In upper division courses that focus on a region or on a limited research topic I often give students a list of four to five essay questions one week before the exam and tell them that I will randomly choose one or two of the questions for the exam. The questions usually consist of multiple parts. Almost without exception students do poorly on the first exam in these classes. There could be a number of reasons for their poor performance. It could be that students do not know what to expect, perhaps I have not taught material related to one of more questions well, or perhaps students simply did not prepare. For the first of these, expectations, I give a 20 minute lecture on how to take this style of exam. For the second, I prepare the lectures with the questions in mind; however, there is a distinct possibility of a bad teaching day for any professor once and a while. I am more concerned about the third possibility, student preparation, because my experience has been that once students do poorly they change their habits and do better next time, even though I change very little in terms of lectures and exams.
So, let’s pretend for a bit that student preparation is a major contributing factor, just for the sake of discussion, acknowledging that instructors make mistakes, vary in terms of teaching ability, have bad days, et cetera. How should a student prepare for the type of essay exam I give? I can recommend a four-part strategy.
First, the student must adopt the philosophy that preparation is important, and that being prepared is necessary for demonstrating comprehension of material. The goal of the exam process is not to mark calendrical progress toward the end of the semester. Exams are opportunities for students to share their understanding of the material with the instructor. In this era, it seems that scholars are increasingly ignored and at times disdained. One gets the impression that expertise is seen as unimportant. However, if the student wants to demonstrate success, he/she must, on a personal level, establish the philosophical position in his/her life that instructors know something and that tests represent the way in which instructors determine whether or not students understand material. To instructors this may seem rote and pedantic, but I am beginning to wonder whether or not a majority of students really know what tests are for. We can blame this problem on the cancerous growth of standardized test taking in which exams are milestones that mark one-month prior to the end of the school term instead of assessment of comprehension. Exams are not tasks, they are opportunities.
Second, students must admit to themselves that preparation takes more time than they have ever imagined. Devotion to learning such that one can convey comprehension takes more than just a small block of time. It takes regularly scheduled, dedicated time; the fewer distractions, the better. Exam preparation time reflects one’s level of devotion. A question that crosses my mind when I scan the classroom full of students is “how devoted are you?” The best complement I have received as an instructor, was that a student conveyed she learned "that she could be smart" in my class. She had always defaulted to the position that she was not very intelligent. What changed? She became devoted to her studies and learned what she was capable of. What we can challenge students to do is to become devoted; we really have no control over their native intelligence (shocking, I know). Devotion positively correlates with exam scores.
Third, students should ignore their friends when they are preparing for an exam. Why? Because people do not like to study; most friends like to share laughing, crying, hugging, supporting the team, ingestion of substances, et cetera. These activities may be fun, especially in terms of short-term gratification. But, what about the long-term? Satisfaction on a longer time scale is a personal matter; if a student knows an exam is coming she/he should push aside the short term for a while and consider how it will feel later should exam preparation be traded for short-term fun. There will be time for freedom and fun; during exam preparation is not that time. Instant gratification is the opposite of lifelong satisfaction, and the odd thing is that if one leads a balanced life (something many of us struggle to do), then short-term freedom is very rewarding, satisfying, and well-deserved. If you want to succeed on an exam, ignore your friends for a little while.
Fourth, essay exams are designed with structure in mind, which is why devoted time is required during preparation. What is the instructor looking for? It is the student’s job to find out. Tear the question to shreds, inspect each fragment, and rebuild the material from scratch. If you are confused during that process, ask questions. What we (instructors) are looking for are people who know the material inside and out, students who go the extra mile to think about and understand the material we present. Attack the exam questions with a vengeance.
We (professors, teachers, instructors) are experts. Is that because we are smarter than average? Sometimes. More important, however, is that we have more experience than most students with the materials we share with them. Exams are not about the value of a person, they are about comprehension, communication, and experience. The most important step that can be taken on both sides of the equation, teaching and learning, is to internalize the following: teaching and learning are not praise or blame. They are results that depend on preparation. Satisfaction is about being well prepared; disappointment is about being poorly prepared. As Edna Mode says in The Incredibles, “Luck favors the prepared, Darling.” Everyone has moments of glory and shame; if one must make the process personal and emotive, then invest feelings and energy in preparation not (only) in results.