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.

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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!

End of Term Reminders

Ahhh! It’s almost April! It’s hard to believe with the crappy weather, but as year comes to a close, here are some things to keep in mind as you head into the (very stressful) exam period:

  • Quadruple check your exam schedule. Be paranoid. A couple of years ago, I had a biology exam on a Tuesday. But for some strange reason, I thought it was on Wednesday. Luckily, I was being paranoid and checked the schedule on Monday night. If I hadn’t, I would have missed my exam. So yeah… check the schedule (multiple times), just in case.
  • Don’t forget any last minute assignments. It’s easy to get caught up in the parties and the fun stuff right now, but don’t forget those last minute homework assignments, reports, or papers that are usually worth a good chunk of marks.
  • You can do it! You can ace that exam/course, even if you didn’t do some well on the midterm. Have confidence in yourself, figure out why you weren’t doing right, change your approach, and keep on trying. You’ll be surprised at how successful you can be.
  • De-stress or take a day off! It’s been a looooong year. So take some time off, relax, and de-stress. This is especially crucial if you feel ready to burn out!
  • Save the major partying for later. Although you should take some time off, now is not the time to get drunk everyday for a week. Sure, go out for a drink or two if it helps you relax, but don’t kill all of your brain cells now, ‘k?
  • Get (somewhat) organized. 
  • Find some balance. Exams are stressful and it’s decidedly unhealthy to be solely focused on that one thing for the entire 1 – 2 weeks you’ll be studying for/writing exams. This doesn’t mean you have to keep doing everything or carry a full social calendar, but it does mean finding something that you can turn to to relax when you’re tired or stressed out. Whether it’s meditation or getting together with friends, find something that works.
  • Remove distractions. Yes, it’s important to maintain some balance during the exam season. But remove any major distractions that are huge time sinks. Yes, that means you have to stop playing WoW, LoL, and Pokemon (or whatever your vices are).
  • Get a life-line. During exams, your entire world revolves around whatever you’re studying. Sometimes it’s easy to lose perspective and get really stressed out. Find a family member or a friend who could calm you down or present a new perspective. This will keep you sane.
  • Take care of yourself! You can’t ace an exam nearly as easily if you’re sick or if you’re desperately trying to stay awake. Eat well, get enough sleep (NOT at the library), and exercise a little. Your body and brain will thank you.
  • If you’re feeling lost about how to study, check out the exam prep series. Also check out some things you should not be doing this exam season.

New posts on SotN will probably be far and few in between in April. Hey, I’ve exams to not fail ace too! Good luck!

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! 🙂

Quickie: The Toilet List

Shit happens. Ever bombed or missed an exam? Failed a course? Left your assignment at home? Got dumped? Got rejected for a job? Missed course registration? Waited five hours in the rain for your favourite band, only to have them cancel at the last minute?

Yeah.

And it’s not just the big stuff either. If the weather is terrible, you have a tiny cold, and you meet a nasty person at volunteering or on the job, the day can feel pretty crappy.

I was having a string of bad days, and after wallowing for a bit (though thankfully not as dramatically as these Adele fans on Saturday Night Live), I decided to create a Toilet List (TL).

What is the TL?

It’s like a bucket list, but instead of putting down things you want to do before you die, you put down all the shit that has happened in your life lately. The TL can be super simple, with just one column listing everything crappy in your life lately. However, if you’re a bit more optimistic, add an additional column and write down one thing that is going well for one thing that isn’t. If you’re a go-getter, add a column for things you could do to make things a little less shitty or to brainstorm alternatives.

If you’re a bit literal, you could always write your list on a paper towel or toilet paper and actually flush your TL down the toilet. There is something very cathartic about that!

The TL is a way of getting things off your chest. To stop letting things from weigh you down. It’s a place to put the shit that happened so that you could move on. (Of course, talk to a friend or a professional if you haven’t been feeling good for a while or have a history of depression.)

Shit happens, but that’s not the end of the world. You could always flush it down the toilet.

Reader Question: How do I choose electives?

… I’m not sure what electives to take. There are lots of different requirements, I don’t know what I like, and I don’t know what to take…

Every degree requires taking certain electives. Be they credits from a different faculty, English or other language requirements, or breadth requirements in your faculty, electives are an important part of your undergraduate degree. However, if you’re overwhelmed by the choices, don’t know what you’re interested in, and/or can’t decide what to take, this guide might help you.

First, figure out what the elective requirements are. Otherwise, you’ll be bumbling along in the dark and may end up taking courses that you don’t like and that don’t fulfill any requirements. If you’re in first year, have a general idea because just about everything you take will probably count for something. However, as you get up to the higher years, it’s important to know the details. It would be a pain in the rear end to realize at the end of fourth year that you’re 1 course away from graduating (and having to do the course in summer school or next year).

