Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tests and preparation--and taking notes!

Help! Help!! I have a test to study for, and I don't know what to do!!

Hmm.  Not the best way to approach the matter, is it?  (And you're not going to do well with that attitude--so relax.)  Yes, I said "Relax."  That alone will help.  And you're not alone.  I used to have "Test Anxiety," also known as "Purpose Tremors."  I would freak out--and I mean "maxed-out paranoid" about math tests in college.  I once walked out of a timed test in math because I was so nervous about being tested in algebra--and when I got over my fear, I ended up taking the exam with a pen and doing equations in my head.

What I learned afterward (and also as an instructor) can be valuable--so listen up!  First...no one (repeat: NO ONE) has ever stopped me on the street and asked for my G.P.A. (grade point average); it rarely comes up in job interviews anyway.  My undergraduate GPA was a 2.52 (my grad GPA was a 3.75), and that's also because I would just stop going to a tough class that overwhelmed me in my early years of school, rather than doing the smart thing (withdrawing before the end of the semester).  That alone killed me with F's.  So don't sweat your grades.  They are not a final judge of your knowledge--and you might be surprised at how much better you can do if you change the way you approach your method of studying, for instance.

Second, there is no class--and I'm serious--that will be a permanent roadblock on making progress in your life.  I don't care if you want to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or even an instructor:  failing a class, or just not doing well at it is not the end of your life.  I've known students who totally collapsed when they did not do well on entrance exams for graduate school--and then they picked themselves up and tried again--and succeeded.  No one (again, repeat:  NO ONE) is going to condemn you to Purgatory or a menial job (which can seem like Purgatory) if you don't do well on an exam.  (No, Purgatory is not a town--so go look it up if you don't know what it means.)

Third--and I wrote about this in my 2nd book:  Get to know your instructor--and let him/her know you.  That saved my undergraduate graduation: my adviser was one of my instructors, and that proved crucial to my getting my degree.  I also have taught enough students who experienced Life Crises:  death in the family, problems with children and baby-sitting help, car problems, accidents, and illness.  Life Happens!  If you get acquainted with your instructor, that alone may be a way of reducing stress and also showing your interest in the course.
Notes and good habits with them can make your grade JUMP.  They can also help you get a date if you have them in a good format--which I'll explain now:
What I learned to do that made a difference for my grades and my understanding of the class was to take notes in a different way: first, I wrote with symbols and abbreviations to take shortcuts.  For instance, "as a result" became an equal sign.  Something that meant growth or decline became an upward or downward arrow.  If I knew that a certain phrase would be used many times (I also tried to read ahead), I would write that phrase in the margin of my notebook, then abbreviate it and circle it too.  Then, when I heard my instructor SAY that phrase, I would use the circled abbreviation instead of writing down the actual words.  It saved me a lot of time: I heard "educational psychology" so much that "EP" became a fast code for me.

Next (and this is crucial): I went home and typed up my notes on my PC. I used bullet marks and indenting to help. This way, when I had to study before an exam, all I needed was the printed typed version; it actually helped me cram much better too, which works for me.  (This is how you can get a date: if there's someone you want to study with...and I assume THAT is also an intention...you fiend...good notes can help.)
Finally, it's okay to drill your memory on a test before you take it.  One method I learned in a graduate education class for a final exam was to do word association.  We had to learn two columns of 10 ideas.  I would learn three sets of ideas on one column, get them down cold, and then learn three more on the second column--and repeat the process until I had all six in my memory.  Then I would add more on both sides until I had all ten.

As I said in the beginning, I had test anxiety--and my grades showed how unprepared I was until I changed my methods.  And as I say to students at the start of every semester I've taught, "I don't sit in a magical chair.  I had to learn just as you do."

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