How to take a final exam (part 1)

scream.jpgOn Wednesday I posted about how to prepare for final exams. It seems only fitting that I should talk about what happens after the preparation is over. So visualize yourself as having done all that preparation, gotten a good night’s sleep and a good breakfast (and had some chocolate, as some of the commenters suggested). Now it’s time to go get it done.

I’ve been teaching professionally for ten years and spent four years in college and five years in graduate school prior to that, and I like to think that I’ve basically seen it all when it comes to exams. Here’s some advice I’ve gleaned from my experiences on how to actually take exams effectively. I’m gearing my remarks primarily towards finals in mathematics, since that’s what I’m most familiar with. But I think these also transfer reasonably well to other disciplines.

And in this article, I’ll focus on the final exam up through the first five minutes of the exam period. There’s almost as much going on from a strategic standpoint in the first five minutes of an exam as there is for the remaining 115 minutes.

First of all, you need to have all the proper gear for the final. Here is what I suggest:

  • Writing implement of choice + backups. Experiment with a pen or pencil until you find one you’re really comfortable with. I remember once in college, taking an all-essay English final with a Bic ballpoint I found on the floor, because I’d left my pens back in the dorm. My carpals still ache.
  • Calculator + backup batteries. A solar calculator is even better.
  • 8.5 x 11 paper for scratch work. A cost-effective approach to obtaining large amounts of scratch paper is to buy a single ream of plain, store-brand copy paper at a big-box office supply store or at Wal-Mart. A ream of 500 sheets of this kind of paper at Office Depot will cost you $4.49, which is chump change. A carton of 10 reams is just $32.99, so consider going in on one with nine classmates.
  • 3 x 5 notecards. You should have notecards everywhere just on general principle, but they come in especially handy when preparing for exams and taking them (see below). They’re cheap, even cheaper when you buy in bulk.
  • Some kind of accurate timekeeping device, like a watch or a cell phone. Do not ever take a timed test or exam without one! Keeping track of time is essential in any timed assessment. Be aware that more and more colleges are banning cell phones from tests and exams because of the potential for cheating, so make sure you know the rules about these. It wouldn’t be good to show up intending to use your cell phone to watch the time, only to find out it’s illegal.
  • Anything else permitted by your instructor.

Show up to the exam room 10-15 minutes before the exam begins. Find a comfortable seat — your usual seat from the class meetings, if possible — and arrange your stuff so that it is all easily accessible.

At some point, the professor or proctor will begin the exam period, usually with some remarks. LISTEN to these remarks. Often these are just boilerplate announcements about how long the exam period is and so on, but sometimes there is crucial information about typographical errors and other things which require your attention. I’ve seen students fail exams because they didn’t correct a typo that I took great pains to announce clearly at the beginning of an exam.

Then the exam will be handed out. Put your name on it and date it. And especially check to see if there is any auxiliary materials for the exam being passed out — handouts with formulas or statistical tables or what have you. Arrange these materials front-and-center on your desk.

Then, at last, the exam is handed out and the clock is started. Let’s do this thing!

Step 1: Brain dump. In the first 90 seconds of the exam period, do a complete brain dump of any important information that you will need for the exam which is not printed on the exam itself and which is not firmly in your memory. Do not even so much as peek at the contents of the exam until you’ve dumped all your info into a designated place. You want to do this first thing, because very simply, you can’t trust your memory to work at 100% efficiency when the huge cognitive demands of an exam are being placed on it as well. Once the information is out of your head, you don’t have to worry about remembering it. Spend the cognitive energy on the exam problems instead. (GTD‘ers know what I’m saying here.)

An ideal place to do your info dump is on one of your 3×5 notecards. You can dump all those formulas and whatnot onto a card and then move it with you as you work through the exam. (I’ve seen a lot of students do their brain dumps on the first page of the exam, but then you have to keep flipping to that page. The time spent doing so really adds up.) Inform your professor or whomever is proctoring the exam that you are going to do this, prior to the exam. Otherwise it looks very much like you brought in cheat notes.

