What if you miss an exam?

Puppy Dog Look

Image "Puppy Dog Look" courtesy of Flickr User Rhiannon McCluskey, Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

WordPress generates a fairly extensive set of site stats for this blog. One useful thing it tells me is what people type in Google (or other search engines) to find this site. Ever since the exam season started, there have been an upsurge of people looking for advice about what to do if they missed an exam. Thus this post is for everyone who find themselves in that unfortunate situation.

I suppose some disclaimers are in order before I start. One, I do not condone missing exams unless you have legitimate excuses, and two, I have never actually missed an exam, so I cannot vouch for effectiveness of these strategies. Use them at your own risk!

If you miss an exam, especially a final, get in touch with your professor right away. Go see them in person or call them. Use e-mail as a last resort as face-to-face or voice-to-voice will help you gauge your prof’s feelings (i.e. how mad are they?). However, do not stalk, leave 10 voice messages, or send 20 e-mails to them! You want your professor to be tolerant or sympathetic, not annoyed. As well, follow your school’s official procedure for missing exams if they have one.

When discussing (or e-mailing) your professor about the missed exam, be polite and courteous. Do not attempt to nag, guilt, or trick your prof into giving you a second chance. As well, avoid sounding defensive as though they are attacking you (even if they are!). Apologize and own up to your mistakes fully. Take full responsibility for your mistake. Unless you had a legitimate excuse, it was your fault you missed that exam. Don’t ever imply it was anyone else’s – or God forbid – the prof’s fault. Explain why you missed the exam. If you overslept, say so. If the bus broke down, let them know. Tell you the truth. An lie will bite you in the ass later. If you told your professor your grandmother died when you simply overslept and that professor finds out, you’ll have one very pissed off prof. Depending on school policy, your professor could even void your makeup exam and report you for academic dishonesty.

If you are e-mailing your prof, remember to still follow the rules of good email etiquette.

Luckily, there are often already scheduled makeup exam times for people with conflicts and legitimate excuses at most universities. Your goal is to convince your professor to let you in on one of them. This could be fairly easy (I had a friend who’s prof didn’t even bother asking him why) or extremely difficult (no means no). However, you might find yourself writing that exam next exam season or even next year!

If it is not possible to make up the exam for whatever reason, ask if you could complete an extra credit assignment to obtain a passing mark on the exam or course. Think creatively. Use your resources and create an honest “deal” that your professor cannot refuse.

Sometimes, there are other people you could turn to for help. If for example, you are an arts student who missed a science exam (or insert any other two non-identical faculties/departments), head to your faculty advising and explain the situation. They might be able to send a note to your prof encouraging him or her to give you a makeup. It’s not a guarantee that your prof will, but it is an extra endorsement.

If all else fails and there is just no way to make up that exam, take a deep breath. Yes, you screwed up, maybe big time. It might feel like it’s the end of the world for a while, especially if you end up failing the course. However, don’t let this affect your mindset for the rest of the exam season. Hit the books for your upcoming exams and use this as extra motivation to do better. Be extra vigilant about exam times and locations, and learn from the experience and ensure that you never make the same mistake again.

Good luck on your exams, and Happy Belated Earth Day!

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Day of the Exam: Show Time!

Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

Image "Closed red curtain at the Coolidge Corner Theatre" courtesy of Flickr User Ben Becker (brokentrinkets), licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

An exam is nothing but a one-person show. Like any sports competition or a theatre show, it’s a chance for you to prove how good you are. Thinking optimistically, it’s a challenge to undertake and an opportunity to shine. As any athlete or thespian will tell you, getting physically and mentally ready before their big event is absolutely necessary and can make the difference between being spectacular and just ok. Athletes and thespians warm up, familiarize themselves with their venues, and check their equipment/costumes/props before they compete or go on stage. To be an excellent exam taker, you’ll want to do the same things before your finals.

Warm up:
Both physical and mental muscles need to be warmed up. Although you’ll be sitting for 2 or 3 hours in an exam, it’s always good to stretch and work out any physical kinks you may have. Writing an exam with back pain, a stomachache, and a foot that is falling asleep is no fun and will detract from your performance. Take care of yourself during the exam season (even if you’re not writing an exam that day). Eat well, sleep lots, and get some physical activity. Avoid drugs and alcohol, and don’t become over-reliant on caffeine. You can’t perform well if you’re exhausted, high, or hyper.

