For students

Help for students, part 4: Exam panic

Exam panic is a tricky problem, because once you experience it, it can make you worry about panicking in the future.  Once you are anxious about panicking, that makes it all the more likely. Fortunately there is a way to fix this. The solution is, go ahead and panic… sort of.

Brain sees exam monster

The problem: you see an exam but your brain sees certain death.

Your brain is an amazing bit of biology that has evolved over millions of years to serve the needs of our ancestors. Unfortunately, somewhere during that evolutionary process it became a toddler-like entity which, regardless of your good intentions, is willful, easily bored, and prone to inconvenient emotional outbursts. It learned a few good tricks that were suitable for helping our ancestors to escape from predators and each other, but since then it has stubbornly refused to acknowledge that those same tricks can be counterproductive when dealing with anxiety over situations that are not likely to kill you.

Brains in a panic

Brains do not react well to certain death.

When you see an exam and feel anxious, your brain sees something else entirely. As far as it’s concerned, that exam is actually a large carnivore about to eat you for lunch. Your brain will try its best to persuade you that you are about to die, and that you should run for your life. Your brain is wrong, but it is also convincing.

Expect some exam anxiety or even outright panic, but realize that you don’t have to accept what your brain is telling you about the situation. Sit back and let it have a fit, like you’re waiting out a child’s temper tantrum. Without your complicity, your brain will not maintain its high panic state, and will settle down again in a few minutes. If you happen to imagine it as an obnoxious pinkish-grey wrinkly thing running back and forth, waving its arms in the air, and screaming at the top of its lungs, that might speed things along.

Brains exhaused after their panic

Sometimes you just have to wait them out.

Exam panic is only a disaster if you think it is. If you begin to panic, and mistakenly believe that the panic is the result of an accurate assessment of your situation, then more panic follows. Even worse, when you panic, your cognitive functioning can diminish- amongst other things, you can forget what you’ve studied. So now you’re suddenly unable to remember anything you studied, and becoming convinced that you are facing catastrophe. This leads to the all too common experience of blanking on an exam only to suddenly remember all of the answers 30 minutes later, once you’ve begun to relax.

Brain not committed to behaving itself in future

Unfortunately, you can’t leave it at home.

Fortunately, this can be managed by expecting that your brain will do stupid things in response to stress, realizing that you might have to let it freak out for a while, and then just waiting until it has regained its composure.

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Help for students, part 3: Reasons for miscalculating course expectations

Bert and Sally are two students who ran into difficulty on their final exams, and complained that there was an unreasonable amount of material to memorize for the course. So why did Bert and Sally not try to understand the course material rather than just memorize it? Maybe they thought memorizing would be easier and faster, or maybe they weren’t far enough along to transition toward understanding. But I suspect there is another reason. I suspect that they underestimated how much they would be expected to know, and how well they would have to know it. As a result, they prepared too superficially.

1. Approach to the assignments

In the course that Sally and Bert took, students do assignments which are often accomplished by paraphrasing the textbook in a way that is only slightly better than copying it outright. Because of this approach, they can get the right answers (and therefore good grades) without actually understanding key parts of what they’ve written. There seems to be a chain of reasoning that runs: “I didn’t really understand the assignments, but I still did well on them. Therefore, I will be able to do well on the final exam with a similar level of understanding.”

In fact, it is never safe to take one’s performance on assignments at face value unless one can be confident that the conditions of the exam will match the conditions of the assignment. For example, if you refer to your textbook while solving physics problems, this is not the same as having to solve a physics problem on an exam without your textbook and while under pressure. A good grade on that physics assignment would tell you very little about how you will do on the exam. In the case of the course that Sally and Bert took, a look at students’ performances over many offerings of the course shows that there is effectively no correlation between assignment grades and exam results.

Another problem with paraphrasing the textbook very closely is that while I suspect that students who do so are not clear on what they are writing, I have no way of knowing for sure what they do and don’t understand. That means I may give a student full points on a question even though that student might have misunderstood the text that he or she paraphrased. In that case, getting full points might convince a student that his or her understanding is correct, when in fact it isn’t. That student has eliminated any chance for me to find the error… until I grade the exam, that is. Then I hear from Berts and Sallys.

2. Reasonability assumption

When filtering out what is and isn’t necessary to study, a starting point might be the assumption that an instructor will not be unreasonable and will avoid demanding complex details, or asking questions about extremely difficult topics. One problem with this assumption, however, is that someone who is new to a field of study will not have the same perception of what is difficult or complex as someone who has worked in the field for a while. An idea that might seem complicated to the uninitiated could be a very basic principle in that field. A second problem is that sometimes a complicated or difficult topic can be very important for a particular area of study, and therefore necessary to learn even though learning it might seem nearly impossible at the time.

