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How to Prevent Homework From Screwing Up Real Life

How to Prepare for Exams


About Exams

The reason professors give exams is to find out how much you have learned. Professors need to know that in order to assign grades at the end of the term. You also need to know it so as to assess whether you are mastering the knowledge and skills you paid all this money to go to college to get. Another reason for exams is motivational. There's nothing quite like the prospect of a good or bad grade to keep one's mind focused during the boring bits.

In other words, exams are the potholes in the road through college, and you just have to deal with it. Here're some thoughts on the subject.

In general, as I develop exam questions, I want to identify three things:

  1. Has the student studied the material of the class?
  2. Has the student understood it?
  3. Has the student thought about it well enough to manipulate it?

These three questions probably underlie all exams, regardless of the discipline, but since I am an anthropology professor, I will talk about anthropology exams and exams that are like anthropology exams.

Some professors prefer a very narrow sample of the student's understanding and make an exam with only one or two thought-provoking questions that are to be answered at some length, often by composing an essay on a set problem. The logic is that they are concerned to see how well you can reason with the material presented. The disadvantage is that with only one or two questions, there is a risk of the topics falling into or outside of the student's particular strength, so unless the questions are pretty central to the course, the exam results can be heavily influenced by luck.

Other professors (including me) prefer to get a broader sampling of what you know, using more questions on more topics, and necessarily requiring less time per question. Sometimes this can be done with multiple-choice or true-false formats or variants on them. Sometimes the responses are written into spaces on the exam. Nearly always at least some of the questions on an exam require brief written responses. Since there are more questions which still must be thought-provoking, such exams can require astonishing professorial effort to create. Otherwise they risk turning into mere memory dumps by the student.

About Preparing for Exams

In theory, if you have kept up with everything, you should not need to do any extra study for an exam. (In theory the moon is made of green cheese, too.) In fact, although you can usually pass an exam without special study, doing really well on an exam with no special pre-exam preparation turns out to be an unrealistic expectation.

"When a man's knowledge is not in order, the more he has of it the greater will be his confusion," wrote the philosopher Herbert Spencer. He was probably thinking about anthropology exams. The problem, then, is not so much to increase knowledge as to reduce confusion, that is, to organize what you know.

In preparing for an exam, you should, of course, review each of the readings and each of the lectures, first alone, then perhaps with a fellow-student. If the class has labs, then the lab projects should also be reviewed.

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About Taking Exams

Exams are the potholes in the road through college, and you just have to deal with it.

Questions of Fact. In introductory courses, most professors ask quite a lot of straightforward questions of fact. Not obscure facts, but facts that figure in the course in some meaningful way. Admittedly this is partly just to be sure you have been there and been paying attention. Partly it is to find out whether you understand the situation.

For example, the interpretation of fossil life forms depends very much upon their sequence in time. You probably won't remember the details a year after you study them, and you may well mix up the names shortly after the course ends, but at the time you are studying them, you should have a sense of a series of reasonably linked changes in them, and when you go into an exam, names like Homo habilis should still be fresh in your mind so that you are in a position to talk about them. It therefore makes sense for the instructor to check your ability to do that.

Assuming that you have read everything and attended the lectures, and that you have reviewed it all and have basic control over the facts, you should be able to answer these kinds of mechanical questions, whether they are in very short answer form (true-false, matching, &c.) or are in the form of questions requiring short paragraphs of explanation.

Questions of Interpretation. The next issue is being able to reason some about these issues and to link them to each other. This is more challenging. And although it is perfectly possible to use a multiple-choice format to test a student's ability to reason about the course, most professors prefer to use brief essays for this purpose. To answer requires not only good recall at the time of the exam, but the ability to draft a coherent statement with little time to plan it and no possibility of revision.

The following four rules of thumb may help you to write good essays under these circumstances. (Why do I give this stuff away for free? Exam prep companies charge a fortune to reveal secrets like these!)

