Student Success Resources

Test Preparation Techniques: Leading up to the Test

Pre-Test Strategies

When should you start preparing for the first test? Choose one of the following answers:

  1. The night before
  2. The week prior
  3. The first day of classes

If you answered “3. The first day of classes,” you are correct. If you circled all three, you are also correct. Preparing to pass tests is something that begins when learning begins and continues all the way through to the final exam.

Many students, however, don’t start thinking about test taking, whether weekly exams, mid-terms, or finals, until the day before when they engage in an all-nighter. This is an inefficient way to study. Not only is it not enough time to learn a whole unit or chapter, but the brain can only process an average of 5-7 new pieces of information at a time. Additionally, unless memory devices are used to aid memory and to cement information into long term memory (or at least until the test is over tomorrow!) chances are slim that students who cram will effectively learn and remember the information.

Additionally, a lot of students are unaware of the many strategies available to help with the test-taking experience before, during, and after. For starters, take a look at what has helped you so far.

Exercise: Pre-test-taking Strategies


Put a check mark next to the pre-test strategies you already employ.

____ Organize your notebook and other class materials the first week of classes.

____ Maintain your organized materials throughout the term.

____ Take notes on key points from lectures and other materials.

____ Make sure you understand the information as you go along.

____ Access your instructor’s help and the help of a study group, as needed.

____ Organize a study group, if desired.

____ Create study tools such as flashcards, graphic organizers, etc. as study aids.

____ Complete all homework assignments on time.

____ Review likely test items several times beforehand.

____ Ask your instructor what items are likely to be covered on the test.

____ Ask your instructor to provide a study guide or practice test.

____ Ask your instructor if part marks will be given.

____ Maintain an active learner attitude.

____ Schedule extra study time in the days just prior to the test.

____ Gather all notes, handouts, and other materials needed before studying.

____ Review all notes, handouts, and other materials regularly.

____ Organize your study area for maximum concentration and efficiency.

____ Create and use mnemonic devices to aid memory.

____ Put key terms, formulas, etc., on a single study sheet that can be quickly reviewed.

____ Schedule study times short enough (1-2 hours) so you do not get burned out.

____ Get plenty of sleep the night before.

____ Set a back-up alarm in case the first alarm doesn’t sound or you sleep through it.

____ Have a good breakfast with complex carbs and protein to see you through.

____ Show up early to get completely settled before the test begins.

____ Use the restroom beforehand to minimize distractions.


By reviewing the pre-test strategies, above, you have likely discovered new ideas to add to what you already use. Make a list of them and use this list from here forward.

You will notice that many of the strategies listed above have already been mentioned in the Study Skills chapter. This is no co-incidence. Good study habits help lead to good test results!

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

— Benjamin Franklin

Discipline, Preparation, and Execution

Being successful at tests comes down to discipline, preparation and execution. Students wanting to be successful have to have the self-discipline to schedule time to study well in advance of the exam. They have to actually do the work – the preparation needed in order to have the best opportunity for success on the exam. Then they must execute – they have to be able to apply their preparation accordingly and perform well on the exam.

Preparation for an exam is not glamorous. It’s easy to find other things to do that are more interesting and fun. Students need to keep themselves motivated with their “eyes on the prize.” Think of it like this: If the most important event of your life was coming up and you wanted to perform to the best of your ability in that event, you would likely spend some time preparing for it, rehearsing for it, practicing it, etc. A student may argue that an exam would not be the most important event of their life, but if you’re already spending the time, effort, energy and money to attend college, why not do it to the best of your ability?

It would be beneficial to spread this preparation and practice out over time and prepare periodically rather than wait until the last minute and binge study or cram. Your preparation would not be of the same quality and this will likely affect your test score. Binge studying and cramming also are not healthy. Staying up late puts stress on our brain and body, and not getting adequate sleep places our bodies at risk for getting sick.

“One of the most important keys to success is having the discipline to do what you know you should do, even when you don’t feel like doing it.”

