Articles of Interest
Hello there dear students. As the examination period is up and coming, we believe that many of you are studying hard and smart for this moment. Thus, I would like to take this opportunity to share a chapter of a book (How to Become a Straight-A Student by Cal Newport) which prepares students on taking exams on the day itself. Please take some time to look through as they are actually very practical and useful. All the best!
Step 6: Provide “A+” Answers
The final step of the straight-A process is actually taking the test. Many students incorrectly believe that preparation is the only thing that counts. To them, taking a test is a simple matter of showing off what they know. This type of thinking is risky. Why? Even the most prepared student can bomb an exam due to poor test-taking skills.
The potential pitfalls during an exam are numerous, but the most common are: (1) running out of time and (2) providing answers that, although detailed don’t fully answer all parts of the question being asked. In fact, these two dangers work together in a devilish counter balance, making them particularly hard to conquer. That is, if you try to avoid spending too much time on questions, then you are likely to provide incomplete answers. On the other hand, if you try to provide detailed answers. On the other hand, if you try to provide detailed answers, then you are likely to run out of time.
The situation sounds dire, but it’s not. With the right strategy, you can eliminate these fears and ensure that your grace properly reflects your level of preparation. Straight-A students recognize this point, and when asked about test-taking process with great respect and this attention is reflected in their consistently high grades.
Their advice has been culled into five keys strategies. Together, they provide a comprehensive test-taking system, finely tuned through experience to maximize performance. Follow these fules on every exam, and you’ll be able to transform yourself into a test-taking machine – cool, confident, and ruthlessly efficient as you move from question to question, providing the best possible answers.
Strategy #1: Review First, Answer Questions Later
“I always read through the entire exam first,” explains Robert from Brown. This is good advice – for an exam, your first step should always be to review all of the questions. If it’s an essay exam or a technical exam with a relatively small numbers of questions, then read each prompt carefully. If the exam is multiple choice or contains many questions, skim through quickly and get a feel for which topics are covered.
This review familiarizes you with the length and relative difficulty of what lies ahead. It also primes your brain for the topics you’ll need to address. “Always scan all the questions,” explains Anna from Dartmouth. “This allows your mind to think about all of them, even while you are focusing on one in particular.” In other words, while you toil away on an early question, another part of your brain, working in the background, will begin to retrieve information relating to the topics still to come. This actually happens, and it helps you answer the later questions more quickly.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, this first step also helps you relax. Stress proliferates in a classroom right before an exam is distributed. It’s a make-or-break situation. Months of effort have led up to this single moment, and you have only a scant hour or two to prove what you know and secure your final grade. You begin to question yourself. Did you study everything you needed to? Have you forgotten important ideas? What if the exam focuses on a subject you know nothing about? If you left it blank, what would happen then? Just thinking about this situation is enough to make most undergrads sweat.
However, by taking the first few minutes to carefully review the exam, you break this mounting tension. It gives you something productive to do that doesn’t involve actually answering questions. Once you complete this task and build a better idea of what eo expect, the exam becomes less menacing. You’ve seen the questions and (hope-fully) none seem impossible. You being to say to yourself: Okay, maybe this isn’t all that bad. Your confidence rises, your heart rate lowers, and your stress begins to dissipate. Now you can turn your full attention to providing standout responses.
Strategy #2: Build a Time Budget
At any given point during an exam, you should know the maximum number of minutes you have to spend on the current question before moving on to the next. As Doris from Harvard puts it: “I lay down very strict time limits for myself on each question.” This strategy goes a long way toward avoiding time trouble; it keeps your attention focused and prevents you from spending too much time on any particular question.
The key to maintaining this keen awareness is to build a time budget. First, take the time allotted for the exam and subtract ten minutes. Next, divide this amount by the number of questions. The result is how long you have to spend on each prompt.
