Exams: How to Handle The "Threat of Academia"

Exams: How to Handle The "Threat of Academia"

By: David DiTomaso
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Before I entered university I often wondered how hard the work was going to be. I knew it wouldn’t be the same as high school, but I really had no idea what I was in for. When I started university back in the fall of 2007, my cousins (who had already finished their degree) asked me if I was an exam person or a paper person. I thought I was a paper person, due to the anxiety that I felt in high school when writing tests and provincial exams. The problem was that I did not know why I had this anxiety. Where does it come from?

After writing over fifty exams (56… not that I’m counting) during my time at SFU, I was able to figure out an answer: When I prepared for and wrote exams, I felt a great deal of uncertainty about what was going to happen. This uncertainty is what caused the anxiety. Writing this many exams has helped me tease this apart, but it has also given me some strategies for taming anxiety and preparing for uncertainty. I’d like to share that hard-earned wisdom!

Generally speaking, when exams are included in the evaluation scheme for a course, they tend to be worth a significant portion of your overall grade. This is one reason why exams can be known as “the great threat” from academia.

In other modes of evaluation – such as a paper or presentation – you have more control. You can easily prepare by talking to the instructor and other students. With an exam, you can do the same but instructors may not want to give away answers to the test. So, “the great threat” of exams really comes down to a perceived lack of control.

This is why a very strategic preparation is needed when studying for exams, so you can gain as much control as possible, and minimize the threat of exams.

The Basics of Exam Preparation

Before going over the approach I take towards preparing for exams, I’ll quickly go over some of the basics. When preparing for exams there are three things that are needed, all of which have to do with the way you treat your body during this process.

Eat Well

Eat healthy and on a regular basis. This is not the time to skip meals, or sustain yourself only on sugar and caffeine.

Sleep Well

Sleeping properly recharges your brain and allows it to better store all the information you’re putting in it. You also don’t want to lose half a day of studying by sleeping in after staying up too late!


Continue to practice the exercise habits that you normally do, but try not to start new exercise habits during exam season. If you feel that you just don’t have the time to get exercise, even just taking a short walk will help.

Take Breaks

Your brain can only take so much at once. After studying for a couple of hours it’s ideal to get away and take a short break. Change scenery, move around. Remember that it is just as important to take breaks as it is to have study sessions.

Now I’d like share the strategies that I have learned and used throughout my academic career at SFU. Please keep in mind that my process incorporates the basics listed.

My Exam Preparation

Preparing for an exam happens throughout the semester, not just a week or the night before the exam. When you enroll in classes you can predict how many exams you may have throughout the semester. Most classes have a midterm and a final, so if you enroll in four classes for example, it is safe to say that you may have eight exams (4 midterms and 4 finals). Making predictions of how many exams you may have during enrollment indicates how much preparation time you will need throughout the semester.

Most of the time, instructors post their course outlines at enrollment time, which means you can see exactly how many exams they have. At SFU, the final exam dates for all classes are posted, which means that you have the control to potentially spread out your finals. When it comes to midterm exams, once again predictions need to be made. If you have two classes on the same day it is safe to predict that you may have two midterms on the same day. Making predictions and taking control of how many exams you will have throughout the semester is indirectly preparing for exams and preemptively easing the threat they pose.

Exam preparation consists of three parts: Understanding, studying, and reviewing. Understanding is about making sure you know how to interpret the material from each chapter and lecture; studying is about trying to memorize the material so it can be recalled; and reviewing is about practicing retrieving the material from your memory. Now let’s try to put this into action.

First, understanding. When you start preparing for an exam, do what you can in advance to ease the tension as the exam date gets closer. What materials do you need to study? Usually this includes the textbook and the instructor’s lecture materials. If a textbook is involved, I like to take notes from each chapter of the book and study from the notes. It is far less overwhelming to study from notes that you made compared to studying straight out of the textbook. As well, you can cross reference the textbook notes to the instructor’s lecture notes to find similarities and differences. Instructors may have material in their lectures that is not in the textbook, or vice-versa, so it’s up to you to identify and locate this information. Through this note taking procedure if there is anything that you don’t understand, you need to make sure you seek clarification right away, making sure to understand it before moving on to the next chapter or lecture.

Next, is thorough studying, which I would begin about a week before the exam date. A good way to study is by focusing on only a few chapters a day. Breaking the larger task of studying a course into smaller tasks of studying chapters produces less tension and feelings of being overwhelmed. When done studying each chapter, you can now to go back and review them without looking at your notes by either speaking the material to yourself out loud or by writing the materials out. This can be a daunting process because it is time consuming and by the end you might feel mentally and even physically exhausted, but by the end you will have looked at ALL materials for the exam at least twice. You will feel like you’ve written the exam already, which means when you actual goes to write the exam you should be familiar with every question asked, even if you are unsure of what the answer is.

To summarize, all students have their own process to prepare for exams. I hope I was able to give you another perspective, and help you gain control, reduce uncertainty, and minimize “the great threat” of exams. Good luck!

Beyond the article:

*Lead image by author.

David DiTomaso David DiTomaso has been volunteering as a Career Peer Educator during the Fall 2012 and Fall 2013 semesters. He is also a criminology student who has completed his BA in August of 2013 but plans to graduate in June 2014 after completing the criminology honours program.  His future career goal is to become a research or crime analyst for the Vancouver Police Department or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. 

Posted on December 03, 2013