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!

Quickie: It’s not about going to class…

I’m sorry for not blogging for such a long time! I went on an amazing trip to Europe, and with the planning, going, and recovering (because of course I needed a vacation to recover from that vacation), I had some trouble getting back to the groove of things.

BUT… autumn is here again and with it comes school. If you’re in first year, you’re probably a little overwhelmed by everything right around… now.

I still vividly remember my first year. I was anxious about academics and asked students in upper years for advice. Of course, everybody told me to go to class. So I went to every single class.

And did the 24 Hours crossword.

And checked my email.

And did homework for the class after.

And doodled.

And distracted my neighbours by chatting with them.

And got quite a few evil eyes from a certain prof because I was in the second row.

Image “/doh” courtesy of flickr user striatic. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

You want to guess how I did in that class?

So “go to class” implies going class and learning actively. That means trying to follow the professor’s train of thought, attempting example questions posed, and asking questions when you don’t understand something. You may have to pre-read and will most certainly have to review the material after.

It’s not just about going to class, it’s about paying attention!

So next time you go to class, look around the lecture hall when the prof is talking and note how many people are not paying attention. You’ll be amazed. Or maybe you’ll just be one of them.

‘Nuff said.

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.

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!


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.