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

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

in learning.

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

particular questions.

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

will appear.

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.



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.