Saint Louis University

How to Succeed on Science Exams

Are you looking for advice from your peers who have succeeded in science courses?

Collin Chen, a SLU 2010 graduate, 1st year medical student and tutor wrote the following article to help advise you on what to do to excel in your science courses.

How to Succeed on Science Exams

June 2010

Science exams can be challenging and difficult to prepare for. Success on these exams depends on many factors including: the subject, class structure, professor's testing style, and most importantly, personal study habits. Despite the fact that each student is accustomed to different studying styles, there are certain guidelines that can benefit every science student. The first few guidelines are general practices, whereas the later ones are specific tips.

Know the Syllabus

The syllabus is given out on the first day of class, and is usually posted online for convenient access. Read the syllabus and gather answers for the following questions:

  • How many tests are there during the semester?
  • Are the tests multiple choice, short answer, or both?
  • When are the tests? (Pay attention to whether or not all tests are offered on a certain weekday)
  • Is the final cumulative?

Knowing this information will give you a general idea of the testing structure of the course.

Go to class

What the professor says in class directly translates to test material. If something is covered in class, it is much more likely to be on the exam. If you don't attend class, then you will have no idea what to study when the test time arrives. This will not only hurt your chances of success on this particular exam, but also on the final (if it is cumulative).

Take notes

Going to class is pointless if you don't pay attention. Make sure your notes are organized enough and legible enough for you to understand when re-reading them before the exam. If there are slides for a class, it is helpful to take notes directly on the slides. If the professor is talking about a figure (or an enzyme, or a reaction, or a sentence of text, etc.) on a certain slide, write down what he/she says next to that item. This way, your notes organize themselves and you only study one set of notes for the test. This leads into the next point: Should I read the book or study the slides? This is actually the toughest question the science departments have ever created!

For biology classes: If you go to class and take notes on the slides, then you are most often seeing what will be on the exam. Many times a professor will tell you to cross out a slide because it won't be covered and even introduce a new concept and stress that it will be covered--so make sure you are in class.  That doesn't mean that the notes you've taken on the slides will be enough for the exam. If your notes are not comprehensive, or if there was a concept that you didn't understand, then go to the book and read that particular section, and take additional notes based on what you read on the slides. Of course, it is encouraged that you refer to the book and read about all the concepts covered in class and add additional notes to the slides. It is unhelpful to read the book regarding concepts you know won't be on the exam. For many biology courses, only certain portions of the book are covered, and that is mirrored in the slides and lectures. If you know from class that the professor said nothing about memorizing the biography of Gregor Mendel, and it is not on the slides, then don't read about it in the book unless you have a personal interest.

For chemistry classes: In classes such as general chemistry and organic chemistry, nearly every section of the book is covered. Since the processes are described in great detail in the text, reading the book is the top priority. You must read every chapter and understand every concept. Then, you must do the problems in the book, including the example problems within each chapter and the problems at the end of each chapter. It is helpful to have the solutions manual because it provides detailed explanations for the problems in the book. For organic chemistry, it is important to memorize the reactions at the end of each chapter. For many chemistry courses, everything you need to know is in the book, and most of the time, everything in the book is what you need to know.

For physics courses: Physics is entirely based on problem solving. 90% of most physics exams consist of problems for which you must provide solutions. Thus, your focus should be on problem solving, not memorizing definitions. You get better at solving problems by actually solving problems. There is no way around it. During class, pay attention to your professor when the concepts are explained, and watch closely when an example problem is demonstrated so that you know how to do it on your own. As you do problems, you are forcing yourself to understand what equations will work, how to begin a problem, and the concepts behind the numbers. When you do more problems, all the concepts will be reinforced.

Should I study in groups?

Each person learns differently. No matter your study habits, you should never depe3nd on your peers to actually teach you the concepts. So when or if you plan to study in groups, go over the material by yourself first so that you have a foundation to build upon. Then, you can ask your peers specific things you do not understand, and re-emphasize important things you have already learned. If you arrive at your study group and ask, "Can you guys teach me what's going to be on the exam" then it means you didn't prepare well enough.

