If your professor gives you the wrong grade…

After my last round of exams, I logged on to my school’s online portal to check my grades. There, buried among the other grades, was an F. I stared at the screen in stunned disbelief for a good 30 seconds. Sure, I’ve failed smaller quizzes/tests/exams and assignments before, but not a full course. AND this course was a pre-req, so failing it would have set me back at least a year. This was also surprising because although I wasn’t doing spectacularly before the exam, I wasn’t close to failing either.

As these thoughts went through my head, I started panicking. After a few minutes in which my mood did one of these:

Mood over Time

I calmed down a little and tried to calculate what I would have had to get on the final exam to get that F. That turned out to be 0%. The professor hadn’t counted my final exam grade at all.

At this point I had no idea what to do. Classes were over, so it wasn’t like I could just see prof after class. The mark was submitted to the university and posted on the online student portal, which meant it was official for the time being. After a few false starts, it got sorted out. This was, however, quite a stressful situation.

So if your professor messes up your grade (or something else), try these steps:

1. Take a deep breath. Trying to get a professor to listen to you while you’re panicking just doesn’t work that well.

2. Get in contact with the professor. Call if possible. Otherwise, e-mail. Always follow good e-mail etiquette (which is also good phone etiquette). Tell them who you are and what the problem is. Do not accuse them of anything or put them on the defensive. If this grade is for an assignment or a midterm, wait to hear back from them (do not proceed as that would be overkill). If this is a final exam grade or a final grade, wait at least a day before you do anything else.

3. If you haven’t heard back from your professor, call or e-mail them again. Don’t pester them repeatedly by calling every 10 minutes though!

4. If you still don’t hear back from your professor, get in touch with the department which administers the course. Call the department secretary (you can probably find this information online) and ask him or her for advice. Explain why it’s important that you get this sorted out quickly and ask them to advocate or follow up on your behalf. In my case, the department secretary was really helpful and probably gave the professor a nudge. He then got back to me and the new grade was up and online in about a week.

5. If the department secretary is not helpful or you still haven’t heard back from the prof after three days, try to get in touch with the department head. This is going over the professor’s head, so make sure you give the professor a reasonable amount of time (at least 3 days) to respond. Otherwise, the department head will likely tell you to wait.

6. If you still haven’t found a solution (which is unlikely), get in touch with your faculty’s advising office. Speak to an advisor. He or she will then likely then follow up on your behalf. This time is really busy for the advising office, so going to them first without consulting the department won’t get you anywhere.

7. After you receive confirmation that people are taking care of it, sit back and wait. Depending on the situation and the amount of paperwork, it could take a few weeks for the change to be reflected in your student portal online.

Remember to always be polite and patient or you risk alienating potential allies. Start with the prof and work your way up.

*Pssstttt* Don’t forget to subscribe to SotN in the sidebar!

 

Review Sessions Anyone?

Review sessions from profs or TAs are useful for revisiting tough topics, obtaining answers to difficult questions, getting a feel for what the profs or TAs consider important, and gauging how well you’re prepping for a particular exam. So you’d think that everyone would attend and pay attention at these sessions… right?

Nope. Yes, lots of people come to review sessions, but then spend the entire time on Facebook, twitter, or 9gag. Others don’t look at the board or take any notes, and some don’t even come with a pencil or pen! If you’re one of those people, you might be thinking “oh, but I’m still there and listening, so it’s all good”.

Sure… Maybe (and that’s a pretty big maybe) you’re paying attention, and perhaps being there at the review session is helping you more than sitting at home. BUT you could get so, so, so much more out of a review session by doing the following:

1. Come prepared (or at least know what you don’t know).

Did the prof or TA give out problem set or sample exams before hand? Were there problem set questions that you were stuck on? Are there topics you really didn’t understand from lectures? Are you uncertain about whether a topic will be covered on the exam? Figure these things out before the review session. If you’re pressed for time, at least skim your notes or textbook and figure out which areas you’re weakest at. What are you most confused about? What’s most important? Prioritize so you know what you need help with the most.

