Remarks to students, 12.8.10, revised and expanded.

Exams are next week: how many of you are looking forward to taking exams?   I hope the answer is many of you, because I believe that when a well-prepared mind engages with a well designed test, fireworks can happen inside our minds.   I had many experiences of feeling more intellectually stimulated, engaged, creative and innovative, when taking a well-designed exam than during almost any other time.    My mind leapt to new insights and perceptions, made more connections and inferences, and discovered and constructed original solutions or approaches to vexing problems.   I love taking exams.

But you do need to be well prepared to be successful.    Some suggestions for you to be better prepared.

1.  When you study, don’t just read: write!   Too often we think we are studying when we let our eyes drift over the words in our notes, our textbooks, and our study guides.   That isn’t enough; we must write to remember and develop better understanding.    My freshman year of college I struggled with my midterms, and was quite disappointed with the results.   Come finals, I chose to do something I had never done before: I simply rewrote, word for word, every note I had taken during lecture– and when I went to take my exams I was flabbergasted with how much more I recalled and how much more confident and authoritative I was addressing the questions.    Recopy notes, or write about your notes and texts:  what are the most interesting, more original, most surprising, most confusing, most important, most controversial ideas or informational nuggets in the texts you are studying?  Write these out, and you will be better prepared.

2. Study in groups. When this works well, it is awesome; when it doesn’t work well, it can be a disaster.   The opportunity is great, but effective execution is essential.    When you do it well, the result will be better understanding and retention of key factual content and key interpretations , better anticipation of what will be on the test, and far more breadth of wisdom in how to answer those questions.

Here is my suggested strategy: gather 3-6 students, no more, together for a couple of hours: be clear up-front that this is serious study time.     Have food available: this is very valuable!   Bagels and cream cheese (not donuts or candy) is my recommendation.   Spend thirty to fortyfive minutes brainstorming what you think will be asked on the test: review previous tests, study guides, textbook unit tests, and any other materials to guide you.  You might have each member of the group individually write up 3-4 questions, and then share them with the group for discussion and feedback as you generate the best (and what you think are most likely) test questions you can identify.

Then, having established the best set of potential questions you can determine, spend 90-120 minutes answering them.   You might talk about them, one at a time, taking turns having a group member be the note-taker, and talk as widely, deeply, and inclusively as you can about how to answer these questions.    If you didn’t come up with good, challenging, and representative problems in the first round, this round might fall flat.    Sometimes it works better to divvy the questions up, have each of you individually answer them in writing, then share the answers out loud for discussion and expansion.

The discussion benefits you two ways: as someone speaking and sharing your suggested answer, you yourself are gaining far more comprehension and retention of those ideas because the best way to deeply understand and remember ideas is to explain it to someone else.    Second, by listening to others, you will get new ideas and perspectives to bring to bear on the question you might never have thought of, and by using this broader set of ideas in your answer on the exam, you will perform better than you would have alone!

3. Exercise and sleep. This is common-sense and universally advised, but it bears repeating.   Exercise in particular is so valuable, and take the time to walk every 30-45 minutes around the block or up some stairs.  You might even try to do very light exercise, on a treadmill or exercise bike at low rates for instance, while you are studying.

4.  Move around. When you are trying to learn, master, and memorize ideas or facts, do so while moving from spot to spot.  At each spot, focus on learning one idea/fact/topic, and do so while looking around and taking in your surroundings.  Do this inside or outside your house or anywhere you might be.    If possible, repeat, returning to the same location for the same nugget.    Our brains are more like those of squirrels or pigeons than we realize; they are deeply wired to associate learnings with location.   Squirrels memorize the location for their acorns so they can return to them months later; if we associate a physical location with an idea, it is imprinted in our brain, so that all we need to do is remember the location and the acorn buried there will return to mind in all its detail and specificity.

5. Connect smells to learning. This may seem bizarre, but as Proust taught us with the madeleine, memory and smell are deeply, powerfully intertwined.    You might try sucking on a particularly flavored altoid mint while you study a difficult subject, and then, (with the permission of your teacher!), suck on that same flavor mint while you take your exam.   Medina, is his terrific book Brain Rules, tells us that research has demonstrated this works.

One more tip, not about studying but exam-taking.    When you encounter a question which entirely stymies you– one you think you have no idea whatsoever how to answer– just begin writing.   Begin to fill that white space with something, anything.  You might try just rewriting the question, and then free associate to anything at all you do remember about the topic at hand– even if your ideas have no direct relationship to the question at hand.    What you will find, more often than not, is that ideas are connected to other ideas; ideas follow each other like a long train of widely varying units, and by beginning to write words and ideas you do know, the connected ones that you have forgotten begin to emerge in your mind and on the paper.   Just get the train of ideas moving, and what you are looking for will come along before too long.