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What are some good ways to improve logical ability while under time pressure?

  1. Oct 5, 2011 #1
    The higher I get in mathematics the more I'm noticing there is little to no extra time for thinking during an exam. If the insight doesn't come immediately you're basically screwed, since even with lightning-fast logic, you're still not likely to complete the entire exam in the allotted time. I've actually always looked down on people who claim to be "bad test takers" but I think I'm beginning to sympathize. I used to say (agreeing with Tosh), "oh haha riggghhhht...so you don't do well at the part where they ask you what you know?", then laugh derisively.

    But it seems the tables have turned! For instance, today I took a linear algebra exam where nobody finished. Okay, that's fine. The curve will be generous. But at the time, my mind was under serious pressure and I screwed up things I thought I knew, stuff that should be easy.

    Does this just mean I'm actually not as prepared as I should be, or are there things I can do to improve the speed of my rational facilities? I know a lot of people suggest brainteasers and stuff like that, or just practicing a lot problems, but is there anything else that may help?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 6, 2011 #2


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    One thing you'll find if you go far enough is that eventually you'll encounter an exam that can't be aced in the alotted time. There are no big secrets that I'm aware of to getting around this. In my experience, here's what can help.

    1. Practice. Practice. Practice.
    2. When practicing, be sure to critically evaluate your approach to the problem. Do you understand your own methodology, or did you just randomly try stuff until you ended up with the answer in the back of the book?
    3. Stay healthy in your habits. Do as much as possible to get good sleep. Eat healthy. Get regular exerise.
    4. Avoid negative people and negative self-talk. The attitude of "If the insight doesn't come immediately you're basically screwed" is not going to help you. If the insite doesn't come immediately you can conclude it's going to be a tough test, but you've handled tough tests before and you've prepared yourself so start doing what you can.
  4. Oct 6, 2011 #3
    What you should do is, if you know you won't be able to finish the test in the time allowed, then go to the problems you know how to do (I know, this has been said a million times).
    Or if you do know how to do every problem, go to the section you know will be worth the most points!
  5. Oct 6, 2011 #4


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    I think Choppy pretty much nailed it.

    A couple more things:

    Some tests are written poorly but I believe in most cases, if you don't finish on-time, then it's an indication you needed more practice.

    Something else I've noticed is that if I study with a friend for an exam, it significantly increases my confidence and my understanding of the material. I really underestimated the benefit of a study partner when I returned to school. I now find it to be one of the best methods for doing well in my courses.
  6. Oct 6, 2011 #5
    This is why I'd like to see time limits on exams either greatly extended or removed completely. An exam should be testing what a person knows / understands, not how fast they can get it down. The time limit forces people into making mistakes, and often you don't realise your mistake until it's too late - or the solution doesn't come to you instantly, you panic, you realise time is slipping away and it makes thinking of the solution even harder. I don't know what to tell you, apart from that towards the end of my degree I found myself thinking the same thing as you. It's just a matter of luck really, you can't predict when some problem is going to surprise you like this.
  7. Oct 6, 2011 #6


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    The counter-argument to this is that when one graduates, one will likely find work in an environment that will expect one to provide solutions within time/resource constraints. One will rarely have the luxury of loose deadlines or unlimited time to solve problems.

    Those two forms of mastery aren't mutually exclusive, and a well written test evaluates both. In other words, it isn't a one-or-the-other scenario, and an exam should test your understanding and your ability to produce results in a reasonable amount of time.
  8. Oct 6, 2011 #7
    In what job is a person expected to churn out solutions to physics/mathematics questions at a rate that seems like their life depends on it though? An imminent meltdown at a nuclear reactor?
    I know the real world involves working to deadlines but it's rarely that extreme surely? I don't think the time limits in university exams are reasonable in many cases, it can make otherwise competent students look like idiots.
  9. Oct 6, 2011 #8


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    Manufacturing or production. Some technical person must make decisions and assign instructions to satisfy shipping personnel, sales team members, and customers.
  10. Oct 7, 2011 #9


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    Sure, that's one of them.

    How about another field--IT. You're on the phone with an instructor who works for a major client. They're teaching a course using gear that your company is hosting of them. Something goes wrong and the whole class is at a standstill because of network issues. Their network is extremely complex and you're expected to get them back up and running ASAP. The students (often employees of other partners) of the course are upset; they've paid a couple thousand dollars (sometimes just for travel and lodging) and expect things to work correctly, and rightly so. The instructor is anxious because he/she is standing in front of a class of angry students who're all but throwing tomatoes.

    If your problem solving skills are poor, you will not be able to make your customers happy most technical fields. You need to hone your ability to learn complex concepts and apply your knowledge in a timely manner. This is what timed exams are for, and I'm willing to guess that the scenario I mentioned above can apply to a great number of positions at many different companies.

    Not all real-world scenarios are life threatening, no, but neither is an exam. "Extreme" is an ambiguous word--I would call it extreme if your inability to solve problems in a timely manner prevents you from being successful in your field, which is completely plausible. I wouldn't take your struggles in this area as something that's set-in-stone for you, though. As I said before, this is remediable--practice will make you faster.

    I would also disagree with your assertion that time limits have the ability to make competent students look like idiots. I believe that if a competent student does not finish a test on time, then they aren't idiots, they're just competent students who needed more practice. :smile:
  11. Oct 7, 2011 #10


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    I get terrible anxiety on physics and math exams. I think it's because I'm very solid with grasping concepts and relationships but when I have to show work in a limited amount of time I doubt myself and get confused. What seems to happen too often is that I solve problems right after walking of the exam! I think excessive practice is really the only thing that will eventually work for many people, this seems to be the pattern. Taking physics and math tests will never be be easy for me, but I'm starting to get better as I become more aware of myself and my habits.
  12. Oct 9, 2011 #11
    that's exactly it, it's not a matter of being unprepared, it's a matter of the pressure inhibiting your brain from working.

    Excerpt from here: http://library.thinkquest.org/C0123421/thinking.htm

    "Under great stress the process of thinking is usually characterized by loss of concentration, inability to perceive new information(to learn), hampered short-term memory, lack of initial planning of your actions, hasty decision making. The physiological explanation of the above symptoms is still based primarily on speculations. Research suggests that most of the above symptoms are due to the temporary damage of the hippocampus - part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. If you are interested to know more about the effects of stress on this organ go to http://www.brain.com/about/full_list_article.cfm?ID=39 [Broken] to read some scientific publications."

    People are right in saying that preparing as much as you can does help though. I eventually started taking the attitude going into exams that I had prepared as much as I realistically could have done, so whatever was going to happen was just going to happen. If there was going to be something that caught me out then so be it, it was beyond my control. That calmed me down a bit, knowing if the worst happened it wasn't really my fault. Keeping calm is the key.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 5, 2017
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