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Succeed at Exams: Problem-Solving Exams

What is a problem-solving exam?

  • Problem-solving exams come in a variety of formats, from multiple choice, to short answer, to long calculations.
  • They frequently test your ability to apply the problem-solving skills you’ve learned in lectures, labs, and readings to new types of questions.

What are some strategies for studying for problem-solving exams?

  • Pay attention to example problems emphasized in class, the text, and assignments, especially those that appear in more than one of these places.
  • Don’t assume, however, that the same or similar problems will appear on the exam. The exam will likely test your ability to apply what you’ve learned about solving problems to new types of questions, rather than your ability to memorize and regurgitate examples you’ve already seen.
  • Focus on the process the instructor used for solving the problem.  Think about your own problem-solving strategies.
  • Practise, practise, practise! The more problems, and more importantly, the more types of problems you solve, the better prepared you’ll be.
  • Look for connections between concepts and equations and note how to choose the correct equation in complex practice problems.
  • Generate your own test questions with a study group or partner. Practise answering questions within a limited time frame.
  • Review previous tests, quizzes, or midterms, and figure out why you lost marks before.

What are some strategies for writing problem-solving exams?

  • Look over the entire exam before beginning and budget your time according to how much each question is worth.  Leave enough time to read over your answers at the end of the exam.
  • Before starting, find a blank page on your exam and write down equations, concepts, and constants that you memorized.
  • Do the easy questions first to warm up your brain and calm exam nerves.
  • Read the questions carefully and rephrase them in your own words.
  • Keep track of all units. Convert values to keep the units consistent. Be aware of +/- signs.
  • Clearly mark assumptions, if they are necessary, and place them at or near the beginning of the solution whenever possible.

What can I do after the exam?

  • It can be helpful to look over your exam if you get it back to see where you have gone wrong, and what you have done well. If your instructor doesn’t routinely return exams, ask if you can see yours to learn from your errors.
  • Use this information to help you study more effectively next time.
  • Check out the error analysis LibGuide to help you go over feedback.

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