Pages Menu
Categories Menu

Posted by on Dec 14, 2011 in General Science | 0 comments

Exams: Teach yourself to learn.

I thought I would expand a bit more on my recent post on stress at exam time. The transition from high school to university is both exciting and challenging.
Likely you got through high school quite easily; memorized a lot; and/or crammed at the last minute, yet still did well.  University is not like that.  You have to work consistently throughout a course, keep up, and not leave your study to the last minute.  You have to prepare for a university course like a runner prepares for a race. Since I teach physical chemistry, I will try to bring together some things from those courses that I hope will help students hone their study habits. You have to teach yourself to learn.

Ask yourself “Why science?”.  Here are some possible reasons:

  • Science is rewarding and a career in that area seems fulfilling.
  • The course is a pre-requisite for later courses; otherwise you would not take it.
  • You are in pre-med because your mother wants you to be a doctor, but you would rather be in arts, etc.

It is your life and your education.  Choose the program you want, not what others tell you to take. Don’t ignore advice but think what you want before you make choices.  You are over 18 and an adult.

When students do not do well on mid-terms, they often think they are not smart enough for university. If you did well in high school and passed the university entrance requirements, you have the brains and are capable.  So relax and trust yourself. All you need to do is know how to keep that material in your head.

Becoming efficient

If you have a system that works for you, don’t change it. On the other hand, maybe some of the suggestions here might help.

Freshman classes are usually large and the exams are often multiple-choice and you might not be used to them.  I will say a few words about multiple choice exams further on.

A “course” is a “path” through the material which your prof. decides is important and attempts to teach you.  Exams come from that material, so listen to him/her. You need to organize that material, see how it fits in the big picture and manage your time properly: that is, you must be efficient.

You do not have to study all the time.  University is a lot more than passing exams and good grades.  You meet new people and develop socially, you join clubs that interest you, and you go out and enjoy yourself. After four years, you have the ability to think critically and the intellectual resources for a good and rewarding career.

Here are some suggestions.


  • Preview the material before going to class.  You likely have the course notes, so quickly look them over.  Previewing puts the principle concepts in your mind, so you can better understand the material of the lecture.  If you do not have much time, read the conclusions first, then glance at paragraphs in the chapters, remembering that the key points are in the first line or two of a paragraph.  Get a bird’s eye view of what will be covered.
  • Studies show that those who preview before class study 30% less and score 7% higher!
  • Go to class. You cannot teach yourself new and challenging material alone.  Even Einstein had teachers, so attend class.  If you miss a class, the next might be difficult to understand.  A lot is covered in one lecture, and it is easy to fall behind. As examinations draw near, listen to what your professor emphasizes because s/he knows what is on the exam.
  • Review the material within 24 to 48 hours of the lecture.  If you do this you will retain the information much better.  Studies show that if you review soon after a lecture, you retain 80% a week later, whereas without review, after a week you only retain 5%.
  • Do assignments:  similar questions are often repeated on exams. If you get stuck on a problem, and need to refer to the solution manual, make sure that you can do the question later without the solution manual. Do not do a lot of questions badly, do a few relevant (from those assigned) questions well.
  • Read the text book. However do not read the text first when the material is new.  Read it after the lectures and you have done assignments. With that experience, reading the text will pull the material together.
  • Midterms:  after getting your results back, understand where you went wrong so as not to repeat the error.
  • Do old exams if available

If you keep up with your courses, then studying for finals is much easier because all you need to do is review and revise material you have already learned.

Dividing up your time.  

Know the material the Prof. emphasizes.

Allot time to courses.  Some take up more time, but do not neglect the easier courses.

When studying, a lot of time is spent trying to get the material into your head, but not a lot of time is devoted to getting it out.  Exams ask you to get it out.

First, do not be a passive learner.  Children watching Sesame Street learn passively and this is not enough at the university level. Writing out notes and ideas is dynamic and helps to consolidate them. Articulating the material out loud helps a lot, so discuss.  Ask your prof or teaching assistant questions, they really are happy to answer. Many students come to me and say. “I know this is a stupid question but…”  Students do not ask stupid questions.  If you do not understand something, make sure you get it because it is likely that gem of knowledge will be on the exam.

Discuss ideas with your fellow students. Working in a group is an example of peer learning. It is effective because you talk and discuss the more difficult concepts without the intimidation of your prof. You can give your views and hear the ideas of others.

At exam time, reduce your knowledge into one or two pages.  Each sentence corresponds to a summary of a topic which in your mind, those you have decided are good candidates for questions.

Look after yourself

Studies show that 1 hour of study when you are fresh in the morning is equal to 1.5 hours of study in the evening.  You should do easy things at night.  Memorization is best done before going to sleep.  Do the challenging things in the day time.

Each of us is different, but every 50 minutes or so take a break.  Concentration span can also be extended by changing topics. Ensure you have privacy when you need it. Turn off your cell phone, close the door and leave FaceBook alone while studying.

Again, studying is like preparing for a race.  You do not only run.  You look after your body.  Get enough sleep.  You can:

  • Exercise—and you study better.
  • Eat right, but before studying or exams do not eat heavy meals.
  • Before an exam do not pull all-nighters.
  • Before an exam, review what you have learned.
  • Before an exam, set your alarm clock, so do not sleep through it.

Some tips on exams.

  • Exams require you to think clearly, so you must know the material and be in good shape.
  • Don’t arrive late, as you will get nervous.
  • Don’t arrive too early as you will talk to friends who will say “have you studied this?” and that could unnerve you if you haven’t.
  • Settle down, relax and trust yourself. You have prepared, and your prof really wants you to do well.  There will be no deliberate “tricky questions”.

Multiple choice exams

A few pointers:

  • Read the directions carefully.
  • Read the question carefully, and if you do not see through it after a few moments thought, go on and find questions you can do.  Then come back to those others. Doing other questions often give hints for the ones you found difficult at first.
  • Do not waste time on those you cannot do right away.
  • Approach a question logically.
  • After completing the exam go over the questions again and check.  However it is frustrating when a correct answer is changed to a wrong one.  Before changing an answer, figure out what was wrong in the first choice. If you cannot find the error, check over carefully your new answer.  One of them must be wrong, find out which.
  • Look at the possible answers that you can choose from and eliminate the ones that are obviously incorrect.

How some profs set exams:

  • Not everything can be tested, but the key points a prof stresses are good indications of exam questions.
  • Each question tests a particular concept. Make your list and study questions from those your prof assigned.
  • The objective is not to stump you, but to test the material so the better you know it, the better your grade.
  • There are often a few conceptual questions which require at least two logical steps. These separate those that memorize from those who understand.
  • One or two more challenging questions give the better students a chance to prove themselves.
  • When the choices are numerical, the wrong answers are obtained by the prof making common errors (units:  maybe the question uses grams but the formula needs kilograms).
  • Use of, “none of the above”, usually means the prof cannot think of a 5th choice!  So you need a good reason to choose “none of the above”. Remember, however, it is often a valid answer.

Good luck.


Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *