Exam Tips

Various people with HFA/AS have contributed their tips, techniques, and opinions on the fine art of exam survival.

"I find timing is everything - early enough to get a good seat; preferably near the front (although one prof who walked around a lot up front bothered me) and late enough not to catch the pre-exam jitters from other people. My ideal situation is to just basically walk into the room and grab an aisle seat near the front. Also when showing dogs, I like to not hang around ringside for the jitters and politics. I've heard that physical movement, like the bustle (within reason) for a seat (or into the ring) can help to discharge tension. Almost the worst was being forced in a group to wait outside the room for 20 minutes (late start). I settled at the back or the crowd, near others who weren't "talkie" types.

I've also heard that taking a caffeine pill may help - pill vs coffee because of the bathroom element, and it only works if you aren't using a lot of caffeine products to begin with. A light meal fairly high in protein before the exam is supposed to help. I also found writing things on the back on the exam or scrap paper after the timing started, but before I looked at the exam it, helped. This could be an outline for essays, with key words. For the more science oriented stuff, this could key diagrams or pathways. When I did this it helped, because as I get into the exam, under the stress I can get nervous and mix up fine details. If I have them written out first, I can keep it straight better. I seem to have more trouble with organizing my study stuff.

At times it seems that the more time I spend on a subject the worse I do. The Ed Psychologist suggested to learn a few concepts well first, then "hang" the details on them, and to also study more than one topic at once, to reinforce memory. The framework has to be there he says."

"I have never had much problem with exams. I get an intense adrenalin rush that generally carries me through. I usually feel wired for an hour or more afterwards.

For those of you who do have a problem with exams, I'd recommend practicing exam-type questions in advance. When I was studying for my qualifying exams (for one of the PhD programs I later dropped out of), we were all advised to practice on previous years' exams. When I tried to compare my practice exam results with those of my fellow students, I was shocked to discover that few of them had actually attempted most of the exam questions. I ended up getting the top score in my specialty area."

"I don't have problems with exams now, but I used to.

A) I had problems with the fact that much of my learning was extremely context dependent. What I learned at home I couldn't access in the exam hall. Nowadays I study in different environments to minimise the contexteffect. You can also use the context effect by eating or smelling the same thing when studying and when doing the exam.

B) I ask if the exam will be essay or multiple choice. Multiple choice needs a different type of approach than essay questions. Someone who does not take this into account will either not learn enough subtle details or not enough of the larger picture and theorising behind the facts. With Multiple Choice you need lots of recognition and subtle knowledge in order not to be tricked and with essay questions you need to emphasise the bigger frame and structure of the subject and not pay too much attention to the smaller not-so relevant details, as you won't be requested to report on all those.

C) I had problems with understanding what part of the information would be most likely to be focussed on in the examquestions. There are 4 ways to infer what type of studying for what type of information is most effective for a certain course.

1. Think about the type of course. Is the emphasis on knowing lots of facts or on understanding a system or being able to reason with the information? You might think that all courses SHOULD be on reasoning, but in actual fact many of the courses are intended to make you conversant with a lot of factual knowledge in a certain field. Only later will the emphasis shift to arguing about theories and models.

Some subjects require extensive factual knowledge whether one likes it or not. To be taken serious as a cognitive neuroscientist it would not be enough to be able raise all sorts of philosophical questions about how our brain works. One would also have to have extensive knowledge about the biology of the brain and about past research. So, if you are taking a course on cognitive neuroscience you'd have to ask yourself if this course is one in which you are supposed to acquire a lot of this basic knowledge or if you are required to reason with models and more abstract theories. Giving answers to questions that weren't asked (philosophical answers to questions about facts or factual answers when you were supposed to reason with those facts) will lead to failing the exam.

2. Try to infer from the type of instruction what to expect from the exam. Instruction can be geared towards understanding structures or models or geared towards learning as many facts as possible. It is often possible to infer from the way the lecturer treats the subject what kind of knowledge she will be asking about in her exam questions. Lots of lecturers actually tell their students what to focus on. If they don't, simply ask them.

3. Try to infer from the studyroute that offers the course what kind of questions will be likely to appear in the exam. Different subjects or study routes often lead to different type of exam questions.

Clinical psychology and Cognitive psychology cover many of the same subjects (such as schizophrenia and depression) but you'd get very different exam questions. Clinical would lay the emphasis on what drugs and what treatments there are and which to use. Cognitive would emphasize knowledge about the brainstructures involved, the models behind the meds and the theoretical basis behind the models. Cognitive exams generally subdivide in exams that have a strong factual basis (brain structures, models etc. I would learn lots of facts for those) and subjects that are far more theoretical, conceptual (I'd learn by trying out all sorts of reasoning with the models discussed and give pro and contra arguments for different theories). You can try and see if there are similar subdivisions in subjects in your own studyroute.

