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Prepare The Right Way For Exams

Professors who give essay exams generally look for students to master broad concepts and relationships rather than memorize facts or details. Professors not only want to see that students know the material at hand, but also that they are able and willing to think about it, provide supporting details, identify and explain significance, etc. So, when you are preparing for an essay exam, study by looking for relationships between or among the information you've covered or read, identifying similarities and differences, learning and understanding definitions and key conceptual terms.

Generally, essay exam questions ask students to do this kind of work through the following kinds of questions:

Discuss/explain a point or concept and provide related information, with an explanation of why the information is relevant.

Discuss the significance: focus on how an event, discovery, etc. impacts other things.

Compare: point out and explain similarities.

Contrast: point out and explain differences.

Define: provide the meaning of something. Keep in mind to what class or category something belongs and how it is different from other objects in that class.

Examine: carefully look at a topic or issue by presenting information and by commenting upon the significance of that information.

Explain: present and clarify the main principles.

Illustrate or demonstrate: give specific and detailed examples of how some general concept applies.

List: present a concise itemized series of details, elements, facts, etc.

Argue for or against: provide evidence in support of your point of view.

Describe the sequence or process: give detailed explanation of steps, stages, or events that lead up to some event or that are part of a process.

Relate: identify and explain the relationship between things.

Evaluate: present a careful analysis of an idea or event, including pros and cons, benefits and consequences.

Interpret: provide your explanation of something, including your sense of its meaning and significance, and provide evidence to support the validity of your opinion.

Objective exams (multiple choice, short answer, fill in the blank)

  • Make sure to ask the professor what material he/she will cover on the exam, and also what format and what types of questions you can expect. Knowing, for example, that you will be responsible for definitions, solving problems, etc. will help you know how to study.
  • Use tests you've already taken and gotten back to help you study. Review the kinds of questions the professor asked on earlier objective tests to give you a clearer idea of what to expect and what to study. If, for example, you were asked definitions on your first test, you can guess that you'll be asked definitions on future tests. The same is true for dates, formulas, etc.
  • If you will have to use formulas, memorize them and work examples of the kinds of problems you will likely see on the test. Work the hard problems, too, so that you can go to your professor ahead of time and get help. You want to be able to do the problems well and quickly, since time may be a factor.