Are You Ready for That Exam?

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

What does it mean to “know” something? Knowing something involves more than just recognizing familiar material. That’s why simply re-reading course material as exam preparation might lead to a false sense of confidence. True comprehension comes from being able to recall material from memory and explaining it in your own words. Testing yourself by recalling content and teaching it to others are effective ways to gauge how well you know something. Ultimately, your exam readiness hinges on your ability to remember information and apply it in different situations.


 Use these strategies for optimal exam preparation:

  • Understand the exam format. Know what’s covered, whether it’s cumulative, and what materials you can use during the exam.
  • Test yourself on the material. Summarize, recall details, and compare information. Wait at least 30 minutes between reading something and self-testing to enhance memory and interrupt forgetting.
  • Say your answers aloud. When testing yourself, say your answers aloud in your own words. Doing so forces you to give a full answer and not be satisfied with a vague answer.
  • Take practice tests. Practice tests will not only give you a sense of the type of questions you’ll find on the exam, but you can also practice working under exam conditions and identify content areas you need to study more. However, practice tests from previous semesters can’t help you judge if you’ve studied enough for an upcoming exam because the content might be slightly different this semester.
  • Get feedback on your answers. Double-check your answers against source materials.
  • Create a comprehensive Q&A study guide. Mimic exam questions to practice retrieving information.
  • Space out your retrieval practice. Test yourself regularly throughout the semester for better retention. The day before an exam should be time for review, not for initial learning.
  • Mix up your practice. Solve problems out of order and vary problem types. This approach will help you become better at reading context clues, looking for commonalities between problems, and applying knowledge to new situations.
  • Teach the material to someone else. If you can teach it, you know it well.
  • Overlearn. Study beyond initial mastery to prevent forgetting.

Written by Julianne Reynolds, Associate Director and Learning Specialist for International Students, Weingarten Center

Further Reading:

Brown, P. C., Roediger, I. H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

Willingham, D.T. (2023). Outsmart your brain: Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy. Gallery Books.

Combating Procrastination

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Procrastination is an emotion management problem, not a time management one. Procrastination helps us manage the negative moods or emotions that the thought of doing an unappealing task might cause. These emotions may include anxiety, boredom, frustration, overwhelm, self-doubt, fatigue, insecurity, and resentment. Putting off a task that arouses such emotions in favor of a more appealing activity provides immediate short-term relief, but it compounds stress in the long term. The key to combating procrastination is to take emotions out of the equation; eliminate the option of doing the task at some future point when you imagine you’ll feel more like doing it and just do it now (or at least get it started).

When you find yourself procrastinating, check in with yourself. How are you feeling? Why are you avoiding doing the task? If you can identify the reason you’re procrastinating, you can more easily find the solution to help you stop procrastinating.

Not sure where to start?

Ask for help. Your course instructor and learning specialists are useful resources.

The task doesn’t feel urgent?

Start with a small subtask to get started. Allow yourself to stop after working for a minimum amount of time, such as 30 minutes.

The task feels complex?

Break it down into smaller, more manageable subtasks that you can accomplish in an hour or less. Set interim deadlines for major project milestones.

Not feeling motivated?

Reframe the task. For example, instead of thinking of it as something you have to do, think of it as something you want to do. What are the benefits of getting it done?

Schedule frequent check-ins with an accountability partner to help you meet your goals.

Having difficulty focusing?

Minimize external distractions, find a distraction-reduced workspace, and limit mind-wandering.

Strategize about the time of day you work on difficult, creative, or boring tasks. Plan to do these tasks at times of the day when you are most alert, energized, and focused. Plan to do easier, routine, or more fun tasks during times of the day when your energy is lower.

Is perfectionism getting in the way?

Try some realistic self-talk. (e.g., “This paper doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, but it does need to be completed,” or “This one assignment doesn’t define me as a learner/scholar.”)

Written by Julianne Reynolds, Associate Director and Learning Specialist for International Students, Weingarten Center


Further Reading:

Lieberman, C. (2019, March 25). The New York Times. Why you procrastinate (it has nothing to do with self-control)

Willingham, D.T. (2023). Outsmart your brain: Why learning is hard and how you can make it easy. Gallery Books.

How to Use Practice Questions

Friday, February 23, 2024

Part Two of our two-part series on Practice Questions covers how to supplement practice questions, how to use practice questions, and where you can find practice questions. 

