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Succeed at Exams

What are lab and bell-ringer exams?

  • Lab exams come in many different formats, but they focus on knowledge or skills learned in labs.
  • They often test your identification and/or knowledge through visual components, such as slides, specimens, or diagrams.
  • Lab exams can also test your ability to integrate textbook and lecture content with lab content.
  • Bell-ringers are a type of lab exam in you have a limited amount of time at each station. A bell or other auditory signal indicates when you must move from one station to the next.

Prepare before the exam

Collect information before the exam

For all lab exams, review your lab manual, course outline, lecture notes and other materials to respond to these questions:

  • What is the purpose of the lab exam?
    • Will you be asked to identify specimens, demonstrate laboratory skills, evaluate an experiment, understand laboratory procedures, analyze data from an experiment, explain the connections between course content and laboratory work, and/or do something else?
  • What content knowledge and laboratory skills will be assessed?
  • How many marks is the lab exam worth?
  • How much time will you have to complete the exam?
  • What equipment or materials should you bring?
  • For exams which test your knowledge of vocabulary or scientific nomenclature, will marks be deducted for incorrect spelling?

For bell-ringer exams, seek additional information about the format:

  • How many stations will there be?
  • How many questions will be asked at each station?
  • How much time will you have for each question?
  • Can you revisit a station?
  • Are there breaks between stations or at other points during the exam when you can check your answers?

Studying for the lab exam

Select a variety of strategies to help you prepare.

  • Review the objectives and concepts presented in the labs and use them to anticipate the type of knowledge you should be ready to demonstrate in the exam:
    • Application of existing knowledge to identify new specimens or analyze a new laboratory experiment
    • Integration of lab and course content materials
    • Identification
    • Function (especially in anatomy courses)
  • Create practice questions that integrate lab and lecture content. Answer your practice questions under time constraints. If you are preparing for a bell-ringer, time yourself while using a bell or other auditory signal, particularly if it's your first experience with this type of exam.
  • Join a study group or create your own to review material, create practice questions, and test your recall.
  • Create study notes that integrate and summarize the important information used to complete the lab, such as laboratory preparation work, class notes, lab demonstrations, the lab manual, and visuals.
  • Use flashcards to test your ability to identify structures and recall information while under time constraints.
  • Make charts to compare and contrast information in a concise and visual manner.
  • If you know how the questions will be presented (for example, slideshow, microscope slide, preserved specimen, photograph, diagram), review examples in the same format.
  • You can find more study strategies on Study for Exams

Use effective strategies during the exam

  • Read the questions carefully to ensure you know what's being asked.
  • Keep in mind that each question may have multiple parts. For example, you may be asked to identify a structure, state its function, and explain why the function is important.
  • Review your spelling if marks will be deducted for the incorrect spelling of organism names or other nomenclature.

For bell-ringer exams:

  • At each station, take a few moments to orient yourself to the visual. Determine what the visual is and from which angle you're viewing it.
  • Try to write something for each question even if you run out of time. At rest stations (if available) go back to complete your answer. If this is not possible, partial credit may be given for your attempt.
  • If you blank out at a station, remain calm and work your way through the question. Recall any related information and ask yourself questions to help stimulate your memory of the material. For example, ask yourself, "Which area of the specimen is the structure in? What structures are close to it?"
  • Since every station tests you on different information, not knowing the answer at one station should not affect your ability to respond to questions at other stations.

Use exam results to improve your score

  • Review your marked exam to see where you have gone wrong, and where you have done well. 
  • If your instructor doesn’t routinely return exams, go to office hours and ask if you can see your exam to learn from your errors.
  • Use the Analyze Exam Errors guide to review feedback and improve your exam-writing skills.

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