thinking about learning
October 24, 2010 11:17 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in people's exam preparation strategies (especially if you study psychology like me). It has suddenly occurred to me that I'm not very metacognitive about my learning. How do I intuit what are the most important concepts (likely to be on an exam, in short-answer format)? How do you pick up on hints from the lecturers?

I tend to do very well on essays and reports (i.e., things I have some time to complete), but just decently well on actual exams. I just realised I don't have any particular 'strategy', either for reports or exams.

I usually just go to lectures, read as much of the textbook that I can (which admittedly isn't much sometimes), quiz myself with a few questions I made up on material that *I* think is the most important... and I do pretty well.

But how can I do better?

How do I determine what the lecturers see as most important (and thus most likely to be in the exam)?
My strategy in this regard has been to try to learn every piece of content as well as I possibly can. But a friend today told me he is generally able to pretty well guess what's likely to be in the exam.

How do I manage all the lecture material and content? How do I organise it in my brain? How do I better explore relationships between concepts?

I welcome links or resources or papers on this, as well as anecdotes. What strategies do you use?

For those who perform really well in exam situations - even if you're not conscious about your strategy, perhaps you could try to put into words what your exam prep involves?
posted by KLF to Education (9 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Read through the relevant section of text before the lecture. (At this point, you don't have to try to take in or understand everything. Just read it.) During the lecture, take notes, but don't try to write down everything the professor says. Note-taking interferes with listening and comprehension. Do note what the professor spends a lot of time on or emphasizes in lecture. That's what they think is important, and it will be on the test. Also write down anything they explain differently than what you remember in the text. If something makes sense when they explain it, but didn't make sense when you read it in the text, jot down how they explained it. Otherwise just listen.

Before the test, reread the relevant chapters along with your notes, taking special care to understand topics your professor put a lot of emphasis on. Do this a couple days before the test. When you've got down time in the intervening period (say you're riding the bus or something) run over what you've been studying in your head. If you can't remember something, go back and read that section again. Try to get down what you couldn't remember. Read over your text and notes again before the test.

How do I organize it in my brain? How do I better explore relationships between concepts?

One thing you can you can do is take notes from the text in summary or list form. (This would be when you're rereading the text after lecture.) What are the main points of theory A? How is it different from theory B? What do they agree on? Read over these along with your text and class notes in your final review.

This approach worked pretty well for me when I was a psych major.
posted by nangar at 12:46 AM on October 25, 2010

I'll bite. I majored in Cognitive Science and did manage to apply a few things to doing better on exams.

1. Study in sessions, and preferably not late at night. Multiple sessions spaced apart will result in better recall than one all-night cram session, and the encoding process is best when you are rested. While all-nigh cram sessions are usually not in the plan anyway, at least try to get in some studying ahead of time. It takes time to build up reliable neural pathways, it won't happen overnight.

2. Pick your location carefully. You want to minimize interruptions, but also find a place that is comfortable for you. It helped for me to not study at home. Go to a cafe, the library, or study hall. Learning is contextualized, and studying in different places can help you with overall subject recall. Personally, I liked to study with earbud music (ambient, dub reggae, electronic). Find what works for you, then use it. Once you have an established pattern it will cue your body and brain into thinking "Okay, it's time to study now!". This is exactly why psychologists tell people who have trouble sleeping to use their bed only for sleeping. It trains/cues your body into triggering a particular behavior that when you are in a certain setting.

3. Try to relate it to something you already know about. It can be closely or distantly related. If you look up methods for improving the memory encoding and retrieval processes, you will probably see those "memory expert" people that can remember all kinds of crazy stuff, and they usually use visual or word mneumonics. That can be really good for short term things, but you also want to try to relate the topics to stuff you know about in some way, and to each other. Think about the way topics are stored in the brain. The more dendrites and axons that are linked up, and the stronger those connections are, the easier the recall is going to be.

4. Write it down. Multiple times. Without looking at the book. Or read it out loud. Or have someone quiz you. By changing the form and context you are forcing yourself to re-encode, activating the recall process, and strengthening the pathways related to the materal. Also, by building a deeper understanding, you will remember it much better, and be able to write about it more cogently, than just taking notes from a book or lecture.