How do I supplement practice questions?

  • Look for online resources like video explainers. Always look for specific topics. As you watch these resources, try to engage with them. One way I recommend doing this is by trying to summarize those resources after watching/reading/listening to them. This way you are not just passively listening to information but actively trying testing if you are learning the material.
  • Request a tutor or go to a drop-in tutoring session. Having done practice questions before and knowing your gaps can help as you will have a more specific topic or area to discuss with your tutor. Tutors can sometimes even show you resources they have used in the past both for practice questions as well as supplemental materials.
  • Collaborate with other students in your class. We all have different strengths, so you may find that one of your classmates really understands a topic that you are having difficulty with. Additionally, you may understand a topic better than some in your class and, conversely, you can help them in their challenges. Teaching others is a great way of reviewing material, especially material that you already feel comfortable with.

How do I use practice questions to self-evaluate?

  • Group questions by topic and track your confidence and how easy or difficult the question was.
  • Look at the results. How many questions did you get right and wrong? Are there any patterns that you notice? For example, there may be a topic where you got most questions correctly, but you felt they were difficult and maybe it took you a long time to complete them. This can indicate that you want to do more practice on that problem not because you are not getting the answer right but because you want to be able to get through those questions faster during the exam.
  • Track your progress. Once you start improving on a topic make sure to shift your efforts accordingly. You may feel that you need to continue to spend a lot of time on a topic because, at first, you didn’t do well. However, you should evaluate if this is the case as you could be using this time to work on another difficult topic. Practice questions can give us a more objective lens in this area.

Where can I find practice questions?

  • Your professor may give practice quizzes and questions on their canvas shell. Please note that you should be doing more questions than what your professor provides.
  • Most textbooks include practice questions at the end of the chapter.
  • Penn Libraries has a Supplemental Resources Guide that features books that provide practice problems for most STEM courses.
  • Ask your professor or TA for any resources they think are good for practice questions.


Written by Oscar Escudero, STEM Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

Why Use Practice Questions?

Friday, February 23, 2024

Part One of our two-part series on Practice Questions covers why to use practice questions, when should you start using practice questions, and what is an efficient way of using practice questions.

Why use practice questions?

  • Professors tell us that, in STEM courses, practice questions are one of the most effective strategies to learn the material.
  • Practice questions can help us in two ways.
    • One, they can show us if we understand the material from lectures.
    • Two, they can help us identify any gaps we may have. If you consistently get practice problems wrong in a particular topic that you feel you understand, this is an indication that you may need to return to the material. Conversely, if you consistently get practice problems right this shows that you have a solid understanding of the material.
  • The best way to prepare for a test where you will be asked to solve or answer questions is to practice what will be given in the exam. You wouldn’t train for a marathon by just walking a few times before it.

When should I start practicing questions?

  • You should start to practice questions as early as possible. Starting to practice questions after lectures can give you a sense of what you need to study next.
  • You should do practice questions as many times as possible before an exam.

What is an efficient way of using practice questions?

  • Start with an equal number of questions per topic so you can gauge where your gaps are. Don’t worry about how much time you spend on each question but do set an amount of study time you will be spending studying overall. I recommend an hour to two hours per lecture as a good rule of thumb.
  • As you work on questions keep track of your confidence. If you notice that you are confident about a topic but are not getting the expected results, maybe you are making small mistakes and just need to pay closer attention, or you may be overestimating your understanding and may need to revisit that topic. If you find the opposite, try to assess what is happening. Are you guessing and being lucky or are you understanding the topic and underestimating your ability?
  • Avoid looking for the right answer immediately instead try to get to the answer by retrieving prior knowledge.
  • Once you identify your gaps go back to those topics and revise them again (we’ll discuss this further in part two).
  • Now that you know where your gaps are, try adjusting the number of questions. Do more questions on the topics that you did not do well on in the first round. This doesn’t mean avoiding questions on the other topics. You are just shifting your efforts where they are most needed.

Try to do a couple of practice exams before the real thing. I recommend you do one a week before the exam and one a couple of days before. This will help you get a feel of not only how you are doing with the material but also how to tackle questions in an exam format. You can visit the Penn Libraries’ Guide on Practice Problems in Math and Science for a quick tutorial on how to use practice exams.

