Feeling Overwhelmed…?

Flying Leaves

Image “Falling Leaves” courtesy of stock.xchng user Mattox.

It’s late September. The leaves are turning yellow, the days are getting shorter, and… you are lost in your classes. You start to slip behind in one. No big deal, you’ll catch up on the weekends. Of course, hanging out with friends, playing video games, or getting drunk at frat parties are much more interesting than studying. And so you don’t catch up. Then more assignments start popping up. You procrastinate more because you’re behind and slip even further behind. That affect another class, and then another, and then another. And before you realize it, your prof starts to speak Martian. And soon, too soon, your first round of midterms are here.

While you can always dream about making the perfect cheat sheet or trying to do damage control after failing a midterm, your time might be better spent studying now. But how? How do you catch up if you are way behind in your classes?

Step 1: Start somewhere.

Choose a class to start with. It might be your most important course. It could be the one you’re most behind in. It could be the one you’re least behind in so you can quickly catch up and move on to classes you’re more behind on.

Step 2: Figure out why you’re behind.

Have you fallen so far behind that lectures no longer seem to make any sense? Does the prof have an accent you can’t understand? Is there another reason the lectures aren’t making sense? Is there a huge disconnect between what’s covered and practice problems at home? Do you always have trouble completing the assignments because they are too hard? Is there so much material you don’t know what to focus on?

List the top few reasons you think you’re behind in a course, then:

Step 3: Fix it.

Need to go over the material? Use an effective study technique and get through it. If your prof has an accent or you just have trouble understanding him or her the first time around, ask your prof if you can record the lectures. If the assignments seem to have nothing to do with the lectures, talk to your prof – there may be a connection you’re missing. Need help with the assignments? Go to office hours or form study groups. Don’t know what to focus on? Look for learning outcomes detailing exactly what you have to know or make it yourself.

Whatever the problem is, find one or more solutions and try them. 

Step 4: Reiterate

If your solution in 3 doesn’t work, don’t give up! Try another way to solve the problem. All caught up in one course? Repeat steps 1 through 3 for another course.

Step 5: There is no way to get around actually studying.

No, there is no magic bullet. And if you’re looking for an instant fix… well, please tell me when you find it. Because I would love to know! For now, nothing beats taking the time to actively learn and understand the course material. However, you can learn to be more efficient at learning. Really work on figuring out what study techniques work the best for you and how to minimize the amount you need to spend on a topic to understand or master it. In other words, judge how well you’re doing based on your progress and accomplishments, not by how much time you spend! In other words, don’t pseudo-study!

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! 🙂

What to bring to an exam

Exam Hall

Image "Exam Hall" courtesy of Flickr user non-partizan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


It was my last exam. Another 2.5 hours and I would be free. FREE. The exam was multiple choice with a Scantron sheet. Sitting down at my desk, I whipped out my Ziplock bag pencil case, rifled through it, and had an “oh crap!” moment. I had forgotten to bring a pencil. *head desk* much? Luckily, someone sitting near me loaned me a pencil and it all worked out. However, this situation was especially ironic because I had written extensively about bringing the necessary tools to each exam! As well, I almost didn’t get in to this course because I wasn’t paying attention to the prereqs. Doh!

Although this situation was resolved in under a minute, it threw off my “game”. Although I didn’t feel like I did any worse because of the situation, not having to deal with it would have been beneficial. Thus, to avoid this particular head desk moment in the future, I made a master checklist of things I should bring to every exam. You might also find it helpful!

Must Have:

  • Pens (2) – an extra one just in case someone else needs it!
  • Pencil (2) – an extra one just in case someone else needs it!
  • Eraser
  • White out
  • Coloured pen (to highlight answers in situations with lots of writing or to annotate graphs)
  • Student ID
  •  Water or other types of beverage
  • Quiet Snack – granola or candy bars probably work the best

Also Include:

  • Tissues – someone, maybe you, will be sick
  • Few pieces of paper – can be used for many things, one of which is to prop up the short leg on a (often) shaky table!
  • Backup ID
  • Watch*
  • Ear Plugs*
  • Calculator*
  • Cheat Sheet*
  • Model kit*

* = may not always be allowed.

