  Read the instructions carefully. Must you answer all the questions or do you have a choice? 
  • Read through the entire exam and budget your time based on the marks allocated to each question.  As you read the instructions to the question underline the key words or ‘instruction’ words (refer to the handout).
  • Jot cues alongside each question as you read through them, including key words or a quick phrase that immediately comes to mind. 
  • Start with the easiest question.  This will help you relax and think clearly.
  • Make a summary or outline before you start writing.  Write it where the marker will see it (if you are using exam booklets write it there, not on the back of the exam paper).  This will give the marker an idea of your thought process and if you run out of time they may use your outline to award you part marks. 
  • Print neatly and legibly and on every other line.  This will help if you need to add information later. 
  • Leave time at the end to read through your exam.  Correct any glaring errors or misplaced ideas or words which would hamper comprehension of your answer and potentially lose you marks.

Study Guidelines

  •  Review your formulas.  Know how they relate to each other and how to incorporate information from one formula to help you solve another.  Also understand what you are finding (not just the variables).  Prof’s are testing that you understand the material, not just that you can plug numbers into a formula.
  • Don’t ignore the big picture themes and concepts as this information will help you to organize, remember and recall the information.
  • Do practice problems, especially ones that your prof’s recommend.  Old exams are also a great place to check for possible exam questions.
  • If you are allowed to bring a formula sheet into the exam make sure it is well organized and easy to follow.  Use highlighters or different colour ink to make it easier to refer to while you’re writing your exam.  You don’t want to waste time searching through your formula sheet.
  • Practice working on problems quickly using time drills.  Three hours can go by faster than you think.
  • Make sure you have everything you need for the exam prepared the night before.  Calculator (make sure it’s approved), pencils, erasers, formula sheets, student card, etc. are all things you do not want to realize you left at home when you go to write your exam!

Writing the Exam

  • Read the instructions carefully.  Do you need to answer all the questions or do you have a choice? 
  • Dump any information you are afraid you might forget.  Write down formulas, processes, etc. on the back of the exam paper.  This will help to reduce your anxiety as you won’t be in danger of blanking on the material half way through the exam.
  • Read through the entire exam and budget your time based on the marks allocated to each question.  As you read each question underline the key or ‘instruction’ words. 
  • Start with the easiest question.  This will help you relax and think clearly.  As well, this will guarantee marks in case you start running out of time.
  • Translate problems into English (instead of variables and ratios) and take time to read through them carefully.  What are you expected to find?  What variables have you been given?  Are you expected to find the answer using a particular formula or process?
  • Write down what you know from the problem.  This may help you see which variables you’ve been given and therefore which formula to use.
  • Make a picture.  Visual representations can help unblock your mind and may get you part marks.
  • Make sure you used the proper form and clearly denoted the answer for the marker (they are less inclined to be generous with marks if you turn your paper into the Where’s Waldo of answers).  Underlining or putting a box around your final answer is a trick many students use to make their exam paper easier to follow for the marker.
  • If you get stuck on a question mark it, move on, and come back to it at the end.  Wasting time on a question you don’t have any idea how to solve only limits the amount of time you have to dedicate to questions you are prepared to answer. 
  • Check your work!  You don’t want to lose marks for not carrying a 1!  Start by estimating the answer.  Does the answer you arrived at make sense? Is it possible?  Systematically check the process you followed and the arithmetic (performing opposite operations works well).  Avoid the temptation to change an answer in the last few minutes unless you are SURE that the answer is wrong.  In the last-minute rush it is easier to get the wrong answer.  If you redo a solution do not erase the original answer – just draw a line through it.

Additional Resources

ResourceDecsription
Exam PrepLearning Skills Workshop