4. One might infer what to study by the way the lecturer tries to get you to prepare for the classes. For the basic cognitive classes we got a list of questions for each chapter and were told to answer those. They were mostly questions about biological facts, sometimes quite extensive (such as: describe this or that model, or: how do model A and Model B differ from one another). The exam consisted of a selection of 10 of these questions (There were 100 in total, about 10 for each chapter).

For the course following this one, the lecturer gave us a theoretical question to answer essay-wise for each class, such as: 'are emotions distinct or are they made up out of more basic processes? Discuss the relevant research and base your opinion on relevant arguments.' The exam for this subject was much more theoretical too. We had to answer several of these types of questions and I prepared in a very different way for it than the for the other class, which was basically cramming.

5) Find out if there are old exams you can use to prepare for the real thing (student organisations collect them). There often are.

6) Ask older students about the exam.

7) Ask the lecturer to give a 'mock' exam, or at least a few questions of the kind he might be using in the real exam.

D) The actual studying: I try to get a birdseye view first. What is the overall structure of the stuff? I make mind-maps, where you can put an entire structure on one page. I try to make idiosyncratic connections between stuff to be learned and personal experiences. I try to find examples that come out of my own experiences. I try to find alternatives to theories I have to learn. I found that violently disagreeing with a topic almost always leads to excellent knowledge about that topic! Lastly, try to learn by inventing an imaginary student who needs to know everything you have to learn. Explain in your head all the theories and facts to your imaginary studyfriend. Let him talk back (yes, but what if....) and answer his questions. Very helpful, I find.

E) A last note on coping with the unavoidable crap you most surely will be required to learn also: Some things may look stupid to you and you may not want to learn them. If you want to pass your courses and want to be succesful in a certain field you just have to figure out what is required to pass and simply apply yourself to learning it. It is actually as simple as that. Once you have passed and qualified for the title [;-) ] you are free to think it all a load of rubbish and go your own way. I feel free to disagree with quite a lot too, even now, but I still learn it and regurgitate it, if that is what is required. In some subjects you might be the expert and the coursebook might not be as up to day as your own knowledge (from the cutting edge) is. Don't waste time being annoyed. Doesn't lead anywhere at all. Some lecturers welcome knew information and you can try and give your own insights. If you find that they don't, just sit back and sit out the coure and answer the exam questions 'from the book' (instead of from your own more profound knowledge).

Don't waste energy on disagreeing with the curriculum, if you do, you remain stuck in it and will remain just another rebellious student forever, rather than someone with a degree who will be accepted as an expert and who brilliantly advances new ways of thinking. This at least will be how most people would view your position, because most won't judge from the content and validity of your arguments but from your position in the academic field. There may be exceptions (some people recognise intelligence when they see it) but don't count on it too much. If you just learn the crap you can move on much faster and then disagree in a much more forceful and succesful way, because now people will be more likely to listen to you. If you can't beat them, join them and then beat them quite thoroughly! Personally, I prefer to be seen as a brilliant expert than as just another obnoxious student, so this, at least, is my strategy.

F) The actual exam. First, start by writing your name etc. This always calms me down. Second, scan all the questions. This often leads to recognition that most of them cover subjects you know quite a lot about. Read the questions again. Answer the ones you find easiest first. After that, answer the others. Sometimes clues about answers to one question can be found in other answers. Be sure to read well and ask yourself what the question is really about. Sometimes people have problems because they go off like alarmbells at the mention of a certain keyword. They then proceed to answer a question that isn't asked, but which they think was being asked. If you do not know something but do know other relevant stuff, mention that in your answer and hope that you will get some points for doing so. Some lecturers grade on what you do know, and they will take this into account. Sometimes lectures will tell you how they grade:
- grade on what you do know about a subject (mention everything you know)
- grade only the relevant answer (don't go through all the trouble mention other stuff)
- take points off if you do not answer the question but go off on a tangent.

This is how I study and it works fine till now. I used to fail most subjects in highschool and I have great grades now.

What you have to bear in mind is the goal you want to achieve by attending those classes and sitting the exam. If all you want from a course is learning something new then you are right to complain if you feel this course doesn't focus on interesting things or adresses them in the wrong way.

If however, this course is also a gateway to an educational path (such as a degree) you want to follow or a prerequisite for a certain job, the best thing is not to concentrate on whether or not you feel that the actual content or the way it is being taught is right. You just concentrate on passing the exam and don't waste time haggling over the actual contents and the way it is taught. You only start doing that if you cannot pass the exam and want to get into that educational path or job anyway. If you are capable of passing the exam it is a waste of time.

