2012 in Review

Scratches on the Notepad has seen tremendous growth this past year. This blog has been read almost 22,000 times in 2012, or over 60 times per day!

Month by Month Readership 2012

These are the top 5 most read articles this past year (number of views in brackets) – you might want to check them out:

  1. Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 1 (5272)
  2. Your First Day (Of University) (5209)
  3. What if you miss an exam? (1443)
  4. Constructing the Perfect Cheat Sheet: Part 2 (988)
  5. Reader Questions: What do I do if I failed an exam? (870)

So readers are concerned with cheating, missing, and failing exams… while being anxious about their first day of school.

Of course, trends are seasonal. In September, Your First Day and The good, the Bad, and the Ugly are popular. While in December and April, people are more concerned with cheating, missing, or failing exams. Of course, if you are concerned about these things, I suggest also checking out Making the Most of Review Sessions and Exam Viewings. For next time. And while you’re at it, you might want to know your enemy how people mark exams.

Readers by Country 2012

Most readers are from the United States, Canada, or the UK, but in total, readers from 133 countries read something on SotN. Oh, the day where my blog’s been to more places than I ever will…

Of course, we wouldn’t have nearly as many readers if not for people sharing my articles on twitter and Facebook (so please keep doing so!). Also people came here from math.ubc.ca and calnewport.com (both of which are wonderful resources, although the former is probably only useful if you’re in math at UBC).

So THANK YOU dear readers from the bottom of my heart. SotN would not be the same without you. I hope you have an amazing 2013 and please visit often!

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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!

 

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.

You are not stupid, you are awesome.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve written a poem outside of high school English. Nonetheless, I am in a poetic mood today and this poem summarizes my attitude about university (and should prove entertaining if nothing else). If you’re on this blog because of my recent Science One presentation, I will have the PowerPoint slides and handout from the it available soon. 

You are not stupid,
You are not dumb.
You are not less intelligent,
Than anyone else. Really, it’s true.

This is first year,
And everyone struggles,
Your really smart friends,
Are working their butts off too.

Chemistry, math, biology, and French,
Physics, economics, poli sci, and English,
App Sci, forestry, F & H, and philosophy,
Will be be challenging at the beginning.

Hang in there,
And don’t doubt yourself.
This is where you’re supposed to be,
You are capable!

To overcome the learning curve,
And to learn more efficiently,
Discover and use excellent study skills,
And brush up on your time management too.

Learning and getting good grades aren’t easy,
And there are potholes in your way.
You may feel dumb ocassionally as you progress,
But that’s ok – soon you’ll be well on your way.

It might take a while,
To get to where you want to be academically,
But fret not and you will get there.
As long as you keep believing and trying.

This is university,
Where learning occurs,
Both from within the classroom,
And outside in the “real world”.

University is what you make of it,
And no one will hold your hands.
It is up to you,
To discover your passions and dreams.

Take advantage of opportunities,
That will fly your way.
Stretch your wings,
And turn your dreams into reality.

You are not alone,
And there many people who can help you on your journey.
Whether you want to learn how to learn or grow personally,
Reach out! Be proactive! Find resources!

Your education is more than a piece of paper,
And while your studies are important,
Don’t neglect balance and personal well-being.
And be wary of the insidious “burning out” bug!

And while this poem,
May not always rhyme,
Its intentions are sincere,
And its logic mostly sound.

All the best for the future.
You will be successful, have no doubt.
You are not stupid or dumb.
You are awesome.

Have a great weekend and Remembrance Day

Reader Questions: What do I do if I failed an exam?

… I thought I was ready for this exam but I blanked out. I failed! I’ve never failed an exam before! What do I do? What if I get an F for the course? None of my friends seem to have as much trouble with this class. I feel so stupid!

You’re not stupid. Most students fail an exam at some point in academic careers, and that first below 50% grade is always hard to take. You’re not even unique in your failure. Your gut reaction may be “oh god, I’m such a failure”, or “f*** you professor! I’ve studied so hard for this exam, how dare you fail me”, or “the universe is out to get me”, or “what? what? I FAILED? How could I fail? I was the smartest person at my high school!”. Whether it’s listless acceptance, indignation, or a feeling of incompetence, get over them. Yes, it’s harder said than done. Take that failed midterm, bury it in the bottom of your binder or filing folder, and don’t look at it for a week. If you’ve calmed down by then, look at it. If not, wait another week.

You know that Robert Frost poem? The Road not Taken?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could

You are the traveler, except you’re not looking the roads often taken and not taken. Instead, one road is success and the other failure. What road you end up on – how successful you are from this point onward – depends solely on you. So how can you ensure that you are on the path to success?

1. Recognize that YOU and you alone was responsible for that failed midterm. It’s no one else’s fault. Take responsibility for your own actions (or perhaps inactions).

2. Also recognize that this exam is a reflection of how you’re doing in the course. It is NOT a judgement of your worth or competence as a person. .

3. Resist falling into the “I’m such a failure” hole. You failed an exam, but you are not a failure as a person.

4. Promise yourself that you will do better. Promise yourself to take action and responsibility for your own learning. Promise yourself that you will find better study strategies and overcome any reservations or issues you have with this class.

Aside from taking on new attitudes, what are some concrete actions you could take now? 

1. Perform an exam post-mortem. Cal Newport, one of my favourite study bloggers, has an excellent article on it already. Figure out what was working, what wasn’t, and find solutions for things that weren’t working. Come up with a plan of attack. List how you will study, what might hold you back, what outcomes you expect (e.g. final grade, amount of content learned), and how you can gauge the efficacy of your own studying (in fact, this is very close to the Research Approach to Learning).

2. Visit your professor or TA. No, you are not to mark grub. In fact, unless you still don’t understand a question on the exam, you are not to talk about any specific question with your prof or TA. You are not to whine about your mark, how the exam was marked, and why you think someone else’s test was marked so much easier than yours. What you will do is show them the results of your post-mortem and your study plan. Ask them for advice. For example, do they know of any more study techniques you could try? When they were a student, what were some things that worked well for them?

3. If your issue is related to text anxiety, I can definitely sympathize. Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight. The best cure to test anxiety is confidence in your own abilities. And that confidence takes time to build. There are some good tips on the internet, but it really comes down to believing in yourself. This is extraordinarily hard after a failed exam, but fake it ’til you make it, and it gets better.

4. If your issue is related to not internalizing enough content or not being able to apply what you learned during the exam, try some new study strategies! Force yourself to re-organize data (e.g. tables and charts), summarize it (cheat sheets), or teach it to someone (real or imaginary). Pretend you’re the professor and come up with questions that you think would really challenge a student’s understanding of the topic. If possible, apply what you’re learning to real world situations.

Fall down seven times, stand up eight. – Chinese Proverb

Yes, you failed an exam. But climb back up. It is not the end of the world. If your’e failing an exam in first year, take it as a wake-up call and use it as motivation to never fail an exam again. If this is a midterm (especially THE first midterm), all the better. The exam is probably worth so little you could still do really well in the course despite failing it.

You’ve made it to university and you have what it takes to excel. It takes time to adjust and a failed midterm is simply a sign of that. Don’t let it hold you back. Learn for your mistakes, move on to bigger and better things, and your grades on your future exams will reflect your abilities as a better learner and student.