Exam advice

Exam/Test Advice

I’ve listed my advice for how to generally prepare for exams/tests, followed by my advice for taking exams/tests. This advice is based on a decade of teaching and watching students make the same types of mistakes year-after-year. 

When Studying

Take time to think about ideas and concepts

Studying shouldn’t only be reading. Stop reading and think! Do you really understand the ideas? Can you imagine a picture of how something happens? Can you think of examples on your own? How do the ideas connect with other courses or concepts not in the course?

Do as many textbook questions as you can

Profs/teachers don’t have unlimited creativity and possibilities for questions. Also, they typically base exam questions on previously seen questions (i.e. problem sets, term tests, in class examples, textbooks). If you do enough extra questions, chances are that you won’t be surprised by the questions you have to solve on the exam.

Talk about concepts with classmates

This will help you remember the concepts, as well as provide an opportunity to learn from each other.

If possible, teach someone!

Studies and experience shows teaching others helps you think about the material in a different way, and significantly helps you remember.

If having difficulty, talk to your TA or Prof

Helping you learn is their job (within office hours). Many students under-use the resources that are available to them. At the U of T Physics Department, there is also an undergraduate physics drop-in centre. Any undergrad in physics courses (particularly those in first-year courses) are able to drop by any day and ask questions of a TA.

Seek out other sources of info about topics

Reading about related ideas will help keep you thinking and potentially motivate your efforts while giving you a break from studying.

Consult old exams found online

Looking at previous exams can help you prepare. They often reflect the level of understanding expected (e.g. difficulty) and the form of typical questions. Solving these questions can be a useful content review. However, keep in mind that courses may change from year to year. To make best use of previous exams, I recommend discussing the content/difficulty similarities to previous years with your Professor and/or TA.


Search for PHY205* (for example)

Including the * at the end makes sure all PHY205 results are found. Not including it might yield no results due to the way U of T names its courses (i.e. PHY205H1F), or miss Summer course documents.

There are no solutions posted, so the best strategy is to attempt to solve them, and discuss the solutions with your Prof/TA.

During the Exam/Test

Get enough sleep!

Seriously. This is good advice for any level of preparation. You will benefit more from a clear mind than a few extra hours of studying the night before. This advice is supported by research!

Relax to think clearly

Many students answer incorrectly because they are stressed during tests and exams. No strategy will solve this for everyone, but think about what you can actively do to alleviate this. While time is limited, you won’t use it effectively if you’re overwhelmed by stress. It might be useful to take a minute off, take some deep breaths, clear your head, and return to the test.

Read questions carefully

This is the cause of many student mistakes – on exams, assignments, and any form of evaluation I’ve graded. Keep in mind the TAs who mark your answers are given a strict set of guidelines they must follow to determine how many marks they can give your answer. This keeps marking fair for everyone. Maximize your grade by reading the question carefully to understand what the marks will be given for.

Ask questions to clarify expectations.

Show all your work

You often need to solve for a final value. If you don’t get the right answer, give TAs the ability to see what mistake you made. They might be able to give you part marks for the correct parts of your calculation. Sometimes, you might even need to show your work to get full marks.

Do not leave questions blank

This happens far too often. At least guess, or try, or write down something related to the question. This might get you a partial mark, or help you remember what the right approach is.

If stuck on a question, move on to others and return later

It’s good to think about a question, but if you really don’t know the answer, be careful not to waste too much time that could be spent answering questions you do know the answer to. Come back to it later once you’ve answered everything you are confident in.