Short-Answer Tests

The key to doing well in short-answer tests is demonstrating your understanding, not just your memory. Short-answer questions test your ability to remember and apply knowledge. They usually ask you to write one or more paragraphs, although you might be allowed to use bullet points and diagrams.

Doing well in short-answer tests relies on your ability to:

  • answer the question directly (rather than write about the topic);
  • write clearly, precisely and succinctly.

Preparing for Short-Answer Tests

  • Make sure you are studying the correct material — check your course outline or talk to your instructor.
  • Study actively — explain concepts out loud, teach them to a friend, or use concept mapping to organize your thoughts and show how concepts are related or differentiated.
  • Review your lecture and text notes, looking for themes, ideas, concepts, and trends that recur throughout the course. Organize your study notes around these major ideas. Integrate content from lectures with notes from the text or readings as you create your study notes.
  • Arrange a study group to discuss possible questions and key issues or concepts from the course.
  • Use old midterms, your course outline, study partners, and your lecture and text notes to help you predict and create possible questions.

Memory is an important component of preparing for short-answer tests. This video from the Learning Curve describes the Visualization Memory Strategy.

Participating in a study group is a great way to collaborate with your classmates in order to prepare for short-answer test. You can create practice questions for each other.

Writing Short-Answer Tests

  • Read the instructions carefully, noting how many questions you need to answer in each section.
  • Read all the questions on the exam before you begin writing. Consider the mark distribution and divide your time accordingly.
  • Pay close attention to the wording of the question. Ask yourself what you are being asked to do and how you are required to do it. Verbs like describe, contrast, or explain tell you what your instructor wants you to do.
  • Try to leave enough time to read over your answers at the end of the exam to make sure each response includes the required components.
  • Plan your answer: what is your main point, what terms do you need to define or explain, and what supporting ideas or examples do you need?
  • Use the language of the course to demonstrate your knowledge in that area.


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