Exam Prep Day 5: What tasks do you need to accomplish?

Now that you:
1) Know how well you are doing in your classes,
2) know what marks you are aiming for on the final,
3) figured out what you have to study, and
4) gathered resources together,

it’s time to make todo lists!

The steps below work for me, but definitely adapt it to suit your needs.

The first thing to do is grab a sheet of paper for each subject. Now write these headings (make sure you leave space between them): “Review”, “Concepts”, “Practice”, and “Sample Exams”.

“Review” consists of going over your notes and textbooks and learning (hopefully relearning) some of the topics. Things to put in this section are readings that you have to (re)do and notes you should read or rewrite.

“Concepts” include all the concepts you have yet to understand or is confused about. Go as detailed as you possibly can. This section should be dedicated to big, overarching concepts that are super important or small details that are tripping you up. If you find whole sections of topics confusing, slot that into the review section.

“Practice” consists of any practice questions, problem sets, assignments, homework, online quizzes, and the works. These are questions that you want to do before your final to solidify your learning of the material or to familiarize yourself with the exam format. You may have a few or tons of questions. If you have too many to do realistically, note down the most important ones and start from there. If you don’t have enough, make your own!

“Sample Exams” are the practice finals or (even better) old finals that you should write under exam conditions.

Your list will be constantly updated as you think of new tasks. Let it evolve. As you get nearer to exam time, it may be necessary to cut out some tasks because you don’t have the time to complete them. Use your best judgement and focus on those tasks that would give you the highest marks.

If you like using web applications, here are a few of my favourite minimalist online todo apps:

Google Tasks: https://mail.google.com/tasks/ig?pli=1
Todoist: http://todoist.com/
Tasko (Based on taskpaper): http://taskodone.com/
TeuxDeux: http://teuxdeux.com/

Alrighty! Moving right along onto scheduling

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Exam Prep Day 4: What could you study from?

Pile of Papers

Image "College Math Papers" courtesy of Flickr User lotyloty, licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

We are now past the preliminary planning stages and so it is time to gather all of our resources together. For a typical university course, there are usually 2 types of resources: paper and electronic. Note that by electronic, I mean resources that cannot be printed to turned into paper sources (like flash animation).

Paper:
– Notes
– Powerpoints
– Handouts
– Homework/Assignments
– Quizzes/Midterms
– Textbooks
– Study Guide
– Answer Keys
– Essay Topics
– etc.

Electronic:
– Flash animation
– Videos
– Online study guides (e.g. Mastering Physics, My Econlab)
– etc.

For paper resources, gather everything you have together than figure out what you want to keep. For example, you’ll probably want that list of potential essay topics for that first midterm, but that hastily scribbled math assignment you turned in 3 days late is probably not all that useful (though the questions themselves may be worth keeping). File away everything you don’t need and don’t throw anything away until you finish the final exam. You can definitely keep some of your “paper” resources on your computer, but do take a minute to organize them into different folders and rename all ambiguous files (e.g. “monday notes” to “03-28-11 Notes – Diffraction Gratings”).

For electronic resources, I recommend starting a word document for each course and pasting all the links in along with a quick description. Having a central location makes organization a lot easier.

On to the next step… creating master todo lists.

Exam Prep Day 3: What do you have to study?

Sea Monster Pencil Holder-Organizer

Image "Sea Monster Pencil Holder-Organizer" courtesy of Flickr User prettydreamer.workshop, licensed under CC Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Now that we’ve set our goals, it’s time to get organized! This may be difficult if for people who are not usually organized, but treat it like a necessary evil. It will save you from excruciating pain down the road! Before you start organizing anything, get confirmation from your prof or the syllabus about the content of the exam! Is the exam cumulative? Will topics from before your midterm(s) be on it? If they will be, will more weight be placed on material you covered after the midterm(s)? Will tutorial or lab material make it’s way onto the final? You do not want to realize – minutes before your final – that half the topics you studied won’t even be on the exam (or worse yet, that you didn’t cover half the material that will be)!

Now follow these simple steps:

1. Dig out/obtain a copy of your syllabus.
2. If there are explicit learning outcomes associated with your courses (like these) print them all out. Learning objectives are like Christmas presents because they tell you exactly what you have to show you can do. Thank your prof profusely for providing them. Really.
3. If your courses do not come with learning objectives, locate the “Course Topics” or “Course Schedule” page. These topics form the base of your personal learning objectives.
4. A personal learning objective merely list all the topics you have to be able to explain or skills that you have to demonstrate (unlike a real learning objective provided by your prof, they do not have “action words” and other fillers). Using the course topics from your syllabus and your notes/textbook, break down each topic into smaller subtopics. Organize these topics (and subtopics, and sub-subtopics) in a way that makes sense to you. If you’re a visual learner, a mindmap might work better than a linear list. Go as detailed as realistically possible. Your list will be longer for courses that involve more memorization and shorter for those courses that rely more on critical thinking and problem solving. This is the most time consuming step and involve a lot of flipping through your course notes or textbooks.
5. Repeat for each course.

