College Learning : WAYS & WHYS

Frank A. Logan

Preparing for Exams

The purpose of this chapter is to describe some useful tactics to improve MEMORY.

You should learn:

  1. The distinction between learning and memory.
  2. The purpose of exams in college.
  3. How organization improves memory.
  4. When mnemonics can be useful memory aids.
  5. How to rehearse for essay exams.
  6. How to learn negatives for objective exams.
  7. The meaning of cognitive relativity.
You should also study the following appendix:
1.  On Mnemonics

Being tested is an inevitable fact of life in our society.  Not only are there exams in college courses, there are tests that determine admission, placement, employment, advancement, etc.  Hence, you had best adopt a positive attitude toward being tested.  A good analogy is the marathon runner who has trained for months and now anticipates the payoff, the big race.  Similarly, after you've spent many weeks and months studying a subject, a test is your chance to show how much you've learned. The only reason for you to be intimidated by an imminent exam is if you have not been learning your lessons.

I wish that I could say at this point that, if you have been keeping up with the assignments, preparing for an exam is easy.  But the truth is that it is still an appreciable amount of work.  To see why this is so, refer again to the fact that knowledge is not verbal:

          TEXT/LECTURE   - - - - verbal - - - - -   EXAMINATION
                .                                       .
                  .                                   .
                    .                               .
         Learning --> .                           .<-- Memory
                         .                      .
                            .    nonverbal    .
                              -- KNOWLEDGE --
          Figure 7.1  Learning is deriving non-verbal knowledge
          from words; memory is being able to recall that know-
          ledge when taking an examination.

What I hope is apparent in the figure is that the learning process in which you have been engaged is all for naught unless you are able to remember the information when called upon to do so.   Now how many times has an answer been on the tip of your tongue such that you know you know it but just can't think of it?  How many times have you remembered an important point, but not until after you have already left the exam?  How many times have you given a good answer, but to the wrong question, or kept coming up with the wrong answer when trying to recall the right one?  All of these familiar experiences illustrate problems of memory, the ability to remember nformation that you have learned.

The task of preparing for an exam, then, is one of finding ways to insure that you will be able to recall information quickly if you need it during the exam.  It is NOT a matter of learning the information; it is too late for that.  Nor is it a matter of reviewing the information as you presumably have been doing right along.  What is now required is to devise techniques that will insure that you have ready access to the knowledge you have already learned.

It is worth repeating the marathon analogy to point out that very few of the runners who start in a marathon have any expectations of winning.  For most of them the goal is simply to finish the race, and possibly to set a new personal best time.  Likewise, your goal is just to do your very best to demonstrate how much you have learned.

Why give exams in college?

There are a few academicians who oppose giving exams in college courses.  Their argument is that students should learn for the love of learning and that fear of exams creates an adverse, threatening atmosphere.  I agree that learning can be intrinsically rewarding, but I also believe that there are several cogent reasons for giving exams in college.

The most obvious function of an exam is that of assessment.  I earlier pointed out that most college courses are based on a mastery concept and an exam is most efficient way for the professor to find out whether your knowledge of the subject satisfies the criterion level for that course.  This assessment function is also important to you because it provides feedback that may influence your future plans.  For example, your career goals could be changed if you do well in a subject that is new to you, or poorly in a subject that is critical to some professions.  At the least, feedback from exams is important in deciding whether you are prepared for more advanced work in a discipline.  Even if the news is not always good, it is best to know your strengths and weaknesses.

Another important function of exams is that of a stimulator/motivator.  What I mean is that almost everyone needs a clear signal that it is time to shift attention from learning to memory, and also some added motivation to do the additional work.  You may know that organizing and integrating facts into a coherent body of knowledge is important, but it is easy to convince yourself that you know you know the material, so you don't need to spend the time preparing to prove it to others.  But in fact, learning something now is futile unless you can remember it in the future, and hence the incentive to prepare for an exam helps insure that you complete the learning-memory cycle.