So, now that you know what’s going on, how do you decide on what electives to take?

Try these strategies: 

1. Path of least resistance

This is both the easiest and hardest method. It’s hard because you have to go through all of your degree and specialization requirements (basically everything about what you need to do to graduate) and figuring out exactly what electives you need. Then you simply take the easiest courses to fulfill those requirements. How do you know what the easiest courses are? Ask around! Perhaps your friends or classmates have taken courses they found easy. As well, certain courses are reputedly easier (a.k.a. bird courses). However, reputations are not always deserved, so use your better judgement. If you find yourself struggling within the first week, the course is probably not as easy as you expected and switching courses might be easier.

Pros:

  • Easier course load
  • Don’t have to take more courses than absolutely necessary

Cons:

  • Not always possible to tell what courses are easy
  • The easiest courses may not be the most interesting courses

 

2. Whatever fits

The involves having a rough idea of the requirements you need to graduate, then taking courses that fulfill those requirements and fit nicely in your time table.

Pros:

  • Class fits nicely in time table – no need to take 8 am electives if you don’t want to
Cons:
  • Courses may not be easy or interesting

 

3. à la carte

This involves having a rough idea of the requirements, then taking any course that would fulfill those requirements and seem interesting. There needn’t be any overarching theme here, just take whatever strikes your fancy.

Pros:

  • All the courses will be interesting
  • Can gain understanding of a broad range of topics

Cons:

  • Courses may be more challenging than expected
  • May only obtain surface understanding of each discipline with no real depth

 

4. Second love

If your major is your first love, then your minor (or second major) may be a second love. This is probably the hardest strategy to use because it involves some more planning. If you find yourself taking a few courses in a discipline and really loving it, it might be tempting to do a minor or second major in that topic. If that’s the case, figure out what you need to do to get that minor or second major and see if there are any overlapping requirements with your first major. Then figure out what courses would fulfill those requirements (and that are easy, fit nicely in your timetable, or that seem the most interesting). This is the situation I found myself in when I discovered that I love economics. I got a late start (I realized how much I liked econ in second year) and am now playing catch-up with my courses. So if possible, plan it as best as you can. If you got a late start and still really want to do it, give it a shot anyway and see if you make it.

Pros:

  • Studying something you love
  • Obtaining true understanding of a specific discipline
  • It looks better on a transcript to have a minor or a second major

Cons:

  • May be taking courses that are more challenging than any of the other strategies above. e.g. for a minor, a certain number of courses must be third or fourth year courses (whereas the elective requirements may be satisfied with lower level courses)
  • May still have to take some other courses (on top of the courses for your minor) to fulfill all elective requirements
  • Obtaining a narrow knowledge-base because you’re not taking a wide range of courses

Which strategy you choose is up to you. In general, if you have a second love, go for the minor or second major. Otherwise, use one of the other strategies to ensure you fulfill all of the requirements with the least number of courses.

Quickie: Use Different Alarm Sounds to Avoid Missing Important Events

Getting up in the morning is hard, especially if you make an effort to get up early every day. It’s so tempting to just disable the alarm and go back to sleep. On most days, the worst that can happen is you miss your bus, a class, or a meeting with friends. On other days, for example if you have a midterm, presentation, or interview, going back to bed can have disastrous results. Being somewhat paranoid about oversleeping, I developed a simple brain hack…

A few years ago, I set the intro to my favourite song as my ringtone. It was unique, so I never confused my phone anyone else’s. Unfortunately overtime, I developed an almost Pavlovian response to that song. If I have my iPod on shuffle and the song comes on, I will automatically reach for my phone. Even when I realize it’s my music player, I still double check my phone anyway. *Doh.*

While this… conditioning is ruining my enjoyment of that particular song, associating a stimulus with an idea is a powerful time management (or just “get out of bed”) tool. How?

1. Pick a song or sound that is unique.

2. Mentally categorize it as your “really important” alarm. Don’t use this as your regular alarm!

3. Every time you have to get up for something important, set that sound or song as the alarm. Do not use the alarm for anything else!

4. Make an effort to bounce out of bed every time you hear that sound. Work towards associating that sound with “really important”.

Overtime, you’ll realize you automatically roll out of bed when you hear that sound without thinking. And if you’re tempted to go back to sleep, the song is ingrained enough to give you pause. Those few extra seconds may remind you of WHY you need to be up early (or on time?).

Give it a try and hopefully you’ll miss fewer exams and important early morning events.