Research-Based Guidelines for Effective Exam Preparation

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Well it’s that time of year again for students – Exam season! I can see you all huddled in your study groups, wearing your PJs, and surrounded by carbs, coffee, and lots of sugar. Over the next few days you’re going to pack your short-term memory with crap that you’re going to forget just as quickly. Ain’t it fun?

As your resident TA I would like to offer a few pointers that I offer to all my students, which are sure to increase your chances of doing well on your exams. I want this to be a quick and easy-to-digest article, so I’m not going to bother citing my claims or referring to specific data. Just trust me, okay?

I’ve learned this stuff over the past ten years as I’ve stuffed my face full of empirical research articles. These “guidelines” continue to help me perform well and have also be helpful to many of the students, which I have TA’d over the years. That being said, some of these claims may be out-dated or updated by more recent studies. Regardless, I think you will be better off following these guidelines than not.

  1. Make sure that your anxiety levels are not spiking during the exam. If this means listening to music, going for a stroll in nature, watching a movie, whatever. Just make sure you don’t have a bunch of cortisol pumping through your veins during exam time. Students with high levels of stress and anxiety are more likely to blank out during exams than those who have moderate levels. This leads to the next point…
  2. Don’t get high for your exam or take meds to lower your stress levels to that of a sloth. Cognitive performance is best at moderate levels of emotional arousal (See Yerks-Dodson law).
  3. Remember that multiple-choice exams are mostly recognition tests (as opposed to comprehension or free-recall). If you’re cramming for a multiple choice (i.e., if you failed to pay attention all semester…tsk tsk) then don’t bother trying to understand the material. Instead, wait till the last possible minute (1-2 days before the exam) and then stuff as many packets of information as you can. This will increase your chances of successfully recognizing information during the exam. Of course, if you’ve been paying attention over the past 3-months you wouldn’t have to worry about this would you?!
  4. If your doing number 3, make sure to take breaks in between memorizing to avoid serial position effects (look it up, or just trust me).
  5. Use deep or elaborative encoding strategies (look them up – there are many).
  6. Get lots of sleep between studying. Nap even. Sleep consolidates information processed by the brain and helps with memory encoding.
  7. Drink lots of orange juice. Okay, there may not be much science to this one, but I do it and I like it. I find that glucose-filled drinks stimulate my cognitive functioning, which make it easier to focus.
  8. Avoid distractions. Your brain is awesome, but its performance is weakened when its attention is divided. Help your brain by eliminating distractions.
  9. When you’re writing your exam, write clearly. I hate it when I get a paper to mark that’s illegible. I can’t give you marks if I can’t read your writing!
  10. Read the exam questions carefully! So many students lose points here.
  11. If the question says “do 3 out of the 4 questions,” then only do three! TAs are often told to only mark the first three (or whatever number of questions were required). So even if you did better on the 4th one it might not be included in your total! That’s exam time, wasted.
  12. On short answer questions, don’t write a response that includes the right answer followed by a few lines that make it clear that you have no idea what you’re talking about. Stop after you write what you know, even if you don’t understand it. If you try to explain something you don’t understand, we’ll know.
  13. Don’t leave any multiple choice questions blank. You have a better chance of getting the question right if you guess then if you leave it blank. Also, if you’re uncertain, narrow down your options by striking out the answers that are clearly wrong. This leaves you with a higher probability of getting the answer right.

Okay that’s it for now. Happy studying!

Emad Talisman.
M.A. Candidate
Department of Psychology, Carleton University.


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