2. Ask questions or steer the conversation. 

There are always moments during a review session when the prof or TA asks for questions… and nobody says a word. Don’t be shy! Jump in, ask your questions and clear up your confusions. If you don’t, someone else will, and there is no guarantee that their questions will be the same as yours. Do not hesitate to steer the conversation towards areas you need help with, especially if no one else is asking questions.

3. There are stupid questions… but you should ask them anyway. 

Sometimes 5 other people have the same question as you and are too afraid to ask. Other times, your question might be so bizarre that the prof or TA looks at you like you have 5 heads. Ok, so maybe that’s just me. Even so, getting the answers to these questions saves me bucket-load of time later on. So don’t be afraid to ask questions that are a little bit out there or that seem stupid. You might look silly at the review session, but when you ace that section on the exam, no one (not even yourself) will remember your embarrassment.

4. Use your brain.

Take notes, ask questions, highlight areas you still need to work on, or write down any hints the profs or TAs give. Actually try to understand the explanations and and solutions, not just copy them down. Ask for clarification when you need them and mark down any explanations you find confusing. If you’re shy about asking questions and just can’t bring yourself to do it, at least pay attention to what the profs or TAs say or do. The people on Facebook, twitter, 9gag, etc. aren’t using their brains. People who blindly copy down solutions have to spend time later trying to understand what they wrote. Time is precious, so get your brain into high gear, understand things then and there, don’t procrastinate.

5. Pay attention to hints!

Some review sessions are basically question and answer periods. Other times the profs or TAs will throw mini-lectures in. Pay attention to the little hints they are prone to give out while delivering these lectures or when answering questions. If they emphasize something over and over, make a note of it. If your prof keeps saying how he does not believe in the lipid hypothesis, he’s probably going to ask for evidence against that hypothesis. If the prof presents review questions, look at what kind of questions they chose. If they say “don’t worry about it”… don’t worry about it. If there are many questions on the Stanford Prison Experiment, you can bet your rear end that’s going to be on the exam, possibly multiple times.

6. Don’t get too happy or too freaked out.  

After a review session, you may feel ready to take on the world… or you might feel that you’re going to fail. Those feelings are not to be trusted. At a review session, the prof may answer questions about a very narrow range of topics or focus on the toughest areas. The things that he or she covers may not be entirely representative of the actual exam (especially the distribution and weighing of concepts and questions). Breathe, go back to your learning outcomes and your class notes, and refocus. If there are some important topics that weren’t covered in the review session, make sure you brush up on those. Don’t focus your studying entirely on the review session or you might be blindsided on the actual exam. Of course, if you feel like you’re going to fail, that’s always a good kick in the butt to work harder.

The take home message? Pay attention. Get answers to your most pressing questions, note all the hints the prof throws out, and figure out what else you have to cover to be fully ready for the exam.

Good luck on the rest of your exams! Summer IS right around the corner.

Quickie: Making the Most of Extra Time on an Exam

One question I get a lot goes something like this:

I finish an exam with 5 or 10 minutes left. I’m really tired and don’t have the energy or time to check the entire thing over, so what could I do in these few minutes?

Before you get to this stage, on your first run through the questions, annotate your exam. Put these symbols besides each question.

: for questions you have no idea how to do.
+: for questions you aren’t sure about or that are tricky.
nothing: for questions you are fairly confident about.

When you only have a few minutes left, go back and try the “-” questions first. Always try to write something, even it’s just the questions rewritten as an equation, a equation that has something to do with that question, or a relevant key word, time period, or person. You might luck out and get some partial marks.

While you might get a few extra marks, “-” questions are pretty much hopeless at this point because you don’t actually know the answer (and there may not be enough time to come up with one). Spending a lot more time on these questions won’t raise your grades a whole lot. On the other hand, the questions you left unlabeled are thing’s you’re pretty comfortable with already and there isn’t a whole lot you can gain from revisiting these questions. Thus the “+” questions are the most important questions you can revisit. Really dissect these questions, try to figure out why they’re hard or tricky, and get as many marks as you can. The reason this might work well is because you might be very close to the right answer. Giving it some more thought may allow you to get the full (or most) marks.