Mental warm up is a lot trickier. The idea here is to get into your “zone” where you are both focused and confident. This is one of the most important determinants of how well you’ll actually end up doing. Performance anxiety and exam stress will bump down your grades even if you’ve studied your rear end off and know everything. So how to get mentally ready? Everyone is different. Some examples of mental warm up “activities” people do include: singing, listening to white noise, chatting with friends, playing video games, reading the newspaper, napping, free writing, debating a completely unrelated issue, and telling jokes. If you don’t know what to try, start with something simple, like listening to music or meditating for a few minutes. Likely you’re already doing something to get ready – just make the process more systematic and routine. Feel free to borrow from sports or theatre or even TV warm up exercises. Think outside the box, whatever works to reduce your exam anxiety and stress.

Familiarize Yourself with the Venue:
Are you familiar with the room in which you’ll be writing your exam? How’s the lighting? The temperature? The ventilation? What about acoustics? Are you assigned seating or can you sit where you like? Are the desks big and evenly spaced apart or is everyone packed together like sardines? Is there anything that could negatively impact your performance?

Scout out the exam venue beforehand. If the lighting is dim, make sure you sit where it is the brightest. If the temperature is too warm, too cold, or changes erratically, wear layers. If the room is stuffy or drafty, try to find where it isn’t as bad or dress appropriately. If noise transmits easily in the room, consider bringing earplugs to avoid distraction (though not all exams will allow this). If you’re assigned a seat, know where it is. If the desks are tiny, consider wearing shirt of pants with large pockets so you could put your extra pens and pencils in there.

On the day of the exam, check your desk and chair. Are they Creaky, slanted, or not stable? Can you see the clock or know how much time you have left? In general, try sitting near the front so you can hear all instructions clearly (especially if you’re in a room with poor acoustics) and avoid doors (as people will be tripping over you to get out).

Check Your Equipment:
Make a mini checklist of what you need for each exam in advance. Remember to bring extra pens, pencils, erasers, and whiteout. Don’t forget your ID, calculator, cheat sheet, and dictionary. Bring some water, a quiet snack, and a watch (yes, a real watch, not of the cellphone/ipod variety). On the day of the exam, just grab everything on your checklist and go.

Dress carefully in what is comfortable, appropriate for the conditions, and gives you confidence. Avoid tight jeans, pants with loose waist, off-the-shoulder shirts, tube tops, hats, scarves, and stiletto heels. Discomfort is distracting.

I am a huge believer in doing whatever you need to do to get ready for an exam. Keep it simple, but don’t worry if it seems ridiculous or stupid (if you have to do a handstand against a wall while counting from 100 backwards in hebrew, do it!). Know the conditions in the room in which you’re writing your exam, make sure you have everything you need, and take time to warm up (even 5 minutes is beneficial). Your grades will thank you.

I hope that you have found this series of exam preparation strategy helpful, and good luck on your exams!

Exam Prep Day 7: How will you study?

Example of a Cheat Sheet

Example of a cheat sheet from a cell biology course I did - a lot of information can fit onto one letter size sheet! Copyright 2011 Scratches on the Notepad.

While planning is important, buckling down and actually working through the material is the only way to do well on an exam. Luckily, this process can be greatly streamline and made less painful by using good study techniques. Good study techniques tend to have the following characteristics:

1. They allow you to interact with the information. Be active, not passive.
2. They require you to approach what you learned from different angles, present information in different ways, or generate new content.
3. Result in you being able to explain concepts clearly and concisely.
4. Increase your confidence in your ability to achieve the mark that you want!

Put another way, good study techniques are not get quick rich schemes. They take time to implement properly. Start with techniques that play upon your strength and tweak them until they fit you and the course you are studying for. Do you have a friend who seems to breeze through their courses with little effort? That’s because they have found their “golden techniques” and are able to use them optimally. (“But my friends are geniuses!” you say. And maybe you’re right. Maybe they only need to see the material once to get it. But that – just seeing the material once – is their “golden technique” because it works for them. Some people need very basic techniques, others need some more ingenuity. Work with, not against yourself, and don’t use other people techniques indiscriminately!)

As final exams are coming rapidly there is no time to completely rework your study habits and techniques. Instead, pick one or two to try from the list below and incorporate them into what is already working well with your studies.

Ready? Set? Here we go!

Scratches on the Notepad’s Best Study Techniques:

1. Teach someone. I’m sure you’ve heard that the best way to learn is to teach someone else. Got a classmate who is somewhat lost? Help them! Part of a study group that discusses certain tough questions together? Participate actively! Got no one to talk to? Get an imaginary friend! Yes, you’ll look stupid while doing it, but when you’re trying to explain how to get from A to C and can’t, you’ll realize that you’re missing B. If you’re in a class with a terrible professor who made the topic much more complicated than it needs to be, pretend you are him or her and give mini-lectures to yourself. Better yet, record yourself and put the videos up on youtube to help everyone else. There is something incredibly cathartic (and “in your face”) when you can do the prof’s job better than he or she can, and it is a huge boost of confidence.

