Research-Based Practices to Assist Students with Exam Preparation

by Jay Rasmussen

[This post is the third installment in a series on effective exams. The previous posts address Understanding and Preventing Test Anxiety and Writing High-Quality Assessment Items.]

Exams, whether in the form of quizzes or tests, present a powerful opportunity for student learning (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014). That learning is often brought about because emotion drives attention and attention drives learning (Wolfe, 2010; Sylwester 1994). For the majority of Bethel students, preparing for and taking exams is an emotion-laden experience that tends to grab attention and maximize cognitive processing. The following suggested practices have potential to help your students gain maximum learning from the exam experience: study guides, study groups, review sessions, reading and review strategies, student metacognition, and reduction of test anxiety.

Study Guides

While study guides are a staple test preparation tool, research has revealed several specific ways in which they can be made more beneficial for students. Instead of basic lists of objectives and terms to know, study guides are most effective if they include review questions that mirror those to be found on the exam. So as to give students the best idea of what to expect on the exam and what will be required of them, it is best if the review questions reflect accurately the variety of assessment items they will encounter. In addition to review questions, the most effective study guides have been shown to include expected learning outcomes; however, students usually prefer study guides centered on review questions (Nilson, 2010).

As a whole, study guides are most effective and most utilized by students if they are attractive and well-organized, interactive, user-friendly, and varied in content presentation (Harden et al., 1999). Sample tests are also very helpful for students, as they will inform them of important content areas and just how they will be asked to master the material. These sample tests need to specifically reflect learning outcomes in the language (e.g. “know this”, “be able to reproduce this”, etc.). For essay tests in particular, providing students with test verb definitions on the study guide is helpful in eliminating the common error of prompt misunderstanding (e.g. “create/devise,” “infer,” “illustrate,” “synthesize,” “propose,” “interpret,” “trace”) (Nilson, 2010). Finally, it is especially helpful to provide students with ways to self-assess on study guides so that they can keep track of their level of mastery of the material (Harden et al., 1999).

Study Groups

In addition to study guides, study groups are a research-supported exam preparation technique. These groups tend to be effective because they have been shown to both facilitate learning and they tend to improve critical thinking and self-esteem more than traditional learning methods (Stage et al., 1999; Cooper et al., 1993). This assessment preparation technique works best when groups meet regularly, when the groups are either formalized by the instructor or formed via sign-up sheet (both means prevent group attrition), and when the instructor distributes a list of student names and contact information (Nilson, 2010).

Review Sessions

Holding instructor-facilitated review sessions before an exam can be extremely helpful to students in their test preparation if run effectively. First, it is most beneficial for students if the discussion is led by student Q&A rather than the instructor posing and answering all questions and regurgitating lectures. Second, it is important be sure that students know to come prepared to ask questions and discuss material and not to expect a condensed lecture review from the instructor. Specifically, having students discuss review questions in pairs or small groups and then mock grading their answers in front of the class gives students an idea of how they will be assessed and also encourages student self-assessment. For essay tests in particular, have students generate essay questions in pairs or small groups, try to answer them, and evaluate responses. This activity gives students an opportunity to practice taking the exam, which reduces test anxiety (Nilson, 2010).

Angelo and Cross (1993) also note that having students generate test questions provides information that lets the instructor know if students have mistaken expectations for an upcoming exam, and giving feedback on these questions will then help students reorganize their studying.

Reading and Review Strategies

As it is highly likely that the majority of the material being studied in study guides, study groups, and review sessions is written, yet another useful research-based test preparation method has to do with helping students absorb written material. Eighty percent of research supports the notion that reviewing pertinent readings and materials prior to the exam improves test performance. However, utilizing the active recall technique provides students with the most effective way to study, retain, and recall written material. Also called the 3R technique (read, recite, review), students read a section of material, put it down, try to recite/summarize aloud as much as they can remember, and then reread the section. This manner of self-testing gets directly at the skills needed for good exam performance (Nilson, 2010).

Student Metacognition

Along the same lines as the 3R technique, research also points to student metacognition as a key variable in ideal exam preparation and performance. Metacognition plays a key role in student learning capacity. When students have learned to actively reflect on their own thinking and learning, they develop the ability to take ownership of their learning, to self-regulate, which paves the way for effective learning (National Research Council, 2000). Research has discovered a positive correlation between improved metacognition and academic success (Adey & Shayer, 1993; Kuhn & Pearsall, 1998) as well as a positive correlation between poor metacognitive skills and poor academic performance (Kruger, 1999; Dunning et al., 2003)

Some key question students can ask themselves to engage in helpful metacognitive exam-related practices are as follows (Tanner, 2012):


Reduction of Test Anxiety

Finally, research provides instructors with ways in which they can reduce the negative effects of test anxiety. The nature of test anxiety is two-fold in that it concerns both cognitive and physiological reactions to stress, although the cognitive component is the most detrimental in terms of exam performance. Test anxiety causes the student’s thought process to be severely impeded by focus on peer comparison, consequences of bad grades, and equating self-worth with test performance. While mild levels of test anxiety actually encourage learning and improve test performance, high levels of anxiety are an overall hindrance. Also, although high levels of test anxiety improve rote recall, they stifle the cognitive flexibility and creativity required for short answer and essay questions (Rasmussen & Chamley, 2012).

There are several steps an instructor can take to reduce student test anxiety. An important first step is when the instructor reviews exam material prior to the exam, is explicit about the degree of difficulty of a given exam, and does not monitor exams-in-progress (e.g. walking around the room and looking over shoulders) or interrupt/make clarifications after the exam has been distributed. In addition to these precautions, it is beneficial when the course syllabus contains an exam schedule, course expectations, and a concrete grading system and make-up policies. It may also behoove the instructor to consider giving exams with more frequency (so as to prevent overwhelming material coverage and harsh consequences) and to be sure that exams are written with the time frame in mind (Nilson, 2010).




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Angelo, T.A., & Cross, P. K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brown, P., Roediger H., & McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA.

Cooper, J. L., Robinson, P., & McKinney, M. (1993). Cooperative learning in the classroom.

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Harden, R.M., Laidlaw, J.M., & Hesketh, E.A. (1999). AMEE Medical Education Guide No 16: Study guides – their use and preparation. Medical Teacher, 21(3).

Khogali, S.E.O., Laidlaw, J.M., & Harden, R.M. (2006). Study guides: A study of different formats. Medical Teacher, 28(4), 375-377.

Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 1121-1134.

Kuhn, D., Pearsall, S. (1998). Relations between metastrategic knowledge and strategic performance. Cognitive Development, 13(2), 227-247.

National Research Council (NRC) (1996). National Science Education Standards, Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Nilson, L. B. (2010). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rasmussen, J.B., & Chamley, R. (2012). Expert agreement related to test anxiety. Unpublished manuscript, Bethel University.

Stage, F.K., Kinzie, J., Muller, P., & Simmons, A. (1999). Creating learning centered classrooms: What does learning theory have to say? Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education.

Sylwester, R. (1994). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 60-65.

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Wolfe, P. (2010). Brain Matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Jay Rasmussen
Jay is a Professor of Education with areas of expertise including active engagement of learners, curriculum design, classroom-based assessment, content area reading, flipping instruction, online learning, making thinking visible with Harvard Thinking Routines, culturally responsive instruction and Learner Perspective on Instruction.

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