How to Do Well in School

Taking Tests

When taking tests, answer the easy questions first.

When I was little, I thought that all tests were intelligence tests, and that you had to write your final answer to the current question before proceeding to the next one. I thought that doing questions out of order was “cheating”, because your mark (“IQ”) would improve if you first answered all the questions that you knew. Because of this, I did very poorly on tests; I often got stuck on question and then ran out of time before completing the test.

Subject tests, even math tests, are not intelligence tests! You can do them out of order. Answer the easy questions first, and put a star on the hard ones that you will have to come back to. This way, you will have time to think about the difficult questions and not worry as much about not having enough time to complete the test.

For Multiple Choice questions, cross out the letters of the choices that you know are wrong.

I used to think that smart people do everything inside their heads, and stupid people need to use mental aids, like making marks on the paper to show the steps in their thinking. I thought that if I depended on a pencil, it meant that I was stupid, and that it would also stunt my short term memory, preventing it from growing to match that of other people.

However, there is nothing stupid about using tools to help you think. If people never invented writing, we would never develop mathematics. For multiple choice tests, visually eliminating the wrong answers sometimes leaves only one correct answer. At other times, you can focus your mental effort on deciding between two possible correct answers, instead of trying to keep track of four or more choices at once.

Place a digital watch in front of you and set a timer to keep track of how much time you have left.

When you are doing questions out of order, you need to make sure you are not wasting too much time on a question and getting stuck. Having a timer located near your test paper means that there is a short distance for your eye to travel between the test and the time.

Time Management

Always get proper sleep.

I used to think that sleep deprivation and pulling all-nighters was the marker of a hard-working student. I could churn out quality essays while sleep-deprived, but this way of life is inefficient for courses that involve computer programming, and possibly math.

Contrary to the intuition of many computer programmers, coding while delirious with sleep is not productive. I feel like when I am sleepy, my IQ drops ten points, and I start trying to debug my programs using trial-and-error instead of thinking through the problem logically. When I am well-rested, however, I seem to code three times faster with little or no mistakes.

As a fellow student from my first year of university and I concluded upon discovering that our hard work didn’t pay off, the key is to “Work smarter, not harder.”

Realistically, you cannot “always” get proper sleep, but sleep should be a top priority.

Only do productive work when you are at school.

One of the most serious problems I previously had as a student was procrastination. Procrastination is a self-perpetuating cycle, so even permitting one tiny flake of procrastination can snowball into epic procrastination. Because I need a computer to do my school work, I kept getting distracted by interesting things on the Internet, and often lost track of time.

To avoid this common pitfall, you can use the psychological trick of associating a physical location with a specific activity. When you are at school, you should do only school-related work. You should not do anything unproductive, like go on Facebook. This works, because over time, the physical location becomes a cue for a specific behaviour, i.e., doing school work. If you physically segregate work from play, then it is much harder to get the two confused, even when you are using the same laptop for both activities at different times.

Engage in the lecture and ask questions.

I used to only go through the motions of attending class. I had planned to learn the material “later” at home, when I was in a more comfortable environment.

This is a bad idea, not only because it is procrastination, but also because it is a very inefficient use of time and resources. If you learn the material during class, then you will have less material to learn at home, and you will have more time in general. If you ask questions in class, then you will receive immediate feedback on whether you are understanding the material, which is pedagogically superior to receiving a delayed answer and being confused for days.

I used to be embarrassed about asking questions in class, because I didn’t want to appear stupid. However, you should think of your instructor as providing a service to you, a client. You want to get the most out of your $8000, or whatever your tuition is. If you are not used to being in a valuable-client position where you expect other people to provide you a service, then you should still feel entitled to quality education.

Additional Notes and Warnings

Not everyone has the same opportunities to do well in school. Many students have to work part-time while attending school full-time; they have to take care of family members; or they suffer from domestic problems at home, to name a few examples. This how-to is not intended to blame people for not excelling in school, and should not be appropriated for such purposes.

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One Response to How to Do Well in School

  1. Pablo says:

    Nice tips!

    I would add, always study back at home what you saw at class while the memory is still fresh, do all the homework and exercises again as they provide valuable practice for the exam, this could be hard to do because of procrastination, but truth is you are not going to memorize in 2 days what you were taught in 14 weeks.

    Love your “$8000” quote :b


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