2. Make a cheat sheet. If you happen to be in a course in which you are allowed a cheat sheet into the exam, thank your lucky stars. Cheat sheets are incredibly useful not because they’ll provide you with answers on the exam (in fact, I’ve never looked at my cheat sheet for anything other than clarifying details or difficult formulae), but because the real learning occurs while you’re making it. To make a cheat sheet, you have to understand the material, evaluate its usefulness and importance, condense it down to its most important aspects, and then present it on your sheet clearly. All of this means the most crucial part of the course is drilled into your head multiple times. If you’re not allowed a cheat sheet, still make one. All the learning benefits are still there. Another similar option is the mini textbook method. I routinely use a process that is very similar to it. One caveat is this: DO NOT use someone else’s cheat sheet. That just plain doesn’t work because that sheet is specifically adapted for that other person (it may not even make any sense to you). You don’t think the way he or she does and looking at the end product is not nearly as useful as the effort expended to produce it.

3. Make a mind map or a concept chart. If you’re in a course with lots of information that connect with each other (however dubiously), a mind map or concept chart maybe the way to go. These two techniques are very similar and are ways to visualize connections between topics and concepts. It is also good for showing how to solve some problems (i.e. if yes, do this, if no, do that). Making mind maps/concept charts by hand is not difficult, but there is a plethora of mind mapping software as well. I particularly like xmind.

4. Make compare and contrast charts. In courses in which you are presented with several theories for one thing (e.g. theories on personality) or several systems that work together (e.g. cell organelles), try making charts showing their similarities and differences. This method is terrific because you actually have to understand how each individual component work by itself, then compare it with others. I love this method because it clarifies things greatly.

5. Make your own practice exams. Look at an old exam for how questions are worded, then write your own. Think like your professor. When you can write good (read challenging) exam questions and answer them well, you’ve got the material.

Here are some study techniques I know other people have used. They are here for illustrative purposes to show the diversity of techniques that work for different individuals.

– Taking detours on the way to class to work out problems in their heads.
– Always wearing ear plugs while studying.
– Write practice exams under exam conditions, but giving yourself only half or ¾ of the time.
– Doing questions on white boards.
– Writing jeopardy questions.
– Switch locations and studying activity frequently.
– Discussing questions while playing tennis/football.

Now on to the last step! Putting your best self forward.

Exam Prep Day 6: When will you study?

xkcd time management comic

Image "Time Management" courtesy of xkcd, licensed under CC Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License. Ah... the irony :D.

Having spent over 12 years in school, I’m sure you’ve heard over and over about how important time management is. Thus let’s jump right into a simple method for doing that.

First of all, make sure you know when and where your exams are. Write those times and locations down. Triple check. There is no point to studying your ass off only to miss your exam. Now highlight which exams are your top priorities and estimate how much more time you’ll have to spend on it compared to your other courses. It’s ok to think relatively for now.

Grab a calendar (see below for some options) and look for any major milestones in your studying “journey” for each course. Is there a specific time you need to write your practice final? How about a date by which you want to finish all of your problem sets? Mark those dates down. Also note the times you are obligated to do other things. This includes sleeping, eating, exercising, hanging out with friends and family, attending study groups/review sessions, and downtime to relax. There isn’t a whole lot of time left is there?

Now figure out how you’ll study in the time that you do have. If you’re organized and likes to know exactly what you’ll be doing and when, assign a specific time for each task. I find that a little cumbersome and prefer a more flexible approach. Instead of budget time for each task, I budget blocks of time (1 to 4 hours) for each subject. Then at the start of each block, I look at my to-do list and try to accomplish the most important tasks first. This has the added bonus of allowing me to assign more time for courses that are of higher priority.

Although breaks are important, it is easy to let them run overtime. If this is an issue, try using a timer. A good study to break ratio is 6:1 (e.g. study for 60 minutes, take a 10 minute break).

If you’re looking for a good scheduling system, here are some options:

1. Google Calendar for the electronically inclined.
2. Mozilla Sunbird for those who prefer a desktop program.
3. Gantt Chart for those with lots of things going on (I’ve never used on for studying, but you could give this one a whirl).
4. Old School Pencil-‘n-Paper Calendar/. I use the Dynamic Template from diyplanner.com to create customized ones. The program is free, extremely easy to use, and definitely worth a try. This is my favourite method because it’s easy to use and incredibly portable.
5. Smartphone calendar apps.

Phew! We’re almost done. Only 2 more posts left in this series. The next post? Awesome study techniques.