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Test performance matters.  In most of my senior and junior classes, exam scores have typically accounted for ~85% of my final grade.  However, professors have rarely given the students in these classes any guidance on how to succeed on tests, and when they do, the information has been almost totally useless.  I always make it a point to ask, both in class and at office hours, what recommendations would you make for students hoping to do well on this exam, and the response is almost always, if you know all the material you should be fine.  Not only is this terrible advice, but it is so wrong that I suspect the professors are being intentionally misleading.  Yes, the goal of a class (from the perspective of the professor) is that the students internalize all the important (as decided by the professor) material, then demonstrate it.  Let’s suppose that I have learned all the course material to the point of perfect recall, but I have not prepared for the test itself: the format could confuse me, I could run out of time because knowing something, and being able to do something quickly are two very different things, I could provide solutions on my exam that misrepresent my knowledge (not giving the professor the work or format they are looking for), and I could misunderstand the intention of the questions.  In fact its not uncommon for smart, hard working students to do poorly on tests because they are self-diagnosed “bad test-takers”.  In my experience taking heavily test based courses I’ve learned that this actually means that they are “bad test-preparers”, and that they are usually completely unaware of what this distinction means.

What I have found is that there is no shortage of information about inefficient test preparation methods given out by academic advisors, resident advisors, teaching assistants, and college workshops, but techniques that actually work are very difficult, and sometimes even impossible to find.  While this inefficiency is startling, it is also exciting for students who are aware of the preparation techniques that lead to a near perfect test performance.  My ability to properly prepare for exams has helped me achieve greatness as a student, and has significantly decreased the stress, uncertainty, and disappointment associated with the process (and the results).  The most valuable asset that I have learned as a student is my ability to test out different strategies and to see what works for me.  If it weren’t for my excitement about self experimentation and my ability to try new novel approaches (while selectively ignoring conventional wisdom), I would never have learned the strategy that I am presenting below.  What follows is not a perfect prescription for high exam scores, it is however the strategy that I have developed from six years of constant experimentation, which has lead me to score either a perfect score or the top score in all of my classes >50% of the time.  The best advice that I can give any ambitious student is to unlearn the techniques they already know for studying (primarily because most advice is total garbage, e.g.; review your notes, draw a flow diagram, pay attention in lecture, form a study group, …), and instead become objective, try something new, and compare your results.

Disclaimer:  I am heavily involved in math and physical science courses.  This strategy is made specifically for technical courses (Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, etc…) where problem solving is the goal of exams.  I have found it to work for all courses with some simple modifications.  For example in an English course the “problems” are essay topics.

The Study Strategy that Maximizes Test Performance:

14 Days Out: 

Starting two weeks in advance may seem more time consuming and impractical, but it allows you to take advantage of techniques to learn the material better (spacing), become more comfortable and powerful during the actual exam (simulations), and eliminate stress, late nights, or ever having an overwhelming amount of work to do (front loading and focus).

Deciding What to Study:

First construct a quick list (don’t spend more than 20 minutes on this) on everything that has been covered so far.  Do this using the past homework assignments as a guide.

Meet with your professor.  A private meeting or office hours is ideal because you can get more information out of them, and doing so privately gives you a small edge over the rest of the class (who probably aren’t going to study until 2 days before the exam anyways).  Express to your professor that you have been working hard all year and that you want to put in the work to do well on the exam.  This lets them know you are concerned with learning, not finding loopholes to a desired grade, which helps them feel more comfortable giving you helpful information.  Write down everything they say as they say it, then go through your list of topics one by one.  Ask can I expect to see this on the exam, for each one.  If they say no, cross it off, one less thing to study, less time wasted.  Finally ask, what are the most important testable topics covered on the upcoming exam?  Add whatever they say to your list.  Now you know what to study.

Figuring Out the Logistics of the Exam:

Now ask the professor every logistical detail about the exam.  The most important questions are; what resources are we allowed to use (crib sheets, calculators), what is the format of the exam (solving problems, multiple choice, how many problems, what length, are the problems similar to the homework, …).  Now you know how to study.  If you get are allowed a resource during the exam, do all of your preparation using that resource.  You wouldn’t practice for a basketball game on a 20 or 5 foot rim, you should use a regulation court.  That’s it for the day, just keep all of this information on one sheet of paper and use it as your guide moving forward.

13 – 10 Days Out:

Spend an hour or two a day, whatever feels good, but won’t burn you out, practicing for your exam using the following procedure.

Select a Problem Similar to a Possible Exam Problem:

Use whatever conclusions you gained from your list to find these problems.  If it is similar to the textbook problems, choose a textbook problem on a topic covered on the exam that you haven’t already solved.  If there is a practice test do that first.  If you can’t find the right problems, create them.  Look at past exams, other textbooks, modify in class examples.  You will rarely ever have to try this hard, usually solving the unassigned problems in the textbook and completing a practice exam (if it is available) is all you need to do.

