Maximizing Exam Performance

As a high school math teacher and now university lecturer, one of the most common issues I see is students who under-perform on tests and exams. By this I mean that the grade they earn is not an accurate reflection of their level of mastery of the material – sometimes tragically so. I have been teaching for around 20 years, and my experience teaching, as well as my experience as a student, has caused me to form some strategies to address this. In a recent email exchange with a student who was asking for advice on how to manage studying for multiple exams, I decided to organize my thoughts and type a detailed response. With that student’s permission, I also decided to share it here on my blog.

Question: How would you recommend studying for finals and what are the key things that I should prioritize?

I have some tips, but there is a caveat: these are things that I’ve learned through personal experience as well as my experience teaching for about 20 years, and I have learned that while they are solid tips and work for many people, everyone needs to tailor them to suit their own learning style and personality.

First, some terminology for the purpose of these tips: 

  • Homework
    I’ll use this term to refer to any work you would be assigned or do voluntarily throughout a course that does not directly get assessed for grades. It may be questions/reading assigned by the prof, or practice assignments. It should also be daily review of notes taken in class, which can and probably should include enhancing the notes with more thoughts or research.

  • Test
    I’ll use this term to refer to some kind of minor assessment that does count for marks, but not a large part of the course. These are usually assignmentstests or quizzes, and they generally happen regularly, often weekly. The knowledge they assess is normally not cumulative, focusing on one topic or unit at time, or perhaps just one or two weeks worth of material from the course.

  • Exam
    This refers to the major assessments in a course and are usually cumulative in the knowledge they assess. In many math classes this is a midterm and a final exam. Sometimes it is just a final exam.

  • Term Mark
    This refers to the grade a student earns on any tests, not including exams, as defined above.
Here are the tips more or less in order of priority
Don’t study for exams!

Sounds weird right? What I mean is that you should not be studying for exams – you should be studying for expertise. Furthermore, this studying should occur throughout the term, not in the days before an exam. The root of the word student is study. This literally means that if you are thinking of yourself as a student, then you are thinking of yourself as one who studies.

For many students this is a paradigm shift, even if they don’t realize it. Students have a habit of using the term for accumulating marks, instead of accumulating expertise. A combination of procrastination on homework, sub-optimal time management, and misplaced priorities create a situation where decisions are made to maximize a term mark while minimizing actual learning. That may seem harsh, but students usually see some or much truth in it when they inspect their own habits during non-exam times.

The shift is to start to view homework as the tool to help you grow into an expert in the course material, to the point where you could potentially even teach it. In fact, finding ways to teach the material (usually by helping others with the work) is the very best way to gauge your own level of expertise. If/when you reach this level during the homework, writing tests and exams becomes much less a matter of which questions you are prepared for, and more a matter of making sure that when it is time to write that you are rested and feeling physically comfortable.

Make an exam prep schedule

So once you have an exam schedule from the school, and you know when your exams will be, make a schedule for exam prep. It is almost always better to devote parts of each day to different exams rather than trying to devote all your attention to the next exam. So for example, you might have 4 exams in all, and from day one of prep time (which is the day after the last actual lecture), each day should be divided into 4 parts. At first, you can devote more time in each day to the first exam. Then, when that exam is done you only have 3 per day, and can devote more time to the second exam, etc. Make sure to include recreation/rest time in your schedule! It is unreasonable and unrealistic to think that if you have 16 hours of awake time in a day that you can spend 16 hours doing exam prep.

The puzzle of creating the schedule is mathematically pleasing and kind of fun. When you’re doing it, imagine you were creating it for someone else – someone that you are close to and care about, like a sibling or friend. Not for yourself.

Follow your exam prep schedule

Once you have prepared your schedule, put your faith in it. Don’t question your scheduling decisions after that fact. Pretend it was set for you by someone else – someone that you are close to and who cares about you, like a sibling or a friend. Someone you don’t want to let down. They took the trouble to make this schedule for you so that you would be successful. You owe it to them to follow it to the letter. Resist the temptation to over- or under-use the times they allotted for work. Resist the temptation to under- or over-use times they allotted for recreation.

Prepare!

If you have spent the term studying as outlined above, then most of the work is done when exams roll around. At this stage what you want to do is prepare. I like to think of it using sports as a metaphor. With a big game or event approaching, athletes don’t use the time leading up to the day to become excellent at their sport. That work has already been done, over the course of their training. What they do before a big event is prepare themselves. They manipulate their training and diet so that they will peak on the day of the event. They get ready mentally for the stress of the day. They take care to eliminate distraction that during the rest of the year they allow, more or less. In other words, they sharpen everything they have already done, so that their performance will be optimal on the day. That is what exam prep is. Here is how it might look:

  1. No phone during prep time.
    That means it’s not just on silent in your pocket, or upside down on the desk. It means it is literally off, and in a different room than you are in. You are allowed to use it during recreation time, and you should, if that makes you feel better.

  2. Review the most recent course material first
    Work your way from the end back to the beginning of the course. This is for two main reasons: One, that material is the most fresh in your mind, and so it needs the least review. Two, by working backward you by necessity and up cementing ideas from earlier in the course, since they were generally used to build the ideas that came later. This forces you to assimilate them more completely, and by the time you get to those concepts you are already quite an expert.

  3. Use tests and/or homework assignments as your map to prep.
    Take blank versions of them and simulate writing them from scratch. If you studied throughout the course you will find that you can mostly do this without consulting any external resources like class notes, course notes, textbooks, other students, tutors or the web. But when you find yourself struggling to recall a concept, don’t hesitate to use those resources, more or less in the order I listed them.

