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Study Skills: Assessment Success

This guide offers learning strategies, study skills, and resources to support student academic success.

Quizzes, Tests, Exams and Practicals


Assessments are a fundamental way of evaluating knowledge, understanding, critical thinking, and applied skills. They tell us what we have learned, how well we have learned, and what we need to review or relearn. Assessments can take many forms; written, multiple choice, oral, simulations, practicals, and more.  They can be low stakes, such as a quiz, or a high stakes final exam. Students often feel immense pressure to perform on assessments. As a result, assessments are stressful and anxiety provoking.  Test anxiety is common among post-secondary students and can cause shortness of breath, sweating, rapid heartbeat, lightheadedness, and can negatively impact results. 

This LibGuide offers strategies to prepare for assessments to improve your ability to retrieve information, critically think, and apply your knowledge.  We also outline a number of tips to help improve cognition and memory, as well as ideas to reduce the stress that often accompanies quizzes, tests, and exams.

Knowledge preparation

  • Summarizing. Put learning in your own words and categorize your learning priorities; begin critical thinking activities.
  • Spaced reviews. Learn in increments and revisit prior learning consistently to help maximize knowledge retention and retrieval.
  • Active learning. Use strategies, such as explaining, questioning, self-testing, and dual coding to critically think, retain, and recall what you learn.
  • Support. Ask for support from peers, instructors, and BCIT peer tutors in a timely manner. 

Self-care practices

  • Consistent sleep, a healthy diet, and exercise. Taking care of your mental and physical health plays an important role in your academic performance. These practices also enhance recall of knowledge and reduce the stress associated with assessments. 

Assessment taking 

  • Discover some tips to optimize your performance during an assessment. We have included a section on multiple choice tests too, as this format is common at BCIT.

Test anxiety

  • Consider some tension-relief exercises to regain your concentration and focus. 

Active Learning Supports Critical Thinking and Assessment Success

Passive and Active Learning

When a student receives information through a lecture, video, or reading, they are simply internalizing the words and images without having the time or opportunity to think about what they are learning.  This process of acquiring knowledge from listening, observation, and reading is called passive learning.  Unsurprisingly, learning passively is ineffective as students are unable to process all the information received, are not able to critically think about the content, and struggle to retain what they have learned in their long-term memory.  When a student learns passively, they often try to write down as much as possible without thinking deeply about the content.  In addition, many students will simply reread their notes to prepare for an assessment.  BCIT courses, however, generally test a student's ability to critically think, problem solve, and apply their learning.  To successfully prepare for assessments, it is therefore important to use active learning strategies. 

Say NO to Cramming

Why Cramming Does Not Work

We all know that cramming before an assessment is not an effective learning method.  However, many students choose to cram for a variety of reasons, including:

  • insufficient planning
  • a perceived lack of time
  • procrastination

When students cram there can be some unexpected consequences:

  • Attention dwindles when learners see repeated examples of the same information over a short period of time.
  • Our brain will trick us to think we know something when we see it repeatedly- our brains recognize the information, but we have not actually understood the information well enough to apply our learning on an assessment. 
  • Cramming is not challenging enough to effectively learn and recall information.
  • When we cram, we do not have adequate time to process and understand information, making it very difficult to apply the learned information in different scenarios.
  • Cramming does not offer enough space and time to clarify processes that are complicated and require reflection, problem-solving, and practice.
  • Cramming is intense and therefore stressful and overloads your brain, impacting focus, retention, and recall.
  • Students sacrifice balance and sleep, and often are exhausted for exam day and therefore lack focus and energy, are irritable, and do not have the ability to remember information.

Spaced learning (see box below for details) is the idea that practicing a skill or retrieving information is more effective when spread over time, rather than repeated several times in a short period.

Research has proven that practicing over time with intervals in between slows down the forgetting process and is critical to the consolidation of memories. 

The more we revisit information or practice something, the stronger the retention of that memory, and the greater the likelihood that information will stay in our brains.

Preparation: Summarizing and Questioning

Review Through Summarizing

To build a stronger foundation of subject knowledge that you can retrieve on an assessment, consider summarizing reading and lecture notes. 

We recommend you allocate time after reading course materials or attending a lecture to review what you have read, heard, or seen. Try to analyze what you have learned by writing down your ideas, thoughts, and questions.  It is also useful to write down key terms, concepts, formulas, and processes, as the activity of thinking about learning and writing it down greatly aids in critical thinking, retention, and retrieval.  This process will enable the learner to highlight the most important components and distill the key ideas from all the information received.  Summarizing will help distinguish between essential and non-essential details, assess the significance of information, and hone your critical thinking skills.  It also encourages the learner to make connections between ideas and evaluate their own learning. Summarizing supports active cognitive engagement and helps increase understanding, and reinforces your brain's ability to retain and recall information.