If you still have time or energy left over, look through the unlabeled questions and see if you can get a few more points here or there.

Of course, this technique works better with certain question types and marking schemes. It works best with things like multiple choice (where taking those few extra minutes to really dissect a question may get you to the right answer) and tests with benevolent markers (who’ll gladly give you the few marks). It might not work so well for results-centric and nit-picky markers, but nonetheless, if you’ve only got a few minutes, give this technique a try.

Happy Easter!

7 Types of Exam Markers

I recently messed up a biochem exam. During the exam viewing session, I was appalled at how many marks I lost because of silly mistakes. This exam was marked based almost strictly on the final answer for each question. It didn’t matter that I got the process and 90% of question right – one silly mistake would throw off my final answer and blow the entire question. This experience reminded me about how important it is to take the marking of a question into consideration when formulating my answer.

It’s important to know how a grader grades the exam so that you can best display what you know. For example, you wouldn’t bother writing down all your thought process in the neatest hand possible for a multiple choice exam, would you?

Without further ado, here are the 7 types of exam makers.

1. The Nit Picker. 

This marker analyzes EVERYTHING. Every pen(cil) stroke, every errant dot. Detail-oriented and sharp-eyed, this makers will zone in on that tiny thing that you were unsure about and calls you out on it. Being specific is very important to this marker. He or she expects you to know definitions, applications, examples, and exceptions to all of the material. They also have little patience for people glossing over the parts they don’t know. He or she expect you to know everything, so you better deliver.

2.  The Process-oriented Thinker.

This marker cares about how you think. He or she wants to clearly see your thought process from A to B, taking into account any assumptions, theories, or definitions used. I had one physics prof who didn’t really care what numbers were plugged in as long as the equations were derived and manipulated correctly. In that case, I spent a lot less time crunching numbers (sometimes forgoing it all together) in favour of ensuring I used the right equations in the right way. Math, physics, and even chemistry (especially organic) often focus on the process, although that’s not always the case.

3. The Result Seeker.

This marker just cares about the final answer, not how you got there. Multiple choice and true and false questions are perfect examples of this type of marking scheme. This marker wants to see your (correct) answer bolded or otherwise nicely presented so her or she can find it quickly. The biochemistry exam I messed up what very much this type of marking.

4. The Keywords Scanner. 

This marker scans everything you write for keywords. To this marker, using the right words in the right context is most important. If you write “an area with a lot of trees”, they might mark it wrong if they were looking for “forest”. Biology, psychology, and some social sciences rely heavily on this marking scheme. If you get an exam or a paper back and see check marks at specific words, your work was probably graded this way.

5. The Big Picture Dreamer. 

Everything is about the big picture for this marker. It doesn’t matter how you write it, as long as he or she can tell you’re on the right track, everything’s good. Sometimes questions may be very abstract. Lower level economics, higher level math and physics, and some social sciences mark like this. Biology, chemistry, math, psychology, English (or any other language) except for creative writing do not conform to this scheme. This is arguably the most subjective way to mark, so think like your prof (who probably made up the answer key).

6. The “No-tolerance for BS”-er. 

This marker only wants to see correct statements on your paper. He or she will subtract marks for every wrong statement you make. This can be problematic if the question asked for 3 examples, but you gave four and one was wrong. This marker might very well give you fewer marks than someone who did not write a wrong statement (even though you both have 3 correct examples).

7. The Benevolent Mark Giver. 

This marker is everyone’s favourite. He or she wants to give you marks, you just have to give him or her opportunities to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re using keywords, writing down handwavy concepts, or emphasize the process – he or she will give you marks as long as you demonstrate you know something along the lines of what the question is asking. This marker is almost the polar opposite of the No-tolerance for BS-er. For example, if the question asks you to draw the process for forming the major product of something and you can’t remember which process was major and which was minor, draw both. This type of marker will give you some marks for drawing the right one (although they may take a couple of marks off for not selecting the right one as the major product). The No tolerance for BS-er would not give you any marks because you put something wrong down. So if you get a benevolent mark giver, write away. It’ll almost always be helpful.

