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How to take exams

Here is something different: I wrote a piece on exam-taking tips. It's on a new website, Cafe, which has lots of good (non-quant) reads. The motivation for the piece is my observation that most American students are not taught how to take exams. As a professor, I notice that many students get lower scores than they deserve because of this. 

In this article, I describe five things that are often neglected here, but are common knowledge in exam-heavy cultures.

The link is here.


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"When I say “GO!” at the start of an exam, my students usually start typing away noisily within seconds."

I think the only exam I've ever taken on a computer was the GMAT. I need to do better on exams but I'd just assume not have to write anymore but alas my life has not gone well. Things have really changed when people get to type their exam...


A lot of students seem to have this idea that if they learn the equations etc it will all come to them in the exam, and it doesn't work that way. As you suggest do the sample exams, plus they should make sure that they can do tutorial and assignment questions. Plus use supplied solutions as a last resort, go through the notes and find the right method. In doing so, students can find out a lot about all the course material.


As long as exam design culture is focussed on tripping exam-takers up with hidden high-points features, this is great advice. But I'd like to pull out and ask why they are designed that way? Why deliberately design exams that reward the skills of exam-taking, and inaccurately assess the achievement of brighter students who aren't wise to the tricks of "making a plan of attack" and "answering out of order"?

Educators are so aware of the problems of examination, that they often try to abandon exams in favour of things like continuous in-class assessment. And yet they won't think about improving the design of the exams themselves? That makes no sense.


derek: just what leads you to think that exam designers are trying to trick students? It's perfectly normal for some questions to be worth more points than others. One reason is some questions require more effort than others. Another reason is some questions test basic knowledge while others test creative thinking.
when students graduate, they face the reality that the world makes judgement on them. A project must be completed by a certain time, and you may lose your job if you don't, and there are no make-overs, etc. We fail our students by not training them to face the real world.


derek: the problem with continuous assessment is that it is impossible to determine if the student has actually performed the work. Individual projects are better, but they have the problem that they take much more time to supervise and to mark than common assignments. We also have the problem of contract cheating where someone in a lower wage country is paid to complete the project.

While exams have their problems they are still the best form of assessment given the effort in marking. Where we have classes in which students don't cheat on assignments (small classes where it would be obvious) there is usually a fairly good correlation between the assignment and test marks.

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