Exam and test preparation

Differences between tests and exams

Tests are usually smaller in scale than exams:

  • They usually take place during a 1 or 2 hour lecture period, rather than 3 hour exam slot
  • They are usually worth a small amount of marks by comparison with exams (which often constitute 40-50% of course marks)
  • The scope of tests is usually more limited than that of exams, in terms of the range of subjects and types of questions involved.

However, tests involve the same basic principles of study and preparation as exams, and are best treated as practice/warm-ups for examinations.

Some basic points to emphasise in test preparation:

  • Attend lectures and tutorials. Lecturers often give information about the test in lectures, and tutors often build up to tests by doing revision and practice questions in tutorials. Some subject areas may offer study workshops to help with test and exam preparation also. If you have questions about the nature and content of the test - make sure you ask these to your lecturers and tutors in advance.
  • Try and determine the format of the test beforehand, e.g. multichoice, short answer, essay.
  • Make sure you know how the test is being delivered. Many papers now ask students to sit their tests online through Moodle, often without physically being on campus. If you are doing online tests (especially from home) try and make sure beforehand that you will not be interrupted by distractions, and that all of the necessary technology is working in advance.
  • Old test papers are generally unavailable, unlike old exam papers (available through iWaikato). However, there may be practice examples of questions available via tutorials, lectures, course outlines, Moodle, etc.

Start preparing for test/exams earlier rather than later

  • If you know the scope (see below) of a test or exam well ahead of time you can better judge what is essential material and what is supplementary, as a paper proceeds. You also know what to expect in a test / exam.
  • If you have thought about future tests and exams then you are better attuned to hints and information from lecturers and tutors about what is going to be in them. Most teaching staff want you to succeed. (Note: tests are set days / weeks before they are sat; exams are set months before they are sat. Warnings are often given, in lectures or tutorials, about changes to format: attendance to these is therefore essential).
  • Early in a paper and throughout the paper: read Paper Handouts; ask tutors / lecturers; find old exam papers in the library, and discover the scope in terms of:

Time: One hour (which may be really only 45 - 50 minutes)? Or two hours? Or three hours?

Type: Multi-choice? Short Answer? Short Paragraphs? Essays? Examples to be worked? Any oral component? A mixture of many types?

Special Features: Open Book (which may mean a page of notes)? Questions given out before the day? What may / may not be taken in (eg calculators)?

Old exam papers

Most undergraduate papers have exam papers from previous years available for students to use as study aids through iWaikato. Log in and search for ‘Exam paper collection’, and then enter the number of the paper you are doing.

It’s a good idea to get at least the last three years of exam papers (if available) and examine them in depth for the following:

Types of questions

  • Multi-choice
  • Short answer
  • Short paragraphs
  • Essays
  • Problem-solving scenarios
  • Equations/calculations

Presentation of questions

  • Are there any compulsory questions?
  • How much choice is there?
  • Does it seem that some topics are always included?
  • Do some topics seem to appear in alternate years?
  • What sort of instruction words appear frequently (eg calculate, discuss, exemplify, evaluate, to what extent, work out)?

Structure of exam papers

  • How many sections is a typical exam paper divided into?
  • Are there any suggestions given for how much time you should spend on each section?

It’s also an excellent idea to prepare for the exam by trying to practice doing one of the exam papers yourself. For example, setting aside a 3 hour slot and seeing how much of the exam you can get done in that time (not worrying about whether the answers are right!)

Revising paper content

Gather together all material relevant to your paper:

  • The text or readings
  • Handouts
  • Lecture notes
  • Notes made from texts and other readings
  • Notes made during tutorials
  • Old exam papers
  • Anything else that is relevant

Read it all through and make brief notes on each topic. Use whatever note-taking form suits you, e.g.:

  • Mind-maps and other visual techniques
  • Write summaries in sentence form
  • Listing items under headings
  • A mixture of all of these

Your study notes should include the following:

  • Definitions
  • Key facts
  • Names of key people (e.g. theorists)
  • Important opinions
  • Areas under current discussion (and perhaps disagreement)
  • Good examples or case studies to illustrate important ideas
  • Links to other areas of knowledge
  • Sketches of maps, diagrams, graphs