Archive for the ‘Exam Prep’ Category

By PLA Naomi Rosenfeld

It’s that time of year again. The walk to campus has become a cold, dreaded chore. The sun has begun to set ever so early, leaving behind an entire list of daily commitments in its wake. And of course, as classes come to end, the feared and loathed examination period awaits. But, I’ve come to realize the counter-intuitive truth: Finals aren’t nearly as bad as midterms. Here’s why:

5. Everyone’s in “exam mode”                                                                                 

Whereas midterm schedules are quite individualistic, everyone’s finals are in the same two weeks. While this makes finding a seat in Stauffer impossible, it does wonders for motivation.

4. Classes are FINISHED

Have you ever sat in a class an hour before a midterm, praying that the new information being taught didn’t actually get absorbed – lest it knock out that last bit of crammed midterm material from your brain? This just isn’t an issue during finals.

3. No weekly readings/Assignments

Weekly readings or assignments are hard enough to complete on their own, but throwing midterms into the mix is one difficult balancing act. During finals, this problem disappears.

2. You already know your professor’s style

By the time finals arrive, you’ve already undergone an entire semester worth of your professor’s testing. And whether you were pleasantly surprised or hugely disappointed – you still know what to expect. After all, when it comes to exams, ignorance is really not bliss.

1. A real break’s in sight

Doing well in school is all about one thing: delayed gratification. And well it’s true that midterm season is often symbolically finished with a celebration, it doesn’t compare to 2+ WEEKS of vacation. Being able to count down those ‘days till freedom’ during finals really does make it bearable.

So, the next time finals-blues have you feeling down, sit down, relax and remember: things could be worse – and probably were just a few short weeks ago.


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by  PLA   CT

When I first started learning about time management, many years back, the majority of my resources were business management books. A few of them made reference to a rule of thumb called the ‘Pareto Principle’ – or more eloquently – the ‘80-20 rule’.

It states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Originally a business model, it stated that 80% of your profits came from only 20% of your (best) customers/suppliers.

Being a business model, I never understood how I could use it in my own life. So I shelved the idea in the back of my head; it probably would have been lost there, if not for its curious name. It wasn’t until reflecting on my different studying approaches each year that I finally understood its implications.

80% of results from 20% of your efforts.

So let’s take your upcoming exam, for example. The material for it can come from your lecture notes, your textbook; maybe your lab material, if there’s a lab component too. Some courses have supplementary readings, which are of course, “fair game”. In fact – if you were to ask your prof, I’d say chances are, they’ll add the caveat “but anything can be testable”. Which is of course true. Your seasoned upper-year friends, especially those who studied every part, may not agree.*

That’s a lot of material to cover. If you spread that over five courses, …well, let’s get back to the 80-20 rule. Only a small part of everything you need to study will be worth most of your marks.

What that means for each course and program is different.** But you can clue in to what is needed. For example, written answers would require a response to a specific topic – so study the topics that took a long time to cover, or have a lot of sub-points. In most of the courses I’ve taken the past four years,*** exams emphasize lecture material.

On the flipside, the 80-20 rule implies that 80% of the other material will also be worth 20% of the other results. Let me give an example. In early linear algebra, we spent most of our class-time deriving formulas. None of those derivations were needed on our exams in that class – only the end result, the formula that was derived. It’s easy to see here that it would have been folly to learn the derivations then. But perhaps it’s harder to see, applied to your own courses? What areas in your own courses are taking more attention than they deserve?

For those of you aiming for more than an 80, there is no way studying the ideal 20% of your material will get you the mark you want. Of course, you’ll need to study ‘everything’. But in doing so, I encourage you to keep in mind that you can still study everything, just weigh their importance appropriately. The Pareto Principle is trying to say – give due emphasis to the amount that will give you the most yield. In studying then, study those components more heavily. Don’t let your brain guilt you into studying everything equally.

This is particularly true for the perfectionists out there. You are going to have to learn to say no to whatever good intentions that will keep you from studying in such an unequal manner. I will say though, getting marks back having applied this principle removed all guilt I felt beforehand.

One more case worth mentioning is for situations when time is short. Whether that be the usual university demands, a heavy week, or God forbid, cramming – keep the 80-20 in mind to study smarter. Knowing that you have a neat hack in your toolbox will help the load seem more manageable, keeps you focused on reality by concentrating on that which deserves attention, and reassures you that you have a solution that will get you out okay. Though, you may need to try it out to prove that to yourself, first.


*Side-note: always ask upper-years questions whenever you get the chance. They are easily one of your best resources: from neat tricks to a future course, to view-points that change degree decisions.

