Most people know that taking exams in itself can be a skill. This
guide is intended to give you some suggestions that may help to make YOUR
exams, in this class and elsewhere, better reflect what you really know,
so you don't lose credit because the instructor (in this case, me!)
didn't recognize that you really do know what she/he expects you to.
Two things to consider are: (A) what to study, and (B)
how to study. As for what to study, it is always important to focus
first on the broad scale, the big picture: what are the big, grand ideas?
Knowing the details without having this picture in mind is an exercise in
blind, meaningless memorization that won't do anyone any good, and will
make learning twice as hard for you. Get the big picture in mind first,
and then go after the details. Knowing, for example, that magmas are
classified by the silica content makes the ultramafic, mafic,
intermediate and felsic categories more meaningful and logical: they are
a progression from low to high silica content in the magmas.
As for HOW to study, different people have different study habits.
This may to you be self-evident, but it isn't always clear to everyone:
there is NO single "right" way to study! Some people work better
studying in groups, bouncing questions off each other in a
"Jeopardy"-like format. Others work better alone. Some work best doing
both: studying alone, then coming into a group, and then working alone
before the exam on those areas that seemed unclear in the group session.
In general, however, loud noise is distracting and can interfere with
learning - you'll have to work harder and longer to learn as much as you
would in a quieter environment.
No athlete would ever attempt to do all of his/her training the day
before a major competition, and trying to learn a lot of material in an
intensive "cram session" the night before an exam is just about as
effective as such a training regimen would be. To learn materials
thoroughly and be well-prepared for exams, you need to start well in
advance. Keeping up with reading and studying over the course of
semester will require discipline, but it will pay off in the long run:
you will find yourself feeling relatively well-prepared when exams roll
around, and will mainly just need to review.
One thing I personally found useful as a student was copying my notes
over, by hand, in multiple colors (especially for diagrams - to keep
things clear!). I color-coded figures: anything to do with igneous rocks
and processes was in reds and oranges; sediments and sedimentary rocks
were in browns and yellows; metamorphic rocks were always in blues and
purples. If something was unclear in my notes, I could go to the text
and correct it, so I understood. If that didn't work, I'd go to the
instructor and ask for clarification. [I also would copy into my notes,
again by hand, the text tables and figures to which the instructor had
referred in class.] This did take a lot of time, but one result of this
is that I can still close my eyes and visualize some of the figures I
drew in my notes my first semester in college. A second surprise benefit
was that the time spent in copying the notes, with minimal background
distraction, proved to be very effective study time. When I opened those
notes to study, I realized I already knew most of the material. All I
had to do prior to an exam was review - not study hard to learn it well
for the first time.
Another thing I found useful was a group question-and-answer session.
Several friends and I would get together an hour or two before the exam,
and bounce questions off each other. This made for interesting (and
spirited) competition among us - you don't want to look dumb in front of
your friends! And if one of us didn't know the answer to a question,
someone else would jump in with it, which helped everyone. We all
benefitted from the game. Then, if necessary, you could review notes
immediately before walking into the room for the exam.
Taking the Exam: Basics
The most obvious basic instruction is to always read and follow the
instructions! These are there to provide a guide for you, not just to
take up extra space. There ARE even rare instances in which the
instructions to an absolutely horrendous-looking exam will include a
statement to the effect of "Respond to question 3 only and then leave the
room," and question 3 may be relatively simple and straightforward! On
multiple-choice exams, for example, the instructions may be to circle the
letter of the response you've chosen. Writing that letter in the margin,
or circling the entire response, not only makes it more difficult to
grade the exam, but also takes more of YOUR exam time to write the answer
out or to circle a larger area. Simply following the instructions
therefore helps save you time for other parts of the exam. Writing the
letter in the margin can also suggest to the instructor that you may have
been trying to help someone else on the exam - NOT a good idea!
Remember that your instructor has to read not only your exam but also
those of everyone else in the class. Clear handwriting (which for some
of us is difficult, I know) always helps, and sometimes can get you the
benefit of the doubt when the nature of your response is unclear and the
instructor is debating how much partial credit, if any, to allow.
Printing may help if your writing is particularly hard to read.
Watch your responses and make sure they're internally consistent -
that you haven't said X is true in one place and then that X is false in
another response. This can help you catch your own errors - such as
saying that feldspars are the dominant mineral group in the silicates in
one place, and that they are the dominant NON-silicate group in the
Earth's crust in another. You know these statements can't BOTH be
correct! [But I HAVE seen them both given on individual exams!]
For this course, examples of old exams are on reserve in the Science
Library in Olin, as well as on-line on the old exam web
page. These are for your benefit, to let you see the structure of
the exams and the kinds of questions you'll see on them. Take advantage
of these! They may be copied or printed for study guides, or used for
sample exams, as a means of testing yourself (my own preference).