  1. Pause to decide what the question asks, then provide a two or three sentence answer. (Probably about half of all poor essay answers are "memory dumps." That is, they are stimulated by a keyword in the question, but they do not address themselves to what the question actually asks.)
  2. Add some specific examples from the course materials. (Some successful students make it a rule of thumb to try to give three examples of everything. That is a bit rigid, but at least it makes you think about examples.) Labeling each example with the phrase "for example" helps the grader understand that you can tell the difference between an example and the principle you claim it is exemplifying. (Believe it or not, there are some people who can't.)
  3. Reread the answer you have written to be sure you have in fact addressed what the question asks. If the question is divided into parts A and B, be sure that you have answered both parts and have indicated which part of your answer responds to A and which to B. (It is a source of continuing wonder how many students ignore the second half of a two-part question and hence miss out on half of the points for that question.)

    Exception: It sometimes happens that a professor asks a question that doesn't seem to make any sense or that misses the point in some way. Sometimes it may even be a trick question (although that is rare). You can always ask whether it is a typo or other mechanical error, but assuming the professor thinks the question is what was intended, what are you going to do with it? The best approach is to begin by pointing out the problem, then stating the real question, and then answering that.

    For example, a question in a paleontology course might ask you to describe Neanderthal specimens from China. The problem is that no forms in China are properly described as Neanderthal, even though that is what the question assumes. (This one really is a trick question.) The best approach is therefore to explain that no Chinese fossils have been identified as "Neanderthal" in the way that the term is used for European forms, and then, if you know more than that, go on to say that some Chinese forms are more or less contemporary with European Neanderthals, and appear to be morphologically intermediate between Homo erectus and modern humans, and that they include Maba, Dingcun, Liujiang, or whatever other examples you can think of.

  4. Remember that brevity is not a virtue on exams. (Say that out loud three times.) Answer as fully as time allows, even if the instructions say to be brief and concise. Give examples. Define terms. Express doubts. Show the grader that you know what is going on and that you can see the implications of what you are saying. Points are awarded for what you say, not for what you leave out, so you need to say stuff if you are to provide the grader a chance to give you points. On the other hand, do not obviously pad the answer by restating what is in the question. (Why should anybody give you points for copying the question?!) It's also a bad idea to add unneeded expansions that you are not sure about. For example, a good exam essay on Inca surgery can lose credibility badly if you add an unnecessary line about the Inca being in Mexico when in fact they were in Peru.

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Additional Logistic Advice

  1. Watch the clock.
    Make sure you allocate your time well enough to be able to get through the whole exam. (There are exams that you are not expected to finish, like the SAT exam, but these are rare in college courses. What professor wants to make up questions that most people won't even get to?)  
    It is a good idea to glance through the exam when you start to see which parts have the highest and lowest point loading. Lots of exams block short, easy questions first and long difficult ones (with lots of points attached to them) toward the end. Lingering over the beginning and running out of time at the end is a common but expensive error. Thirty seconds or a minute spent looking over the exam to plan your time before you begin is time well invested.  
    (It also makes sure you have a perfect copy of the exam, with no misprinted or blank pages. And it tells you what is NOT on the exam, so you can forget some of what you crammed, making a little extra mental space to work in. Or anyhow, it feels like that.)
  2. Read the (damned) instructions.
    Instructions may not be a major literary genre, but one time in five they will save you from doing something that seriously damages your grade and makes you look like an idiot into the bargain. For example, the instructions may tell you to answer only two out of five questions. Spreading your effort over all five may lower your score on the only two that will be graded. Or the instructions may say that each multiple-choice question should have two answers. Or that all donkeys should be considered cows. Or almost anything else.
  3. Read each question all the way through.
    A surprisingly large number of people who get multiple-choice questions wrong do so because they select the first vaguely plausible answer when there is a better answer further along in the list.
  4. Do not leave questions unanswered.
    If you are not sure of an answer, you can usually at least eliminate some of the possibilities on a multiple-choice question, and on an essay question you can probably write something, even if it isn't wonderful. Remember that if you have put down nothing whatever for a question, the grader has no excuse to give you any points at all on it. When in doubt be creative. (Click me.)
  5. Do not answer more questions than necessary.
    Some professors allow you to select a set number of questions from a longer list of possibilities (three out of five, for example). Don't answer more than the number asked for. Most professors don't bother to grade your extra work, and the mean ones will deliberately count the weakest answers! But just as importantly, you leave yourself too little time to write competitive answers to the questions that will actually be graded.
  6. Never leave any exam early.
    If you have extra time, reread the instructions and the questions and your answers to be certain you answered the questions asked, preferably brilliantly, and didn't do anything obviously stupid. (BTW, I have never seen the highest grade on an exam go to the first person out the door.)
  7. Don't sit with the people you studied with.
    Your answers are probably going to look similar because you studied together, and you need to preclude any suspicion that you copied from each other. (This web site provides an extensive separate page on cheating with some more cheerful tips like this one.)