What should you do with this information? For an exam with a small number of questions, mark right on the test pages the time when you should begin and finish each one. For an exam with many questions, divide the exam into equal fourths, then jot down the time you should begin and end each section. In both cases, these recorded times will keep you updated on how close your current progress matches your predetermined schedule.
Why do we subtract ten minutes in the first step? This provides a safety buffer. You want a few extra minutes available here and there to be able to double check your answers when you are finished, or go back and add more insights to questions on which you are rushed.
Strategy #3: Proceed from Easy to Hard
Straight-A students almost never answer exam questions in the order that they are presented. Years of informal experimentation by successful students have demonstrated that the most effective way to tackle an exam is to answer the easiest questions first, and this is exactly what you should do. Start with the most approachable questions before moving on the more forbidding. Don’t worry if this has you skipping around all over the exam – in most cases the provided order is irrelevant.
The advantage of this approach is that it first focuses your energy on the questions you know the most about, ensuring that you get maximum points on these. It also give you a better chance of conquering the more difficult ones. “I always skip a questions if it does not come to me immediately.” Explain Ryan from Dartmouth. “This keeps my mind clear to answer other questions and hopefully something will jog my memory.”
When you come across something hard early on the exam, your natural instinct is to panic. You have so many more questions to finish, and you can almost feel the minutes ticking away as you stare blankly at this one particular roadblock. It can be tough to get your focus back to wring out as many points as possible from the easier questions that follow.
If, instead you tackle this same roadblock at the end of the exam, you’ll find that the situation seems less dire. You’ve answered everything else, so all that’s left to do is working out this final puzzler. More often than not, you will find the mental block diminished. Without the pressure of other questions looking in the background, you can take a more relaxed approach. You might not know the best answer, but you can spend some time to devise a reasonable answer. Because you have nothing else left to finish, you can spend the remainder of the time polishing this answer, thinking, and repolishing. The result is the strongest possible outcome given your state of preparation.
When facing an essay question, don’t just start writing and see what happens. This approach leads to rambling answers and missed concepts. Instead, your first step should be to jot down a quick outline. This might seem like a waste of time, but in truth it can be invaluable.
First, reread the question carefully. As Matthew from Brown explains: “Usually, you can isolate there or four mini-questions; this will help you flesh out your outline and avoid an incomplete answer, “Then, outline on paper (not in your head) the way that you will use what you know the answer there mini-question,” continues Matthew. To do so, use the margin of the exam to jot down all the points you can recall that are relevant to the question. Record only a few key words to each point to same time and space. For example, if you want to mention argument made by an author named Robert Caro dealing with Lyndon Johnson’s views on race relations, you might jot down: “Caro–race.”
Next, go back and check the question parts you underlined in the first step. Make sure each is adequately addressed by the points you just noted in the margin. When you’re sure that you have identified all the relevant information for the essay, number these points in the order that you want to present them.
Only now should you begin writing your essay. Follow your outline, and the writing will proceed smoothly. You should be able to quickly produce a solid response that draws on everything you reviewed and addressed all parts of the question asked.
Strategy #5: Check Your Work
“At the end,” explains Chris from Dartmouth, “I always check my answers.” If you have extra time at the end of the exam (may you be so lucky), then follow Chris’s advice and go back and check your work. You will be surprised by how many times this final review turns up a mistake in a technical problem or an important concept that you forgot to mention in an essay.
If, after your first round of review, you still have time left over, then go through and check again. If there is a problem you feel particularly shaky on, use this time to go over it in detail, augmenting the answer wherever appropriate. Don’t worry about using carets and arrows to add in new phrases and facts to your essays, or to point out added steps in your technical problems. Neatness doesn’t count on exams; it’s the content that matters.
It’s tempting to relax after finishing your exam, perhaps walking proudly to the front of the classroom and handling it in before anyone else. But aside from the wistful stares of your classmates, this strategy is ill conceived. Double checking your work up to the last minute can make the difference between an above-average student and an academic star.
Newport, C. (2007). How to Become a Straight-A Student. New York: Broadway Books.