You may think that another problem with the reasonability assumption is that some instructors are unreasonable and use exams to punish students. I can’t say that’s never the case, but I will point out that a “reasonable” exam is not an exam that any student can pass- it is an exam that a student can pass if he or she has done a reasonable job of covering the stated course objectives.

In the end, if you’re not sure about whether something is important or not, and you can’t determine that from the learning objectives or course objectives, just ask your instructor.

3. Perceived importance of the course

I sensed that Sally was unhappy about taking the course. It was the last one she needed to get her degree, and she was anxious to move on with her life. She seemed to feel that the course was a pointless hoop to jump through, and just wanted to get it over with. Understanding the course material was not a priority for her, and maybe her feelings about how much work she should have to do for the course coloured her perspective on how much work would actually be required.

Sometimes students in Sally’s position assume that the instructor understands that the course is not important to them. They assume that the instructor knows better than to make the course too demanding and get in the way of a student graduating. However, even if a student’s reasons for taking the course colour his or her expectations about what the exam will be like or should be like, it does not affect the reality. The requirements will be the same regardless of why a student is taking the course, and students should expect that there could be the same kinds of demands as in courses that they view as more serious, or more important for achieving their goals.  Put another way, no-one should expect to get credit for a course without fulfilling its requirements.  I would also recommend against telling your instructor that he or she should pass you because the course doesn’t matter.

4. Learning is what someone else does to your head

Every now and again I run into students who prefer to be passive participants in their own learning. These are students who think that I should put more effort into helping them than they are willing to put into helping themselves. Frank was a classic case. Before assignments came due, he would email to ask what pages the answers were on in the textbook. An email exchange with Frank would look like this:

Frank: “I can’t find the answers to questions 1b, 1c, 2a, 2b, 3, 5, and 7. Can you tell me where I should read in the textbook?”

Me: “For question 1b asking what igneous rocks are, you can find the answer in the section titled “What Igneous Rocks Are” starting on page 53.”

Sometimes it is hard to find a specific topic amid other details, so I explained to Frank how he could look up the page numbers in the index of the textbook. Frank disregarded my explanation, and continued to ask similar questions.

I want to be careful to distinguish between students who take a passive approach, and those who ask a lot of questions about different topics, those who ask for help with the same topic repeatedly, or those who need assistance deciphering their textbooks. By definition, these students are not taking a passive approach because their questions have arisen out of an effort to understand the course material. In fact, I would prefer that more students contacted me with those kinds of questions. But this is very different from asking me to look up pages for you in the index.

Students who are passive about their learning will inevitably underestimate the amount of understanding that is required because they believe on some level that learning and understanding are things that they are given. That’s just not the way learning works.

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Help for students, part 2: Memorizing vs. understanding

Sally and Bert are two students who fell prey to unknown unknowns on their final exam. They both sent me emails complaining that the exam was unreasonably difficult- that they were required to supply more information than a student could reasonably be expected to memorize.

Sally said:

“I found the exam very difficult obviously and would like to see the format change as the amount of content that needs to be memorized is something I feel uncapable [sic] of. If it were a multiple choice exam, I believe the outcome would have been different.”

The exam did require more knowledge than a student might reasonably be expected to memorize, and that was because the students were expected to understand the course material rather than just memorize it. Memorization is a very inefficient way to attempt to store information. Understanding is much better. It’s the difference between learning the lyrics to your favourite song by trying to remember the words in random order, or learning them as they fit into lines and verses and tell a story.  One is next to impossible, and the other you can do after listening to the song a few times.

That’s not to say there is no memorizing involved, but ideally the situation would look something like Plan A in the diagram below. The diagram is a sketch of what part of your knowledge would depend on memorizing, and what part would depend on understanding as you progress through the course. Initially, there is quite a lot of memorizing required as you encounter new terms for the first time, but at the same time your understanding is increasing. Eventually, you are able to add new knowledge by building on your understanding, and less memorizing is required.

Memorizing versus understanding

If a substantial amount of learning gets left to the last minute, then to be as prepared as in Plan A, learning must happen a lot faster. In that case, we’re looking at Plan B where memorizing and understanding are condensed into a small amount of time. Unfortunately, your brain can only learn so much before it needs a break, so what actually happens is C. There is insufficient time to prepare, and that time is taken up mostly by memorizing because you don’t yet have enough of the individual puzzle pieces to start to build the big picture.

