Heading into exam time can be stressful at the best of times. And studying might ease your anxiety – but not if you're worried you studied all the wrong things.
Thankfully, most exam questions aren't total head-scratchers, and you can use clues from your instructor and teaching assistant to figure out what to study. Try these easy tips to decode what might be on your test – and prepare to feel like a mind-reader during the exam.
1. Learn to Decode Cues from the Teacher
To get the best insight into what'll be on the test, look to the person who designs it: your teacher or professor. Some might may make it easy by giving you a study guide for the exam. But even if your instructor didn't, you can still take cues from their lessons to figure out what'll show up.
Look out for these tells.
Heard about calculating the number of electrons in orbitals about a billion times this semester? That's a surefire sign it'll be on the test. Similarly, if a concept or formula shows up in multiple lessons throughout the course, it's almost sure to be part of an exam question.
Info that wasn't in the textbook
The textbook might be a crucial part of any science class. But if your instructor adds their own information to their lectures, that info is likely to show up on a test. That's true for two reasons. One, it's important enough that your teacher decided to bring it up (even if the textbook didn't). And two, it rewards students who came to class and took great notes – which is always a bonus in the teacher's eyes.
Illustrative examples used in class
This one's related to the tip above: Examples are one area where profs often differ from the textbook. So pay attention to examples you could only get if you went to class, especially if the prof tells you it's an exception to a rule. These examples (or very similar ones) often show up on tests.
Lists of concepts
Any time your prof gives you a list of related concepts – for example, a list of five types of abiotic factors that affect ecosystems – you're looking at prime exam material. Zero in on lists during your study sessions, and create mnemonics to help you remember them.
2. Talk to the TA
If your course has a teaching assistant, use that to your advantage to figure out what's on the test. Teaching assistants generally don't write the tests and exams – so they won't actually know for sure which questions you'll be asked. But they will have taken your course (or one that's extremely similar) and have a good sense of the most important topics that are likely to show up on the exam.
When you're approaching the TA, take an indirect approach, since flat out asking "what's on the exam" likely won't get you a good answer. Instead, ask for help with a concept you're genuinely struggling with, then ask the TA if there are any other key concepts you should really make sure you understand. Their answer will identify which crucial points are most likely to be tested.
3. Track Down Past Exams
Unless you're taking a brand new course, chances are there are a few old exams floating around. So take a peek if you can get access to one. The questions may not be the same (in fact, they probably won't be) but you'll get a sense of the type of questions the instructor asks – and tailor your studying to those.
4. Focus on the Last Chapters (Most of the Time)
Most science and math courses are progressive, which means you'll use principles you learned at the beginning of the course to solve more complex problems at the end of it. That's a bonus for professors: If they test you on the more advanced concepts, they'll also be testing the fundamentals they taught early in the course. So make sure you focus on the most advanced lessons when you're studying. And if you have lessons that integrate multiple concepts (a "putting it all together" type of lesson) make sure you focus on that, too.
5. Attend Any Study Sessions
This one's obvious – but you'd be surprised how many students don't go! Heading to the study session (ideally, after you've done a fair bit of studying on your own) can confirm you're headed in the right direction. Or, it can ID any study areas where you're lacking – so you can fix that before your test.
About the Author
Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.