Help me relearn how to learn!
November 10, 2009 9:42 PM   Subscribe

I have just started my PhD, full time on teaching/research fellowship, in the same field I did my masters and bachelors degrees. This is my first semester, and I am expected to take the qualifying exams in January. Problem is, I seem to have forgotten a lot. I have been out of school for five years since my masters, and, studying for the quals, even topics that I have covered before, nothing seems to 'stick' to memory.

I do mock oral exams with my adviser and I can't seem to formulate a coherent thought even on topics I have covered in my previous academic life and also reviewed again days before!
True, I've had some stressful time in the beginning of the semester due to issues not related to school, and I read somewhere that stress
impairs short term memory, but I also feel that my capacity to for instance understand mathematical concepts and relate them to real physical phenomena has diminished a lot since I last went to school.
I am 30 yo male living and going to school in a major city.
I have two months left till my qualifier exams, written and oral with no reference materials allowed, and I really need to get my shit together and pass the quals on the first try, or else my fellowship might be revoked.
posted by spacefire to Education (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure of the style of your quals, but for my written exams I wrote out about 100 flashcards with equations on different topics, no more than one equation per card. If you're expected to know e.g. order of magnitude of physical constants, you can stick those on your cards too.

It isn't "understanding", but honestly having equations at instant recall was very very useful for the style of exam I had to take. When I'd spent time studying the cards, just as rote memorization, it meant I didn't have to worry about minus signs/factors /whatever when I was trying to use mathematical reasoning in regards to real physical phenomena.

Also you should be sure you're doing written practice exams too, and you might make sure to practice with your fellow students too, the extra stress of being evaluated by an adviser might be messing with your preparations. (Although if that's stressing you out, of course the real exam will too, so advisor-given mock exams are probably useful. Might be good to do a few with profs who aren't your advisor too).

Oh, lastly, you should also try to get advice from other people further along in your program who've had some time off; me, I went straight through from undergrad to PhD, and I think the people who'd taken time off before PhD had some different concerns.
posted by nat at 10:13 PM on November 10, 2009

perhaps you have physically changed since you were in masters. your body may not be able to function the same way it did when you were younger. i've been researching vitamin supplements, and there are many that can boost your cognitive processes. taking fish oils, prime rose, flax seed oil, vitamin D, and others help boost your brain's ability to function well. the brain needs the good fatty oils, which are typically missing from an average Western diet. i don't know about taking quals, my masters program didn't require them. however, i know that during grad school my nutrition and lifestyle were extremely unhealthy. i felt horrible all the time. now that i have been eating healthy, exercising, and supplementing my diet with important vitamins, i've been amazed at how much better i feel. i regret not taking care of myself in grad school, and i know i could have accomplished more if i would have slept more and ate better. i just thought i'd share my reflections upon my own experience, because grad school almost requires a horrible lifestyle.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 11:39 PM on November 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Memory starts to get weaker as you get older. This is not to discourage you, but it's not that uncommon to feel dense when you hit 30 and start noticing that your memory isn't as perfect as it used to be.
posted by benzenedream at 11:47 PM on November 10, 2009

We need more information. Have you had any changes in your diet lately i.e. become a vegetarian? Are you anemic (and hence iron deficient)? Any allergies or breathing problems? Whatever it is, go see a doctor to get a clean bill of health so that you can at least eliminate the possibility.

What areas/subjects are going to be covered? You mentioned math and some physics (?) -- if it's math, science, or engineering related, then the best way to approach this is to just keep working out problems. Start from the beginning with a refresh of calculus, and just make small steps each day. I'd spend something like 30 minutes a day reviewing what you've already covered before going over new stuff. Your school's library is extremely useful here -- leverage the textbooks there to get a big selection of practice problems.

If it's more rote memorization, then flash cards, drawing out timelines, etc. are the way to go.

Are you a visual learner? Try to figure out your "peak point" -- that is, the exact formula that will help you remember the important topics. If it's physics related (i.e. device physics or mechanical engineering), then do your best to derive equations. Learn the bare minimum, derive the rest.

Also, I found it really helpful to continue my exercise regiment while studying for my prequals (which sounds a lot like what you're preparing for), because I slept better and had more energy during the day.

Study groups are good. Having to explain even basic topics to someone is a great way to store the material in your long-term memory.

Finally, use your campus' services. They have health and psychological services for this exact situation.
posted by spiderskull at 12:49 AM on November 11, 2009

Talk to other students in your department who passed quals and find out what sort of questions they were asked and how they prepared for the exam. For my qualifiers, I was totally fine with the written portion but the preparing for the oral exam made me really nervous- I tend to freeze up when put on the spot, and I sometimes find myself unable to form a coherent answer to even the most straightforward answer. For me, the problem had to do with nerves and not being used to that type of exam format rather than memory issues. Practicing with your advisor is a great idea and you should continue to do that, even if you get flustered and frustrated with yourself.