Here are some tips on how to summarize (in sequential order):

1. Brainstorm and write. Try to recall what you have learned by writing/typing as much as you can remember (without looking at your notes).  This is a quick brainstorm of the information you received during class.  It is a way to 'test' your retention and 'dump' it onto paper.

2. Revisit notes. Read your text or lecture notes aloud to yourself. Once done, take a quick break (10 minutes or so) and try to recall more information from your notes and write/type it out.

3. Dual code. Read your summaries from steps 1 and 2 aloud. Many students may choose to stop summarizing at this point, due to time constraints and competing priorities.  However, doing some summarizing will aid in your ability to retain learning. 

3. Deepen your learning. If time permits go back through your notes and 'accuracy check.'  As you go through the content consider writing your learning into three categories, or buckets.  Bucket A: What I know (these are terms, concepts, processes etc. that you feel confident about).  Bucket B: What I am interested to learn more about (jotting down things of interest will enable you to better explore what you need to spend more time learning/reviewing). Bucket C: What Is challenging/confusing (this bucket will contain ideas, concepts, and processes that require more exploration, research, and help). 

Make questions. Try to create questions out of your learning.   Ask how ideas relate and connect and consider problems to solve. As you go through your notes and summarize, make questions that use words such as:

  • Explain (explain how X influences Y)
  • Compare/contrast (compare and contrast these two ideas).
  • Predict (predict what may happen if the variables are changed).
  • Similarities/differences (list the similarities/differences between X and Y)
  • Analyze (analyze the effects of X on Y)
  • What/when/where/why/how (what will happen if... when would this scenario apply...where does this happen...why doesn't X work does the result differ if...)

If you are able to create questions out of the information you learn then you are more critically thinking about that information and will form a much deeper understanding of the material.

Periodically review the questions.  Repeatedly try to answer the questions you have created until you can consistently answer each question. Learning is strengthened when you produce answers compared to only recognizing answers.

Build a review schedule and try to review questions from previous learning at least once per week.  Even if you set aside 30 minutes a week to consider the questions you have created you will greatly improve your understanding of the material and be in a stronger position to anticipate assessment questions which you can consistently answer. 

Preparation: Spaced Learning

Review Through Scheduled Intervals

According to research, spaced repetition is an effective approach for retaining information and being able to retrieve what is stored in your memory.  The basic principle of spaced repetition is that your brain learns best when information is reviewed at gradually increasing intervals over many weeks. After you first learn a new piece of information, you should review it shortly after to strengthen your ability to remember that information. Spacing out your review sessions can help your brain consolidate the information more effectively, making it easier to remember over the long term.

Benefits of spaced learning

  • When we revisit information after a period of time, we are reconstructing the information itself, and are reinforcing the pathways (neurons) that lead to the information so we can retrieve it when we need it later.   We are less likely to forget information when it is spread out over a few days because revision forces our brains to work to retrieve what we have learned.
  • Resting our brains (especially sleeping) after learning improves our ability to remember the information (this is called the Sleep Effect).
  • After the passage of time the human brain may approach information in a different way and use different cues or triggers to recall that information.  The more pathways to information the stronger our recall ability.

Consistent Reviewing. A good approach is to review all lecture/reading summaries weekly on a scheduled day and time. According to experts, it is best to review newly learned information about three days after initially being exposed to that information.   It is crucial to set aside a time weekly in your calendar to make sure you do this. For example, if you have a lecture every Monday morning and summarize your notes after class, schedule a review session for every Thursday at a time that works for your schedule. It is also important to review previous learning on a continuous basis.  For example, if you are reviewing the lecture summaries from week two of a course, spend some time reviewing the week one summary first, to help bring that knowledge forward with you.













1 hr

1 hr

2 hr

1 hr

1 hr

Use brief study sessions spread out so that learning accumulates and can be retained.

Repeatedly reviewing information will help firmly lodge concepts, data, facts, definitions, and processes in your memory. Spacing out the repetition over several weeks will help you lock the information in place. 

Dual Code. Learn by using multiple sense. For example, read your summaries aloud and maybe even walk around when you do this. Dual coding helps with the retrieval of information during assignments and assessments.


The video below does a great job of explaining the spaced repetition method, its benefits, as well as how to set it up.

