Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How To Take An Exam: A Primer

It’s exam time down at Home Campus, and there is always room to learn more. Not particularly about the subject matter – those neurons died last summer during the Great Tequila Rampage of 2011, may they rest in peace, and you are just going to have to get by as best you can as far as History 101 or Chem 145 or Math 091 is concerned.

But there are other neurons still unblown that haven’t been marked out for specific purposes, neurons that can be put to use learning new skills.

Skills such as How To Take An Exam. Because you’re going to need to know that sort of thing, no matter what class you find yourself in.

So, you’re welcome.


1. Use the study guide.

You know that sheet of paper your instructor handed you a week ahead of time? The one that has 90% of the exam already on it? You might want to consider taking that seriously.

For one thing, your instructor is probably aware that the material covered in class can be overwhelming in its volume, speed and complexity, and this is a good way to cut it down to something manageable.

For another thing, a properly constructed study guide will also act as a review sheet, forcing you to put together the material in ways that reinforce the classes and assignments, turn it into a story and help to fix it into your head. Who knows? You might even remember it after the class is over.

And finally, the fact that you’ve got this a week in advance means that your professor is not likely to be forgiving when you go completely pear shaped on several of the answers. You had a week to look this stuff up. Get it right.

2. Show up on time.

There is a set amount of time allotted to an exam. You may spend however much of it you like in the hallways chugging the last of your Mountain Dew and texting your buddies about whatever stunt you pulled last night and how it affected your car, your relationship or your waistline, but that doesn’t mean the total amount of time allotted to the exam changes any. It’s a Zero-Sum Game that way at the college level. Plan accordingly.

3. Read the freaking directions.

Part of what we are trying to teach you here at the University is life skills. And one of the greatest life skills you can learn is the ability to find out what exactly is being asked of you in any given situation. In most places, you’re on your own with that. Fortunately for you, in the University setting, we will tell you – all you have to do is pay attention.

If you can manage that, you will be ahead of at least a third of your peers.

4. Read the entire test.

Get the lay of the land before you go charging into battle. Sun Tzu probably said that. I’ll bet Douglas MacArthur did too. So did Napoleon, Alexander the Great, and Alfred Thayer Mahan, at least to their subordinates and probably to their dogs. And you know why all these renowned military minds said that? Because it’s obvious, that’s why.

Figure out what you have to do before you go galloping off. It’s a whole lot easier to plan when not moving at top speed.

5. Go for the low-hanging fruit first.

Never voluntarily give up points. Do the quick and easy things before getting bogged down with the difficult or complex things, otherwise you will end up rushing.

This means if you get stuck on something, leave it and come back.

This also means skip the essays and head straight for the multiple choice questions. Questions where the answer is provided for you are always easier than questions where you have to think up the answer on your own. You’ll probably zip through them in no time. Don’t run out of time. Do these first and go back to the hard stuff afterward.

6. Leave nothing blank.

Leaving things blank says, “I’m not only too lazy to study, I’m also too lazy to guess.” This is not a good message to be sending.

There are very few exams that have a penalty for guessing. And most professors will try to work with you on an answer, so if you’re at all in the ballpark with something you might get a point or two just for trying. There’s nothing we can do for you if you don’t give us something to work with.

7. Don’t be so damned stupid.

You know that question that asked you to provide a date for an event? The event that had the date already there, right in the name? There really isn’t any excuse to put a different date down for that answer, is there?

Didn’t think so.

When you write something down, take a moment and just read it over. If you find yourself with an irresistible urge to face-palm, you may wish to change your answer.

8. Don’t bullshit me either.

Most professors have been doing this a long time. After a while, we can’t help but develop acutely sensitive bullshit detectors. You aren’t going to win that battle.

And if you do win that battle, you probably put in more work than if you had just done the actual work in the first place.

Put down what you know, extrapolate as best you can, but when you start making things up just to fill space you can pretty well stop and move on to the next topic. It will save everyone time in the end.

9. Write legibly.

Anything I can’t make out is by definition wrong. I am the sole and final judge of what I can or cannot make out.

If you really knew the answer, you’d make sure I could read it.

10. If you can’t be accurate, at least be entertaining.

Sometimes you can pick up a point or two just by making me laugh. After looking at the same answer thirty or forty times, an honest bit of nonsense can be refreshing.


TimBo said...

I've never managed to read an entire test before starting to answer, I have a compulsion to go after the low hanging fruit, however, I was able to leave hard questions until last. Many times they were partially answered in other questions.

Have have a niece who found true/false and multiple choice questions impossible. She simply couldn't go to any College.

re: #7 - The War of 18:12 was fought in the evening because many of the soldiers were farmers and needed to work in their fields during the day. The American chose 18:12 as the starting time to disrupt the evening meals of the English who had their tea at 18:00 promptly each evening. This strategy was vindicated in the Battle of New Orleans where the local Americans were mostly Cajuns and ate their evening meal much later, giving them a huge advantage over the British. Also, the Canadian burned down the White House.

David said...

I always managed at least a brief skim-over, just to see what the sections were and where I should start. It made my life a whole lot easier. And if MC/TF questions count as hard, by all means start with the essays.

Your essay on the War of 18:12 makes more sense than some of the ones I've graded. I'd have given it a few points under Rule 10, at least. :) But nobody in the US tells time that way unless they're immigrants or military vets.

tellthestories said...

I always thought the name of the War of 18-12 told the score. Didn't the French and Indians win that one by 6 points?


David said...

No, the French and Indians were on the same side. That's why they lost - too much confusion in the backfield.



John the Scientist said...

I thought the War of 1812 was between Tchaikovsky and Seward?

And the entrance ACS exams I had to take for gard school did take of 1/4 of a point for each wrong answer to discourage guessing. Nasty bastards, chemists are. :D

David said...

"The only winner in the War of 1812 was Tchaikovsky."
-Solomon Short (David Gerrold)

The GREs were the same way, but stuff you get in classes generally doesn't work that way - for one thing, it would turn a tedious process (grading) into a hideous process.

John the Scientist said...

That's what you have TAs for. Or at least what I was used for as a TA. I hated grading exams I didn't write. AAAAAARRGHH! Flashback! :p