Written by Oscar Escudero, STEM Learning Specialist, Weingarten Center

Active Reading

Thursday, November 30, 2023

One of the most frequently asked questions at the Weingarten Center by undergraduate, doctoral, and professional students alike is: “How do I manage the ungodly amounts of reading I am assigned?” Many of us have internalized the narrative about ourselves as a “slow reader” while others seem to have somehow unlocked the secrets to “speed reading,” as if human processing speeds can be adjusted like the dials of an audiobook app. And so, we trudge along, berating ourselves for our perceived deficiencies in reading speed.

We suggest reframing those narratives you hold about yourself.

Many of us have been socialized to believe that reading should happen the same way regardless of genre, whether it’s the latest young adult romance novel or an academic research paper: start from the first word on the first page and continue in a linear fashion until you’ve soldiered through to the last word on the last page.  This is not only time consuming and inefficient, but also a very passive way of reading.

The problem is not your natural reading speed but how you’ve been socialized to read. 

A revelation about reading at the collegiate or graduate level: you are not expected to read every word of every assigned reading (really). However, we do recommend re-reading that sentence again, word-for-word, until it really sinks in. Some of the skills you are expected to build in college and graduate school is to read selectively and to develop the skills to quickly, and efficiently distill a large amount of content into useful takeaways for further application or analysis. In other words: how you approach academic readings should be different from how you approach reading for pleasure.

Below are some tips to help you reframe how you approach your academic reading to both maximize efficiency and learning:

    • Preview the reading: Start by taking a look at the headings, titles, sections or chapters, relative lengths of parts, and prioritize your reading accordingly. You don’t have to read the sections in order, and you might choose to skip entire areas altogether.

    • Read with a purpose: Before you start reading, identify the piece of information you are expected to glean from the reading, whether that be a new concept, theory, perspective, or answer to a particular question, etc.  You should be able to get a general sense of this by perusing your syllabus. Then read as if you are on a quest searching for that specific piece of information.

    • Synthesize the reading: After you’ve completed the reading, make quick notes to distill the main takeaways in your own words. You will especially want to think about how that particular reading is in conversation with others you’ve been assigned in that class.
        • Pro tip: These notes should be useful in helping you decide whether you want to use that reading as a potential reference in a future essay assignment, so be mindful of that as you take notes.

Some of you may bristle at the idea of not reading every assigned reading to completion; it can be hard to fight that deep socialization and many years of habit. But we challenge you to let go of this notion that there is virtue in word-for-word reading.  We recommend that you try out this selective active reading strategy with your elective classes or other classes that are lower in your priority list. You will quickly find that there is only a marginal benefit to word-for-word reading, and that your overall improved wellness and time is worth the effort of selective, active reading.

Of course, there is nothing stopping you from reading more deeply and closely, especially for topics you find particularly fascinating. We encourage you to follow your intellectual curiosities as they arise.  After all, that is one of the greatest delights of life as a student: discovering entirely new intellectual passions.  But you might find that you do not have the time to pursue these new curiosities if you’re too busy trying to read every word of every reading in every class.

Written by Ayoung Lee, Learning Specialist and Fellow, Weingarten Center

Making a Case for Study Groups: Establish Safety and Value

Friday, May 7, 2021

In the last installment of this series, we addressed 3 of the most common challenges that study groups face:

  • study groups turning into study group socials
  • uneven distribution of work
  • unclear expectations

In this post, we will address these challenges from an asset-based perspective and through this question: what factors contribute to the success of effective study groups?

Interestingly enough, Google was also interested in this question. Already convinced that team effort yields the most productivity, the tech company conducted a large and extensive study to discover what characteristics every successful team had. Find out what Google learned by watching the video below:

Psychological safety. Every successful team figured out how to establish a sense of psychological safety for every member. Google broke this characteristic down into two other components: balance of speaking and social sensitivity. Considering these two components when we think back to the common challenges of study groups, everything starts to make more sense! When everyone does not feel like their contributions are or will be valued, study groups are not as productive. If the team does not practice social sensitivity, does not establish a culture of care, it is unlikely that team members will feel comfortable with making mistakes and troubleshooting challenges.

As we move forward from the social-psychological characteristics of successful study groups, we encourage you to use the Group Contract in your first study group session in order to set clear expectations and maintain a culture of care. Next time, we break into the cognitive ideas of growth mindset and metacognition to help facilitate meaningful interactions between group members and course content.

