From: How to Use Your Mind
One of the most vexatious periods of student life is examination time.
This is almost universally a time of great distress, giving rise in
extreme cases to conditions of nervous collapse. The reason for this is
not far to seek, for upon the results of examinations frequently depend
momentous consequences, such as valuable appointments, diplomas,
degrees and other important events in the life of a student. In view of
the importance of examinations, then, it is natural that they be
regarded with considerable fear and trepidation, and it is important
that we devise what rules we can for meeting their exactious demands
with greatest ease and effectiveness.
Examinations serve several purposes, the foremost of which is to inform
the examiner regarding the amount of knowledge possessed by the
student. In discovering this, two methods may be employed; first, to
test whether or not the student knows certain things, plainly a
reproductive exercise; second, to see how well the student can apply
his knowledge. But this is not the only function of an examination. It
also shows the student how much he knows or does not know. Again the
examination often serves as an incentive to harder work on the part of
the student, for if one knows there will be an examination in a
subject, one usually studies with greater zeal than when an examination
is not expected. Lastly, an examination may help the student to link up
facts in new ways, and to see them in new relationships. In this
aspect, you readily see that examinations constitute a valuable device
But students are not very patient in philosophizing about the purpose
of examinations, declaring that if examinations are a necessary part of
the educational process, they wish some advice that will enable them to
pass examinations easily and with credit to themselves. So we shall
turn our attention to the practical problems of passing examinations.
Our first duty in giving advice is to call attention to the necessity
for faithful work throughout the course of study. Some students seem to
think that they can slight their work throughout a course, and by
vigorous cramming at the end make up for slighted work and pass the
examination. This is an extremely dangerous attitude to take. It might
work with certain kinds of subject-matter, a certain type of
student-mind and a certain kind of examiner, but as a general practice
it is a most treacherous method of passing a course. The greatest
objection from a psychological standpoint is that we have reason to
believe that learning thus concentrated is not so permanently effective
as that extended over a long period of time. For instance, a German
course extending over a year has much to commend it over a course with
the same number of recitation-hours crowded into two months. We already
discussed the reasons for this in chapter VI, when we showed the
beneficial results coming from the distribution of impressions over a
period of time.
Against cramming it may further be urged that the hasty impression of a
mass of new material is not likely to be lasting; particularly is this
true when the cramming is made specifically for a certain examination.
As we saw in the chapter on memory, the intention to remember affects
the firmness of retention, and if the cramming is done merely with
reference to the examination, the facts learned may be forgotten and
never be available for future use. So we may lay it down as a rule that
feverish exertions at the end of a course cannot replace conscientious
work throughout the course. In spite of these objections, however, we
must admit that cramming has some value, if it does not take the form
of new acquisition of facts, but consists more of a manipulation of
facts already learned. As a method of review, it has an eminently
proper place and may well be regarded as indispensable. Some students,
it is true, assert that they derive little benefit from a
pre-examination review, but one is inclined to question their methods.
We have already found that learning is characteristically aided by
reviews, and that recall is facilitated by recency of impression.
Reviewing just before examination serves the memory by providing
repetition and recency, which, as we learned in the chapter on memory,
are conditions for favorable impression.
A further value of cramming is that by means of such a summarizing
review one is able to see facts in a greater number of relations than
before. It too often happens that when facts are taken up in a course
they come in a more or less detached form, but at the conclusion of the
course a review will show the facts in perspective and will disclose
many new relations between them.
Another advantage of cramming is that at such a time, one usually works
at a high plane of efficiency; the task of reviewing in a few hours the
work of an entire course is so huge that the attention is closely
concentrated, impressions are made vividly, and the entire mentality is
tuned up so that facts are well impressed, coordinated and retained.
