Take the Test from the Inside (Part II)

Predict what will be on the exam

So, you’ve got good study notes with good questions and killer summaries, and the exam is looming. You’re good to go, right? One more thing. Predict what’s going to be on the test.

I mean, why gamble? Why let it be a surprise? Predicting the test questions is usually pretty easy to do. Look over the syllabus, which is the design of the course. Review what has been discussed in class. Ask yourself, “What has this professor been emphasizing?” Role-play, pretend you’re the professor: what questions would you put on the test? To make sure your predictions are sound, ask the professor outright: “Yo, Teach, what’s gonna be on the test?” (If you really say “Yo, Teach,” though, I won’t answer for what happens to you.) But before you ask, do make your own predictions. Then after you ask and the professor answers, see how accurate your predictions were. This is another study technique: predict and discover—it tunes your analytical skills. If you make the effort to think about and forecast what the professor is going to put on the test and only then ask, you’ll better understand the answers you get and the implications of what’s going to be on the exam because you’ll already have thought about it yourself. Even if the teacher contradicts one or more of your predictions, it still won’t be news to you; you will be intellectually comparing inaccurate conclusions with accurate information, which is an excellent way to learn. Want to do extremely well on tests? Get on the same page as the professor; develop the facility of being able to think like the professor when you need to, as well as the discipline of thinking for yourself all the time.

The actual studying for the test is now easy. Return to your notes (see Part I). Cover up the answers and summary, and quiz yourself by reading and thinking about the left-column questions you wrote. Next, write new summaries and compare them to the old ones. If you study with one or more friends, together try to come up with questions that draw forth the most complex, complete answers, and summaries that explain the most both briefly and elegantly.

When at last you sit down to take the exam, you will have already thoroughly explored every corner of it. You might feel nervous going in, but when you begin to see questions that are just differently worded versions of questions you yourself have asked and answered, questions that you accurately predicted would be here, the jitters will fly away and you will feel at home. Take the test from the inside. It’s easier.

Everything suggested here is just what any good cat burglar does all the time. You want the ginormous diamond in the laser-guarded museum? Tirelessly case the joint for months, leave no blueprint unexamined, gather exactly the right equipment, and practice doing the job. Is it hard work? What’s it worth to you?

The Pink Panther


Take the Test from the Inside, Part I

Powerful study techniques and the art of higher-order questioning.

Here’s an oldie-but-goodie note-taking system1 that works especially well for a course that has exams.

Draw a line vertically down the page so that one third of the page is on the left and two thirds are on the right. Also draw a horizontal line across the page about a quarter of the way up from the bottom. You can also buy notebooks that are configured this way.

Note-taking sections

In class, take notes on the right side, in the right column. After class it’s best to review and, more important, continue your notes the same day if possible, when they’re fresh. It’s the follow-up work on your notes that will make the difference when it comes time to study for exams.

The first follow-up step is to write in the left column a question to which the note on the right is the answer. For example, let’s say you took notes on Freud’s definitions of id, ego, and superego. Next to the definition of id (in the left column), you could write, “What is the id?” But there are other questions you could write that would help you more. You want to come up with questions that stimulate you to think about the concept rather than simply retrieve factual data like a computer. Questions that begin with “How” work well, because they ask you to think about process and coming-into-being and cause & effect. “Describe the relationship between…” is another good way to begin questions, as is “What does x have to do with y?”

But exams often ask for definitions, so why not write: “What is Freud’s definition of the id?” Well, you can, but then you’ll be relying on brute force memorization (and for memorizing, flash cards are probably more useful than discursive notes). By contrast, the question “What is the relationship between the id and the superego?” is asking you to think about more than one thing:

  • the definition of id
  • the definition of superego
  • the attitude of the superego in relation to the id, and vice versa
  • how the id and superego function
  • what each is like metaphorically (and here you can get creative: the id is like Cookie Monster or Caligula, while the superego is like the sanctimonious angel on my shoulder or my fourth grade teacher)

… And many more subtle things. Process and relationship questions are higher-order in the sense that they implicate multiple layers of meaning, not just one-to-one labels (e.g. “The id is the primitive part of the mind that seeks sensual pleasure and violence for their own sake” is a simplistic this-equals-that formulation). Higher-order questions develop complete pictures of concepts in interconnected webs. In short, coming up with good questions requires solid understanding of the concepts in the first place, and those same questions will promote solid understanding later on when you’re studying for exams.

