The MLS Student Handbook

Taking Exams


There should be little doubt that exams play a critical role in the educational experience, whether graduate or undergraduate. Even though students generally believe that the same assessment function could be fulfilled through any number of less intrusive means, the fact remains that exams are still a uniform and convenient method of measuring the level of student preparedness and knowledge.

Every instructor is a little different when it comes to building and grading exams. It is perfectly appropriate for you to ask a course instructor about course exams and expectations. For some students, the learning curve may be very steep at the expense of a poor grade on the first and subsequent exams. This is coupled with the fact that many students experience some degree of apprehensiveness when completing exams. This is understandable. Perhaps it will help if you put exams in a more positive light: as opportunities to demonstrate what you have learned.

Preparing for the Exam

As you begin to prepare yourself for an exam (and for some of you it may be the first exam in a long time), you should keep several things in mind. An exam is best when it adequately measures student preparedness and knowledge. Thus, it would seem apparent that some questions will be designed to assess all different levels of student skill. Some questions will seem easy, and some will be much more difficult. In addition, the goal of the exam, contrary to the perception of many students, is not to take points away. The goal is to give points as a measure of knowledge.

Scores on a reasonable exam generally display a correlation between the effort of study/preparedness and the final score. Don't cheat. It is a form of lying, and perhaps the worst part is that you hurt yourself. To take an extreme example: how would you like to face an operating table, knowing that you cheated your way through medical school? The best way to maximize your exam score is to prepare more (and know more) than your peers. Suggestions for how to prepare for an exam:

  1. Read the assigned materials
    1. Take thorough notes
    2. Review your notes
  2. Be an active participant in the lectures (yes, even the videotaped ones)
    1. Take thorough notes
    2. Review your notes
  3. Engage in class discussion
  4. Complete all assignments in a timely manner

As a final step in preparing for the exam, you should consider the question format and context. Question formats that require more processing and less rote memorization would include essay, short answer, and other synthesis type questions. In synthesis type questions the goal is probably to assess the way that you organize your knowledge, so your study habits should reflect this abstract and high-level learning. You should understand the major points, many of the minor details, and most important, the big picture. If you know that your exam is going to be composed primarily of objective multiple choice, true-false, matching, or fill in the blank, you should engage in study habits that allow you to memorize specific facts rather than building the broadest possible understanding of the materials.

The context in which you take the exam is also critically important. In this digital age, exams that are taken via computer technology are becoming more commonplace. The contexts for an in-class exam and for an online exam are totally different, and require different strategies. For an in-class exam you would want to make sure you have the required tools necessary to complete the exam (pencil, paper, scan form, possibly notes and resources, etc). For an online exam, however, the tools necessary in order to complete an exam are likely to be different. The computer, the Internet connection, notes and resources (where allowed) all become issues. Given the relatively new nature of such test taking I recommend a consideration of the following points:

  1. Make sure that your computer and Internet connection is adequate and reliable
  2. Take the exam at a time that is going to have the least disruption
  3. Do not begin the exam until you are ready
  4. Avoid waiting until the last day or hour to begin the exam
  5. Know in advance what question format you'll be dealing with to decrease your apprehensiveness
  6. Keep a copy of what you submit online or through email in case it gets lost. Copy and paste your answers into a word processing document with a time and date stamp that can be verified through the computer's file system.

Taking the Exam

Immediately prior to taking an objective exam (true/false, multiple choice, matching) you should consider the following specific tips:

  1. Try to remember lists and objective facts by thorough review and study of the materials.
  2. Study for familiarity with the concept, recognition of the facts, not necessarily depth of knowledge unless the multiple choice questions are written at a level of synthesis (which is uncommon).


Taking the multiple choice exam is basically a choice among alternatives. This is a factor in your favor unless you a penalized for incorrect answers instead of rewarded for correct answers. If you have four choices to each question, then you theoretically have a 25% chance of getting the question right by random guessing. If you add this to the fact that it is common to put a "ringer" in as one of the options, your odds go up more. As you take the multiple choice exam remember the following:

  1. The most common answer choices are B and C for multiple choice questions.
  2. True is more common that false, and will commonly appear closer to the front of the exam.
  3. Be careful with answers of "none of the above", they are not the same conceptually as "all of the above", even though they are opposites.
  4. If "all of the above" exists in the answer list, and you can find one or two choices that do not seem to meet the criteria of the question then you can automatically rule it out.
  5. Typically, professors and test banks avoid patterns and they usually mix up similar answer choice questions.
  6. Rely on prior questions to help you answer later questions…if you know some of the choices were not correct in an earlier question then remember that for a later question. If you know that you answered a prior question correctly then use that knowledge to your advantage.
  7. For matching questions, if there is an inconsistency between the number of questions and the number of answers (more of these typically) don't rule out the last one until you have looked at all the options unless it is an obvious "ringer".

