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How to Pass Your STEM Course Exam: A Hackerspace Guide

Illustration for article titled How to Pass Your STEM Course Exam: A Hackerspace Guide

Great things happen when you – the Lifehackers – set your hive mind to something. You provided expert advice on winning at a sales job. This exam season, procrastinate a bit by reading our crowd-sourced study tips. Or share your own; help someone else pass their science/technology/engineering/math final.


Reader iamsarah shared this:

Study and internalize the material a little at a time. When the material builds on itself, it's incredibly important that you understand the things as you continue to move forward in the class. If you wait until a week before the final to learn it all, you better have plenty of time to dedicate to it. All of the time you "saved" not studying before will have to be done all at once.


This tip underscores the need to draw up a study schedule that is driven by your exam schedule, so you can accord the appropriate amount of attention resources to each course.

Hackerspace Sr. Grad School Correspondent story645 added the following:

Do the homework. Really, for the love of all things all, do the homework. By yourself. See, when ya'll work in a study group, 95% of the time, only one of you really solves it (and that person learns something) and the rest of you only think you learn something and maybe you do, but it's not the problem solving skills you'll need to do well on the exam. […]

Also, write crib sheets. Even if it isn't an open book exam, the act of writing crib sheets will help you nail down the core formulas/concepts/etc and figure out how to boil them down into nice concise little blocks. […]

I really like the sparkcharts series. I think they have a good balance of text and lots of examples/samples/prototypes/pictures. Just enough to be a reference card, not so much that you're literally trying to learn the material off your card during the exam.


I have conflicted feelings about exams that are open book, or that allow you to bring in a formula "cheat sheet." On the one hand, you're not sunk when you can't recall something. On the other hand, it requires more attention to detail and an index-like knowledge of your text book. (It can also lead to absurdities such as someone bringing in a magnifying glass to read off a cheat sheet that attempts to cram in all the formulae in tiny handwriting.)

Got exam study tips of your own? Share them below, in the comments.

Now gather 'round, and listen to my own tip-sprinkled tale of woe:

How to barely pass in engineering

I was an indifferent student, yet somehow managed to squeak through one of the most _____ing engineering programs in Canada (you fill in the blank). Looking back, the barely-clearing-the-hurdle optimization exercise that were my undergraduate college years hinged on three main tactics: insinuating myself into a good study group, getting copies of past years' exams, and trying hard in courses others hated.


Study groups are the key

It took me a while to realize that the whole point of a study group is not to copy problem set answers off each-other. The point of a study group is to break up a bigger task into smaller components and to then teach the others how to solve your part of the assignment. Being able to explain the solution to a problem takes a higher level of understanding than simply hacking out an answer and handing the paper over to your peers. (And trust me, marking TAs can almost always tell who has been working with whom. It's the degree of similarity in your solutions that can get you in trouble.)


You don't need to be the sharpest tool in the shed, as far as study groups go. You just have to show up on time, get along with others, and bring something to the table, whether it's being the logistics person, the "keener," or the wily diplomat who knows where other study groups are meeting and is able to pump some of the answers out of them.

Get a hold of past exams—and their solutions

Though marked exams were not normally returned at my university, it was possible to obtain a copy of your exam paper for a fee. Inevitably, these copies would end up in the hands of an enterprising local copy shop that ran a side-business in re-selling them as "course study guides." Sometimes several years' exams would be included in a package, as well as solutions.


If the same prof had been teaching the course for several years, you could reverse-engineer this cache to uncover patterns, or pet problems. Some profs like to reward those who attend a specific class or tutorial, where they might solve one of their pet problems on the board. Being able to knock one of these out of the park right off the bat, rather than flailing around for ten minutes drawing free-body diagrams, could often make the difference between scoring above average, or below.

Contrarian effort

I found it far easier to get a good grade – relative to the class average – on a course that was considered tough, than to do well in a class that was perceived as a "bird-course."


That first-year electricity and magnetism class, with the old-school professor who called students out to the board, mocked their answers, and occasionally reduced them to tears? Sat front-row centre and got a B! That daunting second-year thermodynamics course taught by the head of the department? B—and I can still explain entropy. That engineering statistics class in third-year that had everybody yawning? Rocked that, too: B+. It was the easy courses that sank me. Polymer engineering? Nope—I still don't get plastics (HOW DO THEY WORK?!). And that manufacturing engineering class, which was ostensibly my major? Welp, dear reader, in that class I got a D.

A lot of it revolved around other students' perception of a class: if they enjoyed the course and thought it easy, it motivated them to study more, making it harder to stand out from the average. A subject that seemed esoteric or less approachable, or a course where everyone got slammed on the mid-terms, or the professor was a jerk, on the other hand, tended to demoralize my competition. Here, I had a chance.



Don't forget that the final grade is an abstraction: your performance against your peers is all that matters, and your time and attention resources are the limiting reagent.


But hey, don't take all your advice from a guy who graduated with a 2.7 GPA. You might just end up working in a call centre. In which case—I've got you covered.


[Image by author]

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