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Ten Ways to Pass Your Next Chemistry Exam

  1. Don't bother cramming. It won't work. Cramming puts things into your short term memory- and if you're exhausted, it's very short term. You should study throughout the week before the exam, so that when the day to take the exam comes, you will feel confident of your preparation.
  2. Practice. You can't memorize a page of a Spanish dictionary every day and expect to be able to speak the language next year. You have to use the vocabulary you've learned in context, or it will slip away almost as fast as you learn it. The same is true of chemistry. You must do as many problems from the text, study guides, and notes as you can. The more practice you get, the richer your understanding of the underlying chemical concepts becomes.
  3. Read with your eyes closed. Study your notes and your textbook carefully. Then close your books and sit on them. Take out a sheet of paper and begin outlining the material you have been studying. You'll see, very quickly, where further study is required.

You must do the same thing in solving problems from the end of the chapter readings. Do not look at worked examples as templates. Simply substituting numbers from your problem into the corresponding places in the example sometimes gets you the right answer, but you won't know why. And when you are presented with a minor variation in the problem on a test, you won't be flexible enough to handle it.

  1. Get the big picture. Memorizing facts without understanding their relevance is an utter waste of time. Consider this parable [#1]:

A school inspector was impressed by the children that he had observed, but wanted to ask one more question before departing. "How many hairs does a horse have?" he asked. Much to the amazement of both the inspector and the teacher, a nine year old boy answered "3,571,962." "How do you know that your answer is correct?" asked the inspector. "If you do not believe me," answered the boy, "count them yourself." The inspector broke into laughter and vowed to tell the story to his colleagues when he returned to Vienna.

When the inspector returned the following year for his annual visit, the teacher asked him how his colleagues responded to the story. Disappointedly he replied, "I wanted very much to tell the story but I couldn't. For the life of me, I couldn't remember how many hairs the boy had said the horse had."

Get the big picture by reading the lecture notes, handouts, problem sets, and laboratory questions and reports carefully and integrating all of these sources of information in your notes. Organizing the material will help you see connections and get the material into your long term memory.

But don't spend too much time simply making your integrated notes look good - there's little satisfaction in being the neatest C student in the class.

  1. Get help. You're going to get stuck. There will be topics you just don't understand, and problems you just can't solve.

This is what office hours and help sessions are for. Attend them and don't be afraid to let your problem be known. Your instructor is being paid to help you. Make him work for his money. He doesn't mind.

Don't wait until the day of the exam to get help!

  1. Get a coofer. That's a copy of an old exam, from your course, from your instructor. Coofers are indispensable study aids. They reveal the format of the test, and allow you to judge the scope of the material and the depth of coverage. You can even use the old exam to pinpoint your own strengths and weaknesses by taking the exam.

Don't assume, however, that the coofer accurately reflects the actual content of your upcoming exam- it doesn't. It does give you a valuable glimpse at what your instructor thinks you should have studied before the test.

  1. Consider the triage principle. If you are pressed for time, you may have a hard decision to make. Should you concentrate first on those topics that you don't understand well at all, or on those areas where you have some understanding? Ideally, you'd be able to study both, but if you're out of time, you should study the areas where you have some understanding first. You must adopt this harsh philosophy because when standardized tests are used (as they are, in chemistry) you can expect to receive little partial credit.
  2. Focus on objectives. "Learning Objectives" on course handouts and textbook and web pages tell you exactly what concepts you're expected to learn and what skills you must master. You can find lists of operational skills and keywords to know on the end of each chapter, as well. Use those lists as a pre-exam checklist.
  3. Manage time. Get on top of things and stay on top. You must spend at least an hour or two every day studying chemistry. And that doesn't include the actual time you spend in lecture and in laboratory, or even the time you spend writing laboratory reports or completing problem sets.

A four credit college level course takes a major bite out of your time. (If it doesn't, you're not getting your money's worth.) Careful planning and good time management skills are essential. Set up a regular study schedule and stick with it.

Time management is a game that you have to take seriously. Make daily "to do" lists. Check off items as you accomplish them, and give yourself a reward for finishing the whole list on time. Be realistic; if you make the list too long, you'll just give up!

  1. Relax. You can do this. Allow yourself to believe that. Avoid negative and panicky classmates when choosing study partners. On the night before the exam, pack a couple of sharpened pencils and a working calculator for the next day, and go to bed early. Lack of sleep can magnify test anxiety. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the exam site. Get there early.