Skip to content

Biology Study Tips - Exam Time

Preparing for the Exam

When discussing note-taking, textbook-reading and managing study-time, we stressed the importance of asking and answering intelligent questions. This is a fundamental ability for deciding what is most important in your lecture notes, for reading the textbook selectively and for directing your studying. It is also the basis for all intellectual activity, including science, but there is another reason for approaching school this way: Exams are simply a collection of questions for which you need to provide the answers.

The time you spend asking questions may help you anticipate the actual questions, and your practice answering questions will help you correctly answer questions that you have not thought about before. The advantage of using the Cornell note-taking method, flashcards for terminology and a question-based approach to reading, is that the time spent studying contributes directly to preparing for the exams. They allow you to consolidate and reinforce each part of what you learn. As the exam approaches, you have the manageable task of pulling together the parts and smoothing out the details—quite different from the standard approach of trying to learn five weeks of material during the three days prior to the exam. Your questions and answers also permit you to quiz yourself. By covering the answers and reviewing the questions, you can evaluate your own understanding.

When you are certain of your knowledge, your job is done. You can spend time with your friends, sleep well, and walk into the exam confident and relaxed; at that point you are almost guaranteed of getting a good grade. Part of getting the job done is planning your work carefully. You have one week before the exam. Use the ideas discussed in the section on managing study-time to plan your preparation for this exam. Follow the steps below to determine how much time you can devote to this course, when you will devote the time and what you will do during that time.

  • Use a time-grid to record your time commitments between now and the exam. Include classes, meals, sleep, errands, social activity, job commitments and other exams you might have. How much time remains?
  • Now ask yourself the hard question: How much is this test worth to you? Fifteen hours? Twenty? Also consider the amount of time you will need to spend on other courses. How many hours will you spend on studying for this test?
  • Using the time grid, box-in the time periods you plan to spend preparing. It is better to spend 2-3 hours per day, instead of trying to do it in two marathon sessions. Also, do not schedule work for the day of the exam. You may need the day of the exam to handle last minute details. If you don't, you can use the time to relax.
  • List the things you need to do to prepare for the exam. Estimate the time each will take, and rank them according to priority. Can everything be accomplished in the time allocated? If not, you need to revise something.
  • Schedule your work into the time allocated. There are two reasons for making this schedule. The first is that it will help you stay on track. The second is that it will enable you to compare your time estimates with the actual time required for each task. Some tasks are completed more quickly than expected and others take much longer. Developing your ability to predict the time demands of studying allows you to manage your time more effectively, with the result that you will do well in school and still have time for the rest of your life.

A final comment on preparing for exams may be appropriate. Exam questions are typically aimed at different levels of understanding. Some questions test your knowledge of basic structures and definitions; others are concerned with relationships and roles in living processes. Much of your time will need to be spent learning terminology, but you should also spend time synthesizing information.

  • Can you explain the significance of the second law of thermodynamics to metabolism, diffusion and community structure ?
  • Can you distinguish the architecture of the biologically-important molecules, and are you aware of the roles they play?
  • Can you explain the importance of activation energy barriers to chemical reactions?
  • Can you describe the overall processes of cellular respiration?

There is interplay between the details and the big picture. You need terminology to give definition and clarity to the ideas, but the ideas provide a framework that holds the details and terms together. Cramming is an effective way to temporarily learn low-level information, but only if you already have the framework for accommodating the information.  

Taking the Exam

You enter the exam room and sit down. The instructor passes out copies of the test booklet and a fill-in-the-dot answer sheet. They tell you to begin. What do you do first? You have two hours to complete the exam, so in one sense, time is not a problem. However, you should think about how you manage your time in order to take full advantage of your intelligence and the effort you've invested in studying, and to minimize the distractions that might interfere with your concentration.

Consider the following suggestions.