To me, the most important reason for giving exams is to reward good students for having mastered the subject.  Many students think that the teacher's goal is to detect students goofing off and to give obscure questions that most students will fail.   There may be a few teachers like that, but most of us want you to learn, want you to do well, and want to give you a good grade as recognition for your accomplishment. You might prefer some other prize, but quality grades are the only tangible tokens that college teachers have to reward students who deserve them.

Most college professors would gladly give quality grades to every student in a class provided every student showed a high level of achievement. That is very unlikely, however, at least in typical freshman/sophomore courses.  Now if good grades are to have their intended reward value for good students, poor students have to receive poor grades.  A prize that all students receive regardless of their performance is not much of a prize at all.  Students who earn low grades have to receive low grades if high grades are to function as rewards for students who earn high grades.  Hence, a meaningful grading system will lead to a distribution of grades that corresponds to the distribution of student performance levels.

Preparing for Exams:  Tactic 1:  Organization.

The most helpful thing that a student can do to prepare for an exam is to organize the pertinent information in some way.  Although your mind is not designed like a filing cabinet, it can function that way when appropriate.  If your knowledge about a topic is arranged in your memory systematically, you can search for it efficiently.  On the other hand, if your mind is like a "junk drawer" into which you have put things haphazardly, you may know that it's in there somewhere but have difficulty finding it.  Any kind of orderly arrangement of the information helps remembering it.

It is easy to show the efficacy of organization for memory. Do these simple exercises:  Slowly read the following list of 12 numbers once, then close your eyes, wait about 3 seconds and then try to repeat the list in order:  3_8_1_1_6_2_3_9_5_4_6_2.  Try another similar list:  4_2_5_8_1_2_9_3_4_6_5_1.  Very few people can repeat a list of twelve random numbers.

Next, try to repeat a 12-digit list that has a simple, irrelevant type of organization.  Read the following list as 4 sets of 3 digits:  838-572-614-691.  Try another:  324-549-478-821.  Although you probably cannot repeat all of these group-organized lists, most people do noticeably better than with the random lists.

Because I have used digits for these exercises, a relevant type of organization would be numerical order.  Next, try to repeat a list of 12 digits that is numerically organized:  1-1-2-2-3-3-4-5-6-6-8-9. Try another of this type:  1-1-2-2-3-4-4-5-5-6-8-9. You probably did much better on those lists (which, incidentally, are the same numbers as in the first two random lists, re-organized).  Now, try to repeat a list that is organized both numerically and by groups: 112-345-667-889.  Try yet one final organized list:  122-344-457-889.  These last two lists are the earlier grouped lists put in numerical order, and you probably found them easiest to repeat.

Organization helps.

Why does organization help memory if your mind is not really designed like a filing cabinet?  Because you recall information from your memory by giving yourself recall cues.  A recall cue is any stimulus that can elicit from your memory the information you are trying to remember:  S (cue) --> R (information). Most of the time, the exam item itself serves as a recall cue:  S (item) --> R (answer).  It is when you can't immediately think of the right answer that you have to search your memory for the desired information.  Rather than just sitting there hoping that it "comes to you," you can remind yourself of the way you had the information organized and search for it in a systematic way:

     S (item) --> search S (cue) --> R (answer).

There are many forms of organization and I shall illustrate some of them.  They all share the property of showing how main ideas are related to each other.

One familiar and versatile form of organization is an outline.  A good study outline organizes information under headings and subheadings.  For example, let us outline the contents of this chapter thus far:

7. Preparing for exams
      A. Introduction
          a. Positive attitude (show results of effort)
          b. Learning vs memory (acquiring vs recalling knowledge)
      B.  Purpose of Exams
          a. Assessment (important regardless of outcome)
          b. Stimulator/motivator (shift from learning to memory)
          c. Reward (grade distribution)
      C.  Tactics
          a. Organization
             1. Value (when need to search memory)
             2. Types (outline, ....)


Note that the study outline includes the main ideas.  Hence it not only organizes the key terms, it summarizes the important information.  If you have studied the above outline, you are prepared for questions such as, "Why is it important to have a distribution of grades?" or "When is organization of knowledge valuable?"  You should have learned the answers from the text, but the outline can help you remember them on the exam.