As for what to study, I would usually make an brief overview of the material, let's say half a dozen topics. Think about what the professor focused on most, were there particular handouts or multiple days spent on a single topic? Did the professor bring in a prop, have a guest speaker, or make a special presentation about something? Often your TA will give some indication of these things. Then drill down into the topics and make sure you have at decent understaning of the main topics. If there is some very difficult section you are having trouble with, skip it. Skim the chapters, focusing on the intro and the conclusion. Spend some time on the illustrations, and the topics they refer to. If someone thought it was important enough to illustrate, it has a higher change of being on the test. It is cliche, but spend at least some time studying with others. Review each others' notes, ask each other questions, divide up the chapters and have each one do a summary. Studying with others should be a supplement though, per hour spent I always found I got more out of studying alone than in a group.

On preview: I would agree with everything nanger said. Overzealous notetaking during lecture actually interferes with comprehension. Listen and digest the material instead, taking note of important points only.
posted by sophist at 1:13 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Take a cognition class.

Keep the effects of state dependent learning in mind.

Condense your notes into more succinct versions, repeatedly. Then try to expand the most compact iteration.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 2:21 AM on October 25, 2010

Admittedly this is not a metacognition strategy, but I'vs had success in the past by visiting the instructor at office hours and simply asking them what was important to focus on. Probably couldn't hurt.
posted by malapropist at 2:29 AM on October 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Look at old exams to see what topics were emphasized. Try to extrapolate from your previous exam while empathizing with your professor, or whomever will be writing the exam. (In one case, I discovered that the exams were totally based on the text and ignored the lectures.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:57 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's what I used to do to maximize points in exams that were based off learning lots of material (as opposed to problem-solving sorts of exams, those required other strategies as well). During lectures, I take notes. I'm a very lecture-based learner, in the sense that I get the most information from actually listening to someone explain something to me rather than mulling over the textbook afterward. Thus often the most clear I am about a concept is the few seconds after the lecturer has explained them to me and it's critical to take notes at this point.

I try to avoid letting these notes be a transcription of what the professor is saying (though if I don't understand something, a transcription is better than nothing) but rather a filtered version of what he is saying that I can best understand later. This means trying to transform what he is saying into a numbered list or other type of organization structure. If your professor says something like there are three ways in which an organism can do blah, start numbering right then and make sure you get those three ways down. If I don't grok something right away, I note that down -- my notes are littered with little memos to myself -- don't understand this, look this up, or ask professor. My aim at the end of lecture is to be 80-90 % clear on what the professor has said and to have a good idea of the parts of the lecture that I was less clear on so that I can deal with these on my own time.

Next I try to gather all the information I can possibly be tested on -- the textbook, slides, my own notes, notes from others on days I missed class. I use the lecture notes as a structure to tie all these sources of information together and type out a giant document using the other sources of information to flesh out my lecture notes. I often number the entire document so that I might end up with a 10 pages of closely typed notes with perhaps 50 separate numbered items. I print these off, read through them, adding notes and diagrams where necessary. Often just the act of making this summary would have helped me so much that I only need to read the whole thing 2 or 3 times before the exam. I close my eyes and try to imagine questions that the professor might ask and where in the document those answers might be, trying to visualize that page in front of me. At this point I rarely touch my lecture notes or textbook again, trusting that I have distilled the essentials into my document. Plus, I find that it really cuts down on being overwhelmed to have this sense that you just need to know what's in this, nothing more, nothing less and you'll be fine.
posted by peacheater at 6:40 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I’m a college instructor, and a former high-performing student.

#1: go to any offered review session. Sometimes they’re useless, but they’re generally very useful in pointing you to what’s important for the test, and covering the sticky parts. I will confess that I have given a lot of reviews where I have said things like “let’s just say, oh, that you were faced with a drawing of the human ear canal on the exam. Can you tell me where the basilar membrane is?” Free points!