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Specialist

Making a Case for Study Groups: Addressing Common Challenges

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

If you’re like me, you’re always asking clarifying questions. In this case, the question is this: if study groups are supposed to be effective, why do many study groups fail to meet that expectation?

While there are a number of reasons why study groups can be unproductive, the focus of this post is to bring attention to the following:

  • study groups turning into social gatherings
  • uneven amounts of work
  • unfavorable communication patterns

If you’ve been in a study group that turned into a social gathering, go back to that moment and think about what contributed to that result? One of the factors you might come up with is that the study group was a little too large. The recommendation is that study groups are kept between 3 and 5 people in order to avoid instances of side-conversations and to help everyone feel like they are being heard (which does not always have to be verbal). Another factor contributing to study group challenges involves unclear expectations.

Unclear expectations (unestablished norms and values) make it challenging to have a successful study group session. When these norms and values are not made explicit, a study group opting for causal conversation could be the least of your worries. If clear expectations about what must be done before and during the agreed-upon study time are not defined, it is likely that a study group will not be as productive as everyone would like. Some students may even feel like they are consistently doing more work and taking more responsibility than others.

Transitioning away from the uneven distribution of responsibility, study groups can also become demotivating and uncomfortable spaces if the communication patterns of the group are not monitored and facilitated. There are instances where students can be turned off by the way another student responds to them or even how they react about the activities being done (“this is way too easy!”). Both unfavorable communication patterns and discomfort in the group setting result from unclear expectations.

The success of any study group is dependent on clear expectations and everyone’s commitment to them. That’s why the work of facilitation and the role of the facilitator is so important. A facilitator with appropriate interpersonal skills is able to see, for example, the presence and quality of communication between each combination of individuals and to the whole group. Similarly, a facilitator can monitor the productivity of the study group and bring attention to any consistent patterns of poorly distributed work. From there, they can take the necessary steps to make changes in the moment and in the future!

Stay tuned for the next post in this series as we learn a lesson from Google about the two characteristics that every successful working group has!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Specialist

Making a Case for Study Groups: Gather Consistently

Monday, April 5, 2021

“I’ve tried studying with friends and classmates, but we wound up either socializing too much or getting into personality conflicts.”
“Yeah, I always wound up doing most of the work.”
“I prefer studying alone.”

Many students have been socialized to study in solitary ways. They enter college used to studying alone, and they continue to see study as a solitary activity. College students are expected to manage an enormous reading load, work through intricate quantitative problems, and remember complex concepts. Students who gather together consistently to review and actively engage the weeks’ lectures and readings, are more on top of the coursework and better able to remember the material.

Here’s why:

  • Study groups multiply your resources. A combination of observations and ideas means more resources to draw upon.
  • A more effective communicator is a more effective learner. Discussion presses us to clarify ideas, evaluate others’ ideas, and further develop them.
  • When working with a group, you internalize not only facts and concepts, but critical thinking skills as well. These skills become tools for higher order thinking (analyzing, synthesizing and evaluating).

While these are great reasons to start studying with a group, one of the foundations of a strong group study experience is the time spent creating a safe space. Stay tuned for the next installment of this series as we shed light on some common study group challenges!

Adapted from “Making The Most of Your Study Group”, WLRC, 2014

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Specialist

Multiple Choice Exams: How to Prep

Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Moment of Truth

As a sophomore at Penn, and after two unfortunate biology midterms, I knew I had to change my study habits. For other classes, like philosophy and chemistry, I prepared for the tasks I would perform on the exam. I wrote outlines for philosophy and solved problems for chemistry, so I thought that answering a ton of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) before the final exam would work just fine. I mean, how many different ways could I possibly be asked about the content?

Turns out there were enough ways for me to be very confused on that exam. In fact, there are several types of MCQs: single-correct answer, best answer, negative, multiple true-false, and multiple response. Each of them can be used to test a variety of thinking skills from rote memorization to critical evaluation (Burton et. al., 1990).

To Prepare Well, Train your Thinking Skills

Aside from understanding the content, in order to prepare well, we need to develop the skills necessary to perform well. In the case of multiple-choice exams at the university level, these skills are application, analysis, and evaluation, primarily (see Figure 1). We can train those skills by getting creative with the study activities we engage in! Let’s get to know multiple choice questions a little better first, however.