Organizing information in graphic form may be especially helpful because one can usually remember pictures better than words.  Diagrams, figures, charts, and graphs can be used to organize many kinds of information, especially if it has several facets.  Let me give one example:  If you were preparing for a final exam over the material in this book, you might combine the figure shown in chapter 3 with the one at the beginning of this chapter.  The aggregate figure would look like this:

.-Writer >>>>>
.                         .          .
      *   *   *   * . *   *   *   *   *   *   * . *   *  . *   *   *
.                             .      .
Learning -->.    .<-- Memory
                 .                                 .  .
               Knowledge                         Knowledge
            (Idea, thought)                   (Understanding)


Now connect the dots and end with pointed arrows first from knowledge up to speaker-writer, then down from listening/reading to knowledge, and then up again to examination.  Next, let us add memorization to the figure.  Because memorization doesn't require understanding, you can draw an arrow at the verbal level directly from listening/reading to examination and label it "memorize".

Further, the chapter on information processing pointed out that interpretation of what one hears or reads depends importantly on what one already knows.  Hence, you can draw a return arrow back up from understanding to listening/reading to depict this bilateral relation.  Label that return arrow, "interpretation."  Finally, any new knowledge has to be integrated with old knowledge, so draw a circular arrow from understanding back to itself; label that arrow "integration."

What I hope you see is how a picture can organize information by showing the relationships among many of the ideas that were presented separately in a text. It is therefore valuable to develop skill in devising graphic techniques of organization.  But remember, any kind of organization is helpful.  Alphabetical, chronological, numerical, and hierarchical are other useful methods in the organization rubric.

Preparing for Exams:  Tactic 2:  Mnemonics.

You may have had teachers who advised you against using mnemonic "devices."   One of my teachers called them "vices" and equated using them to cheating.  He was the type who believed that, because he had learned to do things the hard way, so should we!  A much more reasonable view is that today's students need to know every trick they can in order to cope with the ever-expanding world of knowledge.  You can use mnemonics as a recall cue to intervene between a question on an exam and your knowledge of the answer.

A brief introduction to some mnemonic techniques is given in Appendix I.  Skill in using them will serve you well not only in college but throughout your life.  I therefore urge you to practice using them at every opportunity.

Preparing for Exams:  Tactic 3: Rehearsal

One age-old example of a good essay exam item is:  "Make up a question and answer it."  I tried using that item...once, and most of the students objected vehemently that the item was unfair, that they did not know  how to make up good exam questions. Their job, they said, was to answer questions, not ask them!  From that time on, I have required my students to write exam items as a part of their assignment.  I assure you that writing and answering items is a very valuable tactic in preparing for exams.

Why should you write and answer questions over the material on an up-coming exam?  The answer to that question lies in understanding the way we remember information.  Something "comes to mind" when some cue that is associated with that information occurs.  By writing exam items, you are making up various cues that will later help you recall the information.  And by answering the items, you are practicing the very behavior required on an exam, namely recalling information from memory.  Every time you recall something, it is easier to recall it again in the future.

Furthermore, making up items often forces you to think about the topic more completely.  For example, this chapter began with the distinction between learning and memory.  The most obvious exam item would be, "What is the difference between learning and memory?"  You should first rehearse the answer, "Learning is getting information into your knowledge system, memory is getting it out."

Can you think of other questions the professor might ask to determine if you really understand the distinction?  Making up and answering alternative items is what best prepares you for the exam.  Let me suggest a few illustrative questions:

Why is the distinction between learning and memory important?
Which is more important, learning or memory?
Give an original illustration of the difference between learning and memory.
Why might a student not be able to answer an exam item?
Give an analogy to the difference between learning and memory.
. . .Etc.

What I hope is clear is that "rehearsal" does NOT mean repeating the same thing over and over in order to memorize it.  Rehearsal means to practice answers to various possible items over the same information.  The more ways you have thought about it, the less likely you are to be baffled by the professor's item.

Preparing for Exams:  Tactic 4:  Negatives.