I recommend customizing this list for every exam before exam season and keep the lists somewhere noticeable. That way, you could simply double check to make sure you have everything before leaving for each exam.

As well, carry your material in a clear plastic reseal-able bag (like a Ziplock bag). These bags are great because they make finding stuff easier. As well, I’ve never had to put away my “pencil case” because its see-through. If you have too much stuff, use two bags. The things on the “Also include list” can go in a separate bag in your backpack for when you need it.

Bringing everything may seem like overkill, but it’s better to be over than under prepared! Good luck on your exams!


Quickie: 3 + 2 Study Management

“Quickies” is a new column on SotN for short or niche tips. These topics are interesting or important enough to warrant their own post, but are too short for a full length one. If you have a “quickie” you’d like to share, contact us! Enjoy! 

A while ago, I came across the concept of the 3 + 2 Rule for managing one’s to do list on Lifehacker. This “rule” is a way of managing one’s to do list to get stuff done. Since the original “rule” was for an office setting, I thought I’d show how it could be tweaked for university (or any other type of schooling). Compared to the original, the only real difference is in the length of each task. To implement the tweaked system:

  1. On an index card, write down 3 major tasks that you would like to accomplish. During the regular school year, each major tasks takes about 0.75 – 1.5 hours. During the exam season, when you have more flexible time, each task should take 2 – 2.5 hours.
  2. Write down 2 minor tasks to complete. These should take no more than 15 minutes each.
  3. At the end of each day, check to make sure all the tasks are complete. If there are unfinished tasks, slot them into another day.
  4. If 3 + 2 doesn’t work for you, try 4 + 1 or 2 + 5. Whatever combination works the best. If necessary, you can also divide it up by days (e.g. Monday is 4 + 1 and Friday is 2 + 5).

What kind of things count as major tasks?

  • Doing problem sets
  • Making cheat sheets
  • Going to prof’s office hours
  • Reviewing the midterm or attending an exam viewing
  • Doing practice/sample midterm or finals
  • Attending review sessions

What kind of things count as minor tasks?

  • Pre-reading
  • Printing off notes/PowerPoint slides for class
  • Doing course evaluations
  • E-mailing the prof about something you did not understand

As you may have noticed, these tasks are all academic. You can, should you wish, also include extracurricular, work, or volunteer tasks as well.

The beauty of this system is that it forces students to prioritize and prevent to do lists from becoming bloated.

Exam Prep Toolkit

Wow! This term just flew right by. Final exams are again upon us. Here are some articles on SotN that would help with your exam preparation (or to avoid further disaster?).

For one, there are certain things that you should just not do around exam season. So… don’t do them!

If you’re still recovering from midterms, check out “what do I do if I failed an exam?“. Even if you did not do too poorly on the midterms, it may be worth it to do a “post-mortem” on your exams so that you’re better prepared for finals.

If you need a system for preparing for finals and have no idea where to start, check out the exam prep series. Yes, it is very, very detailed. No, good planning is not a one day process. However, planning to study is not the same thing as actually studying – do not procrastinate studying by planning to study!

If your prof allows you to bring a cheat sheet into the exam, use that opportunity wisely! Make the best cheat sheet you can to learn the material thoroughly.

If you suffer from exam anxiety or just get really nervous before an exam, you might want to consider pre-writing to boost your confidence and grades. As well, here are 5 ways to avoid panicking on a hard test.

If you, for whatever reason, missed an exam, there are some things that you could try (this is the most popular article on SotN around exam time).

Good luck on your exams! I apologize for not posting as much this term. I’ve written 13 lab reports/papers and was suffering from writing (typing?) fatigue. I promise to do better next term!

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.


Material from CLASS

Thank you to everyone who came out to my CLASS presentation on the 27th! I hope you had fun (or as much as possible while talking about learning – I go gaga for this stuff, but not everyone else does :P) and learned some new things. As promised, here are the handouts and PowerPoint slides. Unfortunately, the presentation isn’t completely stand-alone. However, the Research Approach to Learning section should make sense even to people who were not in the workshop.

Good luck on your next round of midterms (or finals)!


Here are the Links:

Research Approach to Learning

Research Approach to Learning Handout


Happy Halloween!