Coffee in the cafeteria, a few hours before the first exam, writing my blog because I really don’t know what else to do–it’s beginning to feel quite familiar. Already yesterday I spent the day staring idly at the same old lecture slides, cribs, problems for hours on end, fully knowing it no longer made a difference. Well, almost no difference. I reviewed the Bayes formula for conditional probabilities and can now say I really understand what it does. Probably means it won’t figure in the algorithms exam on Friday. But that was half an hour. Other than that, I checked the campus system every few minutes to see whether our business administration lecturer had already entered the grades for our presentations (no), and watched my programming partner write his crib for operating systems, the exam today.
By the by, the professor finally replied to my email in which I had pointed out that he was the first ever to insist on a hand-written crib. All others, I said, had agreed that it was personally composing the crib that made it useful, not hand-writing it. He agreed on paper, but maintained that only hand-writing made sure that students would compose their crib themselves. I still don’t see that. For one thing, you might as well copy or scan and print a hand-written crib. For another, I have yet to see a student be so stupid as to use another person’s crib. And even if there are one or two, is it fair to punish all the others for a few instances of manifest stupidity? Particularly if the students in question primarily hurt themselves? There is such a thing as being too cautious by half. Still, I stopped arguing the point, at least until after the exams. No point in antagonizing him, is there.
Surprisingly I slept soundly this night. The first two terms I often hardly slept at all before an exam. Probably getting used to the situation. Besides, there is no real reason to worry. Although I have been known to sleep badly even though I thought I wasn’t worried.
A co-student just dropped by on her way to her exam in programming, part II. She is one of those who started with us three terms ago, but then began “pushing” courses, as they say here–postponing some until a later term. As I suspected back then, doing that has in fact created a ripple effect for her. Two terms ago, there was only one course we didn’t attend together. Now there is not a single course we’re both in. She has, in fact, dropped behind a full term. I think it happens primarily because the schedules for different terms necessarily overlap. But there may also be a psychological effect involved. At some point, I suppose, you cease feeling part of your original semester group, when you no longer have a lot of courses in common. One of our study group still manages. He failed in two exams in our second term and thus can’t attend one of the courses prescribed for the third. If he passes in all exams this term, he will be just one lecture short of being in step with our group. I suppose that’s not a problem. In fact, I sincerely hope so, because he is part of our project group for software engineering, part II. Besides, I rather like him. Just like me, he is also quite a bit older than the average third-term student.
Even though the exam ritual is getting rather familiar, it’s still only twice a year that we do this routine for a few days, so there is always this “how was that again” moment just before the first exam in each term. What do you bring along? Apart from the essentials (paper, a generous supply of ball pens, your student ID card) there are the optionals (a crib, a “dumb” pocket calculator), and then some things that really help: in my case, that’s dextrose tablets and a wristwatch. Since I sit before a laptop computer all day and have a smartphone and a bike computer for when I’m not, I am never wearing a watch these days, so it’s hard to remember to bring one for the exams. But there are no wall clocks in our classrooms, we are not allowed to use our smartphones, for obvious reasons, and the professors will, with luck, announce half-time and the final ten minutes, hence a watch is essential to plan your time in the exam. Particularly with subjects like algorithms, where the professor has announced that there will be roughly 110 points possible to achieve in the exam, with around 90 sufficing for an A+, so with 90 minutes regular time you need to earn a point a minute. Time that without a watch.
If the exam is in the morning, it’s also crucial that you make sure you wake up. It’s hard to believe, but I know already of two students who missed exams just because they overslept. One managed, incredibly, to oversleep again when he wanted to take the missed exam next term. This time, reportedly, he has prepared four different alarm clocks plus a wake-up call so he don’t fail a third time. Because, mind you, not showing up for an exam you are registered for counts as a failed attempt. Unless you get a doctor to sign you a sick note. This term, though, we are rather lucky. The two exams this week are at 12 p.m. and 11 a.m., respectively. Next week the oral examinations for software engineering start at 9 a.m. Only the last one, graph theory, is at 8:30, so this is the only one for which I will have to show up earlier than usual. I try to be here at least an hour early for every exam, but since our kids’ school starts at 8 a.m. I am rarely later than 8:15 anyway.
9 o’clock and only a few people around, so far. I have, again, killed 45 minutes writing stuff that nobody will ever read. But writing simply soothes my mind. That’s really rather useful before an exam. Besides, studying stuff a few hours before an examination will only make you jittery. At this point, you have either mastered the things you need, or you won’t. I know that quite a number of my co-students see this differently. Apparentely some actually start studying just a few days before the exam, with the bulk of the work done in the last 24 hours, sometimes even during all-nighters. I could never do that. Apart from needing my sleep, it would make me horribly nervous. In fact, I could have written all the exams a fortnight ago, I suppose, with not more than a couple of points (less than a full grade) difference. But I have learned to keep that information for myself (other than writing it in a publicly accessible blog!), for it makes my co-students nervous.
Of course, the downside to starting early is that you no longer have anything useful to do in the last days before the exams. That, too, can make one jittery. Because all there is left now is waiting.
Oh well, I suppose there is no perfect approach. But all considered I’d rather be nervous because I am ready too early than because I am ready too late.