Test Taking Tips

Be Clear

In most cases, the best answers are written clearly in complete sentences. In a few cases, bulleted listed can be used effectively to save time. For example:

Q: What are the features of rho-independent transcriptional terminators?

A1: Rho-independent transcriptional terminators are specific secondary structures that form in bacterial mRNA. Typically, GC-rich stem-loops form, followed by a run of uridine residues. Association of the GC-rich stem is believed to facilitate dissociation of the nascent mRNA strand from the DNA template. The U-rich region also facilitates dissociation. Rho-independent terminators often precede GC-rich regions in the template DNA; this regions likely increases the energy required for DNA-melting and increases the probability of dissociation of the mRNA from the template.

A2 : Rho-independent terminators are mRNA secondary structures that:

  1. Contain GC-rich stems
  2. Are followed by a run of uridine residues
  3. Employ these features to facilitate mRNA dissociation from the template DNA strand

A good way to write clear, concise answers is to follow the next piece of advise:


Use technical terminology correctly

Proper use of vocabulary aids in effectively answering questions. In the above answer, I used the term "template DNA." This term conveys information much more effectively than "the strand of DNA read by RNA polymerase to synthesize RNA." Familiarity with technical vocabulary is an important contributor to career advancement in any scientific field. Be aware, however, that improper use of technical vocabulary, or tentative and inappropriate usage, can serve to illustrate ignorance and confusion.


Don't repeat the question in your answer

This practice wastes time and energy. Avoid repeating what is stated in the question, and repeating your own points. Here is an example with useless information in italics. The answer is then reformulated to provide the same information in a more compact form:

Q : Distinguish between tables and chairs.

A1 : Tables and chairs are two different classes of objects; many features distinguish between them. First of all, tables typically present a horizontal surface between 30" and 45" off of the ground; this allows one to work effectively on the surface in activities such as eating or writing. In contrast, chairs are often much closer to the ground. Ultimately, this height difference is related to functional differences. Tables are most often used as sites on which objects can be placed or stored. This distinguishes tables from chairs, which most often serve as a support for the human form. This functionality leads to additional design differences. Chairs often have backs which allow one to sit in a reclining position; tables lack such features.

A2 : Tables are most-often used as sites on which objects can be placed; chairs serve as supports for the human form. Therefore, tables present a horizontal surface higher off of the ground, and chairs often have backs which allow one to sit in a reclining position.


The time we expect you to spend on a question is related to its point value

If a seemingly short question seems to be worth a lot of points, I expect either a detailed answer, some thought, or both. Similarly, I don't expect tomes to be written on questions with little point value. For example, two appropriate answers are provided below:

(2 points) Define a cat : A family of mammals including a species commonly adopted as family pets.

(20 points) Define a cat : House-cats are small mammals commonly adopted as family pets. They were domesticated several thousand years ago in Egypt. Although house cats are small in size (less than 20 pounds), related species can be much larger. Cats are carnivorous and in natural environments are fierce predators. Etc etc

You can see how a list could be employed in the second answer to convey the information more effectively.


Don't answer a question with unrelated information

If you don't know much about cats, don't try to impress us with your detailed knowledge of related domesticated animals, like dogs. If we ask you about specific features of the cat skeletal system, don't spend a lot of time talking about its nervous system. And on a related topic:


Don't answer a specific question with general information

Many times, an instructor will ask a very specific question about a topic covered in depth in class. We are looking for a very specific answer; don't waste time giving general information that, although perfectly true in its own right, does not answer the question. We know you can't tell us everything you know on a single exam; don't fill up the space conveying unrequested information. For example:

Q: Which two-party system dominated American politics in the early twentieth century?

A1: Many parties have shaped the development of American politics. Starting in in the early 19th century, the Federalist party, blah blah blah... (This is not answering the question and the student will be disappointed to receive little, if any, credit)

A2 : The Republican party and the Democratic party.

A3 : The Republican party (its mascot is the Elephant) and the Democratic party (its mascot is the Donkey). (Here, the correct answer does appear, but time and energy is wasted providing information not requested.)

In many cases, the student is writing down everything they know about a particular subject in hopes of including the correct answer to the specific question in there somewhere. Points are typically deducted for including irrelevant information that only serves to obscure the appropriate answer.


Don't fill up all of the space on the page

Don't try to fill up all of the white-space on the page simply because it is there. Move on to the next question when your think you have answered the current question.


Show your logic in problems

I can not award full credit to answers that don't indicate how the answered was calculated. Moreover, we can give partial credit if I see one flaw in your logic that has thrown off your answer; this is not possible without the work shown. Therefore, factually correct answers without any work shown are awarded fewer points than are answers that arrive upon technically the wrong answer, but with a sound logical flow. For example:

(10 points) Q : Calculate how many net ATP are generated by the complete oxidation of fructose.

A1 : 38 (Although correct, this answer shows no evidence for a calculation and at best would be awarded half-credit, 5 points. A regurgitation is not a calculation)

A2 : 40 (This answer is both incorrect and lacks any work shown; this gets 0 points)

A3 : 4 ATP via substrate-level phosphorylation, 2 reduced FAD's makes 4 ATP, 10 reduced NAD's make 30 ATP, and 2 GTP's make 2 ATP for a total of 40 ATP. (Although technically incorrect, it is clear that the student merely left out the 2 ATP's expended in kinasing reactions. I would score this as 8 points.)


Stay Calm


Watch the time

Don't let time slip away from you as you complete your stunning, Pulitzer-prize-winning response to question number one. Exams are typically written so that students have enough time to finish. I write 80 minute exams so that I complete them - thinking about the question, formulating the answer, and writing the answer on the page - in 20 minutes. If you spend half of your time completing 20% of the exam, you will be frantic in the remaining time and answer ineffectually those questions you manage to complete before time runs out.

Last Updated 14 August 2006, by JG Lawrence