Study/Exam Tips

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Success in engineering problem-solving classes requires participation by the student. It is not enough to attend class every day and watch the instructor solve problems. The student must study the text and class notes to understand the material and must solve additional problems to be sure that he/she understands the material and can apply the principles to new problems.
Following are a few tips on how to study and how to prepare for exams. The tips are arranged in blocks according to the normal sequence in which they apply:

General Study Strategy.

  1. Read the assignment prior to going to class. The goal here is to identify which items/topics are familiar to you, which items/topics are similar to things you already know, and which items/topics are totally new. A general familiarity with new topics will aid in following the class lecture or discussion.

  2. Try to do the homework assignment. Treat this as a "pretest" to see how well you understand what you read and to identify topics you need to reread or ask about in class.

  3. Attend class regularly. If you're not going to attend the class, you might as well study the material on your own and take a test out exam.

  4. Rewrite your notes after class. The goal here is to create a set of notes that will make sense later and will help you study for a test.

Doing the homework.

  1. Do all assigned problems. The problems may look easy when your instructor does them on the board. But remember that your instructor has been doing these problems for a long time and has a lot of experience to draw on. The only way for you to get that experience is by solving problems yourself.
  2. Work with friends or classmates. Everyone has their own method of approaching and solving problems. It is often useful to compare how you would approach a problem with how your classmates approach the same problem. However, you are ultimately responsible for being able to work the homework problems.

  3. Start on scratch paper. You wouldn't write a term paper and expect to have a perfect finished paper the first time. Working homework problems is no different.

  4. Don't get stuck on one problem. If you are just sitting staring at the paper, you are not learning anything. It's time to ask your instructor or a classmate for a little help on how to get started or what to do next.

  5. Check your calculations. Not all mistakes are in the method or approach used. At least a quarter of all errors are simple calculation errors.

  6. Make it legible. The homework is not only for your instructor's benefit. It is also for your use when you need to study for a test or to review a concept. If you leave steps out or write illegibly, it will be of no use to you later.

  7. Don't crowd your work.


Studying for a test.

If you have been diligent in reading the assignments, attending class, asking questions, rewriting your notes after class, and doing the homework problems, you should not have to spend very much time studying for the test. The material and problem solving processes will be etched in your mind.
  1. Review your notes, focusing on the problem-solving strategies and the sample problems.
  2. Rework problems in the relevant homework assignments as well as extra homework problems.
  3. "Cramming" almost never works.


Creating a crib-sheet.

  1. Make your crib sheet first. Make your crib sheet before taking any practice exams. If you practice using your sheet ahead of time, you'll be quicker on the actual exam.
  2. Make it legible.

  3. Keep it simple. You may be tempted to include on your crib sheet every formula you've ever seen. Experience shows this to be counterproductive because...

  4. Keep it simple. Include all of the basic formulas, but only a few "special-situation" formulas.

  5. You may also want to include some problem-solving strategies. That's fine, although I think you'll find that after working through enough old problems, those strategies will etch themselves permanently onto your brain.

Taking the test.

  1. Don't Panic. Keep in mind the problem-solving skills you've practiced all semester, such as making sketches, formulating a strategy, etc. It's easy to panic and become sloppy, reverting to formula-plugging and the like. The best way to ensure you won't panic is to take practice exams ahead of time.
  2. Read the problems carefully.

  3. Take a watch to the test and keep track of the time.

  4. Don't always do the problems in order.

  5. Don't waste precious time completing algebra at the expense of getting to every problem.

  6. If you get completely stuck on a problem, go on to the next one. Everyone else probably had trouble, too.
  7. Ask questions. If you're the slightest bit confused, ask the instructor to clarify what the question means. Students routinely misinterpret problems because they are unwilling to bother the instructor. This is no time to be shy.

See also . . .

The Academic Learning Lab of the Dean of Students' Office offers several resources for students. In particular, check the study skills link where you can find tips for