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Help for students, part 1: Breaking the curse of the unknown unknowns

Students often ask whether I can offer any tips on preparing for and writing exams. Sometimes they are new students who haven’t developed study strategies yet, and sometimes they have just become frustrated with strategies that don’t seem to be working for them. Sometimes they are panicked and desperate, and end their emails with “HELP” followed by several exclamation points. (Never a good sign.) So I thought it might be time to jot these things down in one place, rather than writing them over and over again in emails to unhappy students who waited to ask for help until it was too late.

If there is one thing that causes more problems for students preparing for exams than any other, it would be the unknown unknowns:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”  Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, 12 Feb 2002

When studying, known knowns are the topics you are confident about, and which you are right to be confident about. Known unknowns are the deficits in your knowledge that you are aware of, and which you therefore have a chance to fix. Where you get in trouble, however, are the unknown unknowns- the deficits in your knowledge that you don’t realize exist. You can’t fix those because you don’t know they’re there. At least, you don’t know they’re there until you hit an exam question you didn’t realize you were unprepared for. Then they become known unknowns, but it’s too late to do anything about them.

Here are two examples of what a run-in with unknown unknowns can sound like. Unfortunately, I receive emails like this on a regular basis:

Sally:

“I realize I am not going to pass this course even with the 20+ hours I studied over the last week. I have trouble putting the definitions on paper, I remember reading them and seeing them but can’t find the definition…”

 Bert:

“I felt as though I at least I completed the test and did not leave it blank, and felt confident that half my responses where right, but must have gotten confused…”

Note: “Bert” and “Sally” are not the real names of these students, and may or may not reflect their gender(s).

Sally’s unknown unknowns turned into known unknowns during the exam. In contrast, Bert emailed me because he was shocked that his exam grade was so low- Bert’s unknown unknowns were so sneaky that he got right through the exam without even noticing them.

Both Sally and Bert blamed the exam format for their problems. Their exam was short answer, and they felt that if they had clues in the form of multiple choice questions, then things would have gone better. As Bert put it,

“… there is no way someone first year can be capable to do this, let alone without instruction, or scientific key terms without getting terms mixed up, since there is no multiple questions [for] deductive logical reasoning…”

I think that part of Sally’s and Bert’s problem was that they underestimated how much understanding they would need to be successful on the exam. Ultimately, though, exam format should not be an issue.  If you know the answers, it shouldn’t matter whether the question format is short answer, multiple choice, essay, or interpretive dance. If you know it, you know it, and if you don’t, it makes just as much sense to blame your pencil.

The main problem that Bert and Sally had is that brains can be deceiving. In Sally’s case, after more than 20 hours of studying, everything looked familiar to her brain, and she believed it when it told her that she was ready for the exam. Unfortunately for Sally, the appearance of the page was what was familiar, not the information on it.

For both Sally and Bert it would have been a simple matter to set a trap for the unknown unknowns: if Sally and Bert had put their notes away every few minutes and tried to explain verbally or in writing what they had just read, they would have found very quickly that they couldn’t do it. Then they could have fixed the problem. Unfortunately, this is very hard work and should not be done for more than 45 minutes or so without taking a break. In Sally’s case, after many sustained hours of studying, her brain would have been too tired to manage it. She probably continued reading and not absorbing partly because she was too tired to do anything else.

Some of the sneakiest unknown unknowns hide so well that you might need someone else’s help to find them. Those are the kind where you remember information, but don’t realize that you have some part of it incorrect. The best way to trap these is to work with someone who might be able to pick up errors in your understanding as you explain the course material to them. This could be someone else in the class, or just a friend who asks you questions by referring to the textbook. Here are a few strategies that I’ve found helpful for turning unknown unknowns into known unknowns:

  • Scare them out into the open: Imagine that your instructor were to call you out of the blue to ask you questions about the course. What would you not want him or her to ask you about? Along the same lines, what would you not want to be asked about on the exam?
  • Treat learning objectives as questions and attempt to answer them without looking at your notes.
  • Reorganize information into diagrams and tables. For example, if you made a table to compare and contrast Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, you might find that you can say something about Neanderthal body size, but you don’t remember how that compares to Cro-Magnon body size.   Diagrams and tables have the added benefit of being much easier to remember than lists of facts.
  • Study by explaining topics out loud to yourself or a friend. There is a difference between reading facts and trying to mentally organize them so you can say them out loud, and that difference can be enough to throw you off balance and expose unknown unknowns.
Categories: Assessment, Challenges, For students, Learning strategies | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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