With exam season in full swing at the University of Toronto, I thought I’d reflect on my attitude towards finals. Much like everything else in life, attitude and effort are the only things that one can control. This leads me to the question, what attitude do I have during exam season?

I usually describe my high school as a pressure cooker of stress and success. It’s what occurs when admission is merit based, and the quality of education is so high. You get a lot of extremely intelligent kids facing adversity that they’ve never experience before. It’s what happens when you put the top kid from every elementary school into the same small classroom. It’s impossible to be the best, because you’re competing with the best of the best. The pressure to do well is incredibly high, as the culture created was competitive and extremely demanding. This lead to mental breakdowns and finding the ability to do remarkable things. I believe my current outlook on evaluations is a direct result of the environment that forced me to adapt.

I managed to survive high school by refusing to become stressed about evaluations. I would study a lot, but not for the sake of doing well on the exam. I study because I genuinely want to learn new information. I spend my time pondering things brought up in lecture, I’m constantly thinking about it, turning it over in my head, asking why it’s true. This is mainly due to my intense dislike of rote learning. I prefer to understand why things are true, and then derive any facts that I might need from the understanding I have of the overarching system. By the time exam season rolls around, I usually have a pretty good understanding of what the course was trying to teach me. Writing an exam isn’t really a display of knowledge, it’s something else entirely. To me, it’s a game.

All evaluations are a game between the teacher and the student. The teacher designs a question that has an objective, to see if the student can apply the knowledge that the teacher was supposed to give them. Designing tests is an art onto itself, which makes this aspect of evaluations very interesting to me. On one hand, the teacher has to create questions and discern if a student has a grasp of the material. On the other hand, a student has to figure out how to get the answer “right”. As a student, I don’t like this approach. I prefer to see it as a challenge, a game, with the instructor. They’re trying to see if I know something, and I have to figure out, through the question, what they’re trying to find and then show it to them.

This mentality heavily influences how I prepare for exams. I never look over the notes that I’ve written from lecture. The act of writing notes does enough to assist me in properly processing the information. Additionally, there is so much information, usually presented in a non-linear fashion, that it’s hard to gain any useful insights. On top of that, my hand writing isn’t stellar because I know that I won’t be seeing them again. At this point if I don’t understand the material, then I haven’t been putting in enough work during the semester. My main method for preparing is to look over past exams.

On a first run through a past exam, I try to solve as many questions as possible, as quickly as possible, without reviewing any material that I would not have during the actual examination. This gives me a benchmark to where I’m currently at. Then I look at the solutions and compare my answers to what the instructor provides. This allows me to catch my common errors and draw attention to them. Finally, and most importantly, I attempt to figure out what the instructor is “getting at” with each question.

What bit of knowledge are they trying to tease out of me with that question worded like that? This is especially useful when there are many past tests available. You can see the themes of the test and make note of recurring questions. Recurring questions are really important to take note of, as well as recurring question banks. A question bank is a set of questions that all deal with a particular theme. The importance of a question bank is that on every evaluation, at least one question from this bank must appear. This makes sense when you view the exam from the perspective of the evaluator. They have to test your knowledge on a certain matter, and there are only a finite number of ways to do it.

For example, when taking a first year linear algebra course, part of the course description is to learn about matrices. Throughout the course you learn about matrix properties and how to manipulate matrices to obtain useful results. Taking the determinant is a skill that’s commonly taught at the first year level. It’s a very easy skill to test because the instructor only needs to do is provide a matrix and ask what the determinant is. This is an important category, easily testable skills. These questions are simple to write and to mark because of the straightforwardness of their answers. There is no problem to solve, no creativity required. Very easy to write, very easy to mark, and should be easy to answer. That is, if you’ve done your research on what the professor usually asks, so you can prepare accordingly.

I am talking a lot about the preparation for an exam, but one of the most important parts for me is not studying. It varies from evaluation to evaluation, but I always stop studying well ahead of the exam. Sometimes this means that I don’t study on the day of at all. I spend my time sleeping in, relaxing and avoiding strenuous activities. I’m still thinking about the course material, I’m just getting into a favourable headspace. I believe that being relaxed while writing exams directly influences how well you do. The lack of panic, stress and worry frees up your mind to remember and process information faster and more efficiently.

I find the environment created outside an exam rom to be one of the most toxic and detrimental environments to be surrounded by. I arrive early and then take a walk. There’s no use worrying now. One of the biggest things I do to reduce the stress is to let go of the things you can’t control. Before every exam I write I say to myself:

I know what I know.

I don’t know what I don’t know.

That’s all I can do.

Many student gripe that “If only I had studied more” they would’ve done better. At this point, minutes before an exam is scheduled to start, you can’t change any of your preparation. So I accept the fact that the amount of preparation I’ve put in is enough to solve the puzzles presented to me by the examination. This confidence in my own abilities has to be slightly manufactured, but once I buy into it, and I always do, it helps.

It helps to go into an exam believing, truly believing, that you’re going to ace this. You’re the most prepared and you’re going to kill it. You’ve studied how the professor writes and you can predict what kind of questions will appear, and you’ve practiced those questions time after time again. Confidence in your own abilities is necessary for success.

However, I drastically change my headspace as the exam ends. Prior to and during an evaluation my expectation is through the roof. Once I can no longer influence the result of the test, my expectation drops like a stone through water. I tell myself that all I want is to pass.

I engage myself in a completely different internal dialogue.

Marks don’t define you. You define you. This is not an evaluation of your self worth.

Nobody is ever going to look back and see this grade once you start working.

Stop thinking about it, out of sight, out of mind.

Don’t talk to anyone about any of the questions.

The concept of evaluating knowledge is flawed.

The skills that this course is testing are not as important as the soft skills you learned while on the journey that this course created.

With my expectations set extremely low, any grade that I receive not only surprises me, but fills me with happiness. This does wonders for one’s mental health and can be applied to every day situations. When receiving any result, temper your expectations to be much lower than they should be. This causes your result to appear amazing, no matter what it actually is.

This jump in expectations is quite peculiar when you look at it through a wider lens. To switch from expecting to ace an exam to expecting failure is a very hard thing to do. I’ve spent a lot of time practicing, and I think I’ve gotten pretty close to buying my own bullshit this past year. It’s almost as if my expectations exist in a quantum state, simultaneously holding two contrasting values. I expect to ace and fail every evaluation I take. I can’t abandon either viewpoint because both are incredibly useful for doing well and keeping my mental health about me.