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Testing How Can I improve my test taking?

  1. Oct 28, 2017 #1

    I’m a physics undergrad and one of my first term courses is applied linear algebra. I knew exactly what to study for this midterm, so I practiced it over and over again until I was sure I was comfortable with it- went into the test and the exact same type of questions I studied and practiced were on it, so I didn’t end up leaving anything blank, however, after the midterm I found out where I made some calculation errors :(. Those errors are really going to hurt my mark since this test was only out of 4 questions. I double checked what ever I had time to double check, but it wasn’t very thorough. I’m not sure what else I can do to stop making stupid mistakes.

    This always happens, it always kills my mark even though I know everything that’s on the test.
    Happens with some other courses too. It’s starting to get frustrating just losing marks for dumb errors, I don’t know what I can do to fix this :/

    Any advice? (I do get anxious on tests btw, but not as much as the people who were sitting beside me- the person on my left was hyperventilating, which made me a litttttle tad bit nervous)
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 28, 2017 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Not sure, whether it fits your needs, but it is an easy read and also applies to the kind of tests you are talking about:

    Also read the discussion about it. Especially the comments on drawings have the additional tip: When in doubt, draw it out! Your text reminds me on a saying we used when playing speed chess: Set properly! It also applies to problem solving.
  4. Oct 28, 2017 #3
    Oh my gosh thank you so much for this! Hopefully I can apply those tips effectively.
  5. Oct 28, 2017 #4


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    After many years of teaching, I have found that about half of students' performance on a test is psychological and depends on their level of confidence when they take the test. I remember the case of a student who came to ask me about a problem a several of hours before the test. It was one of three problems that I put on the test! I did not solve the problem for her. Instead I asked a couple leading questions which she answered and then her face lit up and said, "Oh, I see how to do it now." So I said, "OK, finish it for me while I watch" and she did. She takes the test and completely bombs the question. I call her to my office and ask her what happened. She says, "I don't know, I completely froze. I can do the problem now if that would make any difference." I believed her. The question before me was, how do I evaluate this student's performance? I became convinced that she had actually mastered the necessary concepts despite putting nothing on paper and gave her 80% credit.

    The moral of the story is that you need to build your self-confidence and convince yourself that you have mastered the material so that when you go take that test, you will be able to handle it no matter what is thrown at your face. The obvious first step towards that goal is studying and practicing but that is often done incorrectly. Reading someone else's solution and understanding it does not mean that you have mastered it. Hide the solution and do the problem as if it were given to you on the test. Can you finish it from start to finish without peeking at the solution and without having memorized the steps? If yes, you will become more confident. If no, pinpoint where you got stuck or where you made a mistake and file it in your memory so that should you see the same problem on the test, you don't get stuck or make the same mistake again. A second step towards boosting your confidence is to try explaining solutions to problems to other students. Form a study group. The adage that you learn it better when you have to explain it is absolutely true. Third step is keeping current of what's going on in class. I strongly recommend against just passively recording what the instructor says. Try to predict what the instructor will say next; it is immensely satisfying to make a correct prediction and, again boosts your confidence. If there is something you don't understand, raise your hand and ask or take advantage of office hours to ask. The purpose of a lecture is to edify not to mystify. Review your notes from the previous lecture before going to the next one. Fourth step is the "postmortem." When you get your test back look over the mistakes you made or wrong turns you took. Be sure to answer the question "What was I thinking when I wrote this?" Only you know what went on in your brain when you took the test. The answer to that question will provide clues about shortcomings in your understanding of the material that need to be fixed before the next test. Fifth step, Get a good night's sleep and don't cram until the last moment before the test. Let the material percolate through your brain so that it's there when you need it.

    Good luck.

    On edit: I was not aware of the link posted by @fresh_42. The Insight article has excellent tips. However, it does not address the confidence boosting steps that I discussed above.
  6. Oct 28, 2017 #5


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    If it's any consolation, you're not alone. I'm sometimes amazed at the number of students who blow simple plug-and-chug calculations on quizzes or make really basic errors in their algebra. And they're often frustrated at making those mistakes after the fact.

    If you're making dumb errors, it's really just a matter of practice. Learning how to do calculations correctly and efficiently is a skill you have to work on. I think a lot of students don't recognize this fact. There are good ways to do calculations and not-so-good ways. You want to identify what the good ways are for you and stop using methods where you tend to make errors (or figure out why you tend to make those errors and fix that).

    In my case, it turned out I just needed to slow down instead of rushing through an exam because I was worried about time. I also recognized that I found it hard to find errors after I got to the end, so I started double-checking my work as I did it, especially with things like signs. Over the years, it helped me develop the ability to quickly spot errors, which is another useful skill to have (and very helpful since I make mistakes so often).
  7. Oct 31, 2017 #6
    Oh my gosh this confidence thing! Thank you for pointing that out, I’ve noticed that I’m always lacking confidence- even when I do homework. Our calculus textbook has questions in black and “challenging” ones in red. Even if the challenging ones aren’t hard, I’ll still start second guessing when I’m doing it and freak out and mess up that question anyways. Pretty sure this is what happens to me on tests only because of the fact that I’m in test mode.
  8. Oct 31, 2017 #7
    I’ve kept this in mind while I studied and realized I made less mistakes if I wrote down every single step instead of doing it in my head and by talking to my self in my head when I’m deriving.
  9. Nov 1, 2017 #8


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    Excellent habit. Other than helping you marshal your thoughts, writing things down improves your grade. Keep in mind that the grader of your paper is not a mind reader but grades on the basis of what's written down. The grading premise is Everybody is ignorant unless proven otherwise. It's up to you to provide such proof by transferring what's in your head to the paper. I've always told my students, "I will be happy to give you a good grade, but you have to provide me with a reason for doing so."
  10. Nov 2, 2017 #9


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    So this only helps if you have variables to work with, but keep things generic as long as possible.
    Do not plug in numbers right away. This will allow you to get more credit, as well as find the solution for your answers.

    Another good method is a Sanity Check and dimensional analysis. Again not always possible depending on the subject.
    Sanity check: If you're expecting a value between one and ten, and you get 487.5*i, chances are you made a mistake.
    dimensional analysis: Plug in the dimensions for all of your units.

    So if you have 4V * 5V + 8 A = 28V, something is wrong, because you cant add two different units
  11. Nov 2, 2017 #10
    I try doing this as much as possible for physics! Helps a lot! (I know this is a bad way to attempt problems) but if I don’t understand a problem, I look at the units for what’s given and the units for what I need and figure out what I need to do from there :/. I
  12. Nov 2, 2017 #11


    Staff: Mentor

    Units are your friends! And writing is faster than thinking. Strange, but true. (It means: to leave out steps is a) risky and b) doesn't save time.)
  13. Nov 7, 2017 #12
    Thank you all for the advice! I tried to use it during my calc midterm and I guess it worked? I finished with 30 minutes left and used the 30 minutes to go through my test again and redo questions to make sure I catch errors (caught a REALLYYY BIG one on the first question but missed another one - which was a reading error from my part- on another question. Hopefully I still end up at least above a 60? It’s so damn hard getting good marks because of how little marks a test is worth.
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