These advantages are not all present in the more leisurely learning of
a course, so we see that cramming may be regarded as a useful device in
We must not forget that many of the advantages secured by cramming are
dependent upon the methods pursued. There are good methods and poor
methods of cramming. One of the most reprehensible of the latter is to
get into a flurry and scramble madly through a mass of facts without
regard to their relation to each other. This method is characterized by
breathless haste and an anxious fear lest something be missed or
forgotten. Perhaps its most serious evil is its formlessness and lack
of plan. In other words the facts should not be seized upon singly but
should be regarded in the light of their different relations with each
other. Suppose, for example, you are reviewing for an examination in
mediaeval history. The important events may be studied according to
countries, studying one country at a time, but that is not sufficient;
the events occurring during one period in one country should be
correlated with those occurring in another country at the same time.
Likewise the movements in the field of science and discovery should be
correlated with movements in the fields of literature, religion and
political control. Tabulate the events in chronological order and
compare the different series of events with each other. In this way the
facts will be seen in new relations and will be more firmly impressed
so that you can use them in answering a great variety of questions.
Having made preparation of the subject-matter of the examination, the
next step is to prepare yourself physically for the trying ordeal, for
it is well known that the mind acts more ably under physically
healthful conditions. Go to the examination-room with your body rested
after a good night's sleep. Eat sparingly before the examination, for
mental processes are likely to be clogged if too heavy food is taken.
Having reached the examination-room, there are a number of
considerations that are requisite for success. Some of the advice here
given may seem to be superfluous but if you had ever corrected
examination papers you would see the need of it all. Let your first
step consist of a preliminary survey of the examination questions; read
them all over slowly and thoughtfully in order to discover the extent
of the task set before you. A striking thing is accomplished by this
preliminary reading of the questions. It seems as though during the
examination period the knowledge relating to the different questions
assembles itself, and while you are focusing your attention upon the
answer to one question, the answers to the other questions are
formulating themselves in your mind. It is a semi-conscious operation,
akin to the "unconscious learning" discussed in the chapter on memory.
In order to take advantage of it, it is necessary to have the questions
in mind as soon as possible; then it will be found that relevant
associations will form and will come to the surface when you reach the
During the examination when some of these associations come into
consciousness ahead of time, it is often wise to digress from the
question in hand long enough to jot them down. By all means preserve
them, for if you do not write them down they may leave you and be lost.
Sometimes very brilliant ideas come in flashes, and inasmuch as they
are so fleeting, it is wise to grasp them and fix them while they are
In writing the examination, be sure you read every question carefully.
Each question has a definite point; look for it, and do not start
answering until you are sure you have found it. Discover the
implications of each question; canvass its possible interpretations,
and if it is at all ambiguous seek light from the instructor if he is
willing to make any further comment.
It is well to have scratch paper handy and make outlines for your
answers to long questions. It is a good plan, also, when dealing with
long questions, to watch the time carefully, for there is danger that
you will spend too much time upon some question to the detriment of
others equally important, though shorter.
One error which students often commit in taking examinations is to
waste time in dreaming. As they come upon a difficult question they sit
back and wait for the answer to come to them. This is the wrong plan.
The secret of freedom of ideas lies in activity. Therefore, at such
times, keep active, so that the associative processes will operate
freely. Stimulate brain activity by the method suggested in chapter X,
namely, by means of muscular activity. Instead of idly waiting for
flashes of inspiration, begin to write. You may not be able to write
directly upon the point at issue, but you can write something about it,
and as you begin to explore and to express your meagre fund of
knowledge, one idea will call up another and soon the correct answer
After you have prepared yourself to the extent of your ability, you
should maintain toward the examination an attitude of confidence.
Believe firmly that you will pass the examination. Make strong
suggestions to yourself, affirming positively that you have the
requisite amount of information and the ability to express it
coherently and forcefully. Fortified by the consciousness of faithful
application throughout the work of a course, reinforced by a thorough,
well-planned review, and with a firm conviction in the strength of your
own powers, you may approach your examinations with comparative ease
and with good chances of passing them creditably.
READINGS AND EXERCISE
Adams (1) chapter X.
Dearborn (2) chapter II.
Exercise I. Make a schedule of your examinations for the next
examination week. Show exactly what preparatory steps you will take (a)
before coming to the examination room, (6) after entering it.
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