There is a very good reason that you need to know what kind of exam you will be given:  You should prepare somewhat differently for essay exams than for multiple-choice exams.  In most essay exams, you are expected to be able to state/describe/explain_what something IS.  The rationale for multiple-choice (and true-false) exams, is that you are also required to be able to recognize what something IS NOT.  If all of your preparation has been devoted to rehearsing what things are, you may be thrown off by alternatives on multiple-choice exams that illustrate negatives.

Imagine with me that you are teaching a young child what a dog is.  You show pictures of various breeds of dogs, various sizes and colors, and various perspectives.  You supplement the pictures with a verbal description about having four legs, a tail, a hairy coat, etc.  After doing all that, you wait a few days and then ask the child to tell you what a dog is. The child could probably point to some dog pictures, and give some of the descriptions.  But how well does the child know what kinds of animals are not dogs.

To find this out, you present pictures of several animals that look something like a dog:  coyote, wolf, dingo, and a dog picture not previously shown.  Quite likely, the child will be confused.  In order to learn fine discriminations, people have to learn to identify negative instances (things that are not) as well as positive ones.  I like to include multiple-choice exams in my courses because they make students learn such discriminations.  Students who have not prepared properly will have to learn at the time of the exam but good students have already practiced negatives.

You cannot practice negatives by studying the text or lecture notes.  Those are sources of positive information; both writers and teachers concentrate on explaining to you what something is.  Rarely do we spend time or space illustrating what something isn't. However, that is a very important part of the learning process and one you need to do for yourself.

The best way to learn negatives is to learn how to write true-false and multiple-choice exams.  Then you can prepare for such exams by trying to anticipate the kinds of items the professor might write.  But be forewarned: Writing good multiple-choice items is hard mental work.  Let me describe how to write multiple-choice items by writing one about such items.

A good multiple-choice item begins as a true statement.  Indeed a multiple-choice item is actually a multiple-true-false item except you know one alternative is true and the others are false.  In this example, the true statement is, "Multiple-choice exams are difficult because they...require identifying negatives."  Now try to think of alternatives that are false, but that are plausible.  Some possibilities:

Multiple-choice exams are difficult because they
a. require identifying negatives.
b. permit guessing
c. are ambiguous
d. test memory, not comprehension
e. involve speed as well as accuracy
f. deal with minute details
g. can be tricky
h. cover more material
i. . . .etc.

What I hope you notice is that, as you generate more and more false alternatives, you sharpen your understanding.  Thus multiple-choice exams do permit guessing, but that is not what makes them difficult. They may be ambiguous, but any kind of ambiguous exam item is difficult.  All exams test memory, and good multiple-choice exams also test comprehension.  As you think through why the other alternatives are false, you should get a better grasp of why the critical feature is identifying negatives.

You should also notice that the difficulty of a multiple_choice item depends on how close to being true the false alternatives are.  Think back to the child's task of picking out a dog.  If, instead of similar animals, I had used a snake, a rabbit, and an elephant as the foils, the child would easily be able to identify the dog.  So you see, the difficulty of a multiple-choice exam depends on just how plausible the foils are.  Usually, when students malign an item as "tricky," they mean that one of the false alternatives seems to be very nearly true, and it requires a very fine discrimination to identify the correct answer. Usually, that is what the professor intended (like knowing the difference between a dog and a coyote).


Conceptually, the distinction between learning and memory is as straightforward as the difference between putting money in a bank and taking it out. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge, memory is the recall of that knowledge.  There would be no reason to make the distinction if we could recall everything that we have learned.  But the truth, of course, is that we forget things that we once knew very well.  (Can you still name all of your elementary school teachers?)  Hence, education is not just learning; it is also trying to insure that what you have learned will be accessible in the future. Preparing for an exam means going that extra step to improve memory.

The ideal fruition of college learning is doing well on a final exam.  With that thought in mind, wise students start preparing for a final exam even while they are learning.  Becauseorganization is the most useful memory tactic, one can begin organizing information while engaged in periodic reviews.  One does not need to wait until just before the final to start making up mnemonics for important material.  And the third memory tactic, rehearsal, is also an inherent aspect of the learning process.  Thus, memory can be incorporated into learning.