After you’ve written questions in the left column for your notes that are in the right column, it’s time to summarize on the bottom of the page. Cover up your notes and questions and explain the main ideas with as much intellectual oomph in as few words as possible. This is one way to tell whether your left-column questions are really useful: when you understand the material well enough to ask good questions, you’ll be able to summarize the material confidently. These are your rules of thumb for studying: if you can’t think of higher-order questions and you have trouble writing a summary, you haven’t grasped the concepts sufficiently; when you can ask the questions and when you can give a summary lecture and teach the concepts, you’ve mastered the material.

Now you’re prepared for the exam! In fact, you’re prepared in more ways than you may be aware of. In Part II you will learn how to predict what’s going to be on the exam.

  1. Based on the “Cornell Notes” system, devised in the 1950s by Dr. Walter Pauk of Cornell University. 


How to Get the Reading Done (Enough): The UBER Method

Here is a tried and true outside-the-box method for doing course reading that works for people who feel weighed down by reading assignments.

Riddle yourself this: How often do you complete enough of your assigned reading to be able to go to class feeling confident that if called on you’ll be able to look the teacher in the eye and respond directly from your knowledge of the text? Restrict your answer to one of these two:

  1. Often enough to do as well as I want to
  2. Not often enough to do as well as I want to

If your answer is “a,” don’t mess with a winning streak. No need to spend time on this post; go do your reading.

If your answer is “b,” however, then the UBER method can change your academic life.

If you’re actively choosing not to read for class, then at least you’re exercising free will. But many of us don’t read (or not much), yet wish we could magically absorb books. We want to have done the reading, but somehow can’t manage to do it. When I played the “super-power” game for the first time in my life—“If you could have one super-power, what would it be?”—my answer was, “The ability to read a 500-page book in an hour with perfect comprehension.” All these years later, my answer is still the same.

My super-power wish betrays a common preconception: that reading needs to be done from beginning to end without skipping anything. Reading every word from start to finish is ideal, at least in the respect that most literature, fiction and nonfiction, is written to be read this way. If I’m reading for pleasure, I read from beginning to end (though not everyone does this; it’s a matter of personal preference). But reading for course work involves an important utilitarian consideration: if I understand the substance of the reading, who cares if I didn’t read every word? And what difference does it make if I read the pages out of order?

The essence of the UBER method is simple and practical. Be goal-directed. Read what you need to read.

Reading every word and following every thought in a text step by step is a beautiful thing. But when we’re having trouble getting reading done, we have to be willing to sacrifice beauty. We’re going to read in an ugly but efficient way. That’s the UBER method: Ugly But Efficient Reading.1

The first thing to do when using the UBER method is—don’t read the text!—at least not yet. Walk around it for a few minutes; survey it. You’re not going to dive into the reading, you’re going to figure out what you need to get out of it, and then go fishing in the best spots. You’re not going to wade slowly but dutifully through all the pages; you’re going to look things up.

The UBER (Ugly But Efficient Reading) Method

  1. Consider the context. What do you already know? How does this reading relate to the course material? (This latter question you can ask your professor outright, if it’s not clear to you.)
  2. Gather clues. Also known as “pre-reading,” this is when you read all the easy stuff and learn as much as possible as fast as possible. The first things you should read are:
    • the book cover
    • the summary on the back cover (or the abstract of the article)
    • the table of contents
    • pictures and captions
    • charts, graphs, tables, notes
    • questions at the end of the chapter; and then…
  3. STOP. What do you know now? More importantly, given what you’ve learned from the clues you’ve gathered, what do you now want to know about this reading? Ask questions.
  4. Find out where the text is going to end up. Read the last paragraph (or two). Then read the first paragraph to see where and how the text begins, and ask more questions: What is important in this reading? What is the last paragraph saying? What don’t you understand yet? What do you need to find out more about?
  5. Finally, read whatever parts of the text you need to in order to answer your questions. In other words, read to learn what you need to know.2

The key to the UBER method is making sure you have accomplishable goals in front of you at all times. Finding answers to questions you have, especially when you have the text that the answers are in, is an accomplishable goal. For some of us, the prospect of a dense 40-page article on a subject we don’t find interesting feels daunting enough that we avoid even starting it. Now compare having to read that article straight through to having an untimed open-book exam on it. Passing an open-book exam is an accomplishable goal.

So, open your books and get out of them what you need. Ugly But Efficient Reading is much more enlightening than perfect reading that doesn’t get done at all.

P.S. Try the UBER method out on this post. Read the title and the footnotes, the lists, and the phrases in bold type. Then read the final paragraphs, then the first couple of paragraphs. See how much you can learn just from these?

  1. The reading strategies in this post are not original on my part; in fact they’re well known among reading teachers. However, the acronym “UBER” for “Ugly But Efficient Reading” is my own invention. 