** Though there are exceptions, the general trend is that first year courses will lightly touch on every topic within the field; second year courses are a closer look into a subfield of the area, and third year courses are thorough explorations into one topic within the subfield – often the prof’s specialty, or field of interest. However, first year courses tend to be much more knowledge-based than their upper-year counterparts; later courses are where you take what you know and play putty with it – you either apply it, debate it, or similar forms of messy.

The key here then, is that you know what will be expected of you. Lower-numbered courses would request of you to remember theories, facts, concepts. The curveballs are in separating details, compare and contrast questions. So take note in those particulars. Upper-year courses are more theoretical, inquiry-like, applied – so instead of just compare and contrast, you must now argue, which is more appropriate in a given setting?

***Disclaimer – these would be limited to Arts, Sciences, and Commerce courses.

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By Heather Nichol, PLA team leader

When the end of November came around in my first year, all I could think of was, “I have no idea how to prepare myself for this”. Sure I’d written exams in high school, but the amount of material on those exams was nothing compared to the exams I was about to write. How was I going to make sure I had time to study everything? What if I got so wrapped up in my first exams, that I didn’t have time to study for my last ones? Would I ever have time to relax?

Then I discovered the study schedule that would save me: a study calendar based on chunking. It divided each day into three blocks: morning, afternoon and evening. All I had to do was decide what needed to be done in each block. So simple. But it helped me do 4 crucial things: divide my time efficiently, chop up my goals, feel in control, and find balance.


Divide time efficiently: By laying out the entire exam period in front of me, the calendar let me see just how much time, or how many blocks, I had. I was able to decide which courses got more blocks based on how much the exam was worth, how difficult the subject was for me and how much catching up I had left to do. I could also plan to study a different subject in each block to keep things interesting.

Chop up my goals: Studying 12 weeks of material seemed like a daunting task, but by dividing my studying into blocks, I was able to set more reasonable goals for each chunk of time. Not only did this make studying seem more manageable, it was a lot more rewarding as I accomplished each small goal instead of grasping at the intangible goal of “study biology”.

Feel in control: With my study blocks laid out for me, I knew what I needed to do and when I was going to it. It was possible to allot time for everything. I wouldn’t neglect my later exams and I would do my best with the time I had.

Find balance: One of the best parts of this study schedule was the time it allowed for BREAKS! Within the study blocks, every hour I studied for 50 minutes then took a 10 minute break to refresh my mind. Between each study block was an hour off so I had enough to have a good meal and give my brain a break. Even better, every block was not for studying. Once and a while, I’d left a block free to go to the gym, watch a movie, or just hang out with friends. By scheduling in time for breaks, I actually made my studying more effective because I didn’t burn myself out.

That’s how a simple study calendar saved my sanity. It can save yours too. Try it out: December Exam Schedule.



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By Emily Dimytosh PLA Marketing team Leader

My housemates told me I was crazy this week when I told them I had already started studying for exams. I had begun going over lecture notes from the first class, and turning everything into an exam-type question. By next week, I’ll have a mini-exam for each lecture. Then, from middle of November until my exam, I have something to distract me for the 25 minutes on a stationary bike I’ve committed to putting in every day.

“Your first exam’s not until December 8th,” they protested. “You are going to forget everything you are studying now and then have to do it all over again during exam period!”

And that’s where they were wrong.

We’ve all studied for enough tests via repetition that we know the more times we go over something, the easier it is to retain. You write down the capital cities of Canada or recite major dates in Canadian history enough times and eventually, they’ll stick.

The problem is, by starting to study in exam period, sometimes we don’t leave ourselves enough time for things to get stuck. Frankly, the most stressful exam situations I’ve been in have been wondering if I’m actually going to be able to learn all this in time. By starting early, I know I’ll have enough time to go over everything. And likely, I’ll remember it better because I’ve gone over it so many more times.

The best part? When exam time rolls around, I know I’ll have everything under control and it’ll be my housemates that are going nuts.

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by PLA   Team Leader Merry Guo

For many of us, the wave of midterms is beginning to pass. After days of grueling studying, sleep deprivation, and information overload, do you ever feel like all your motivation and strength have been washed away too?

The crazy thing is, it is completely possible to have a low-stress midterm experience.