Of course, these categories are slightly exaggerated and each exam may have different sections that are marked differently. Nonetheless, next time you come to a question, ask yourself “what am I being marked on?“. If it’s on results, skip the neat scripts and the detailed explanations and jump to the right answer. If it’s on keywords, make sure you use the correct words and be as specific as possible. If it’s someone a nit picku… well… be really, really, really careful!

Good luck on your exams! 🙂

How to Properly Use a Textbook

Girl reading a German book while sun bathing

Image "Studious Andrea" courtesy of Flickr user Robert Wallace (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Student: I failed my midterm(s).
Me: I’m sorry to hear that. Why do you think you failed?
Student: I don’t know! I’ve been studying really hard.
Me: So how do you study?
Student: Well, I read the textbook…

On a good day, I inwardly sigh. On a bad day, I want to *headdesk* and *ragequit* (yes, I just said ragequit). Why? Because reading the textbook is NOT a study technique!

Why not? Because deliberate practice is the best way of understanding or getting good at something. Deliberate practice is:

1. Studying with focus and without distraction…
2. With a goal in mind…
3. While being challenged by the contents (of what you’re studying)…
4. And using feedback to make adjustments in approach…
(repeat)

Reading a textbook may satisfy criterion 1 and maybe criterion 2. However, even though reading the textbook may feel challenging, it’s not the good type of challenging when you feel your mind bending around and understanding a concept. No, reading a dense textbook sometimes feel like hitting a mental wall with no hope of going around and usually breeds frustration. Furthermore and perhaps most importantly, the textbook offers no feedback and there are very few ways to track how you’re learning objectively. Sure you could do the in chapter questions, but even that is usually about memorization and not understanding.

The high school way of simply reading through a chapter from beginning to the end is passive, not active, learning and is highly ineffective.

So how can you use your textbook properly? That depends on the course. If…

… The course is memory intensive and you will be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. psychology, history):

You’ll have no choice but to read everything. BUT, don’t just read. Do something active while you’re at it. Write summary notes, create study questions, note down how all the key terms link to each other, etc. This helps retention and prevent you from having to re-read the textbook for the midterm or the final (because you have notes!).

… The course is memory intensive and you will not be tested directly out of the textbook (e.g. biology, physiology, pharmacology, genetics):

Don’t read any more than you have to. If your professor states that he or she won’t test you anything that haven’t been covered in class, then there is no need to read your textbook unless you don’t understand a topic. Use the textbook like a highly specialized encyclopedia (er… Wikipedia or Google). Read the section you don’t understand (plus any other sections necessary to understand that section). Then move on to higher yield study techniques.

… The course is not memory intensive and is more about problem solving (e.g. math, physics, some chemistry):

Use the book for the questions (if they are like the ones your prof asks on exams). Don’t simply read the example questions in the textbook – actually do them! Cover up the answers, read the question, and go as far as you can. If you solved the question, move on to the next one. If you are study, look at that section of the answer key, then cover it up again and redo the question! This may take some more time than straight up reading, but you will learn and retain so much more.

… You’re pre-reading. 

Figure out if you need to pre-read first, then act accordingly.

The textbook is a reference material. For better understanding and retention of topics, you must supplement it (or replace it) with more effective studying techniques.

 

How to Make the Most of an Exam Viewing

OMG!

Image "OMG!" courtesy of Flickr user Nicolas Hesson (CC BY-NC 2.0).

You’ve survived the exams! In fact, you feel really good about them, even about that one that everyone else thought was killer. Some time later, you get your results back and *gasp* that exam that you thought you did well on? You didn’t. In fact, your grade is so abysmal that you are starting to wonder if you got someone else’s grade (or the prof/TA mistakenly took away 30%). What do you do? Why you go and look at the exam of course.

While exam viewings are terrific opportunities to improve your grades (both on the exam and for the future), few people use them to their full advantage. So how can you make the most of an exam viewing?

First, recognize the goals to any exam viewing. You want to:

  1. Make sure there are no mistakes in the tallying and recording of the marks.
  2. Figure out why you lost your marks and where you made your mistakes.
  3. Obtain some additional marks.