Conversely, one continues to learn when engaged in tactics for improving memory.  Organization often reveals new relationships, and rehearsal of potential exam items enriches one's understanding.  When preparing for a multiple-choice exam, searching for negatives should sharpen one's discrimination among similar concepts.  Accordingly, it is also the case that additional learning accompanies memory tactics.

Even though the "putting in versus getting out" distinction is an over-simplification, the fact remains that preparing for exams is an important part of college education.  Some colleges designate the week before finals as "closed week," meaning that no new material is to be introduced.  Even without such external pressure,  experienced professors usually conclude a course with a review and an overview of the material intended to help students  prepare for the final exam.

An upcoming exam serves to alert students to the need to devote time to the memory tactics.   The most appropriate tactics depend to some extent upon the nature of the exam.  For essay exams, making up items and rehearsing answers in one's own words is the best preparation.  In this process, one should try to write several different items over the same material in order to broaden one's perspective.  This tactic practices recall of information as required on essay exams.

For multiple-choice exams, making up items is also the best way to prepare.  In this case, one should try to make up as many sensible alternatives as possible in order to practice recognizing negative as well as positive instances.  Multiple-choice is the preponderant method in freshman courses because it is an expedient way to assess learning in a large class. Hence, skill in detecting subtle differences is an essential one for success in college.

One final word.  Ask the professor if there will be names/dates/places on the exam.  If not, don't waste time with rote memorization of trivial details.

Cognitive Relativity

"Measurement" is any procedure used to find out how much of something a person has.  We measure your height by  counting  the number of inches from the bottom of your feet to the top of your head. This is an absolute measure because we know what zero length means and we have a fixed unit like the inch to use in measuring length.   To say that you are six feet tall means that you stretch out 72 inches from bottom to top.

We could be interested in a  relative measure of height. How tall are you compared with others of your age and sex?   How tall are you relative to the other people in your family or in your social group?  Relative measures compare you with other people;  six  feet would be tall in a college sorority, but it would be short on a men's basketball team.  In contrast to height and other physical properties that can be  measured  both  absolutely  and  relatively,  there are no absolute measures of cognitive attributes.

Principle of Cognitive Relativity
All measurements of cognitive factors are relative
(i.e., one can only measure individual differences.)

To illustrate the principle with intelligence,  we don't  know  what zero intelligence would mean and we don't have units of intelligence to measure how many you have.   The only way to measure intelligence is relative to other people.  To say that your IQ is 100 means  only that you have average intelligence;  the higher your IQ, the smaller the percentage of people who are as intelligent as you are.

Knowledge is a cognitive factor.   Accordingly, a test can only measure how much you know about a subject relative to how much other comparable students know.  Students sometimes ask whether an exam is graded "on a curve," and the answer is that exams are always graded on a relative basis.  Experienced teachers write exams at the level that is appropriate for a given class based on knowledge of what the students in previous classes have done.   In some situations, it may be possible to state, in advance,  that scores in a particular range will receive a particular letter grade. Even so, the grading "curve" is based on tacit expectations from past experiences.

Once you understand that the purpose of exams is to measure how much you know relative to other students, it should be clear that an item that everyone gets right (or wrong) is of no measurement value. A good exam will have some items that only the worst students should  miss,  and other items that only the best students should get right. Your goal is to get a few more right than the other students do.

This chapter concerned some
    S T E P S  to
        S U C C E S S  in
            C O L L E G E
                          6. . .   Active    :
                                Listening    :
                                       vs    :
                                        :    :
                    5. . .  Periodic    :    :
                        Study/Review    :    :
                                  vs    :    Dread, Cramming/
                                   :    :       Helplessness
               4. . .Processing    :    :
                 Verbal Fluency    :    Passive receiving/
                             vs    :       recording
                              :    :
          3. . . Selective    :    Occasional
                 Attention    :       "catching up"
                        vs    :
                         :    Verbatim shadowing/memorizing
    2. . .   Personal    :       Limited vocabulary/grammar
           Pragmatism    :
                   vs    Wandering mind,
1. . .              :       competing mental habits
Right Attitude:     :
  Commitment +      Pre_occupation with personal problems,
  Optimism +           ignorance, and impulsive action
                :                                    P I T F A L L S
                Doing aimless/hopeless time