Here are 3 ways we can hold onto sanity and normal life in the face of midterm exams:

1)      Be pro-active. The best way to reduce stress you have for a particular exam is to feel well-prepared. The best way to feel well-prepared is to start reviewing well in advance! I like to count backwards 7 days before an exam, and for each of those 7 days, I list things I will do for that course. For instance, the first 4 days would be used for filling in all missing notes, making sure I clarify concepts I didn’t understand, and doing a comprehensive review of concepts that will be tested on. The last 3 days would be spent memorizing things (if required) and doing practice problems. By the end of those 7 days, I would have done all the things I needed to do to feel “well-prepared” for that exam. They key is to figure out what YOU need to do to feel well-prepared, and then split those tasks across the 7 days. It’s a good idea to make your own weekly calendar, and fill it in with these goals!

2)      Don’t “let go” of your normal standards. Before a midterm, you might start staying up extra late, skipping classes to study, and eating junky foods. Maybe you’ve had toast for every meal today, are still in sweat pants with unwashed hair, and are feeling guilty about skipping your weekly club meetings too. Not only does this kind of living lead to sleep deprivation, decreased brain function, and often getting sick, “letting go” of regular standards can lead to an unhealthy mindset – that you are unable to cope with your midterm situation, or that it is a huge challenge. The feeling of having control in this time of chaos is powerful, because it can completely change your perspective about your own abilities. Keeping control throughout midterm season could simply mean commiting to still go to the gym twice a week, commiting to still putting effort into your appearance, or committing to still have wholesome dinner at the same time every day. If you don’t “let go”, you’ll find it easier to view midterms as something challenging but manageable, rather than a huge task that you must give up your normal life for.                                                                       

3)      Be in the know. Take the time to send an email to your profs or TAs, or simply ask them after class, details about the exam. Some questions to ask are how many questions there will be on it, what type of questions, how it will be graded, what content will be emphasized, if textbook readings not mentioned in class will be tested, etc. It is incredibly useful to know this kind of information so that 1) you don’t waste time studying for things that won’t be tested on, and so that 2) you are mentally prepared for what is about to be put in front of you. Knowing what to expect can give you a little burst of confidence. You will have less fear of the unknown. Other ways to become familiar with the exam is to do past exams – this is a FANTASTIC way to review! Also, doing a past exam is like simulating the actual exam, which will make you less nervous for when you are writing the actual exam, since you’ve done a “real” exam already, and know that you can do it.  Check out exambank for past exams that may be available for your courses.

Last but not least, have confidence in yourself. Best of luck in December!

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By Petra Pavkov, PLA

  1. Instead of passively reviewing your notes, try actively understand them
    1. Finals test your knowledge and understanding of course material, if you have a thorough understanding of the concepts- it will be easier for you to apply them on the exam
    2. Try to put concepts and ideas in your own words and  make analogies/relate concepts to popular media or your life
    3. Draw pictures, diagrams and mind maps
    4. See how concepts are related to each other
      i.      Make connections
      ii.      Contrast ideas
      iii.      If a concept has evolved over time, understand its progression
  2. Use your midterm as a guide for how you will be tested and graded on your final
    1. Pay attention to the comments on your midterms, they often point out your strengths and weaknesses. Alter your study method to address your weaknesses
    2. If you are uncertain about how you will be graded or what your professor is expecting of you, dont be afraid to ask them
  3. Pay attention to the structure of your exam
    1. Make study notes/sheets in that format
      i.      If you need to know events in history and their dates, make a timeline with explanations
      ii.      If there will be problems on the exam, make study sheets with detailed steps on how to solve each problem
  4. Strategically procrastinate
    1. Instead of doing unfocused work with several short study breaks all day, allocate your time between studying and procrastinating
      i.      Make sure to focus during your study periods
      ii.     Relax during your procrastination periods
      iii.    Be reasonable Tweak the 50-10 rule (50 minutes of focused studying with a 10 minute break) to find your optimal study-break ratio
    2. When you get an impulsive urge to search cute animals in costumes, take a moment to breathe, relax and try to focus again until your next study break
  5. Have fun with your studying
    1. Use different coloured papers and pens
    2. Study with a group 25% of the time
      i.      Test each other for prizes (i.e. 2 skittles for each correct answer)
      ii.      Discuss concepts and ask each other questions
    3. Have dinner with your housemates and take turns explaining theories or models you need to master for your exam

Good luck!

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This is my last week in my undergraduate degree. Despite all I’ve learned, the material I’ve crammed into my head (I swear, I don’t know what use I will have for the list of all the retroperitoneal organs, but I know them!!) nothing has taught me more than an old childhood classic – Winnie the Pooh.

How, you ask? Read on, and I’ll explain how the characters and quotes are exactly what you need to take away from your undergraduate experience.

“Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering”
– Piglet

It’s often really easy to get caught up in the heat of things – especially at this time of the semester. With the last week looming, exams in the near future, and all the assignments and lab reports in between, it seems that the idea of doing nothing is a cruel joke.

However, I have 7 exam periods under my belt. I can tell you from experience, that when you take time out of a very busy schedule to just do nothing mentally taxing – watching TV, doing some yoga, SLEEPING, playing Frisbee with friends – you feel revived, fresh and ready to tackle the next thing on your to-do list.

Does the idea of taking time out still scare you?

Then schedule it in like any other thing you need to accomplish. If you set aside 30 minutes a day for one episode of Gossip Girl and you write it down like it was an assignment, you can’t just skip it as easily. Your brain will thank you!!

“I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words Bother me”
– Winnie the Pooh

This one is more for the Arts majors out there, with lots of essays and essay exams. I’ve done a few over the past couple years with my French courses, and let me tell you that Winnie the Pooh has is right. Don’t try to use long, complicated words to make yourself sound better. Sometimes, a simply stated argument makes a lot more sense than an eloquently crafted, run-on sentence where your meaning gets lost halfway through.

Need some more advice about those essay and short-answer exams? Come book an appointment with a Learning Strategies Consultant in Stauffer and walk away with some stellar tips!!

“If you want to make a song more hummy, add a few tiddely poms”
– Winnie the Pooh

This quote comes down to your happiness. You can’t rely on external sources to always brighten your day. Yes, external sources (a good grade, a nice phone call from a friend, a hug from your mom) are great mood-boosters, but ultimate happiness comes from within. Make your life happy by doing things you love – everyday. I make a point of waking up to my favourite song and dancing in my pj’s before class. I sing to myself in the shower. I bake amazing chocolate chip cookies because I know that after a long day, nothing makes me (and my stomach!) smile like a glass of milk and some good chocolate chippers.

Because trust me, when you’re happy, everything else just falls into place – marks, school, exams, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, housing, jobs….and everything always has a way of working out. J

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day”
– Winnie the Pooh

This is a big one for me. For us 4th year students, it seems that the last semester of school has all been about where we are headed. So many of my friends are medical or law school bound or headed to graduate schools in the fall. I, myself, am one of them, so I can’t knock continuing with the academics. However, what bothered me was the fact that everyone I spoke with thinks this is THE route. Don’t take time off after 4 intense years, your hard work paid off for you and now you can relax in medical school, right?

Wrong. An undergraduate career is a tough journey. Whether you’re finishing up first year, or completing your degree – you have plenty of time to get where you are headed. Life is a journey, not a destination, so take time to explore opportunities you may not be able to do when you’re older.

If you need some inspiration, think of this story. My Dad, a lawyer back in Calgary, worked with a guy at his law firm for 10 years. This man pursued a law degree, practiced law for 10 years and THEN decided he actually wanted to be a doctor. So, at age 40, he went back to medical school and now practices medicine. Were those 10 years of law a waste? No way. My Dad tells me he’s the most practical doctor you’ll meet, solely because he took his time to get where he ultimately wanted to end up, and has a hugely diverse background to allow him a better chance of relating to his patients.

“To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks”
– Eeyore

This is another big one – marks. I’m in Life Sciences, so I know a lot about marks. The pressure we put on ourselves to get them, the competition we create in doing so and how unhealthy this becomes. While I wish I could sit here and say that marks don’t matter (because let’s face it – you and I both know that they do count!) they are not the entire story. It’s taken me 4 years, but I’ve come to realize that marks do not define who you are. They are a stepping stone to get you headed in the next direction, but they will not necessarily predict your success.

Need proof? My mom graduated with the gold medal from her kinesiology class back in the day. She enters law school, and wants to do the exact same thing, but this time in Law. She studies SO hard, spending at least 8 hours in the library everyday. She cut back on extracurricular and fun times. It wasn’t until a professor pulled her aside that she changed her ways. You know what he said to her? “Wendy, you are not going to win that award. There are individuals in this class that are smarter than you. However, they are not going to make as good of a lawyer as you.” This professor was able to see that my mom was an outgoing, extraverted individual who had the interpersonal skills to make an excellent lawyer, despite not necessarily graduating with the top marks.

Think of this story when and if you get poor grades – it’s not the end of the world, and it doesn’t define you or your potential. At the end of the day, a 6 is just and upside-down 9, much like a smile is an upside-down frown.

So, turn that frown the right side up, smile and realize that you are awesome no matter what letter grade happens to fall next to your name. Best of luck on your exams!!

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