Hints for Taking College Examinations
Hints For Taking GE141 Exams
(And Most Other College Examinations As Well!)
[Click here to download a copy of this in Microsoft Word.]

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.

Study Hints

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.

Multiple-Choice Questions

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.

Short-Answer Questions

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 you.

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.

Essay Questions

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 differences!

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 example:
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 [increase].

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!

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