#2: read and TAKE any old exams which are offered. I cannot stress this enough. Take the exam, score it, look at where you need to study more. Plus, questions are often repeated, in sprit if not literally. Free points!

#3: if you’ve seen it on a quiz or in homework or in a discussion section worksheet, expect to see it on the exam.

#4: how do you guess from lecture what’s going to be on the exam? Well, I notice when a lecturer comes back to the same point repeatedly. I make notes of those points, especially if I don’t understand them. If they ask the class a question, I write that down, AND the answers – especially if the question gets asked more than once! I write down words I don’t understand, and look them up later. Some instructors – including me – will occasionally say “that would make a good test question,” or “this will be on the exam.” I’ve known other students to be surprised by a test question when I knew that the instructor had just about said, “you need to know this”.

I think that students who get really blindsided by the content of exams (I’m not saying you’re one) have focused on assigned reading and posted powerpoint slides to gauge the appropriate content. It’s not that the reading and notes aren’t important, but they’re weaker – the instructor usually didn’t write the reading, so, while they want you to get things out of it, it’s not a map to what they think is important. And a good slide isn’t full of review text; it’s an image that the instructor may have spent ten minutes discussing.

Finally. . . I think sometimes students put all their energy into studying the points and material they find most difficult, and that’s another way students get blindsided on tests. I spend my energy making sure I can pick off the EASY POINTS FIRST. Those are the points you get from reviewing old tests, current quizzes, and doing the assigned reading in a timely manner. I then go over the material I think I “should get”, to make sure that I really understand it. When all that’s dealt with, I can face the system or problem I didn’t really understand the first time, without being crazy anxious that it’s the most important thing on the test, because it isn’t.
posted by endless_forms at 7:40 AM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The hard part about guessing what will be on the exam, given the various class materials (lecture slides, notes, textbook, handouts, etc) is that it varies from professor to professor.
I am in favor of just asking the professor, and studying (for at least some of your study time) in groups. If there are 4 of you (who have been going to class, paying attention, and mostly reading), you will most likely agree on the most important topics.

Once you have the set of what will be important, how do you get it in your head?

A few tips:

1) Test yourself. While you may think of testing as a cruel method of torture at worst, or a fair method of evaluating learning at best, testing is also a powerful learning tool in itself. You can use this by closing your book and notes and trying to test yourself. Don't just just quickly open the book, rather, really give yourself time to think of the answers.

2) Distrust familiarity. Reading and re-reading is one of the least effective ways to study. What you are doing is making the material familiar, without making it that much easier to recollect. Familiarity is encoded in a separate manner in the brain than recollection, so that you could take a multiple choice test and do very well (if the right answers seem more familiar to you), but fail a free-form short answer test if you had to come up with it yourself. Testing yourself is a way of reminding yourself of the limited utility of familiarity.

3) Study more stuff. This seems counterintuitive, but many times, studying more material can actually help you remember more, provided the material connects better to things you already know. To make the studied material stick, make it relate to things you already know. You could read a list of ten word and definitions to yourself 10 (or 20 or 30) times, but it wouldn't be as effective as coming up with a story in which the ten words interacted in bizarre visual ways. For example, remembering operant conditioning by imagining an opera singer standing on an enormous ant, while washing her hair, and singing for an audience of a pigeon, and a weird naked guy (Skin-ner). These work really well if you come up with them yourself. Basically, think of studying as a more active process, coming up with your own connections, your own stories, your own bizarre visual images.

Everything above is also good. But in general, the more active you make your mind during studying, the more you will remember. This can be in the form of telling stories, creating imagery, asking questions, relating it to your own experiences, etc.

Also, and I hope this doesn't count as tooting one's horn too much, take a cognitive psychology class. It will likely include more of this sort of material.
posted by cogpsychprof at 9:32 AM on October 25, 2010

Response by poster: I started marking best answer and then realised I'd probably do it to everybody. Thanks guys :) More please!

I am actually taking cognitive psych so I shall come back and post things I find useful. Let you know how I go!
posted by KLF at 7:53 AM on October 27, 2010

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