Obviously, in preparing for your own exam, you don't need to worry about
subject matter we haven't yet covered in class.
Some exams, particularly in larger classes like ours, will be in
whole or part multiple-choice type questions. This is principally a
matter of convenience for the instructor, since these are relatively easy
to grade and poor handwriting does not become a problem. Good
multiple-choice questions (and the potential responses) are actually more
difficult than open-ended essay questions to make up in the first place,
but the payoff comes in lesser grading times.
In taking multiple-choice exams, even if you don't know the right
answer right away, there SHOULD be possible answers that you can
immediately discount as clearly wrong; the more you know, the better this
works. This makes the odds better in your favor of getting a right
answer from the remaining possibilities. If you are totally clueless,
remember that if there are four possible answers, even a blind guess has
1 chance in 4 of being right (don't leave them blank except for the SAT
and GRE!). If you have a "hunch" that one is the right answer, go with
that hunch - you'll be right more often than you're wrong. Also, when
going back over an exam (always a good idea when time allows), unless
you're sure that a response you gave is wrong, you may be better off
leaving your initial guess there rather than changing it: about 2/3 of
the time, you'd be changing a right answer to a wrong one, based on both
national studies and what I've seen in this course.
A good question that seeks a short answer should be phrased in such a
manner that it will be clear precisely what is being sought as a
response. In such situations, when you don't know the answer, it is
seldom going to help to "shotgun" and write down a memorized section from
your class notes, hoping the instructor will find what she/he is looking
for somewhere in there and give you at least partial credit. It's pretty
obvious when that is happening, and it can even be counterproductive for
The space left for the answer should be adequate for that response,
but not excessive; for example, if a suitable response would be a
five-word sentence or phrase, the instructor won't leave a half-page.
Conversely, if a detailed discussion is sought, the instructor won't
leave a space only an inch wide on the page.
First is to remember that the instructor generally is looking for
specific responses to specific questions. Rarely will you encounter an
exam that asks, in effect, "Tell me everything you know about
rock-forming minerals." Read questions carefully, THINK, and ask
yourself, "What is she/he looking for?" The most detailed and erudite
discussion in the world isn't going to do you a whole lot of good if it
doesn't address the question that was on the exam!
An example might help. Try this sample question: "What is the
principal difference between igneous and metamorphic rocks?" To
comparable questions, I've sometimes received responses that went on and
on about different magma types, the viscosity of magmas and what
determines this, and the various kinds of metamorphism, complete with
examples of rock types formed from all the processes discussed. All of
it was quite accurate and correct. However, does it answer the question?
No. The principal difference is that although they are both derived from
pre-existing rocks, igneous rocks crystallize from a molten source,
whereas metamorphic rocks recrystallize in a solid state, without
significant melting. The right answer is very simple and to the point -
note the key word in the question was PRINCIPAL difference, not ALL the
Organize your thoughts and proceed in a logical fashion. If the
question is, "Why is XX true?", the best way to start a response is "XX
is true because ........." In essays in particular, having your knowledge
sufficiently organized that you can EXPRESS it clearly is critical;
credit can only be given for knowledge that can be demonstrated, even if
you may "know" the answer well enough for your own purposes. This is why
the "Jeopardy" study game can be helpful --- you have to explain the
answer out loud to other people, well enough that they will understand.
It's great practice.
If the instruction is "Discuss the role of ......", know you are
being asked for more than a one- or two-sentence response. A
discussion is going to be at least a paragraph long. For example,
if you were asked to discuss the differences between Colby, Bates and
Bowdoin, you wouldn't just say Colby is in Waterville, Bates is in
Lewiston and Bowdoin is in Brunswick, and then go on to the next
question! Commonly, a discussion will be a statement in which you
outline two or three general characteristics of the topic at hand, and
then provide an example or two to support your generalities. A question
that asks you to "compare and contrast" two or more things commonly
implies that they have similarities as well as differences. Try to
identify as many significant things in each category that you can within
the time and space available; rank them in terms of relative importance,
and start with the most important things first.
Another important rule here is always to write in complete sentences
and proper English; avoid using "b/c" for "because", "w/" for "with", a
"Delta" for "change," etc. You don't want an instructor to get so
irritated by trying to figure out your cryptic notation that she/he loses
track of what you're saying. It can cost you points on the exam! For
If v ^, and d,w (k), then Q & cap. ^; comp. also ^ w/v.
is difficult enough to interpret when typed, as it is here. It is even
more difficult to understand when written longhand (as I once saw it on
an actual exam)! The "translation" into more standard English would be:
If the velocity increases and the depth and width [of a stream
channel] remain constant, then the discharge and the sediment capacity
increases. The stream competence will also increase with the velocity
Hopefully, the suggestions presented here will be of some help as you
prepare for exams. If you have any questions on these, or on any of the
material presented in class, please ask me for clarification!