  • Begin with the answer sheet and fill-in the appropriate dots to encode your name and student ID number. Then place the answer sheet on the seat next to you. Do all your work in the test booklet, and when you're finished, transcribe your answers to the answer sheet. This approach allows you to work on the test without breaking your concentration to fill-in the dots. Your time is spent more efficiently, you are less likely to fill-in the wrong dot and you won't have to erase dots if you change your mind about an answer part way through the exam.
  • Survey the exam before you begin working. What do the directions say? Read them carefully! How many points is each question worth? How many questions are there? How many pages? Is your copy of the exam complete? Also, briefly check to see if there are questions which touch on your major strengths or weaknesses. If you spent time just before the exam memorizing the structure of an eukaryotic cell, then you may want to answer the questions on this subject first. On the other hand, if you haven't really studied this material, you may want to wait and answer these questions last. Having a feel for how the exam is put together will allow you to pace yourself as you work.
  • As you come to each question, read it carefully. Ask yourself what you need to do to answer the question. Read the possible answers. If you can identify the best answer (i.e., the correct answer) circle the corresponding letter. If you can't identify the correct answer, but you can eliminate ones that are not correct, draw a slash through the letters which correspond to them.  Sometimes it is helpful to re-read the question, substituting the various answers. This may form an association that would not be obvious just reading the list of answers.
  • Do not dwell on a single question. If the answer is not obvious, move on and come back to it later. There are four advantages to this.
    • 1) You do not waste time on a question you may not be able to answer.
    • 2) You do not get frustrated.
    • 3) You might find some information in a later part of the test which will help you identify the correct answer.
    • 4) You can use your brain effectively. This last point deserves elaboration. Consider the two parts of your brain, your conscious and your subconscious. Your conscious brain is good at concentrating on one or two things, but is lousy at dealing with many things. In contrast, you have limited control over your subconscious, but it is great at handling many things simultaneously. Furthermore, your subconscious is good at retrieving information from memory that your conscious brain can't seem to grasp. If you read a question that you can't answer, and then think critically about what you need to answer the question, you can leave that question with your subconscious while your conscious brain moves on to the next question. When you return to the question, say forty-five minutes later, you will have the benefit of forty-five minutes of subconscious thinking-time. If you do this with a quarter of the questions you are, in effect, spending several hours of thought-time to complete the exam. Of course, if you haven't studied, your subconscious can't help, but if you have studied, you can use your intelligence to do your best on the exam.
  • Feel free to mark on the exam booklet. Mark correct answers, eliminate incorrect ones, check off questions that you've answered or flag questions you need to come back to, and jot down any thoughts that may help when you return to the question. These marks record the progress you've made in thinking about the answer to a question. However, do not make any marks that might be interpreted as helping someone cheat who may be sitting near you. If you are caught, action will be taken.
  • Ask questions of the proctors if you need clarification of an exam question. Proctors are not permitted to divulge the answers to the exam questions or provide lengthy explanations, but they can be very helpful if you phrase your question so that they can answer yes or no. Instead of asking "What does this mean?" ask "Does this mean such-and-such?" They can then provide a one-word answer which indicates whether you are on the right track. Also, if the answer provided by one proctor seems unsatisfactory, wait until that person is busy and ask someone else.
  • As you finish the exam, be sure that all questions are answered. If there are some questions that you can't answer, then guess. There is no penalty. If you have time, check your answers. There is a student myth that you should never change your answers. Do not change your answers if you did not study adequately, or are freaking out about the exam. However, if you did your work, you feel calm and you have a reason for changing your answer, then do it. It is probably your subconscious providing some insight that you did not think about before.
  • Pick up your answer sheet and devote your full attention to accurately recording your answers. When finished, turn in your exam and go do something fun. Congratulations! It's over!

Maintaining your Mind and Body

Part of preparing for an exam is getting psyched-up without getting psyched-out. You want to walk into the exam room confident, but calm. In addition to studying biology, you should be aware of your personal biology. To function at its best, your body needs adequate sleep and nourishment. You may need to spend some late hours studying, but be sure that you walk into the exam rested and well fed. If you're going to stay up all night cramming, do it two nights before the exam, not the night before. Take care of your mind too! If you find yourself getting nervous, use a relaxation technique such as deep breathing or muscle relaxation to calm yourself. Also, think about how you like to spend the last few hours before an exam. Some people prefer to study right up until the time of the exam; others won't touch the course material on the day of the exam. What works best for you? Finally, envision yourself taking the test successfully. Many athletes envision themselves succeeding as part of their mental preparation. Try to anticipate what will happen on the night of the exam, and what you will need to do to make the exam a success. In this respect, it may be helpful to visit the exam room before the exam to get a mental image of what the room is like and where it is located. An additional step might be to practice taking an exam in that room (a copy of a previous exam will be made available to you). The point is to think positively and do your best.