Self-care Practices Help with Retention, Retrieval, and Academic Performance

Self-Care Practices Make a Positive Difference on Assessments

Academic success is often tied to retention (how much we remember) and recall (our ability to access information when we need it). Research demonstrates that stronger memory encoding (the initial learning of information), retention, and recall occur when we eat healthy, sleep well, and exercise.  So, when a student is busy it is imperative to not only have solid retention and recall learning strategies, but also apply good self-care habits and routines. 

Sleep. The amount of sleep that a college student gets is one of the strongest predictors of academic success.  When a student is tired (perhaps from cramming for a test all night) their memory is affected.  Getting at least eight solid hours of sleep will help avoid mental lapses (caused by being tired) impacting perception, memory, and performance.  Sleep plays a key role in helping fix and consolidate memories, plus prevents the decay of memories.  Without sleep, people work harder but do not perform as well.  "Evidence now suggests that sleep is important in the processing of newly acquired information and for the long-term storage of memory," neuroscientist and sleep researcher Matthew Walker wrote in 2009A study involving American nurses found people who both under- or overslept — either five hours or less a night, or nine hours or more — showed worse performance on cognitive tests.

The diagram below, produced by, indicates how much retention is gained through sleep versus being awake.  

Diet. Our bodies need the right nutrients to function at its best (mentally and physically).  Energy foods, such as nuts and berries, help keep us going.  Processed foods and sodium make us tired and undermine our ability to focus and stay on task.  Refined sugars and caffeine make learners feel tired as these can cause dehydration and also fuel anxiety. If you are a caffeine drinker, be sure to consume in moderation, as you could experience a 'crash' during the assessment, which will impact your ability to recall information and think clearly.

Exercise. Moderate to vigorous exercise (a brisk walk, a jog, jumping jacks, a spin on your bike) releases dopamine (brain chemical) which sharpers your ability to learn and think quickly.  If done before an assessment, exercise can increase mental processing and boost academic performance.  Exercising outside can also give you a boost as fresh air and nature have been proven to increase energy levels. We suggest you go for a brisk walk prior to an assessment to optimize your brain's ability to succeed on a test.  Exercise will help alleviate pre-assessment anxiety which is often at its peak in the 30 minutes or so prior the start of the test.  So, instead of sitting around with classmates discussing how much (or little) you have prepared and ramping up your anxiety about how you prepared compared to others, do something positive that will better prepare you for assessment success.

Taking the Quiz, Test, Practical or Exam

Right before the assessment

The moments leading up to the assessment can be the most anxiety provoking… fellow students are catastrophizing, others are cramming, and you can feel the nervous energy!  This is a key period to calm yourself and get focused.

Arrive to campus early. Plan to get to campus at least 20 minutes before the assessment.  However, avoid the area near the assessment room (see keep your focus, below) until a few minutes before the assessment.

Water/washroom. Make sure your water bottle is full. Use the washroom before entering the testing room.

Be positive. Do not get into a negative thought pattern.  Rather, be confident that you are prepared and know the material.

Keep your focus. Avoid talking to fellow students before the assessment as they may feel stressed, which can fuel your anxiety.  Do not exchange knowledge at the last minute as this may cause you to overthink the test and get anxious.  If you need to recall a critical formula, facts or information for the assessment, consider reviewing that information alone in a quiet location.

The assessment room

Getting comfortable in the assessment environment can make a different right to the end. You need to find the right seat based off lighting, proximity to information (like a screen) and a location that can minimize distractions.

Get to the space first. If you can get into the assessment room before the majority of students, you will have a better seat selection.  However, if your seating location is less important than minimizing distractions before the assessment then you may wish to skip this step.

The right seat. Many students are distracted by what is happening around them (such as students getting up to leave the assessment before you).  If that is you, consider sitting at the front so you cannot see who is leaving.  You may also prefer being away from a window to avoid daydreaming.  Pick the seat that best meets your needs.

Ear plugs. If noise distracts you, consider earplugs.  If you sit at the front and wear ear plugs, you will not notice when others leave the assessment before you.

Devices. These are likely not allowed and need to be put away.  Either way, turn it off and store it in your bag or jacket. Out of sight, hopefully out of mind.

Ground yourself. Put your feet flat on the floor: take 5 big breaths: close your eyes and have a positive visualization (go to your happy place): this will calm you.

The assessment

You have put in time and energy to get prepared. There are several things you can do during the assessment that can improve your results.

Read the instructions/directions. Carefully read and understand the assessment directions/instructions and know how much time you have. Too often we ‘assume’ what the instructor wants and miss important information.