As you are constructing your learning objectives (or reading through those provided by your prof), you might discover topics you have glossed over the first time you learned it. Perhaps you encounter a term or a concept you don’t remember learning. Maybe you see an idea that showed up on a midterm and gave you a lot of trouble. Mark these down! I call these land-mine topics because they have a habit of showing up on final exams and detonating, thereby harming your marks and making you want to kick yourself for not paying more attention. Make it a priority to ask your classmates, TA, or prof about these land-mines before your exam.

You’re all done! Move on to the next step… gathering all of your studying resources.

Exam Prep Day 2: Where do you want to be?

Solar Sytem

Image "Solar_System" courtesy of NASA, licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic.

In my last article, we went over how to figure out where we stand academically. Now, we’ll take that information and use it to prioritize our exams and set some goals. Our overarching goal is to get the highest marks possible in the courses that are most important to us. To do that, we will determine which course are the most important, look at what grades we would like to get from the course, and then back-calculate what marks we must get on each exam to meet those course goals.

First, let’s prioritize. Which classes are the most important for you in terms of grades? This is different for everyone, but keep these things in mind:

1. Are you failing any courses right now? Can you still pass the course if you do well on the final? What are the consequences if you don’t pass that particular course?
2. Are you hoping to gain admittance into any major/degree/program? If yes, do your marks in certain prerequisite courses matter more than non-prereq courses? Is there a minimum average you have to have?
3. Do you want to go to medical/dental/nursing/pharmacy/dietetic/law/business/graduate/specialized schools or programs? If yes, what are their prereqs? Are your marks for these prereqs especially important when it comes time to apply for admission?
4. Did you consider how much weight is given to each final? As a general rule, it is more important do well on exams that count more (i.e. prioritize the psychology final that counts for 70% of your marks and worry less about that computer science final that counts for 30%).
5. Are you especially good at certain courses? That is, are you taking advantage of your GPA boosters?

The idea is to get the highest ROI (return on investment) in terms of grades for your time and ensure that you have the grades to pursue future career and education goals. Figuring out which courses are the most important to you will allow you to use your energy more effectively.

After setting your priorities, decide what mark you want on each of your finals. It will drive you crazy if you try to ace every single exam. You only have limited energy, so budget it carefully! Grab those big wins and don’t sweat the smaller losses.

When you determine what grades you would like to obtain in a course, consider your priorities and how well you are actually doing. I would advice you set a goal that is anywhere between 3% and 8% higher than your current grade or your mark on your midterms. Anything higher than 8% is usually not realistic and will stress you out unnecessarily, potentially leading to burning out or declining performance.

Then determine what grades you should obtain on your final to meet the course grade goal you set above. For some courses, a simple perusal will suffice. For example, if you want 90% in a course and you are currently sitting at just below 90%, aim for just above 90%. If you used the ScratchPad Gradebook, take a look at your current grade, max grade, and “just passing the final” grade. You could just pick a mark somewhere between your current and max grades to aim for, but for those who are more mathematically inclined (or entertain some perfectionist tendencies like I do), below is a systematic way of determining your final exam grade goal from data obtained from the Scratchpad Gradebook.

Determining Final Exam Grade Goal:

1. Open the ScratchPad Gradebook under the “Gradebook” tab.
2. Look at your current grade and max grade.
3. Subtract the weighting for your final exam from that of your maximum grade (i.e. if your final exam for course A is worth 50% and your max grade is 80%, 80-50 = 30%. This means that you are currently getting 60% in the course).
4. Subtract the number you get from the above step by your grade goal for the course (i.e. If you would like to get 75% in course A, then 75-30 = 45)
5. Divide the number you get from the above by the weighting for your exam. In our example, it would be 45/50 = 90%. This is what mark you have to get on your final to obtain the grade goal that yet set for yourself.

If our example, this student has to get 90% on the final (when he is currently getting 60% in the course) in order to meet his course goal of 75%. This is probably too ambitious and it may be prudent for him to review his goals and aim for something more realistic.

Now that we’ve prioritized our courses and set grade goals, on to Day 3: Organizing Material.