— Unknown

“The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.”

— Bobby Knight

Everyone wants to be successful. When the exam is passed out, everyone wants to perform well. But what often separates successful students and less successful students is the preparation time put in.

Studying the right thing is a process and a skill. As you gain more experience, you will learn how to become better at knowing what to study. It can be very frustrating to spend a lot of time preparing and studying and then finding out that what you studied was not on the exam. You will see a lot of variance with exams due to different instructors, classes and types of tests. The better you become at predicting what will be on the exam and study accordingly, the better you will perform on your exams. Try placing yourself in your instructor’s shoes and design questions you think your instructor would ask. It’s often an eye-opening experience for students and a great study strategy.

The more information you have about the exam, the better you can prepare for content, allocation of time spent on aspects of the exam, and the more confident you will be in knowing how and when to attempt to answer questions.

Preparation for Exam Strategies

Types of Tests

Two general types of tests are based on their objectives, or how they intend to provide feedback learning has occurred: formative assessments and summative assessments [1].

Formative assessments include quizzes, unit tests, pop quizzes, and review quizzes from a textbook and, if available, accompanying web resources. They test you on fundamental material before you are tested on more challenging topics. Quizzes go beyond grades; they can help you to identify what you know and what you still need to learn in terms of applying the material. A poor result on a quiz may not have a big effect on your overall average, but learning from its results and correcting your mistakes will affect your final grade when you take midterms and finals.

Summative assessments include midterms and finals. They are used by the instructor to determine if you are mastering the course material, and as such, they usually carry a heavy weight toward your final grade for the course. Because of this, they often result in high levels of test anxiety and long study periods.

Find Out as Much about the Exam in Advance as You Can

Some professors and instructors will tell you how many questions there will be, what format the exam will be in, how much time you will have, etc., and others will not. Students should ask questions about the exam if there is not information given. Students should also ask those questions before class, after class, in professors’ office hours or via email if it doesn’t happen during class.

Ask about the format. Is it open book? Is it timed? What types of questions will be on it? What material will it cover? (e.g. chapters 1-3, or only chapter 3) If you’re lucky an instructor will give you areas to focus your study on. How will it be scored? Knowing these things will make it easier to prepare for the test.

Anticipate Questions

What kind of questions would you include if you were the instructor? What areas did the instructor personally show the most interest in? Brainstorm possible questions with your study group. Look for possible questions in your notes. Review past quizzes and test to see what kinds of questions the instructor likes to ask. Above all, take it seriously whenever your instructor says, “This will be on the test.” or “Make sure you know this for the test.” They are giving you a huge study hint. Make sure to have your highlighter handy for these occasions.

Take Care of Your Body

snowshoeing in the forest
Go for a short snowshoe with your dog and review the parts of the digestive system in your mind to prepare for your biology test tomorrow.

Before the exam, it is important to prepare your brain and body for optimal performance for your exam. Do not cram the night before. Cramming is not a substitute for doing your assignments and studying consistently over time. Get a good night’s sleep. It is far more important to get a good night’s sleep and face your test fresh and well rested so that you can think clearly. Make sure you eat (nutritiously) before the exam to give you energy and concentration to do well on the exam. Include brain foods, such as those rich in omega-3 oils, and avoid heavy foods that are rich in fat and sugar. (After the exam, you can celebrate with a cheeseburger, fries, and milkshake – but not before the exam!) It’s healthy to exercise the day before and if possible a few hours before the exam, even if it’s just going for a walk outside. You can use the time to summarize concepts and recall things in your mind. (e.g. as you are walking you can list the parts of the respiratory system as you visualize the diagram in your mind.) This is a great way of reviewing.

Types of Tests

All tests are designed to determine how much you know about a particular subject at a particular point in time. But you should be aware of differences in types of tests because this will help guide how you prepare for them. Tests can be grouped into various categories based on how they are delivered. Each type has its own unique strategies.