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About Take-Home Exams

There are a number of good reasons that professors adduce for giving take-home exams:

  1. One is that the in-class exam has been scheduled by a sadistic registrar for the middle of the night on Christmas Eve.
  2. Another is that in the real world of research, people look stuff up all the time so students should allowed to do that too.
  3. Yet another is that students' essays on take-home exams are usually printed out from word processors and therefore cannot disguise ignorance by means of bad handwriting.

The stupidest thing a student can do, however, is to assume that a take-home exam will be easy. It's true that you don't have to memorize a bunch of dates or formulas or names of mystical Germans. But the professor is not going to ask you a handful of true-false questions that you can look up in Wikipedia or find from the index of your textbook, or that you can ask your genius roommate in exchange for three nights of dishwashing.

Instead, each question will be something designed to be oddly and wonderfully resistent to vagaries of indexers, counsels of roommates, and interrogations of the Internet. As a result, take-home exam questions must consist of problems to work, puzzles to solve, and opinions to defend. They depend on having paid attention in class and knowing where stuff is in the assigned readings. They build upon experience with experiments and knowledge of which formulas go where. And in the end, they are intensely personal. (I have never given a take-home exam that students did not report was the most difficult exam they had ever taken and maybe the most difficult in all human history.) Perhaps worst of all, if you are at all competitive, it is impossible to go to sleep knowing that as you do so some other student is working on the exam.

I have never given a take-home exam that students did not report was the most difficult exam they had ever taken and maybe the most difficult in all human history.

In the end, of course, the grades are no lower, or even particularly differently distributed, with take-home exams. Lots of students even find that they learn a lot from them, so that they constitute what professors in schools of education like to call "capstone" experiences. If you take a class with a take-home exam, your best approach, I suspect, is to think of it as a game. Not, perhaps, the most delightful game. But still, game-like in its challenges. At least, you may console yourself, you will have time to think about it before you launch into your answers.

(BTW: There is no effective way for professors to limit consultation or collaboration on take-home exams. Some universities have honor codes or other honor systems, sometimes with rat-on-your-buddy provisions, and most students take them quite seriously. But it is simply naïve for a professor to imagine that all students who are confronted with take-home exams will ignore "forbidden" sources of information and advice, especially in this age of the Internet. As a student, you should play by the rules, of course. And if there is cheating to report, you should report it, I guess. But if you are a professor, you should not give a take-home exam if your feet haven't touched the ground in years.)

And Finally …

Finally, of course, confronted by an exam of untold ghastliness, you can also always invoke the ghost of your college patron. In Eleanor Roosevelt College, that is Aunt Eleanor. In Earl Warren College, it's Big Earl. And so on. (At UCSC it's a banana slug. Go figure.) Rumor has it that this works, and indeed Aunt Eleanor seems almost pathetically grateful for chocolate chip cookies placed before her statue in the ERC administration building. There have been countless (unconfirmed) reports of exam miracles associated with cookie-sacrifice. (Once, when the room was locked, some students were forced to eat the cookies themselves, but they ate them with grateful reverence and therefore went on to do remarkably well on the exam.)

I don't encourage this. Although it is not cheating, it is superstitious  to give chocolate-chip cookies to bronze statues, right up there with wearing a lucky exam shirt or walking backwards past the faculty club before you go to the exam room. Even assuming that it works brilliantly, you wouldn't want to be seen being superstitious just to get a higher grade, would you? (Well … would you?!)

Links to other Test-Taking Sites:

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