No offense, you sound to be exhibiting a little bit of self-handicapping behavior. Don't allow yourself to make excuses like "my memory/capacity for mathematics isn't as good as it used to be." Rather, think practically about the format and content of the exam and how you can best prepare yourself for it.

For example, if your written exam is based upon a project proposal you wrote, make sure you know it inside and out. If you mention a technique or a particular study, be able to explain it in detail if asked. If it is based on classwork, go through all of your old notes, class materials, and exams, and pay particular attention to areas which you had trouble with when you were taking those classes. Identify your weaknesses and gaps in your knowledge and try to rectify them.

As for the oral exam, do you know who your faculty committee will be? Make sure you are familiar with their area of research, as people have a tendency to ask questions that relate to their own interests. For example, I am not an immunologist but I had two prominent immunologists on my quals committee. The week before my exam, I read an immunology textbook to brush up on the subject.

Lastly, it's okay if you don't know or can't remember everything. They aren't testing your ability to do rote memorization. Part of the point of the exam is to evaluate the scope and depth of your knowledge and your ability to think analytically. The other part, I believe, is to show you how much you still have to learn (it's a rather humbling experience). The literature is your friend- you definitely want to be able to show your familiarity with research in your field. if you can't answer a specific question but can recall a published study that relates to it, that's great. If you flat-out don't know the answer to a pointed question, don't bullshit, just say you don't know.

Good luck and don't let the exam intimdate you- focus on finding out more about it from other classmates and prepare yourself as best as you can.
posted by emd3737 at 4:51 AM on November 11, 2009

Practicing verbally can get your mind back in the habit of putting together concepts in coherent ways. Make a list of practice questions (can you get a list of past questions asked on the exams?) and talk to yourself while you're doing laundry, or buy a friend dinner in exchange for someone to speechify to for a few hours. My program's exams were written, not oral, but I still feel like the process of talking it through helped me get my thoughts in order.
posted by ethorson at 5:37 AM on November 11, 2009

As a (Canadian) PhD student who just this summer passed my comprehensive exam, which is similar in style but taken later in the program (just before the end of year 2, in my case), this is a question near and dear to my heart.

spiderskull has great tips for you, but we definitely need to know more about your specific discipline and program. Is this a test that all of your incoming class will take and it'll be roughly the same? Or will the material be selected by your supervisor/committee and be directed towards your proposed research? Study groups are possible with the former, but not really with the latter.

To me, the hardest part of the process was the murky nature of the study plan. We get very vague reading lists and 8 weeks to study, and we just end up consuming as many books and journal articles as possible in the allotted time. Apprehension over not knowing how much knowledge is enough knowledge was really stressful for me, and it might be part of why you are struggling (along with all the other stress). Talk with other members of your program who have already passed quals, hopefully they will reassure you that everyone is horribly stressed beforehand and surprisingly pleased with their results afterwards. Even if they give bad news that it's extremely difficult, pick their brains for tips on concepts/types of information to study. Knowing whether you need to know extremely detailed facts/trivia, or whether the questions will be more abstract/big-picture can be highly valuable in directing your study sessions.

The biggest thing to me is that you were out of school for 5 years. Cramming is a skill that one hones in undergrad and is easily lost. You need to be more detailed in laying out a study plan, more dedicated in following it, and more disciplined in devoting as much time as physically possible to reading, reading, reading. Use your added maturity to make sure that you don't waste any time. As you read more, I'm confident you'll be more able to synthesize responses to oral questions, you have to trust yourself. Concentrate now on really understanding the material, the answers will take care of themselves. As you progress, you can also try to anticipate questions, as it'll help you to critically assess how well you really grasp the material, but don't overdo it as you'll find yourself unprepared for unpredictable questions. Review concepts that you've already learned as often as you can (slot "review time" frequently in your study plan) and it'll help you transfer it to long-term memory.

Meet regularly with your advisor if he's open to it, and anyone else who might be asking you questions. Pay careful attention to the questions they ask, as they often come back verbatim, or at the very least are indicative of the style of questions that person will ask and the concepts they consider important.

Good luck! I'm sure you'll do well.
posted by dnesan at 11:59 AM on November 11, 2009

Response by poster: the PhD is in Mechanical Engineering. Subjects are Aerodynamics, Heat Transfer and Math. I am taking two classes related to these topics, math is covered but the other class covers only some general heat transfer and fluid dynamics issues. I am taking a third class in an unrelated topic. So I don't have much spare time to study all the references recommended for heat transfer and aerodynamics in depth.
posted by spacefire at 8:11 PM on November 11, 2009

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