Lesson 11: A Few Study Techniques for Exams
Did you lecture to the wall about budgeting your time in an essay exam?.
STUDYING FOR EXAMS
Studying for exams begins the day you walk into class
the first day. Everything that you do in relation to that
class is studying for exams, other than sleeping in class.
But you already knew this.
What you are probably looking for are some handy hints
on how to cram for an exam when you procrastinated. After
all, isn't this a real-world course?
It is, indeed. So, let an expert crammer cram some
strategies into your head.
I have already told you about the biggie: lecture to
the wall. If you're going to wait till the last day -- the
night before The Big One -- do as much wall-lecturing as
You may not believe me yet. But when it's panic time,
you had better give it a try.
In cramming, spend more time on your lecture notes
than you do on reviewing your textbook, unless you are an
A-1 loser in note-taking. If you are, can you locate
someone else who is a good note-taker who will help you?
If you really did locate a battered-up textbook, and
if you have been reading it with a pen or yellow
highlighter in hand, then review your underlining,
highlighting, and notes in the margins.
everything that is in bold type or color.
If there are questions at the end of the chapter, get
a piece of paper and jot down one-sentence answers.
If your mind goes blank in panic when you read these
chapter-ending questions, then don't read them. Panic is
what you are trying to avoid.
But you should still read those questions, beginning
the evening after the exam is over. You must learn to deal
with the kinds of questions that are in the back of every
chapter. Those are the kinds of questions that you will be
asked from now until you finally stop going to school --
and after that, never again.
The questions at the end of the chapter are like
running wind sprints if you're an athlete. They are
supposed to limber up your mind. They are to get you to
think in a certain way. What way? To answer questions on
What are the test questions for? To enable a teacher
to give you a grade.
What are the grades for? To enable a college entrance
committee to determine whether you will get in.
What will you do if you get accepted? Take more
And so on, until you finally decide, "I've had enough
schooling. I'd rather make some money."
EXAMS CAN'T TEST EVERYTHING
True/False exams test very simple objective facts.
Multiple-choice exams test somewhat more complex objective
facts. T/F-MC questions will probably constitute 100% of a
weekly quiz, 70% of a mid-term, and half of a final exam.
So, when you study, by which I mean cram, you should
stuff all those dates, places, names, and assorted bits and
pieces of bold-faced, colored sentences into your head.
You won't recall most of it three days later, but you won't
have to recall anything until the final exam.
I am not talking about math or chemistry. I'm talking
about history, government, and English. Math and chemistry
are cumulative. You must know the parts in order to
understand the whole. Teachers may tell you that the same
thing applies in your other classes, but you know better by
now. Teachers ought to know that you know better. When it
comes time to procrastinate, the risk goes up when you skip
math or chemistry. If you haven't figured this out about
math by the fifth grade, you're either a math genius or you
have a serious learning disability problem.
Foreign language and biology are in between history
and math, procrastination-wise.
If you get most of the objective facts correct, you
won't get a D or an F. You don't have to panic. Cram. A
lot of students won't cram. They will get the D's and F's.
If you freeze up with essay questions, spend less time
in studying for them. Studying won't help. Freezing up
has very little to do with what you know about the course.
It has more to do with your priorities in life: fear of
failure, fear of being exposed as an illiterate, fear of
sounding like a doofus on paper. Cramming your head with
facts won't help you with the essay questions. Thinking
about what you're reading day by day might help calm your
fears, but as we agreed earlier, this lesson is about
Can you make cramming for essay questions into a
mental game? Instead of worrying, "How is he going to trip
me up?" why not think, "I'm going to beat him at his own
game. I'm going to figure out tonight what he's going to
Try to psyche out your mental version of the exam-
giver. Try to get inside his or her head. Play Sherlock
If you make cramming for essay questions into a mental
game, you may not panic the night before the exam. If you
don't panic the night before the exam, you may not panic
during the exam.
SLEEP ON IT
The mind is weird. Sometimes it chugs along while a
You may recall Arthur Robinson, whose son learned the
lecture to the wall technique. Dr. Robinson's wife, who
died young, was a computer programmer. She was an old-time
computer programmer: mainframes. She programmed in machine
language: 1's and 0's only. Not many programmers can do
this any more.
Dr. Robinson says that when she would work on a coding
problem because her program did not work properly, she
would think about it just before going to sleep. The next
morning, she would wake up and announce, "I got the one and
the zero reversed five digits into line 76." And so she
The author of The Overnight Student says that when
you study for an exam the next day, go to sleep on it.
Don't do anything else between the time when you put the
textbook on your desk, walk across the bedroom, turn out
the bed stand light, and put your head on the pillow.
Think about what you have been reading as you drift off to
It can't hurt.
CRAM DURING THE DAY
Review the rote stuff on 3x5 cards.
Play a mental game of "guess the essay question." Write
down your guesses, so that you can compare your list with
the actual question. Then, if you don't panic, write down
a few facts that you would use to compose your essay.
There are breaks during the day. If the exam is later
in the day, concentrate on it. Skip the review of class
notes today. If the exam is after lunch, don't -- do NOT,
NOT, NOT -- eat sugar or drink a sweetened drink. Sugar
stimulates your system in a short burst of energy, but this
could cause a slow-down an hour later. Avoid anything that
tends to make you drowsy.
THE NUMBER-ONE PROBLEM WITH CRAMMING
When you cram under pressure, you will probably miss things. They may not be important things. But they may be.
You are likely to bring this same mental attitude into class on the day of the exam. This attitude says, "half-way measures are good enough." Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't. But if you resort to them regularly, you will experience times when they let you down.
Paying attention to details is usually cost-effective. Getting into the habit of preparing well in advance for known problems is a good policy.
You may think you have taken care of all the details, but have you? Have you run this by someone whose judgment you trust? Has that person said, "You're probably prepared well enough"?
I know this sounds difficult. If you have bad habits, it is difficult. But bad habits can be broken.
If you want a second opinion on whether you have done what needs to be don, ask on-line. That's what this site is for.
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Spend more time on reviewing your
lecture notes than the textbook.
Lecture to the wall: class note.
Review objective facts, especially if the
textbook puts them in bold face or color.
Write down objective facts on note cards for
review if you have not already done so.
Read the questions at the end of textbooks
chapters, unless you panic.
Play a game: "What will the essay question be?"
Write it down. Write down 3-4 facts you would
use to answer it.
Study right up until lights-out.
Review cards and essay question guesses with your
partner, either on the bus or at lunch.
Review the cards right up until the exam.
Avoid sugar at lunch (or breakfast, if the exam
is given before lunch).
Lecture to the wall on the strategy of cramming.
Don't forget to lecture to the wall: one page,
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