Hints for doing tests

The semester before

Too late for this? If so, do remember to make a list of 'new semester resolutions' so you won't get yourself into this mess next time!
  • Keep up to date with homework and tutorials, and honestly have a go at each problem. It's not enough to watch the teacher do it on the board or a classmate do it on paper: it always looks easier than when you try to do it yourself.
  • Even if your teacher prepares notes, make your own notes of each class.
  • Do enough preparation so that you can understand the lectures in real time. Obvious, really: there's no point sitting in a lecture being confused and making notes that you hope will be clear later. Try reading the relevant chapter of your text book before the lecture: you'll be surprised at how much benefit you get from a couple of hours of painless reading each week.
  • Learn the important principles and laws. Learn the important words and terms. You can't understand the sentences if you can't understand the words.

The week(s) before

  • Make a summary of your notes. At each stage, check that you understand the material. It's not enough to understand why one step follows from the preceding one: you must understand the strategy of the development.
  • Spread your revision out. Don't aim to have one huge burst. Smaller bursts will be more effective. Plus, what if you fell ill on the weekend planned for a big burst of revision?
  • Make a summary of your own class notes.
  • Go back over your old homework and tutorial questions, and your solutions to them. Have another go at any that you found particularly difficult.
  • Do some past papers or collections of similar questions. Usually there will be some available on the home page for your subject.

The day before

  • Read your summary notes and check you understand them. Go over a few of the points if necessary.
  • Get 8 hours of good sleep. It may help to get a modest amount of extra exercise the day before so that you sleep well.
  • Last minute cramming is not nearly as useful as feeling well and awake.

The hour before

  • Keep calm and relaxed. But not too calm: you don't want to fall asleep! In fact a bit of nervousness may be good: it gets the blood flowing to your brain. The adrenalin that your body makes is a quite legal mood altering substance and, in modest doses, it can be quite helpful. (It's good to be aware that nervousness is not bad for you – so don't be worried if you are nervous.)
  • Have another look at your summary notes.
  • Talk with your friends if you like, but don't spend time with people who are panicking. Don't associate with anyone who is likely to make you worried by discussing all of the difficult things ahead.
  • Some people think it helps to listen to calming music before an exam. The original reports on this (the "Mozart effect") were widely publicised in the press but they turned out not to be replicated by other researchers. I have no opinion on whether or not it works, but keeping calm is certainly better than getting into a panic.
  • Unless it actually is a quiz on facts, don't spend this time trying to learn facts. If you didn't learn it during your study, the extra tiny fraction of time won't help nearly as much as having time to clear your mind.
  • Some people think that it is helpful to 'warm up' mentally, thinking through things that you know. I've never tried this, I prefer relaxing. Breathe deeply, tell yourself that you are well prepared, and that you will be able to do most of the questions on this paper (all of which should be true).
  • Go for a short walk if you are feeling jittery.

Before you start

    Read the questions slowly and decide which are the easy ones. (In some exams there is a short reading time during which you cannot write.)

    Only rarely are exam questions ordered from easy to hard. It is important to start with the easy questions: first, you want to make sure that you get all of the easy marks that are going and second, doing the easy ones first will improve your confidence. Finally, if you have read the difficult questions, your subconscious will have been working on them while your conscious mind was busy.

    Don't get hassled if some of the questions look, at first, completely insoluble: ideas may well come to you while you are working on other questions. When you finally have to face the difficult questions, remember that something that you have learned will help you answer this question. What part (or parts) of the syllabus is relevant here? What principles from that section might help? Which laws might apply? Do the relevant conditions for those laws hold for any part of the problem?

    Finally, there may well be one question, or one part of a question, that really is difficult: it's been put there to sort out the Distinctions from the High Distinctions. Maybe you'll be able to do it, maybe not. But there won't be a lot of questions like that.

Doing questions

    This varies from one subject to another, and this document was written by a physicist.

    In physics problems, it is very often helpful to draw a diagram, indicating the important effects. For many problems in physics, it is helpful to draw a sketch for 'before' and 'after', or for several different times during a process. The educationalists say that drawing the diagrams involves the visual part of the brain, and the more of your brain working, the better. This is important in multiple choice or machine marked questions, too: your diagram on paper will usually help you in solving the problem.

    What is relevant. Collect everything that you know about the problem. Translate the words into equations and diagrams. Are any laws applicable to parts of stages of the problem? For instance, if there is a stage during which no external forces act, you can state this and then state that momentum is conserved during this stage, and an equation representing that conservation. Then translate the question into symbols, even if it is just x = ? where x is the thing to be found.

    Check dimensions. The units or dimensions of terms in an equation should be the same. If not, then your answer cannot possibly be right! Sometimes just getting the units right tells you the answer. For more detail, see Method of dimensions.

    Does your answer make sense? Imagine the process you have just analysed and ask: could the answer be as big or small as you have calculated? Is it reasonable? Does the sign of the answer make sense? If there are problems, try to find a mistake. Even if you cannot find a mistake, make a note letting the examiner know that you didn't really think that the man running was generating 3 nW, or that the current in the motor was 20 GA.

    What to do if you're getting no-where? You have generated a page of algebra and are no closer to your answer - what to do? Having marked a few exams, I know what happens if you plough on ahead, getting more and more confused. I've often read three or four pages of such confusion and rarely find things worth marks.

    What you should do in this situation is stop and assess. Cool down. (Perhaps even come back after looking at another question.) Have you a strategy for solving it? Have you even found enough equations for the number of variables? And if you can't think of a strategy to get you there, cut your losses and concentrate your efforts elsewhere.

Hints for studying introductory physics at university.

A list of some of Joe Wolfe's educational web sites.

Joe Wolfe / J.Wolfe@unsw.edu.au  phone 61-2-9385 4954 (UT + 10, +11 Oct-Mar)

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