Can I get away with doing only the problems assigned?

In chemistry and physics courses, the professor will select certain problems for homework. This means that---at the VERY LEAST--- you will need to know the concepts behind those problems. Doing the very least doesn't mean you will succeed on the exam. Try to do the problems that are similar to the assigned problems. If necessary, do them multiple times to make sure you understand the concepts. You can never do too many problems. The more you do, the faster you become at finding solutions. You know that feeling when you read a problem on a test and you are just frozen because you have no idea what to do? That can be prevented by doing practice problems. If you do enough practice problems, you will eventually have seen every problem-type, and you won't ever get caught off-guard on the exam.

Don't just read to finish, read to know

When reading the book or the slides, you must make sure that you are reading to memorize and understand, not just reading it to be finished. For example, just because someone read the slides twice doesn't mean he/she has memorized what was on the slides. It takes 30 seconds to read a slide, but it takes 5 minutes to memorize a slide. As a test, when you finish reading a slide, cover it up, and ask yourself, "Would I be able to rewrite the slide on a blank sheet of paper? Would I be able to explain what I just read to someone else?" If you can't, then it means you didn't memorize and fully understand it. It's going to take a few times going through the material to memorize it.

Do the practice test LAST

For most science classes, the professor posts the test from previous years online. When it comes time to study, many people will say, "let me just take this practice test first just to see what I get, and if I get the grade I want, then I don't have to study as much." If you want to do well, you are going to have to study; there is no avoiding it.

Study first, then after you are finished studying, take the practice test (usually the day before the exam). This way, what you get on the practice exam is a great indication of your knowledge level. Also, taking it the day before the real exam is more helpful than taking it a week before the exam. That's because the practice exam is often very similar to the real exam, and the format will be fresher in your mind. If you take the practice test first, and then study, the diagnostic value of the practice test will be ruined; you will have no idea what you might get on the real exam. Furthermore, taking the practice test last is a good way of exposing holes in your knowledge before the exam. Usually, after studying for a week, and going through all the material, it's hard to tell what you still need to work on. The practice test shows you.

For short answer questions, make sure you write something

For short answer questions and problem0solving questions, write everything you can in order to get partial credit. If a question asks you to explain a process, and you don't know how the process works, then write down everything you do know related to the process. If a question asks you to solve a problem, and you don't know how to begin or you get stuck, write out all the numbers and equations you do know, draw a diagram, and clearly label it. The professor will never take points off for writing too much as long as what you are writing is correct.

Once, on a physics exam, my friend didn't know how to do a spring problem. HE wrote out all the known values, an equation, and drew a squiggly line for a spring and got 4/9 points. If he left it blank, which he was tempted to do since he didn't know how to solve it, he would have gotten 0/9 points. 4 points can be the difference between an A and a B.

Don't turn the exam in early

The only reason anyone should ever turn an exam in early is if they are certain that every answer is either absolutely right or hopelessly wrong. If you are done with the test before the time is up, then look over your answers, make sure you didn't make a mistake, and make sure you bubbled the right circle. For problem-based tests, do the math and punch the numbers into your calculator again. The time you spend checking over your answers is not wasted time. If you spend the time and looked over all your answers, and you find a mistake, then correcting it just increased your score. If you spend the time and looked over all your answers, and didn't find a mistake, then you can walk away confident about your score. Either way, you gain something and lose nothing.

Talk to your professors and go to tutoring

When you read something you don't understand or encounter a problem you can't solve, then bring it to the professor and a tutor. Your professors are a great resource to help you prepare for exams. That is why they have office hours.

After seeing your professor, make sure you know that SLU offers tutoring for many courses through the department of academic support and Student Success Center. You can go online and pick the course you need help in, choose the tutor you would like to see, and sign up for an appointment. This service is at NO COST to the students.  You will receive one-on-one help with comprehensive explanations. With tutoring, you can sign-up for as many appointments as you would like. Many of the tutors took the courses themselves here at SLU. Thus, not only will they provide answers to your questions, but will also give you tips on test-taking.

Going to the professor and a tutor assures that you don't leave anything to chance.


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