The essay and short answer exam requires study of a different nature. Essay questions are typically different from short answer questions in that much more is required in the former and they are typically have multiple parts. But, answering both the short answer and essay style question are similar in that they require the test taker to recall specific knowledge and show an advanced understanding (through theoretical challenge, analytical insight, or practical application). Essay and short answer questions attempt to expose what the student knows on a topic, rather than the student's agreement with a series of phrases or questions. They are considered "free-response" rather than "forced-choice" style questions. It is also important to keep in mind that when the instructor grades essay and short answer exams, several factors are at play:

  1. Most professors use a grading key to score the essay answer (and short answer also). The grading key often has specific points that need to be addressed in order to receive various amounts of credit on the question
  2. Most essay answers are not graded from an "absolute zero" perspective, meaning that if you at least try to answer the question it is likely that you'll receive some credit. Never try to "snow" the instructor as an alternative to writing the correct answer.
  3. There is subjective latitude in the answers that are acceptable. Given the fact that the answers are not in a precisely codable format (true, false, B, etc.) there will always be some level of interpretation on scoring the answers.

Essay and short answer questions can be best answered if you keep the following tips in mind:

  1. If the essay/short answer question is PRECISE and you KNOW THE ANSWER (and I mean know it), spend a minute to organize your thoughts and structure your answer, then make all the important points necessary.
  2. If the essay/short answer question ASKS FOR AN INTERPRETATION and you KNOW THE ANSWER then spend a few minutes to 'brainstorm' as much rationale as possible to support your position.
  3. If the essay/short answer question is PRECISE and you DO NOT KNOW THE ANSWER then you should attempt to think of as many different correct answers and write your essay demonstrating what you do know about the topic. Don't just write "I don't know" and move on, demonstrate what you do know on the topic even if it is not specifically what was asked for. The answer may come to you as you write. Do the answers that you know first.
  4. If the essay/short answer question ASKS FOR AN INTERPRETATION and you DO NOT KNOW THE ANSWER then you try to reason through the answer and try the best stab at it you can.
  5. Always take a minute at the beginning of the question to read and REREAD the question to make sure you understand it.
  6. Always take a minute or two to jot down some thoughts on the correct answer as opposed to just answering "on the go". You typically have better answers if you stop, think, plan, and organize your thoughts than if you do it through a "stream of consciousness".
  7. Organize your answers by numbering them if need be. Analyze each portion of a question separately, then together.
  8. Don't waste time on spelling and grammar if you are using a word processor, you can go back later and correct those problems.
  9. Pace yourself, and spend more time on the questions that are more difficult and worth more points.
  10. If you have time left over use it to clarify your answer by adding examples or by adding a personal anecdote. This will demonstrate that you have mastered the concept at the applied level rather than just the theoretical level. If the question is applied, then add some theoretical aspects to the answer to demonstrate your understanding.
  11. Set your answer apart from other test-takers with your superior analytical and application skills. Formatting makes a difference also. Make it sound good and make it look good.
  12. From another perspective, keep in mind that your answer should "tell a story". Every narrative (test answer) should have fidelity and integrity, meaning that it should be accurate and should make sense as well as answer the question fully. Tell the story as best you can to argue your point.
  13. Always support the positions you take with theoretical backing and/or sound reasoning.
  14. Always proofread your answers, leave yourself five minutes at the end to read what you wrote and correct grammar and spelling problems.

Feedback and Learning: Concluding the Exam Process

Exams are typically scored and some results are shared with the student. In online courses this is more difficult than if the professor just distributes the exam in class and picks it back up. But with some testing tools this is becoming easier for the online student. Double check every answer you missed whether it was objective or subjective. Make sure that it was scored correctly. If you seriously believe that you answered the question correctly, then contact your professor to seek an explanation of why you missed the question. Debrief your exam results and keep notes on special circumstances that were obvious so you can use them to score better on the next exam you take in the class and under that professor.

It is also helpful to go back and reflect on what you learned from the test materials. Real learning happens when people take the opportunity to self-reflect on what they learned not just from the process of testing, but from the process of study and review for the exam. This meta-learning experience is essential to understand the purpose of an examination.

Finally, don't be shy when it comes to preparing for the next exam from a particular professor. If the score you earned on the first exam is less than satisfactory, then take more time to study and review, and ask questions about the course materials and the testing procedure. If you don't feel that you are getting a sense for what is expected do not be afraid to pick up the phone and call the professor. Often the personal contact can make a difference in how things are explained and it will demonstrate your interest in doing a super job. Confirm that the exam format will be similar or if there are substantial differences requiring more study time. If the exam is handled online, make sure that the technological process will be the same as for the first exam. A change in question type from objective to subjective requires a major shift in how you should study for each exam type (as per the previous discussion). Taking a little more time in preparation can dramatically increase your score.



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