How to stop procrastinating, study and pass

Special Section: Education / Getting Smarter

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You may now start your exam.

Did your hands just get sweaty? Did your heartbeat quicken? Are you making silent vows to stop procrastinating, floss daily and help the elderly carry their groceries?

Many things have changed about college during the last few decades, but blue exam booklets and the dread they induce remain. Freshman year is still the first time that many students face a hulking final test, worth as much as 50 percent of their grade, and many undergraduates are ill-prepared for their next exam.

Here's some advice for you sorry, regretful types. You know who you are: You who go through the same cycle every semester, forgetting about exams until midterms hit like a runaway train, dragging your battered ego all the way to summer.

Linda Hooper, Carnegie Mellon University's director of academic development, compared exam-anxious students to hamsters on treadmills. Does that sound familiar?

If so, a guide toward recovery, and exam success, is outlined below. Feel free to disregard it.

"I can't tell you how many people don't listen to me," said CMU professor Steven Klepper, who has taught an introductory economics course for 30 years and gives exam advice that is studiously ignored.

The first (and most-often ignored) piece of advice cited by local professors, academic advisers and students is to start early.

"Nobody ever does this, but a sure-fire way of succeeding on exams is to do little bits at a time, once a week or every other week," said University of Pittsburgh professor Gretchen Bender, director of undergraduate advising for the history of art and architecture department.

Testing 101

Doing well on college exams is a combination of preparation and test-taking skills.

Keep these tips in mind:

• Start studying early.

• Make study active, not passive.

• Use old exams.

• Seek out professors for help before test.

• Read directions carefully.

• Answer high-point and easy questions first.

• Brainstorm and write an outline.

• Be succinct.

• Think positively.

"Your preparation for the test is in fact starting Day One," said Judith Griggs, director of Duquesne University's Michael P. Weber Learning Skills Center.

On a recent evening, dozens of Pitt students huddled in the Cathedral of Learning, deafened by headphones, books open. They were the diligent, the rare: undergraduates who study before doom is imminent.

"Freshman year I may have waited for the last day," said Judy Sheary, a 21-year-old senior from Germantown, Md. Surrounded by Russian textbooks, she explained that she now knows better: "When you only have three exams, you only have three exams."

"Study early and often," said Tim Mehan, a 20-year-old sophomore from Philadelphia.

Starting early is not enough, though; your time must be well spent. Students should study actively, not just passively re-read information.

Dr. Bender suggested typing handwritten notes, summarizing notes that are already typed, creating index cards and making charts. Ms. Hooper suggested writing review sheets and predicting test questions.

"When they're preparing for exams, they shouldn't just be taking in information, they should also be asking if they can get it out," she said.

One of the best ways for students to do this is to use old exams, both their own and the copies that professors often provide.

"I go further than giving them advice," said Dr. Klepper. "I give them the exams from last year.

"When you're done with your studying and you think you're well-prepared, sit down and take last year's exam." he said. "Allocate the exact amount of time in class you would have to take the exam, and actually write out your answers."

Pitt professor Eugene Wagner, who has taught general chemistry for more than 15 years, said students should go through their previous exams and fix their mistakes, learning from their weaknesses.

Students should also seek out professors for tips.

"If you go to their office hours, they can drop a few hints," said Rita Sico, a 20-year-old Pitt junior from Monroeville.

As an exam-prep resource, professors are typically forgotten and discounted.

"I find it strange that I will very specifically lay out how I think you should go about studying for the exam," said Dr. Wagner, "and students will come in . . . only to explain that they're doing something completely different to what I suggested."

After interim exams, Dr. Klepper invites students who performed in the bottom 20 percent to his office to talk about what went wrong.

"Invariably, the bottom 20 percent did not do what I said," he said. "They frequently don't do what I tell them to do subsequently, either. This is one of my greatest frustrations as a teacher."

Finally, students should think positively.

"Motivation no doubt plays a huge role in success in any course," said Dr. Wagner.

"I try to tell all students, don't typecast yourself," said Dr. Klepper. "You can almost substitute the words, 'I'm not willing to devote that much time to economics' for the statement, 'I'm not that good at economics.'"

Unfortunately, no amount of positive thinking will make an exam disappear, and the frantic eve will inevitably come.

Before you pull an all-nighter, consider the words of two upperclassmen:

"Just sleep. Staying up doesn't really help," said Ms. Sico.

"At that point in time, you either know it or you don't," said Ms. Sheary.

There are several strategies that can improve a student's grade on the day of the test, however.

It may seem obvious, but students should read directions carefully, said Dr. Griggs.

On all types of exams, students should answer high-point questions and easy questions first, regardless of the order in which they appear.

"It's almost like doing a workout," said Dr. Wagner. "You want to start out with the easy things, the calisthenics if you will . . . as you do it, you warm yourself up for those more difficult problems."

Because the brain is a parallel processor, he said, students may have an epiphany about a problem they skipped while working on another part of the exam.

On exams that include written answers, students should brainstorm and write an outline, if appropriate.

"The little bit of time that you spend organizing your thoughts will help to ensure that you won't leave out important information," said Dr. Griggs.

Finally, students should lean toward brevity.

"Be succinct, be clear, don't ramble," said Ms. Hooper.

"They spend four sentences telling me that Matisse's painting is blue, but hmm, OK, why?" said Dr. Bender. "Let's get beyond the blue. What about the line? What about the radical abstraction of the figure?"

If that seemed like a dizzying array of advice, it was.

Richard Broge, a 20-year-old freshman who enrolled in Pitt this semester, was facing his first college exam recently, with just a few days left to study. The psychology test was worth 25 percent of his final grade. What was he to do but cram?

"I know it's not the best way, but it seems to work," he said, smiling hopefully.

Vivian Nereim: or 412-263-1413.


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