How to Pass a Course/If you must cram
Cramming for a test
Cramming is the worst way to study, and you are unlikely to retain anything you read during cramming very far beyond the actual exam. That being said, sometimes cramming is the only option for a time-constrained student, or one that has spent insufficient time with the material during the semester. It can be also quite useful if you simply don't understand the material that well.
The following technique has been used by the author in many technical and mathematical classes. Some parts may also be useful in other classes, but some/most parts will obviously not apply.
- Step 1
- Go over every homework assignment that was given during the course of the class, even review the assignments you failed to complete. You should complete EVERY problem up to the point where the remainder is "busy work"; where that point is is up to you. Repeat this step until you can figure out the right technique to solve a problem without getting bogged down in pondering. The point here is NOT to memorize the homework problems, it is to ensure you can solve them without hesitation. While most exam problems are far beyond the level of homework problems, most exam questions can be broken down into chunks that will resemble homework. You need to be able to recognize the chunks and solve them quickly, or you will never finish.
- Step 2
- Many professors will have previous exams on file in the library. You should go through a similar process as you did in Step 1. In this step, it is not out of the question for you to encounter problems were you just don't understand how the solution was achieved. Fear not, and consult Steps 4 and 5.
- Step 3
- Some kind of professors will even hand out suggested study questions prior to the exam. This is a gift, as the professor could not supply you with a clearer hint as to what he/she expects you to know. You should go over these in the same manner as Steps 1 and 2.
- Step 4
- Many classes will have review sessions prior to the exam. (At the author's school, they were required to be held.) This is an excellent opportunity to have questions about the more difficult problems answered. If you still do not understand a professor's explanation for the solution to a problem (or if you don't think you could replicate it on the fly during an exam), simply copy the solution down verbatim and proceed to Step 5.
- Step 5
- Many kind of professors will let students take notecards/sheets into the exam. The intent of your professors is to let you write down long formulas ahead of time so you don't have to engage in rote memorization of several pages of nasty formulas. (Naturally, you should go ahead and put these on your formula sheet.) At this point, you have already learned all you are going to learn, your focus now is on passing the exam. To that end, take the solutions to problems you didn't understand from Steps 1 to 3, use a scanner or copy machine to reduce them down to the smallest legible size, and simply staple or tape them to your "formula" sheet/card. You would be shocked to realize how often those problem will appear on the exam, with only minor variations. If you are allowed a calculator on your test (only if it applies), go on to Step 6.
- Step 6
- If you're using a standard scientific calculator, learn all the functions ahead of time. If your calculator runs on batteries, make sure they will last you through the exam. There's not much else to put here, since your calculator probably cannot be programmed. If you're using a graphing calculator, proceed to Step 7.
- Step 7
- If you're using a graphing calculator, and your course becomes noticeably easier with it (a fact that can only be noticed if you're reasonable competent with your calculator), you should spend some time making/finding small programs to make your computing time shorter on the exam. With adequate practice, you should be able to let the calculator know your requirement in a very short period of time. In my engineering experience, the ratio of input time to calculator processing time should ideally be around 3:10, but ratios up to 1:2 are acceptable. Finding programs for your calculator should ideally be done ahead of time, but even if that is not possible, Google is your friend. There are also some major sites dedicated to popular calculators like the Ti-89. Make sure your programs work under strained conditions, as troubleshooting is not to be done on the exam. If your program doesn't work on the exam, do not waste more than three attempts on it; proceed, instead, to work out the problem with hand.