Solve it with the Allowed Resources:

Focus, shut off outside distractions that won’t be available on tests and complete individual problems in a single sitting (no starting a problem at one session and finishing it at another).

Check Your Solution Immediately After:

Notice where you went wrong if you made a mistake, circle the problem and try it again later (add it to your pool of good practice problems).  Then organize these correct solutions in a folder and repeat.

9-7 Days Out:

Again, don’t overwhelm yourself.  You should be covering all of the topics, and gaining speed and accuracy in your problem solving abilities as you practice.  Continue to work problems, but do so in discrete intervals the length of the test time (e.g. One class session, the length of the final exam period).  Getting used to sitting still and focusing for the duration of the test is a valuable asset that can be easily trained.

Ensure Your Solutions are Worth Full Credit:

Meet with whomever will be grading your test (professor, TA, etc…) and show them your folder of completed problems with correct solutions.  This will let them know you are working hard, and if you make a mistake on the test they will be more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt, since you are demonstrating you are a good student.  Also asking for help allows them to partially share your success.  Show them your work and ask would this be worth full credit on an exam, and if not what changes would you recommend I make?  This ensures that on the exam you show exactly the amount of work they want to see, and you don’t waste time overanalyzing your results, or lose points for a partial explanation.  Also identify your weaknesses, where you struggle.  Ask how to solve problems you have trouble with, and focus your future studying more on these tricky problems, since there is no reason to spend your time practicing concepts you have already mastered.

6-3 Days Out:

In addition to one hour (no more) of solving new problems a day, which is meant meant to ensure that no matter what problem is asked on the exam, you are familiar with it and have solved something similar before (in my experience, often lazy professors pull problems from the textbook and you might be able to reproduce the entire solution from memory), add the most important element of the preparation process.

Simulating the Test:

Reproduce an environment identical to what you expect to see on the test.  Develop a test using problems you have not solved correctly before (and don’t look at the solutions until after you complete your test simulation)(Note: problems you have failed to solve correctly in practice are also perfect for these tests) and the information you understand about the logistics of the test (number and type of problems).  Take a break after writing the test to forget the problems (so you actually have to read them), then return to it and take a timed practice test.  You want to produce an environment more stressful than the actual test so it seems easier and you get a sense of relief when you take it (an analogy for this is practicing uphill runs for a flat race).  Choose challenging problems.  Give yourself less time on each subsequent practice test.  For example for a 60 minute test I practice by allowing myself 50 minutes on day 6, 45 on day 5, 40 on day 4, 35 on day 3.  After you finish spend at least an hour away from the test so you forget why you made the mistakes you may have made.  Then grade your test in the harshest manner possible (never give yourself the benefit of the doubt).  If you get a perfect score, it means your test was too easy and your next one should be more difficult (use more difficult problems).  Do this once a day.  To master something you must practice, so practicing the test itself should be the most straightforward strategy to improving your test score.

Correct Your Test:

After each test you take, research and write out full correct solutions.  Recognize where and why you made errors.  Problems you missed on past practice exams are fair game for future practice exams.

2 Days Out:

This is the last real day of studying.  Sharpen your tools, finalize your resources.  Make sure your crib sheets are complete, your calculators are fully powered and you are confident you understand what will be on the exam.  You can stop casually doing problems now, and instead focus all of your time on your test simulations.

Impossible Tests:

Make two worst case scenario tests.  Put on the most difficult problems the professor could possibly ask.  Focus on the topics you struggled with, and give yourself half of the time you will be allowed on the actual exam, and grade yourself brutally.  This will be a struggle, but it won’t necessarily be time consuming.  After completing these, grading them, and writing out complete idealized solutions, make one final exam simulation.  You should seek to make it as realistic as possible, and give yourself 3/4 of actual allotted time.  After the intense practice testing the realistic test will feel easy (or at least easier than you anticipated), you will probably complete it early because of all your practice with less available time.  You will most likely do very well, which will boost your confidence, and destroy all your pre-test anxiety.

The Day Before:

Take the day off.  Laugh at all of your friends and classmates who are staying up all night studying, are incredibly stressed out, and are unknowingly shooting themselves in the foot by taking the test with a sleep deprived mind.  They can’t possibly cram what you’ve done over the past couple of weeks into a single evening.  Have relaxing fun, and go to bed early.  I like to watch a movie the day before a test to keep myself composed and cool.  You over prepared (in intensity) for the exam, you should do well.

If you try this technique I would like to know how it works for you.  E-mail me with the subject line Conquering College at CharlieGriffin@email.arizona.edu to share your experience, or if you would like advice on how to do better in other areas of your classes.  I have a few articles already written from my college experience and I’d be happy to share them with anybody who is dedicated to taking action towards improving their academic performance.