Skim the questions. Don’t try to read the questions to fully understand them but rather just look at them one by one to help you recognize there are no surprises awaiting you—this is just the test you have prepared for. Tip: star the questions you feel you know; circle those that you likely know; leave blank all others.

Read each question carefully. Be sure you know what the question is asking. Slow down here to stay focused and on task.

Start strong. Answer the questions you are most confident about first (those you starred). Next, answer the questions you circled.  Finally, do those that remain last (this way you will have a good start and leave the harder ones that you may need to guess at, to the end). 

Move on. If you draw a blank on a question move to another one: don’t dwell on it too long --go back to that one at the end.

Tough written questions. If you draw a ‘blank’ on a question just start writing down a few ideas and add to it until you have ideas taking shape on paper. Then start writing something, even if it is not good. You will get into a flow.

Kinesthetic learners. Tap your foot (quietly) if you are a kinesthetic learner (someone that likes to touch and feel to learn)—it may help you to get going.

Stay hydrated. But don’t drink too much water so you don’t have to go to the washroom too much.

Anxiety stopping.  Ground yourself during the test if you need to. Practice tension-release exercises:

  • Breathing exercises are a quick and effective method to manage anxiety during an assessment. Here are some suggested breathing techniques. 
  • Think of a happy memory. Research indicates that the natural chemical, serotonin, creates a sense of well-being and helps your brain optimize your ability to feel calm. One way to produce more serotonin is to think positive thoughts. Start by thinking about a happy memory – something that makes you smile. Think of it as your happy place and go there in your mind as often as you need during a test to help stay calm and focused.

After the assessment

You are done and it is time to forget about the assessment and move on.

Don’t debrief of gossip.  This just leads to anxiety as nobody knows what was right or wrong at this point: you cannot change the outcome after the exam!

Reward yourself. Go do something you enjoy (make it a smart, healthy choice).

Multiple Choice Test Tips

Multiple-choice is perhaps the most common assessment format in post-secondary. These tests sample more material broadly than any other type of assessment.  The majority of students prefer multiple-choice tests because they believe these to be easier.  And in many cases, this is true, because the correct answer is listed and can always be ‘guessed.’  There are, however, some disadvantages associated with this testing format.  Multiple-choice tests are close ended, meaning there is no option for additional solutions among listed answer options, which prohibits students from demonstrating an alternative, yet equally plausible answer (in other words, there is no opportunity for ‘partial’ points).  In addition, multiple-choice tests don’t measure critical thinking skills as well as other formats, as this format encourages memorization rather than rewarding true understanding of material.  The good news is there are a variety of tips that can make a positive difference to multiple-choice test performance.  

Most common errors made by students

To start, here are a number of mistakes students commonly make on multiple-choice assessments:

  • Misreading the question
  • Looking for the answer without thinking about what the answer could be
  • Running out of time (and therefore randomly guessing on easy questions)
  • Not first eliminating wrong answers
  • Answering questions in chronological order, not priority order

There are number of tips to help avoid these mistakes so you can have more success.

Step 1: Read the test instructions

Often people assume they know how to do something and either skip or quickly scan instructions- but, not reading instructions can backfire! Reading the instructions does not take long and it is important to be clear about test expectations. 

Step 2: Budget your time (so you don’t run out)

Knowing how long you have for each question will help you know how fast you need to go.

  1. Check the start time and know how long you have for the test.
  2. Quickly flip through the test to see how many questions there are (note: this may not always be possible in all online test formats as you may be unable to move ahead without chronologically answering each question). If this is not possible, ask your instructor how many questions are on the test.
  3. Mentally calculate how much time you have per question (e.g. roughly 30 seconds, one minute, a minute and a half).  Example: if the test is 120 minutes and there are 75 questions you have roughly 96 seconds per question (120/75 x 60 =96 seconds).

Step 3: Preview/scan the test and prioritize

Pressure is high in the multiple-choice format because there are usually lots of questions to answer in a short time period.  Often students rush through the test, make careless mistakes and ‘guess’ at some questions that may be easy to answer IF there was just more time.

Important: be sure to ‘budget’ the time it will take to preview the test.  If there are 75 questions it will likely take 5-7 seconds per question, or about 7 minutes to preview the questions (so instead of having 120 minutes for the test, you have 113 minutes or approximately 90 seconds per question).  This may seem like precious time wasted, but the value of doing so typically well outweighs the time cost. 

There are a number of benefits to scanning the questions at the start of the test.