This image depicts the the 6 thinking skills found in Bloom's taxonomy and emphasizes application, analysis, and evaluation.
Figure 1: Thinking skills at the University level. Adapted from “Bloom’s Taxonomy” by the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

The Primary Objective: Analyze and Evaluate

Multiple choice questions (MCQs) are composed of a stem (prompt), a correct answer and two or more incorrect statements. The primary objective for many types of MCQs is to analyze and evaluate each statement (Burton et. al., 1990). Part of our studying, then, should be focused on training our ability to analyze information in the stem and alternatives and to evaluate the correctness or relevance of each choice.

Easy, right? Well, not quite. Without test questions and some guidance or structure for how to think, it can be challenging to analyze information in an engaging way. This is why I suggest using a browser-based digital flashcard maker called, Quizlet!

With Quizlet, you and your study group—if you have one—can import content from Google Docs, Word, or Excel and turn them into flashcards. Quizlet, then, allows you to self-test in 4 different ways and there is even a mobile app called, Quizlet Learn! I think the Matching and True/False question types are particularly helpful because each type of question helps you train your ability to analyze possible answers. If you plan to use the Multiple-Choice question type, just make sure that you insert questions as your terms instead of a single word or phrase.

Just One Disclaimer

With that said, I have to make one disclaimer. Because Quizlet uses a computer program to generate these questions, it may be easier to choose the correct answer than on an exam. The mobile app claims to modify the difficulty of questions as you go, but I think this can only take you so far. Go to the next level by identifying any decent questions and modify the statements, the stems (the prompts at the top) or the distractors (incorrect answers) to make them more challenging. This process of modifying and improving questions will help you to train your ability to analyze and evaluate as well.

Other Great Alternatives

Even if you decide that Quizlet does not fit your specific needs, transform your study sessions by taking the time to apply, analyze, and evaluate your course content! Other methods include:

  • Making concept maps to identify the connections between the big ideas in your lectures
  • Creating flow charts to think through the steps in a pathway or process
  • Annotating important representations like pathways, graphs, and diagrams
  • Explaining your problem-solving process in words

Learning instructors would be happy to discuss multiple choice exam prepartation with you more in a virtual appointment! Call us at 215-573-9235 today!

By Staff Writer: Gabriel Angrand, STEM Learning Instructor


Burton, J. S., Sudweeks, R. R., Merrill, P. F., & Wood, B. (1991). How to prepare better multiple-choice test items: Guidelines for university faculty. Department of Instructional Science, Brigham Young University Testing Services. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from

Armstrong, P. (2015). Bloom’s Taxonomy. Vanderbilt University. Center for Teaching. Retrieved April 17, 2020 from

Open Book Exams: Are You Ready?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Open book exams can be illusionary. They appear easy, breezy, and create sweeping horizons because everything is at our fingertips. Read the next question, flip some pages, and pronto—there is the right answer.

If only…

Indeed, there is full access to everything: professor’s lecture notes, PowerPoints, textbook(s), homework and quizzes (with solutions!), personal class notes, friend’s class notes, the Internet, and so much more.

Yes, and yes to all the above.

Well, the easy access also becomes the source of murkiness. BECAUSE, access to all and everything comes with a set of caveats.

How will you identify the right answer in a timely manner?

My simple response is by being prepared for an altered mode of exams.

  • Maintain study routines: Read, understand, and confirm that you have understood. Practice problems, compare solutions with your results, check if you know how, and check again.
  • Whittle down: Identify and compile three resources for each individual exam.
  • Create a table of contents: While taking the exam, what you want to focus is on writing the responses correctly and not fishing for the right information. For example, you may want to identify where angular kinetics is situated within the professor’s PP, textbook, and recent quizzes. Mark the page #s. Similarly, you may want to organize the textbook and your class notes about Napoleon by placing sticky notes on similar trending themes. Bookmark websites that were referenced during class.

You can be ready—just with a different mode of preparation. Do not put off preparing for an open book exam until the night before.

Want to learn more about preparing for open book exams? Register for our upcoming virtual workshop, Preparing for Open Book Exams:

You can also schedule a virtual consultation with a learning instructor to discuss your strategies by calling 215-573-9235.

By Staff Writer: Dr. Rashmi Kumar, Associate Director of the Office of Learning Resources and Specialist in STEM Learning