  2. Now, don’t be a dope: what you need to know is not defined by what you learn until you get bored; it’s what you need to know to participate intelligently and confidently in a class discussion. 


How to Manage End-of-Term Paper Pile-Up

It is a conspiracy. Your professors are trying to kill you. They have all made their term papers due within days of each other, and then come the final exams you have to study for.

Don’t die. You can’t give them the satisfaction. You must survive. Here’s how.

First, for some of you, things aren’t looking too bad until next week. DON’T BE FOOLED. This is part of their plan: lull you into a false sense of security, and then—WHAM, five different versions of 20 pages plus works cited and annotated bibliography and some new cover page format with something called an “abstract.” Not to mention overdue lab reports and “response” papers.

You need to start now.

Step One: Assess the Damage.

How much work do you have to do between now and the end of term? Make a four-column list of every single assignment:

Assignment | Due Date | Hours of Work | Instructor

“Hours of Work” is the number of hours it will take you to complete the assignment, including all reading, prewriting, writing, revising, proofreading, and packaging with ribbons and bows. If possible, estimate based on past experience with similar assignments: how long has it taken you? In any case estimate liberally; it’s usually a safe bet to multiply your initial guess by 1.5 or 2.

All right, now sit somewhere comfortable, grab a best friend or two and perhaps your favorite stuffed animal for moral support, and count up the total number of hours of work you have in front of you. Breathe. Drink some water. It’s going to be okay.

Step Two: See the Big Picture.

Make a large calendar that includes all the days between now and the end of the final exam period.—8½x11 is way too small; best to tape many 8½x11 sheets together, and put only 2–4 days on each sheet; the more space the better; make this calendar as big as your kitchen table. Write each assignment on a Post-It or small card or something, and place the assignments on their respective due dates; don’t stack: make sure you can see every single assignment.

Step Two-and-a-Half: Reserve Time Between Rounds

If you’re going into battle, be smart about it. Be rigorous about your conditioning. Especially during this period when you have to fire on all cylinders and go into double and triple overtime (to mix as many metaphors as possible), you must get plenty of sleep, eat actual food—you know, from nature—and take non-work breaks to refresh your energy.

For every day on your calendar, generously block out hours to sleep, eat, and chill. You can probably predict from past experience that you’ll end up crashing during those hours anyway if you become over-exhausted, so better to plan for them.

Step Three: Redistribute the Weight.

Now, if your teachers have colluded effectively, you will probably have two or more assignments due on top of each other, or so close together that it looks like you’ll have to work on two or more simultaneously. Proceed with caution.

You will now begin to see before you an illusion. It will appear that all you have to do is work on both assignments X and Y  for a couple of days and you’ll get them both done. Don’t believe it! It’s a mirage, a trick! Don’t try to multitask. Don’t try to be an academic superhero. It’s a fine tactic to move all your due dates back a day or two to give yourself some cushions, but you have to make it so that you can work on one assignment at a time.

Now, solve the calendrical puzzle. Here are the rules:

  • You may move assignments forward or backward on the calendar.
  • You may not let the work periods for multiple assignments overlap.
  • You must sleep and eat during your regular sleeping and eating times. (During this step, sleeping and eating take priority over finishing assignments by their due dates.)
  • You must chill for at least three hours (one or two in emergencies) between assignments.

Move assignments away from each other. When necessary, allow yourself to push some assignments past their due dates. When you do push an assignment past its due date, note that somehow (a red dot, a skull and crossbones…).

If you’ve rearranged your assignments so you can complete them one at a time and hand them all in on or before their due dates, you can skip to Step Five.

If, however, you now have some assignments that are scheduled to be done after their due dates, you must proceed to Step Four.

Step Four: Negotiate.

Ask for extensions on those assignments you needed to push forward on the calendar. It is perfectly respectable to ask for an extension if you ask for it in advance. It might help to fold up your calendar and bring it with you to show your teachers the work schedule you’ve made for yourself. It will show that you have taken control of this difficult but very common situation, and that you are managing it responsibly. This will warm your professors’ hearts, and they will gladly do what they can to help you succeed. Sometimes a professor will respond that a particular assignment can’t be handed in late for one reason or another. If that happens, enlist that professor’s aid in rearranging your calendar so that you can get everything done without fasting or losing sleep.

Step Five: Do Good Enough Work.

Finally, do your assignments, one at a time, and work on them in a goal-oriented way. No masterpieces when you’re under time pressure. Write good, solid, coherent, workmanlike papers. Here is a tried and true essay writing method and template you can use to make the process more efficient. I used to call it the “essay mill.”