Exam Prep Day 1: Where the heck are you?

Scratchpad Gradebook Example

Image "ScratchPad Gradebook Example" Copyright 2011 Scratches on the Notepad

Download ScratchPad Gradebook by clicking here.

It’s that time of the year again! The sky is blue, the grass is green, the flowers are starting to bloom… and you’re stuck indoors studying for those dreaded exams. So much fun… no?

In order to make this a little easier for you, I will be releasing a few blog posts in the upcoming weeks to help you prepare for your finals. Stay tuned and I hope you find them useful!

On to today’s post…

As the cliche goes, “you can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been“. As corny as it is, this saying is absolutely true. As finals creep up, it is tempting to just charge ahead and jump into that mountain of readings you have yet to do. But that sort of unstructured busy-work is at best inefficient and at worst absolutely useless. Before you start studying, you have to know how you’re doing in your courses. That is, you have to know where you have been.

So where are you academically? One of the quickest way to gauge your progress is to look at your grades up until this point in the term – and that is where the ScratchPad Gradebook comes into play.

What is the Gradebook? It is an excel document that tells you your overall grade in the course (sans the final exam) once you input your current marks. Aside from showing your current mark, it will also show you the maximum grade you can get in the course (assuming you obtain 100% on your final), and your mark if you just pass the final (50%) on the final. You can see an example in the image above.

If you don’t have sufficient information to create a detailed grade breakdown, take a guess! Guess what your percentage/GPA is in your course right now, and make your you note how much the final exams are worth.

Now what to do now that you know how well you’re doing…? Check out the next post in this series!

How to Use the Scratchpad Gradebook: (all of this is included on the first page of the excel template):

1. Open up a new document using this template. New>>From Template>> (browse to where you’ve saved this and click on it)>>Ok. Save this new document!
2. Navigate to the “Data” tab and Input your grades and their weightings. Follow the example above. Remember that “Contribution to Overall Mark”, “% Mark”, and “Weighted Mark” are in DECIMALS, not percents!
3. Once you have put in all of your marks, navigate to the “Gradebook” tab. This page shows you how well you are doing in each of your courses.
4. In the “Gradebook”, your current mark is how well you are doing in a course taking into account all of your known marks. Maximum grade is calculated assuming you obtain 100% on the final. “Just pass the exam” grade is calculated assuming you obtain a grade of 50% on your final.
5. Questions? Concerns? Did I make a mistake? Shoot me an e-mail!

Tips:
1. Marks from the final exam is not actually shown on the gradebook. This is because gradebook is not really for calculating precise marks, but for figuring out how well one is doing in the course prior to the exams. If there are some marks that you do not yet know. Give them your best guess and perhaps denote that the mark is an estimate in italics.
2. Be careful! Cells are linked together and changing any formula WILL affect your results. Only input words and numbers in coloured boxes on the “Data” sheet, leave the “Gradebook” sheet alone! (Unless you’re intensionally trying something).
3. This excel template is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0), and is free for personal use. You are welcome to edit and pass it on to your friends, but you must attribute the original work to me! For details about what you can and cannot do with this template, consult: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/

This excel template is a SotN Original.

FYI: Citation Blues? Try Zotero!

FYI is a weekly column dedicated to presenting resources and other topics of interest to students.

Title: Zotero
Author: Center for History and New Media
Type of Resource: Firefox/Browser Plugin

Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. It lives right where you do your work—in the web browser itself.

Link: http://www.zotero.org

Comments: Have you ever written a research paper only to realize you spent almost as much time on the citations as the paper itself? Have you ever tried to decipher your own handwriting about a source only to realize it’s utterly incomprehensible? Have you ever started to compile a “work cited” page the night before a paper is due, only to find that you didn’t have a crucial piece of bibliographical information? Fear no more, Zotero, a handy dandy Firefox Plugin, can solve these problems and more.

Functionally, Zotero is a bibliography maker (like EndNote) on crack. It stores and organizes your sources and generate bibliographies in various formats. It is also capable of “grabbing” bibliographic data directly from the pages you are viewing along with a searchable screenshot (so you can easily find where each piece of information came from). This is especially good with some article databases like Ebsco. Other functions include inserting citations in Word or Open Office, syncing across multiple computers, and sharing “libraries” of sources. One caveat is that it only works for Firefox, though a standalone version designed to work with other browsers is in the works.

I have used Zotero extensively both in and out of school, and I believe it is a vital part of any student or researcher’s tool-kit. And with its highly affordable price tag (free!) there is no reason not to take it for a spin!

(Click here if you need help getting started.)