 

The first goal is easy to achieve. Go through the exam, look at all of the marks, and make sure they add up to what you and the prof has on record. This is objective because you are NOT to look at how any of the questions are marked or try to dispute the marking (that’s step 3). Simply make sure that there wasn’t an adding or transcribing error somewhere.

After that, move on to goal 2. Go through the entire exam and try to figure out what you did wrong and why you lost marks. At this point, assume the professor or TA (or whomever marked the exam) marked perfectly and that there were no errors with the exam, the marking, or the answer key. Ask yourself:

  • Did you get the concept(s) wrong? Are there any gaps in your understanding or knowledge?
  • Did you read the question wrong? Did you go off topic? Did you answer the question that was actually asked?
  • Did you interpret the question correctly? Did you think it was asking something else?
  • Did you make any calculation, copying, or other clerical errors?
  • Where there any other problems? For example, were you so nervous you over-complicated or oversimplified the problems?

 

Knowing what went wrong is crucial. If your course is a full year course (or the exam is a midterm), you’ll need to know what you got wrong so you don’t make the same mistakes on the next exam. This is more important if you made conceptual errors. Even if the course is not a full year course, you may take similar courses in the future or this course may be a pre-requisite for a harder course. Moreover, this is a great chance to figure out if you make any systematic errors. That is, are you always misreading or misinterpreting questions? Do you make lots of silly errors that cost marks? If you do, it may be time to change your exam writing strategies to minimize these errors. I’ve found that the types of systematic errors I made in university weren’t the types I made in high school. Therefore if this is your first set of final exams, it would behoove you to pay attention.

If you don’t understand how you did something wrong or you don’t understand a question, ask your prof to explain it. He or she will be glad to as long as you do not act like it’s their fault you got the question wrong (yes, people actually do that).

After going through all the questions you got wrong and understanding the right answers, you may disagree with some of the marking. In that case, you may wish to ask for some extra marks or submit your exam for re-marking. This is be appropriate if:

  • You got the question right (or a part of the question right) and it was marked wrong.
  • You are on a borderline mark – for example, between pass/fail or C/B. Do NOT ask for extra marks if you have 98% unless you’re absolutely sure that the question was marked wrong. Otherwise you will be wasting their time and you will look like an obsessive mark grubber.

 

So how should you ask for extra marks?

  1. Talk to your professor and show them the question(s) in dispute. Indicate that you understand the marking scheme and why it was marked the wrong.
  2. Explain why you think you should get more marks. If you think the marking was too harsh, give a solid reason as to why you should get more. Your excuse should not be “well, I just should”.
  3. If the error was with how you interpreted the question (this is NOT for if you have read the question wrong), explain how and why you interpreted it the way you did. Explain your rationale, especially if the question was somewhat ambiguous. If possible, indicate where you did some scratch work that demonstrated your (somewhat correct) thinking.

 

You want to appear confident and show that you’ve thought through the questions and the marking. However, coming on too strong will cause your professor or TA to go on the defensive and make them less likely to give extra marks. I believe that most professors and TA’s want their students to do well and would be willing to give extra marks if it can justified (especially if the class average is low). Thus, do the justification for them! As well, while you may be very upset and emotional over the low grade, don’t act it. Avoid hysterics and anger. Attacking them, the exam, or the way the exam is marked will more than annoy them. As well, avoid the pity party and the sympathy card. Also avoid the “I have to get this grade or I will be…” argument. Your prof has heard it all and will think that you’re desperate. Worse yet, they’ll think you’re trying to play them (and no one likes getting played). Be calm, logical, sincere, and above all, don’t put them on the defensive!

As well, if you will be asking for extra marks, pick your “battles” carefully. Focus on the questions where you are most likely to receive the extra marks. This keeps you credible. Asking for extra mark for every question will annoy your prof or TA and also make you look like an obsessive mark grubber. Profs do not like obsessive mark grubbers (who does?) and will not want to help you.

Have a good exam viewing (though I suppose it would be best if you never actually have to use these tips :)) and happy 2012!