Make sure you proofread! It would suck to put in hours of work on many papers and lose points all over the place for not following through.

Reminder: Make Clean Transitions.

Every time you complete an assignment you need to do three things:

  1. Mark it as done on your calendar.
  2. Celebrate its completion.
  3. Take a substantial break before starting the next one.

Marking the assignment done will clear it from your plate, and you’ll feel lighter and more hopeful of success. Celebrating will reinforce your accomplishment, your feeling that you’re getting somewhere, and that will have the effect of refreshing your determination to see this through to the end. Taking a break will act as a palate cleanser: you’ll be able to turn your thoughts away from the last assignment and focus on the next one.

Won’t it be satisfying, at semester’s end, to know that when your professors dished out their worst, you were strong and judicious and skillful, and successfully completed all that work? What a confidence-builder! And think how light and spacious it will feel to be finished and truly free from school, with the warmth and green of summer stretching out before you.


From Combat to College: Making the Transition

In honor of Veterans Day, here is a roundup of articles and resources for students who have served or are serving in the military, presented to you with respect, gratitude, and wishes for your every success.

Articles highlighting some of the potential difficulties for veterans attending college:

Here is a list of veteran-friendly colleges.

These two articles are for faculty/administrators:

Finally, useful advice for vets in college:


Be Here Now

“I was out on Wednesday. Did we do anything in class?”

Oy. If you ask your teachers this question, make sure you watch their ears carefully: this is your chance to see actual smoke come out of a human head.

Why is this not cool to ask an instructor? For one thing, it implies that there are days when nothing much happens in class, as if on Wednesday everyone sat around painting their toes and sexting. From a professor’s point of view, every class is one in which something important happens. Whether every single class is in fact chock full of educational value is beside the point. To ask “Did we do anything?” or “Did I miss anything?” of the professor is to ask the one person who is most likely to resent and dismiss the question. How is the professor supposed to respond?—

“Did I Miss Anything?”
by Tom Wayman
Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours…

Another problem with this question is that it puts the burden on your instructor to catch you up to the rest of the class. I’ll tell you honestly what my reaction is to this when it happens. I think (though I try to say something more diplomatic): Man, I did my job. Do yours. Also, since this request is often made just as class is about to begin, when the teacher is gearing up to teach, the annoyance factor only multiplies.

You’ll often hear or read that you, the student, are “responsible for finding out from a classmate what you missed in class.” Why? Because class happened and you missed it. Really, asking the instructor what you missed is like standing and asking the bus you missed to come back to pick you up instead of running after it.

In his poem Wayman is also conveying something important about the power of your presence in the classroom. When you are there, you are contributing, however apparently or subtly, to the overall energy and direction of the class. A friend tells a story of taking a philosophy course in college. She had been out sick on Monday, and on Wednesday was back in the classroom again, listening to the discussion. She raised her hand and made a comment, and then suddenly had a strangely unsettling thought: on Monday, while she was at home, the class was there in that very room, having a discussion much like the one currently happening, only she wasn’t there to hear it, ask questions or make comments. Life had gone on without her in the class, but she wasn’t there to take part in it. She hadn’t contributed on Monday, and she’d never know what it was like to have experienced it. If she had been there, the class might have taken a different tack. Her presence might have affected the entire course. She vowed to herself then to attend every single class if possible.

Be Here Now is the title of a famous book by Ram Dass, and it’s also excellent advice when you’re a student in a class. You are a vital part of the whole!


How to Talk With Your Instructors

A while back I asked some TCL Facebook friends for their advice about how to communicate effectively with professors. Here’s what they (students and instructors) had to say:

I believe the best way to communicate effectively with professors is to think of each teacher/professor as your “partner” in education.

—Connie S.

In the beginning of the semester, don’t assume they know who you are (unless you’ve worked with them before). Profs meet many new students each semester, so when you first contact them be sure to identify yourself and tell them which class you’re in. If you meet with them during office hours and ask questions that show you’re interested in the class, they’ll figure out who you are pretty quickly. In a good way. Also, don’t email a prof and expect an immediate answer. Most profs don’t check their email as often as students do. If you don’t get a response and you need to hear back from her, be respectful in your follow-up email. Remember that your first email may not have reached her, or it may have been deleted in error, or she may have been too busy to check her email at midnight or whenever. Always be respectful; profs are people, too.

—Bette E.

Don’t be intimidated by them; assume they want to see you succeed… which means you have the same goal. That’s the biggest difference between me as a returning adult student and the “kids” in my classes.

—Monica G.

Make contact. Make an effort to show the professor that you have a functioning brain and personality and give him/her a reason to care about you.

—Meaghan O.

