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Test grades largely independent of how much I study

  1. Feb 29, 2012 #1
    So I have a question for you guys - what do you do if your test grades don't seem to be affected by how much you've studied?

    Here's the short version of my problem:

    Study a bit = ~85 and 2 out of 3 times so far, the highest grade.
    Don't study at all and get one hour of sleep = 80 (the other guy who did this completely bombed the test).
    Study for 18+ hours spread out over the four days before the test plus 16+ hours of hw the week before the test = ~ 85 (and not the highest grade).

    The grades posted above are from my upper level Statistical Mechanics and Mechanics classes.

    The only reason why I didn't get the highest grade on the last test, despite studying my *** off, is that I completely blanked on a 15 pt. problems, despite having done a very similar derivation the day before. This is despite knowing more for this test than everyone else as far as I can tell (people were going to me for help for studying and the last hw, including the guy who got the highest grade on that test).

    What should I do about this? I'm currently considering putting in 3-4 hours per day into the class no matter what, because I am really pissed. It's great that my scores aren't affected much when I don't study, but if this keeps up, when I really take the time to know the material it won't show up on my transcript. Would a recommendation letter counteract B+ / A- grades in my upper level physics classes, for grad school?

    Also, I really don't want this to continue into grad school because I want to go into theory. Do you guys have any suggestions / heard of any similar situations?

    EDIT : As a side note, I might be worrying too much about this... but it's hard not to when pulling an overnighter combined with not studying at all and studying 18+ hours gives test grades that differ by ~ 5 pts.

    Last edited: Feb 29, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 29, 2012 #2
    Relax the day before, after you are prepared of course.

    Always prevents me from blanking out, because if I study the night before, I usually **** myself if the test throws me a curveball that I didn't explicitly look at the night before.

    With that one day of relaxation, come test day, I feel more comfortable pooling my knowledge together in order to critically think and solve the problems. I think that one day off before the test lets the knowledge "settle" or something.

    Keep in mind this is just my personal experience/opinion.
  4. Mar 2, 2012 #3
    You have mentioned your raw scores, but you didn't say what the average and standard distribution was for these tests... was the average 50? 90? Was the average different among these different tests? A raw score is pretty meaningless if the grade is going to be curved in any way. Plus, it is quite possible that some of the tests were written to be harder than others.
  5. Mar 2, 2012 #4


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    It's hard do really make a call on such a limited sample. Is it possible that you did will on the tests you didn't study for because they covered material you were already familiar with? Or that you did aproximately the same on the other test because you hd to work hard because you weren't familiar with the material?

    Or maybe you're one of the lucky ones who take in about as much as a person can during a lecture and understand it reasonably well without the need for substantial review and 'filling in of the holes.' Or at least, whatever you're doing aside from studying seems to be working - at least up the the ~ 85% mark. Then it would seem you need to focus your efforts on that last 15%. Figure out why it is that you "completely blanked" and correct it. (Getting adequate sleep may have something to do with this.)

    Also with respect to letters of recommendation: a B+ student with a decent recommendation letter is a B+ student with a decent recommendation letter, not an "equivalent to an A" student. The issue that you'll run into is that the students with the top marks are also generally the ones with the most glowing reference letters.
  6. Mar 2, 2012 #5
    Only if you are consistently getting lots of B's is it a huge concern. Recommendation letters have to be truly glowing to counteract anything (actual people on admissions committees say that they should actually compare you to someone who has succeeded, or provide clear description of how your abilities compare to those of your classmates).

    All said though, I don't think what you're describing is too uncommon. I find exams measure how well you gave something coherent in that time, and that doesn't really speak to your depth of knowledge of the subject - it's a snapshot at best. You should be doing well at these, and figure out if you're constantly running into certain similar issues, but aside from that, try your hand at some research, do some independent study and talk to your faculty about what you're doing. All these things are important if you want to go into graduate school.
  7. Mar 5, 2012 #6
    Hey, sorry for taking so long to get back to you guys - trying to wrap up last week followed by being in bed sick for the last few days.

    Answering sweetpotato,
    Last semester, in Thermo, my overall course grade was an A- and my test grades were as follows:
    85, bare minimum A-, highest grade
    86, low end of A-, the highest grade was a 90
    80, a B+, the highest grade was a 95

    There were only 6 people in my class, plenty of partial credit, and curving built into the syllabus. (btw, I don't remember the averages)

    This semester in Mechanics,
    85, higher end of a B, highest grade
    85, higher end of a B, the highest was a 90 and the average was a 71

    There are only 10 people in the class this semester. This semester, there is no curve - the prof says instead he does lots of partial credit on the tests. My end grade will be raised by my homework grade which makes up 20% of the class (each of the 3 tests make up 15%, and the final 20%). (Unofficially, though, he might tilt it at the end of the course if even the highest grade is a B average.)

    Answering Choppy:

    Last semester the problem sets took up about 10 hours per week. Also, there was a take home portion of the test which really saw if you knew / could figure out the material. Typically the take home portion would be 12 hours long and 6 problems, and I'd get fully/almost full credit on all of them (the one exception being the 80 grade where I had pulled an overnighter for the in-class portion - oddly enough **I did better than normal on the in-class portion that time** EDIT: despite not knowing the material as well as the last two tests too).

    (Note that the above times were typical of everyone)

    This semester the problem sets are only taking 5 hours approx, maybe 8 if there's computer problems or I need to read the book/work through examples extensively first. The one exception so far was the week before this test, where I spent 4-6 hours going over an assignment I missed, 12 hours on a new assignment, and 18 hours studying for that test.

    **Out of all of this only about 4-6 hours had a direct impact on the test.**

    Compared to the homework, the test was easy, yet I still blanked / messed up <-- this is what is frustrating me. I think it might be a matter of stressing out / panicking during the test.... which might be why I did better that one time after pulling that overnighter last semester.

    Answering deRham,
    Well, it looks like I'm in a consistent A- / B+ range with all of my upper level physics courses so far, including two I haven't mentioned.

    Answering 1MileCrash,
    I'll definitely try not doing anything the day before - I when I was in high school / my first year of college I did much better on tests because I didn't care as much, if that makes any sense. Not doing anything the day before might help with the sense of "it's no big deal" that I used to have.

    And thanks again for all of the replies!
    Last edited: Mar 5, 2012
  8. Mar 5, 2012 #7
    If your grades are decent, then I'd recommend not studying as much and doing something else. This includes working in the lab, teaching yourself something that isn't in your required reading, or just exercising or doing math puzzles.

    Putting more effort into something that doesn't work isn't useful. What you might do is to go through old test problems, and then do a review of "gotcha" concepts. Also, I've found that not getting enough sleep causes problems with "blanking" so make sure you don't study too much before an exam.

    It will help. But rather than putting more effort, I'd look more closely at how you are studying to see if you can pull things up a little. In particularly, your grades might go up if instead of studying, you ate more vegetables and spend a few hours in the gym (seriously).

    Grad school is a different environment.
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