Friday, December 2, 2005

How to do well on a final examination

Saying the word "final" is usually enough to bring a classroom to dread-filled silence. Exams can indeed be scary. Studying ahead of time and getting a good night's sleep are two ways to defuse stress and do well. Here are five more:

1. Overprepare. That might seem like a poor way to study. But over many years of teaching, I've found it to be sound advice. It's much wiser to take an exam too seriously and find it easier than you expected than to wish — when it's too late — that you'd studied more. Think of the baseball player who swings two or three bats before stepping up to the plate. On-deck time is what makes the work with one bat stronger.

Don't confuse overpreparing with cramming. If you overprepare, do so in advance, so that you can get a good night's sleep before the exam.

2. Bring several writing instruments. If your one pen or pencil fails and you need to borrow a replacement, you'll lose time, annoy others, and look silly.

3. Use your time wisely. Three ways to do so:

Wear a watch so that you can manage time on your own terms. Many professors and proctors will mark the time on the blackboard, but glancing at a watch is better than depending upon the click of the chalk — distracting at best, stressful at worst — that lets you know that another chunk of time has vanished.

Map out your work. When your professor talks about the exam, make sure that it's clear how each part will count toward the whole. If, for instance, you have two hours and an essay that's worth half the exam, give yourself an hour to plan, write, and review your essay.

It's not unusual for students in the blur of exam week to lose track of when an exam has started and will end. So map out your work not only in minutes but with starting and ending points. Then you can't lose track of where you are. For instance,

2:15-2:45: identifies
2:45-3:15: short essay
3:15-4:15: long essay
You can work out these details beforehand and write them discreetly in the corner of an exam booklet when you begin.

Finally, don't rush. This advice is especially important if your exam falls late in exam week, when many students have already left campus. Just take your time; your vacation will be waiting for you when you're done.

4. Elaborate. If you have a choice between making a point briefly and elaborating, choose to elaborate. A professor reading a final exam is reading to "get to done" — to assign a grade and move on to the next exam in the stack. So you should show your knowledge and understanding in all appropriate ways. As I tell my students, I like reading an exam that lets me say "Okay, okay, you know the material. Enough!"

This suggestion assumes that whatever you're elaborating on is relevant to the question at hand. Irrelevancies won’t help your case. Nor will mere bull, which is altogether different from knowledge and understanding.

5. Don't panic. In the worst-case exam scenario, an exam-taker goes on automatic, misreading questions, skipping key directions (like "Choose one"), and producing verbal babble as the time zooms by. It's important to stay calm enough to focus on the work there is to do. You might visualize yourself sitting down, reading the questions, planning your responses, and doing well. Another way to avoid panicking is to remind yourself how much time you really have. A two-hour exam equals four episodes of a situation comedy — a lot of time when you look at it that way.

Best wishes to all readers (students and faculty) contending with final exams.

[Nancy panel by Ernie Bushmiller. Found while playing Five-Card Nancy.]

A related post
How to do horribly on a final exam

comments: 7

Anonymous said...

A note on point 4: my professors will fail a student who elaborates too much. Concise and to the point, answer the question and nothing more. Elaborating too much proves nothing, only that the student has successfully memorized his syllabus. Answering just the question shows that he at least knows what the words he's writing down mean.

Michael Leddy said...

I don't think we're in disagreement, Anon.: "So you should show your knowledge and understanding in all appropriate ways" (emphasis added). Short answer is short answer, but with other kinds of questions, choosing to be expansive and not quick and sketchy makes all the difference.

Anonymous said...

This teacher is amazing :)
I listened to him and got a 90 on my final exam! :D

Michael Leddy said...

Good for you, Anon. I'm glad that you found this advice helpful.

Eric Wiland said...

I would also recommend that students use the full time alloted for the exam. It is better to proofread what you've written, make sure that you've answered the question asked, etc. than it is to hand the exam in early.

Tracy Mendham said...

Wonderful, demystified, doable suggestions. Thanks! I linked to you from from my blog Schoogle: http://schoogle.wordpress.com/2010/05/03/how-to-do-well-on-a-final-exam/

Anonymous said...

good topic