One of the reasons why so many of us do not end up in the high-level jobs we are capable of holding is because we are so inflexible during the trajectory towards achieving that goal. People like us tend to waste a lot of time on trying to get people to change their ways if we think those ways are not right. We argue endlessly about all sorts of things that may be important in themself but are not very relevant to achieving that ultimate goal we set ourselves.

If I want to be a psychologist, refusing to sit exams because I do not agree about the way the questions are phrased harms myself more than the uni or the lecturers, because if I do not sit those exams I will not graduate. Debating the way questions should be phrased is relevant to psychology, but must take a backseat to the goal of becoming a psychologist. I have had ample reasons to disagree with various exams. I sat the exam and handed in a paper with objections afterwards. I passed the exam, but I still think that particular exam was a farce (many students agree with me), but I won't have to sit it again and I got (the equivalent of) the bachelors degree.

Sometimes voicing these objections directly - in that situation (in your case making them the response of your examquestions) - is necessary and right, but we also do this a lot when it is not really relevant to our larger objective in life. And it is ultimately harming only us, because we do not get the education we want, the job we want. And, finally, we do not get the credits that would be ours if we could only work in our preferred field and use those talents we undoubtedly have. NT's would not think twice about simply going through the motions in such a situation.

The point is not that you have to agree with all you are taught or with the way things are being taught, the point is that you should just leave the impression that you heard what was being said during those classes. That is what those exams are mainly about. Lecturers do want to get the idea that you actually have been listening to what they said. If you answer questions by completely by-passing the content of the course as they see it, most of them are not going to react kindly to it. You may think that that is unscientific and that any good argument ought to count, but it is life as experienced by most NT's and they make up the largest part even in the scientific world.

In other words, 'being right' is something entirely different from 'getting it right' and that is again only remotely related to other people acknowledging that you are right about something. Actually, a person might not be right, yet, if he 'gets it right' his peer group might conclude he was right nevertheless!! Something I have always found a frightening idea.

Personally, I found it useful to differentiate between wanting to make noise in the field of psychology and getting a degree. If I want to make a noise effectively, it is a good idea to get some qualifications first. It will greatly add to the noise I am going to make, once I am no longer a student, but a qualified researcher. It is all a question of strategy, really.

I don't know what your goal is, but I have found it useful to define what my most important goal is and which subgoals will help accomplish that. What is it you want to accomplish by doing this course? If your only goal is to learn something valid, than you are right to complain if you are feeling that you are not getting your money's worth. If you use this course to accomplish something else (enter another course, get some degree) it would make sense just to focus on getting it done, in whatever way they want you to do it, if you are capable of doing it their way and just shrug off the fact that is not your idea of good science.

It is just surfing the waves of educational 'political' life, if you like. I understand your feelings, I am quite a contrary sort of person myself and could make many of your comments myself. I have stopped doing so, because I find it gets me nowhere. I ventilate my contrary opinions in my papers, but I do make sure I use the jargon required. Other than that, I'll wait till I get my degree. I am not saying you must do as I do, but think about what your main goal is in doing this class. That should be guiding your actions, otherwise you might find you end up sabotaging yourself but the lecturers will be none the worse off.

This brings me to something else I found out recently. Lecturers do not give top marks to people who, from the beginning showed mastery of a subject. They tend to favour people who, in their eyes, make progress during the course. If you want to remain on the good side of your teacher it may be a better idea not to do too well at the beginning of the course and sort of 'shape up' during the course. This way it looks as if it is the teaching that makes the difference. If you want to be really politically sound, say explicitly that the teachers directions helped you a great deal. They want to know that you actually learned something from that course. Lecturers want to be needed, just like most NT's... ;-)."

"My advice then:

Keep yourself in good health before the exam, get enough sleep, food, and take care that you have not got any problem such as an unattended bad tooth that will affect you on the day.

Determine where your exam is to take place and familiarise yourself with it. Be sure to arrive well in time so you will not panic if anything delays your journey.

Seek whatever accomodations you feel appropriate (seperate room, computer, amanuensis or whatever) you are not giving yourself an unfair advantage, you should not be afraid of what other students might think or how professors will react to these requests they are your right and it might make the difference between being able to establish your knowledge or not.

Prioritise anything else that is going on in your life so it will not compete with your time for preparing for and revising for the exam and otherwise stress you out."

"I can add my tip right now: don't get stinking drunk and go to an Erasmus students party to make a drunken idiot of yourself, in an attempt to convince yourself all you need to be able to get on with people is a few drinks. Emotional turmoil tends to detract from the ability to revise."

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