  4. Do not focus on being ready for a certain type of question.
    Instead, make sure you are expert in all the concepts you review. A litmus test for expertise is to imagine you had to teach the concept. Would you be able to field questions from students like yourself? Can you envision a way to present it to your peers that would make the concept clear for them? If you can, take opportunities to actually try. There are usually people more than willing to let you explain concepts to them!

  5. From time to time, refer to any exam outline that has been shared by the instructor.
    As you progress through the review, put a check on concepts you feel you are good with. When you have finished working back, it would be shocking if there was not a check on every item. But if there is, go back and find instances of that concept in your review and have another look.

  6. Sleep!
    There is nothing to be gained by staying up all night before an exam, and much to be lost. Any feeling of security it may give you, or any thoughts of “I’ll just hold it together then crash after the exam” are almost always self-delusion. No athlete would ever go into a major event already exhausted. It does nothing to improve performance and much to impair it. On the other hand, a solid night’s sleep will give your brain a chance to reset, refresh, and reorganize.

  7. Finish studying the night before
    It is almost never a good idea to do any studying the day of an exam. If you made a good schedule, you finished studying the night before. After a good night’s sleep, your job is to stay relaxed and properly fed. On the day of the exam, the first time you look at course material should be when the exam begins. Otherwise you risk spiraling on some
    last-minute topic you have convinced yourself is important, and it defeats much of the organization that has taken place in your brain. Picture a well-organized filing cabinet with everything where it belongs. That is what you want to take into the exam with you. Contrast that with a mostly well-organized filing cabinet, with a few files removed and papers scattered about the room. That is a much less effective way to be able to access your knowledge during the exam.

  8. When the time comes to begin writing, do not begin writing.
    This is one of the biggest mistakes I see students make when the exam actually starts. They flip to the first page and start writing. That is putting your destiny in the hands of the person who created the exam instead of in your own hands. What I mean is, why should you write the exam in the order that someone else decided? And furthermore, why should you start writing without any idea of what is coming? When starting on a long road trip it is a much better idea to zoom out and see the whole route so that you have an idea of where you are going, rather than just thinking of the next turn.

    What I strongly recommend is that when the word is given that you may begin, turn the first page and just read. Read all the questions. Slowly. Take the time to make sure you understand what each question is asking. Do not attempt to answer any question until you have read all the questions. Then decide what order you want to write the exam in. Choose your best questions first. Save any you don’t know how to do for the end. You will find that if you write the exam this way three things happen:
    • First, your time is automatically optimized, since you are spending the least amount of time on questions at the beginning.
    • Second, your confidence grows as you progress through the exam, which is much better than having a tough question destroy your spirit near the beginning of the exam.
    • Third, as you work through the questions you are good with, you subconsciously are also thinking about the harder ones you saved for the end, and often get clues and ideas from the questions you are working on so that when you get to the ones you thought were hard, they no longer are – or at least they are easier than they seemed.

That’s it! As I said, you can take or leave as much of this advice as you like, but I would say that if you decide to ignore some of it because you’re afraid to try it, that may not be the best reason not to give it a go. Fear is not generally a good reason to avoid trying something new.

Thanks for reading,

Rich

On Excellence

Yesterday I was having a conversation with a few of my graduating students about their post-secondary plans. It came up that many students are making choices about which schools to attend and which courses to take based on how easy they think it will be to get high grades, so that they have a better chance of getting into programs like medical school. This is not something I was surprised to hear, as I’ve heard it many times. There are schools in our province that have the reputation for being “hard” and those that are reputed to be easy. Go to an easy school, get high grades, then coast into med school.

My question has always been “Ok, and then what?”

The answer?

“Then I’ll be a doctor.”

That’s when I always want to know what kind of doctor they plan to be. I don’t mean what area of medicine – I mean what level of competence. Very very few students say they want to be mediocre. They all plan on being excellent. I can’t help but wonder how they intend to make that true. I have questions.

What is the path to true excellence? Is it an easy one? Is it possible to simply do whatever it takes to get there as easily and quickly as possible, and then once there reap the rewards? Many think so, but it’s not true.

The path to excellence does not exist. Excellence is not a place you go. Excellence is a mode of travel.

So while there may be no path to excellence, there is a path of excellence. There is also the easy path, and they are very much not the same journey. If you want to be excellent – if you want to live on that path, then you need to work at it. It’s hard, and there are way more people choosing the easy path, but excellence is the most rewarding path there is. Yet so many people spend so much effort trying to look excellent instead of actually working to be excellent. And this is a source of great stress. When everyone around you appears to be perfect, and you know you are not, it can make you crazy. So students do what they can to appear perfect. Taking easy courses, engaging in academic dishonesty (that’s modern speak for cheating for you old-fashioned folk out there) and essentially making diligence and discipline the last resort.

My students say, “But if I take harder courses I’ll get lower marks and I won’t get into med school.”

I say, ‘Not true! Take hard courses and get high marks! It can be done. There are people doing it. Be one of those people. Be the person everyone is afraid they have to compete with instead of the person taking easy courses to compete.”

If you choose to take the easy path to get where you want to go, then once you think you’ve made it you will discover that there’s no way to leap the chasm to the path of excellence. You will be a walking fraud.

On the other hand, if you dedicate every step to being excellent then when you become a doctor (or whatever else it is that you want to be), you will be an amazing one. Having dedicated yourself to the path of excellence you won’t have to pretend to be excellent, because you will be the paradigm of it.

My message is simple. If you want to look excellent, then be excellent. Maintaining a shell of excellence draped over a mediocre core will erode your spirit. Be bulletproof. Don’t look excellent. Be excellent. It’s way less stressful.

Thanks for reading,

Rich