Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Exam-Time Tips

Most students here at Carleton are writing exams or working on final projects. This is the first April that I'm not doing the same thing - I'm in my second year of my Master's trying to finish my experiments for my thesis instead! But, needless to say, I've done it many times before, and have developed a pretty good system for studying for exams. While everyone learns in different ways, this strategy should work well for anyone in science and engineering, perhaps with some small modifications.

The basic idea is to find a couple of different ways to force yourself to retain the information you learned in your classes.

My first step (and probably where you all should start) is writing what I call a summary sheet. I comb through my own notes and the professor's slides, looking for key information. I write these down on real paper with a real pen, because when using a computer, the temptation to copy/paste is often too high. Plus, the act of thinking about what to write and then physically writing it is actually the first retention technique. It's amazing how much more I know about the course after doing this. It can take a few days if the time is available between exams dates, so don't procrastinate on this.

I sometimes pretend that my summary sheet is a cheat sheet that I can bring in to the exam with me. While I don't set a strict page limit for it, I do pretend there is some arbitrary one. That way I don't rewrite the whole course, but rather summarize most important stuff in my own words and pick out key information. Again, the extra thinking required to do this helps me remember the content.

Ok, so now I have this summary sheet. What's next? Well, this is where you might like to modify my strategy to fit your learning style. At this point, I like to be forced to recall the information verbally by having a friend (or even, say, my dad - they don't need to understand it) look at what I wrote and devise some straightforward questions about it. You may also want to look at it, cover it up, and try repeating it as a more rote way of memorizing the material (this might work better for practicing formulas, too).

After all that, I sleep. It's so important to be well rested for the exam. Even if I'm not done going through the whole course, I know when to stop, because not sleeping enough will be worse than not being able to answer a question or two on the exam. The next morning, I eat a good breakfast, and read over my summary notes one last time. But I just read them - I don't usually try to recite information or do any more memorizing, because that can be stressful (the last thing you need is more stress!).

Finally, I bring some water to the exam, and just relax! Nothing I do after sitting in that chair is going to change anything.

Give this method a try, and once you get the hang of it, you might even like it. ;) Best of luck on all your exams!


Barbora Dej said...

I have the same techniques and they work for me because it's not enough for me to just read my notes. Amazing how making a "cheat sheet" really helps!

Terri Oda said...

When I first got my laptop, I had to learn how to type and learn at the same time. I'd been taught to type as a secretary, where you turn off your brain so you can go faster. Not so good when you're trying to take notes! But even though I've mastered the art of taking notes on the laptop, I still do the summary sheet by hand as Gail described. Some habits die hard, I guess!