Quickly scan each question (do not look at the answers- in fact, if you can, cover them up to avoid peaking).  Scanning is a technique where you do not read every word but skim the question to get a sense of what it is asking.  You are NOT trying to answer the question, but rather you are trying to quickly process whether it is a question in which you:

  • Likely know the answer (scanning the question triggers a reaction like “I think I know this” because you recognize some key words or concepts from the question stem). Put a “” (tick) next to each of the questions you feel confident about.
  • May know the answer but are not totally confident about and may need to spend more time depending on the answer options. Put a “O” (circle) around each of these questions.
  • Are unsure what the question is asking or means (this may be a question you really need to ponder or perhaps even guess at). Put an “X” next to each question you don’t feel so good about.

Tip for online tests: if you cannot mark the test because it is digital, prepare a scrap piece of paper and divide into three columns , “O” and “X”. Write down the question number in the applicable column (e.g. easy questions go in the ” column) and use this sheet to guide the order you will answer the questions.

  1. You will first answer all the questions with a .   Doing these questions first will get you into a flow and provide a confidence boost to start the test.  In addition, this approach will help avoid a situation where, at the end of the test time is short and you need to speed through questions (maybe even guess) and make mistakes on questions you would have likely got correct if you were not so rushed.
  2. Next, you will move to the questions you circled “O”. You will likely need to take more time on these questions because they are more complicated and require more contemplation because you need to use a process of elimination (see below).
  3. Finally, you will do those questions marked with an “X”. You may need to spend more time on these, but as you have left them for last you can more comfortably ‘guess’ if you cannot figure out the answer. 

Step 4: Read each question (thoroughly)

Reading each question carefully will help you focus on the question and not be distracted by wrong answers.  Students often think they know what the question is asking before reading it, misinterpret it, and then move quickly to the most logical answer choice.  Read the question at least twice and carefully ponder (and understand) what it is asking BEFORE moving to the answer choices.

Step 5: Predict the answer

Most of us will read the question and then look for the ‘best’ option in the answers without even thinking about what the answer could be. It is a much better strategy to take the time to consider your OWN answer before looking at the options.  If your answer (in your head) is the same or similar to an answer option, then that option is more likely correct. Ask yourself, “What do I remember about this concept?”  Remembering the concept and recalling details can limit confusion and doubt once you see the answer options.

Step 6: Underline keywords

On hard copy tests, underline words that are key in both the question stem and answer.  For example, underline absolute words (only, never, always) or conditional words (if only, as long as) and conjunctions (and, but).  Then ask yourself, what is the question REALLY asking? In some cases, instructors try to ‘trick’ students by adding conditional or absolute words.

Step 7: Common wrong answers (or tricks)

Here are a few tricks that test makers use:  reversals (for instance, the answer may feature an error in chronology, characterizing the second event as the third, or a detail that is the opposite of the truth), true but irrelevant (the information in the answer is true, but not relevant to the question), too extreme (the answer takes a fact that is true but exaggerates it to an extreme), switchback words such as “but”, “although”, nevertheless” which indicate a shift in thought and alters the nature of the question.

Step 8:  Benchmark and eliminate

After you read the first answer choice, decide if you think it sounds correct or not. If it doesn’t, move to the next choice. But if it does, mentally mark that answer choice. This doesn’t mean that you’ve definitely decided it is the right answer. It just means it is the best one thus far. This answer becomes your standard (benchmark) by which you measure all other answers. That choice is correct until you find one that is better. When you decide that no other answer is as good as the standard, make sure it really answers the question before making it your choice.

Carefully consider each answer option and eliminate (physically scratch off on hard copy tests) those options you are certain are incorrect.  Even if you feel you already know the correct answer, look at each option to be certain you are not making an incorrect selection. This strategy is particularly important regarding ‘combination; answers (see step 9).

Step 9: Combination answers

The most challenging questions are when there appear to be more than one correct answer.   For example, “Both a) and b)” or “All of the above”. It is important to process each option and compare and contrast each with the question.   Read the answers for context and try to determine which best fits with what the question is asking.  

Step 10: Other tips

  • Look for grammatical connections between the question and the answer options. For example, the question and the correct answer often have verbs of the same tense.
  • Remember that all the information in the question is valid and may be needed to determine the correct answer. This is not true for all the information in the answers. They are designed to distract you and frequently contain superfluous information.
  • Correct answer choices will rarely have new information included. If new information is included that doesn’t seem to relate to the topic being asked about, then that choice is likely incorrect, even if the rest of the answer is correct. 

Step 11: Make your answer selection

Hopefully through the above process you have found the correct answer option. If you don’t know the correct answer, cross out the options you know are incorrect and then make an educated guess (this is the great benefit of multiple choice- you can always guess!).

Assessment Preparation Resources