I always spoke with them in person, then followed up with an email if needed. It was a good way to remind them and myself of the important points of our conversation (or what still needed to be addressed).

—Alexander P.

Before and after class is a stressful time for many teachers. They often have many students coming at them with questions and they have their own pressures to get to another class or meeting, etc. I always appreciate it when a student takes the time to seek out the teacher in an office hour. I am relaxed and ready to handle what they need.

—Jacqueline D.

Helps to have actually read the material, too.…

—Norman D.W.

Amen. Good teachers are interested in the subject and in students learning the subject. Professors profess. We want to talk to people about our disciplines. In that respect teachers are still students who love to discuss their favorite ideas. Really, I should have put Norman’s quote first. Do the reading, engage your teachers in conversations that have to do with their profession, and not only will you become someone they love talking to, they will do backflips to help you in any way they can, even if—often especially if—you’re having difficulty with the material. We don’t only want to talk to people who are, “Oh, yeah, I get this; it’s easy”; we think the whole world needs to know what we’re professing, and nothing makes us happier than the opportunity to introduce, orient, guide, and support others who want to get in the know.

Nevertheless, approaching a professor can be intimidating. While many professors do possess these qualities in abundance, neither gentle bedside manner nor social grace is a requirement for becoming a teacher. And sometimes a professor and student are just not on the same wavelength. Yet being able to talk to your teachers is a necessary skill. So treat it as a skill.

In her book, Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, Ellen Bremen offers short scripts to help you navigate every kind of nerve-wracking conversation with your teachers, from asking about a bad grade or requesting an Incomplete, to using e-mail wisely and getting extra help. Her book teaches the skill of communicating effectively with teachers.

The bottom line? It’s not generally known, and be careful whom you tell this to, as you might unduly shock someone who isn’t prepared to hear it, but… teachers really are people, too. People who love to talk, who talk for a living.

Talk to them. That’s the way we did it in the olden days.

—Christine M.


That September Feeling

[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air… Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.
— Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose


Exam Advice

Of course, it is very important to be sober when you take an exam. Many worthwhile careers in the street-cleansing, fruit-picking and subway-guitar-playing industries have been founded on a lack of understanding of this simple fact.

Terry Pratchett
Moving Pictures


Looking for a different kind of college?

Looking at colleges, but feel uninspired by the typical choices? There are colleges where . . .

There are even colleges that involve intensive farming or outdoor adventures as big parts of what they do. In other words, there are places well outside the box for students like you.

The world is a big place—go see what’s out there, and keep questioning everything!

Here are a few good articles on the subject fom The New York Times “Education Life” section:

Two books from Amazon profiling some really interesting places:


Go Fish in
Streams of Consciousness:

absenceacceptanceaccomplishmentADHDaimsanalysisannotationanxietyAPAappearanceappleappreciationargumentartistaskingattachmentattentionawarenessBatmanbeingblank mindblissboatboring!brainstormingbraverycandlescenter of gravitychoicechoosing collegecognitioncommunicationcompassionconclusionconfidenceconsciousnessconversationcreative writingcreativitydawdlingdiagnosisdoorsdramadreamdrinkingecologyemotionenergyessaysessentialevidenceexamexcitementexecutive functionexerciseexperienceexpositionfailurefearfeelingfightfigurationflowfootballfrederick douglassfreewritinggamegedankenexperimentgesturegetting startedgoalgrammarhappinesshealinghearthonorhopehumanideasimaginationimagination_exerciseimplexinnovationinspirationinstinctinterestjubileekinestheticknifeknowledgelogicloudlovemagicmanagemasterymeaningmechanicsmedicationmeditationmetacognitionmilitarymindmistakesMLAmothermotivationmountainnontraditional collegenote-takingnotesorganizeout-of-the-boxparticipationpartspassionpatiencepeak-experiencepedagogyperseverancepersistencephysicalizeplanplayingplaywrightingplotpoetrypositive pointingpre-writingpreferenceprepositionpresenceprioritiesprocessprocrastinationprofessorsproofreadingputteringquestionsreadingrealityreflectionrelationshiprelaxationrepresentationreservesresourcesresponseresponsibilityrevisingsanctuaryself-actualizationself-assessmentself-relianceseptembershort storysocratic methodsoulspacestorystrengthsstressstudyingsuccesssummariessynthesistalkingtasksteachingtechniquetest anxietytest-takingThanksgivingthemethesisthinkingtimetolerancetomorrowtreetrusttruthunderstandingveteransvisualizationvoicewaldorfwelcomewholewillwillpowerwomenwordsworkingwriter's blockwritingyearningyesterday