Lab Exams

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Laboratory exams evaluate the knowledge and skills you've gained during labs. They may also test your ability to integrate text and lecture content with the lab content. Some students consider lab exams to be more stressful or difficult than lecture exams because lab exams usually include visual components, such as slides, specimens, or diagrams, as well as time constraints for answering each question.

Here are some ideas and strategies, gathered from current and former University of Guelph students, to help you manage this type of exam.

Using Lab Time Effectively

During a lab exam, you'll often need to use certain skills, such as identifying structures in a specimen or using a microscope, which can't be easily learned outside of the lab. To ensure enough time to learn and practise these important skills, follow these suggestions for using your lab time effectively:

  • Read the lab prior to completing it, so you're prepared to associate visuals with written factual information
  • Stay engaged with what's happening during the lab and ask the TA questions to enhance your understanding of the relationships between the visual aids and factual information
  • At the end of the lab, fine tune the skills you've just gained by reviewing the lab's objectives. For example, without your lab book, try to identify all the key structures in a specimen, or practise focusing slides and identifying the specimen on them more quickly
  • If you can't complete a lab in time, try to return at a later time. It's important to complete every lab since you may be tested on material which can only be viewed during the lab

Preparing to Study

Some key questions to ask before studying for and writing a lab exam are:

  • What is the format of the questions (one-word answers, chart completion)?
  • How will the questions be presented (slide show, microscope slide, preserved specimen, photograph, diagram)?
  • Will marks be deducted for spelling mistakes?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help you decide how to study and what to emphasize when you study.

Learning the Material

Study Notes

For each lab, make a set of study notes that integrate and summarize the important information used to complete the lab. For example, you may include the pre-lab talk, class notes, lab demonstrations, the lab manual, and visuals. Reviewing your study notes regularly will enhance your ability to remember the information. You may also find flashcards and charts helpful for remembering and recalling information quickly.


Flashcards, which incorporate pictures where applicable, can help you test your ability to identify structures and recall information while under time constraints. For example, by placing a diagram on the front of a flashcard with arrows pointing to key structures, you can test your ability to identify the structures and their functions. Ask a friend to help, or use a stopwatch, to practise recalling the answers in a limited amount of time.


Creating charts is another effective way to study. Charts allow you to compare and contrast a lot of information in a concise and visual manner and to continually integrate additional information as you learn it. 

Example of a chart to use for studying

Three-Dimensional Objects

One of the challenges of lab exams is working with three-dimensional objects which may be displayed from different angles than those shown during labs. When studying, focus on the spatial relationships of the structures. When possible, attend a review session or another lab in order to look at the material from different views and angles.

With permission from your lab instructor, you can also take photographs of dissections or demonstration material. Be cautious, however, to ensure that you're using your time wisely. It can be a very time-consuming process to photograph the material, download it onto your computer, and label the pictures. Make sure you have the time to do this and are not just finding a creative way to procrastinate.

Testing Your Knowledge

Creating and responding to potential exam questions allows you to review the material, look for relationships among the many pieces of information you're studying, and accustom yourself to the types of questions that might appear on the exam. Common types of questions include:

  • Identification questions
  • Function questions
  • Compare and contrast questions

Based on the objectives and concepts presented in the labs, try to anticipate questions that may appear on the exam. ;For example, if a lab focused on the reproductive anatomy of a female mink, you could anticipate questions pertaining to identifying the major structures in the female reproductive tract. You could further assume that after identifying a structure you may need to state its function. If you also studied the male reproductive tract in the mink, you might expect exam questions which ask you to enumerate the differences between the male and female reproductive tracts.

A Special Situation: Bell Ringer Exams

Some lab exams are bell ringers, in which a bell (or other auditory signal) indicates that you must move from one station to the next. To keep calm in a potentially stressful situation, it's important to know the following:

  • How much time will you have for each question?
  • How many stations will there be?
  • How many questions will be asked at each station?
  • Can you revisit a station?
  • Are there breaks between stations or throughout the exam to look over your answers?

Strategies for Bell Ringer Exams

  • Practise answering questions under the exam's time constraints while using a bell or other auditory signal.'This strategy will reduce frustration and stress during the exam and is particularly important if it's your first experience with this exam format.
  • Prior to the exam, decide if at each station you will either look at the visual first or read the questions first. It is a good idea to practise both approaches prior to the exam and determine which approach is more efficient for you.
  • At each station, take a few moments to orient yourself to the visual. For example, determine what the visual is and from what angle you're viewing it.
  • Read the questions carefully to ensure you know what's being asked. For example, do you need to identify the structure the pin is in, or identify the structure preceding it? Keep in mind that each question may have multiple parts. For example, you may be asked to identify the structure, state its function, and explain why the function is important.
  • Try to write something for each question even if you need more time to complete the answer. At rest stations, go back to complete your answer. If this is not possible, partial credit may be given for your attempt.
  • Stay focused on the questions you are currently answering. Rest stations (if available) will give you time to rethink answers from previous stations.
  • If you blank out at a station, try to remain calm and work your way through the question. Recall any related information and ask yourself questions to help stimulate your memory of the material (for example: Which area of the specimen is the structure in? What structures are close to it?).
  • Since every station tests different information, not knowing the answer at one station should not affect your ability to respond to questions at other stations. Keeping a positive attitude and breathing deeply (don't forget to exhale!) between stations will enhance your ability to recall information quickly.