Step 2: Fly-through. Having done your brain dump, now spend at most three minutes doing a front-to-back fly-through of the entire exam. You want to accomplish two things here. First, you want to map out the overall content and organization of the exam. Second, while mapping the exam out, you want to gain a sense of where you are likely going to need the most time or energy. You only have a finite amount of time, usually two hours, to complete an exam, and it’s crucial to have a sense of what is located where. You don’t want to sink a ton of time into a subjective short-essay question on page 2 when you know there is a difficult calculation problem coming up on page 3 that will be much more demanding.

Step 3: Time budget. Now that you’ve cleared your RAM by dumping your brain onto a 3×5 card and you have a sense of the content and layout of the exam, do a quick calculation of the average amount of time you should spend on each thing. For example, if you are working an exam with 10 problems and you have two hours in which to do it then you should plan on spending about 12 minutes per problem. You can round that down to 10 minutes per problem if you want to be conservative about it. Some problems will take less time. But problems should not — cannot — take more time than this on a consistent basis. Every time you go over that average time value on a problem, that time has to come out of some other problem. So this average is a critical number to know — it will tell you at what point you need to put a problem down and either come back to it later or else cut your losses on it and move on.

This simple averaging is a little harder to do if there are different kinds of questions on the exam — for example, multiple choice as well as problems as well as essays. So an alternate approach would be to take the amount of time you have to work with and divide by the total number of points on the exam, which will give you a conversion factor for converting point values into time values. For example, if the exam is worth 150 points and you have two hours = 120 minutes, that comes out to 120/150 = 0.8 minutes per point. Then just multiply the point value of a item by this number to see how much time you should budget for it. You should budget 8 minutes for a 10-point problem on that exam, for instance, and 1.6 minutes — about a minute and a half — for a simple 2-point item like a multiple choice question.

Steps 1-3 should take no more than five minutes. In some cases, the professor/proctor might even let you do these stages before the official exam period starts, as long as s/he knows you are not actually working on the exam. You could always ask the prof to see if you could do these Steps early; the worst they could say is “no”.

In part 2, I will focus on strategies for the rest of the exam period as well as how to complete the exam.


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Student culture

7 responses to “How to take a final exam (part 1)

  1. Pingback: How to prepare for final exams « Casting Out Nines

  2. I definitely love this method of taking finals. The strategies work really well for math and science finals. For essay finals, not so much, although I guess there’s still a planning process that goes on.

  3. OK… I agree, this post is a wise one… however in my case, it works like… day prior the exam chill out up to 4PM.. start studying, have coffee… studying, play around computer, study…. at 22PM get a beer with friends… come back… study… 2AM, you realize it is better to sleep at university, cause you want to get up at 6AM anyway… cause you need to study…. you wake up at 3AM, desperately look for a place to buy food… nothing is open nearby. You walk in rain just to get a piece of some stupid sausages…. you get back… you study… you fall asleep again at very morning… you got up at 7AM… you feel really tired…. you study more…. you promise you will never do it again… later it appears it works, and you pass exam 🙂

    Please don’t take this approach, it is very bad example, however… worked 🙂

  4. Two improvements I might offer:

    1. if the professor (or teacher) gives out information about the exam format in advance (10 brief procedural questions, then choose 5 out of 6 proofs), you can pre-budget your time. You might still need to plan, but that plan will now be just an adjustment.

    2. if you are able to anticipate one or more of the more challenging problems (or if the professor tells you, I am going to ask you to prove one of the following theorems), you might want to reverse order and do those first. Sort of like extending your brain dump. If you are well-prepared for a harder question, and quickly and accurately write it, then you will have augmented your time budget. Good thing.

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  6. I really liked your advice, and I offer some of my own at

    I hope you and your readers will check it out.

    Peter Burns

  7. anise

    idk what this all means…