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!


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…

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.


Material from Science One Presentation

Hello Sci-Oners,

Here are the slides from the guest lecture I did last Tuesday. It’s contents are very similar to that of A Research Approach to Learning (but is more Science One-specific).

Academic Success in Science One (PowerPoint Slides in PDF)

Research Approach to Learning Handout (Handout at the end)

Good luck with your finals (you might want to check the exam prep series on how to start)!

Feel free to e-mail me with any questions that you may have.


Nerdy Humour

Since everyone’s probably stressed out due to midterms this week, here are some nerdy and funny videos for your entertainment. Have a break, have a nerdy video!

31 Jokes for Nerds:


Science Jokes:


I will Derive (Parody of I will Survive):


PCR Song:


50 Doctor Jokes:


It seems that most funny and nerdy jokes are sciency… but if anyone knows any other good jokes pertaining to arts, business, engineering, etc., do share!

Ok, now back to studying.

School and the Academy – Some Thoughts on Math Education

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of sitting on the student panel at the “School and the Academy” conference on math education. In the 40-minute panel discussion, high school teachers, TAs, and professors posed some great questions about the transition from high school to university mathematics to us students. I really enjoyed the session and thought I would expand upon my answers a little more in this blog post. I don’t remember all of the questions, so if you would like another question answered, post it in the comments or e-mail me (this is not restricted to the people at the conference!). Unfortunately, I don’t have inputs from the other 3 members of the panel. Nonetheless, I hope my comments will provoke some interesting thoughts.


Q: Did high school math prepare you for university math? Why or why not?

A: Yes and no. There are really two types of preparedness – academic and mental. Being prepared academically entails having a good enough grasp on the fundamentals to handle the contents of university courses. Being prepared mentally involves adjusting to the university learning environment, orienting oneself on campus, redefining the role of teacher and student, and figuring out how to study. I was academically if not mentally prepared (though that was my own fault as I really dragged my feet). I think that a high school teacher can realistically prepare students academically, but not necessarily mentally. Mental preparation is really up to the students to do (though see below for some suggestions).

Q: What is the biggest difference between high school and university math? What’s the most challenging part of university math?

A: High school math is cookie cutter math. One learns a concept, follows the steps, and arrives at the answer. Everything is black and white. University math is a lot more conceptual and a lot less plug and chug. Someone in the room during the conference used an elephants analogy that I really liked, so here is my car analogy. In high school, students are presented with a blue Toyota, a purple Toyota, and a red Toyota. On an exam, they would be asked about one of the three, or if the teacher is daring, about a yellow or a green Toyota. In university, students are presented with Toyotas, Hondas, Volvos, and Fords. On an exam, they would be given a Mazda. Students would have to realize it’s a Japanese car, figure out which car they learned in class is most similar to it, and then solve the problem using the steps to learned (if they exist). As one gets into more difficult math, things either become a lot more specific (the different types of tires on one brand of a car) or a lot more abstract (throw in buses, trains, and boats).

In high school, it’s easy to recognize where one should start – it’s the how, the steps – that are truly challenging. In university, the steps are the easy part. It’s the starting – realizing that a Mazda is the most similar to one of the Japanese cars – that is most difficult.

Aside from seeing the connections to what is learned in class, students are also introduced to more concepts they haven’t seen before (Fermat’s Last Theorem, differential equations, matrices, graph theory, etc.) and that can be overwhelming. If possible, I would encourage grade 12 teachers to even just name some higher level math concepts in their classes along with some of the most famous questions in mathematics. Sure students would have no idea what they are, but when they are exposed to it in the future, they are better off than than their classmates (who would be going “huh??? What the heck is that? I’ve never even heard of it before”). That extra boost of confidence may encourage them and make math seem less daunting.

Q: What were some things that your high school teachers told you about university that were true, but that you didn’t believe?

A: So many things, here are some that I remember: (italics are my notes)

  • Getting into university is easier than staying there
  • No hand-holding:
    • No one cares if you show up to class and no one will chase after you for your homework
    • No spoon-feeding information and exams that require straight regurgitation
    • Mark grubbing won’t get you anywhere
  • Grades will drop 10 to 15% across the board, providing you don’t fail
  • Not all professors are created equal and not all are understandable. Professors are not paid to teach and some are absolutely terrible at it though there are some great professors. Professors probably won’t know your name.
  • Some courses are taught by TAs and not all TAs can teach. I’ve found that TAs are consistently better across the board than profs – I’ve yet to have a terrible TA but I’ve had some abysmal profs
  • Classes can be really large and it’s easy to feel like a number

Q: What more can high school teachers do to prepare their students? What about professors/TAs in university?

A: High school teachers could prepare students academically and maybe mentally. Teach the topics as thoroughly as possible and really hammer home the fundamentals (I believe the professor panel had some suggestions of what they would like incoming students to know). On the mental side, say some of the things from the answer to the question above. Students won’t believe you when you tell them that they have to take charge of their own education, but they will be able to orient themselves faster than other students once they do get to university. If possible, bring in a few recent graduates and have them tell the students these things. Students may take what their peers say more seriously. As for TAs and professors, I’m not sure. Aside from teaching to the best of your abilities, the rest is really up to the students. Perhaps you could stress that you’re always there to support them and that there are other resources available, such as academic coaching and tutoring, if they are not comfortable going to their profs.


I hope this post is somewhat helpful to the teachers and students reading it! If you have any more questions, please write them in the comments! Happy Canada Day!

FYI: Joy to the World, Calculus Help Is Here!

FYI is a weekly column dedicated to showcasing resources, topics of interest, and humour for students.

Title: Integration (Calculus) Videos “Playlist”
Author: PatrickJMT
Type of Resource: Youtube Videos

This play list covers stuff from second semester calculus. I start with antiderivatives and integration, then go on to applications of integration (areas, volumes), along with inverses (exponentials, logarithms) , polar/parametric curves, some differential equations and lots of sequences and series…

Link: http://www.youtube.com/user/patrickJMT#grid/user/D371506BCA23A437

Comments: Sometimes, learning calculus is like getting hit over the head with a baseball bat. It’s hard, it’s dry, and it just plain doesn’t make any sense (especially when your prof seems more interested in the ceiling than teaching you!). Luckily, PatrickJMT, a math instructor/teacher/tutor has a wonderful series of wonderful math videos up on youtube. The link above is for integration and second term first year calculus, but he also has differentiation, multivariable calculus, and even non-calculus videos if you are interested. This is one source I myself have used exhaustively and can definitely vouch for. I remember sitting in my room madly watching the videos right before my midterms/finals and finally understanding what is going on. Whether you need to learn an entire semester’s worth of math or just need to tackle a few tough areas, these videos are definitely great places to start.