  • Paper tests are still a very common type of test, requiring students to write answers on the test pages or in a separate test booklet. They are typically used for in-class tests. Neatness and good grammar count, even if it’s not an English exam. Remember that the instructor will be reading dozens of test papers and will not likely spend much time trying to figure out your hieroglyphics, arrows, and cross-outs.
  • Open-book tests allow the student to consult their notes, textbook, or both while taking the exam. Students often mistakenly think that they don’t have to study much because all the information will be in front of them. The contrary is true. Instructors often give this type of test when they are more interested in seeing your thoughts and critical thinking than your memory power. Be prepared to expose and defend your own viewpoints. You’ll need to understand the themes and main ideas about the text. When preparing, know where key material is located in your book and notes; create an index for your notes and use sticky notes to flag key pages of your textbook before the exam. Another strategy is to highlight key sections in your index so you can easily find them. People who don’t know their text book well, will spend fruitless precious time searching through the book for that thing they are trying to find.
  • Multiple-choice tests affect the way you should prepare. You will not have to memorize the names of terms and their spelling, but you will have to recognize them and know what they mean. This impacts studying techniques.
  • Take-home tests are like open-book tests except you have the luxury of time on your side. Make sure you submit the exam on time. Know what the instructor’s expectations are about the content of your answers. The instructor will likely expect more detail and more complete work because you are not under a strict time limit and because you have access to reference materials. Be clear about when the test is due. (Some instructors will ask you to email your exam to them by a specific time.) Also find out if the instructor allows or expects you to collaborate with classmates. Be sure to type your exam and don’t forget to spell-check!
  • Online tests Find out if you will be allowed to move freely between test sections to go back and check your work or to complete questions you might have skipped. Some testing software does not allow you to return to sections once they are “submitted.” Unless your exam needs to be taken at a specific time, don’t wait until the last minute to take the test. Should you have technical problems, you want to have time to resolve the issues. To avoid any conflicts with the testing software, close all other software applications before beginning the test. Watch the time carefully. They will often have a clock counting down for you. Many online tests will submit the test at exactly the time the test is over, so make sure you’ve finished prior to the clock running out.
  • Electronic tests in the classroom are becoming more common as universities install “smart classrooms” with technology such as wireless “clicker” technology that instructors may use to get a quick read of students’ understanding of a lecture. This testing method allows for only true-or-false and multiple-choice questions, so it is rarely used for summative assessments. When taking this kind of quick quiz, take notes on questions you miss so that you can focus on them when you do your own review.
  • Presentations and oral tests are the most complete means for instructors to evaluate students’ mastery of material, because the evaluation is highly interactive. The instructor can (and likely will) probe you on certain points, question your assumptions, or ask you to defend your point of view. Make sure you practice your presentation many times with and without an audience (your study group is good for this). Have a clear and concise point of view and keep to the allotted time. (You don’t want to miss delivering a killer close if your instructor cuts you off because you weren’t aware of the time!)

Key Takeaways

  • Stay caught up throughout the term and review often.
  • Make a study schedule before the test and stick to it.
  • Prepare for exams and quizzes by getting plenty of rest, eating well, and getting some exercise the day before the exam.
  • Cramming is seldom a good strategy.
  • Before the exam, learn as much as you can about the kinds of questions your instructor will be asking and the specific material that will be covered.

Text Attributions

  • The text under the “Pre-Test Strategies” heading has been adapted from “Pre- Mid- and Post-Test-Taking Strategies” in Blueprint for Success in College and Career by Dave Dillon. Adapted by Mary Shier. CC BY.
  • Text under “Types of Tests” has been adapted from “Taking Tests” in University Success by N. Mahoney, B. Klassen, and M. D’Eon. Adapted by Mary Shier.  CC BY-NC-SA.

  1. Hanna, G. S., & Dettmer, P. A. (2004). Assessment for effective teaching: Using context-adaptive planning. Boston, MA: Pearson A&B.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Test Preparation Techniques: Leading up to the Test Copyright © 2021 by Sarah Malo and Maggie Convey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book