On Campus

Not ready for final exams? Read this.

Prof. Pettigrew's five tips for avoiding failure

D Sharon Pruitt/Flickr

Distinctions among university students appear starkly at exam time. You can see who has been following along and who has been sleeping through class, who has been doing the reading and who thought the book was too big and expensive to bother.

As winter exams approach, I hope you are one of the organized types. I hope you have been diligently attending every lab, organizing every note, and completing every bonus assignment. If you are, you really won’t need any advice on surviving this semi-annual ordeal.

So let’s imagine that you’re not one of those types. By this point, it’s too late to go back and do everything you should have done to ace your exams. Instead, your best hope is to try to avoid a worst-case scenario. Here are some ways to do that.

1. Be sober.

The strangest exam answer I ever read was so bizarre I can hardly describe it. It didn’t ramble exactly, it just drifted in a kind of surreal way. Sentences began and then came apart, and then transformed into entirely different thoughts part way through. It was like the student was asleep when she wrote it.

She later sent me an email claiming that she had taken an overdose of cough medicine before the exam and that accounted for her trippy answers. Maybe she had. Or maybe she had been drunk. Or high. Whatever it was, I responded that, unfortunately, it was her responsibility to show up ready to write. So leave your partying—or excessive self-medicating—till after exams are over.

2. Be at least a little prepared.

Not long ago, I had to laugh when I read a student’s answer to a question regarding literary terms: “I don’t have a clue how to even pretend to answer this question.” I sympathized, but you don’t get points for sympathy.

In other words, even if you are not going to be well-prepared, you can’t go into the exam completely unprepared. Learn the key terms at the very least—many textbooks will have summaries of such terms at the end of the chapter or the book. A little knowledge, as Pope rightly said, is a dangerous thing, but when it comes to exams, no knowledge at all is a nuclear hazard.

3. Don’t cheat.

Facing an exam knowing that you are overmatched may tempt you to go outside the rules, but don’t bother. I’ve seen students trying to get a sly glimpse at their neighbours’ papers more than a few times, but it rarely helps. You can’t tell much from a quick glance, and your neighbour may be wrong anyway. And any notes you can scribble on your hand or hat brim are not going to be very helpful.

And, besides, you could get caught. That coffee cup doesn’t hide your smartphone as well as you think. And Siri may pipe up loudly at a very inconvenient time.

Oh yeah, and it’s wrong.

4. and 5. Get there on the right day and go to the right place.

The all-time most common nightmare among students is probably the dream where you miss the big exam. But that’s not the real nightmare. The real nightmare is having to go to your prof and explain that you got the days mixed up and could he please, please, pleeeeease let you write it now. Except that you haven’t studied. So now you have to ask for extra time, too. Somebody pinch me!

I have about one such student every year, they sometimes come to my office, quite literally in tears, and I generally work something out for them. But the poor student suffers a great deal of anxiety while trying to get in touch with me, and your prof may not be as cool as I am.

So check the schedule. Then check it again. And again. Don’t do what a handsome but gormless couple did in my class a few years ago and sit in the class room for half an hour before realizing that the exam is not being held in the room where the class was held.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

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