I think it’s safe to call my new school a high-stress academic environment. Students want to do well, parents push their kids to do well, and faculty/administration have high expectations. That’s not to say I didn’t have any of these factors at my last schools, just that they weren’t as pervasive. So…as I came into this exam season, I knew I needed to step up my exam prep game. To that end I set three goals for myself:

  1. Teach the students to manage their stress well.
  2. Prepare the students for a comprehensive exam.
  3. Use my office hours and after hours time efficiently with the students.


This is always a weak spot of mine. I get into office hours and am constantly distracted by everyone asking me questions from all directions. I knew I needed to be smart about the exam prep window. My mantra: “answer every question once, even if multiple students ask the same question multiple times.”

I took three steps to be efficient and enact my mantra:

  1. Embedded help in the Moodle study guide. Wrong answers that match an anticipated algorithm (such as not converting units properly) gives targeted advice (“it looks like you didn’t do unit conversions to base units”).
  2. A Google Doc shared with the class where students can ask/answer questions.
  3. YouTube playlist of hint videos.

Embedded help in Moodle: here’s one example that helps lead students to the solution.

Screen Shot 2012-12-15 at 11.15.45 AM

The Google Doc:

Google Doc for exam prep

Every question on the study guide earns a section in the Google Doc. Students ask questions and I answer them or give hints. This is one of the meatier exchanges between students and me. I like that I only have to answer the question once because everyone can read the “thread”.

I’ve been working on getting the kids to help each other through the Google Doc (all semester, actually) but they’re much better at in-person help than online.

The YouTube playlist (also linked from the Google Doc) has been fun to create. See below for a video.

Comprehensive Exams

A semester-long comprehensive exam is always a stressful event. Kids have forgotten important chunks of what they learned back in September. It was interesting to watch them work the study guide and remember stuff. Yesterday I heard kid 1 say to kid 2, “I love Snell’s Law!” Awww, that will long be a top 10 memory of mine.

I believe a good study guide is a key component to helping younger students prepare for a comprehensive exam. The study guide should be pretty similar to the exam so kids don’t feel surprised. The mix of problems should reflect what was most important to the semester. (Am I talking obvious stuff here? Never can be sure…) I explicitly told my students, “if it isn’t on the study guide, you can be sure it isn’t on the exam.”

I do study guides and tests in Moodle, so I get several metrics about my students’ study habits to help me offer individual advice to kids. For example, one young woman was working her study guide with little advance thought, so was having to retry questions 5 or more times. I conferenced with her that she doesn’t know the material if it takes her 5 tries to get a correct answer. Another student, a young man was very concerned that he was rushing things because he finished the study guide very quickly. My question, “Do you make careless mistakes?” led to a great discussion about ways to be sure you’re getting work right.


My friend John Burk (@occam98) helped me out here with a year-old blog entry, “The no-stress exam package“. The fact I stressed most with the kids was to plan their exam studies several weeks in advance. We’ve spent a lot of time talking this semester already about the value of sleep.

One addition of my own was the exam bonus: if you earn 80% or better on the study guide, you’ll earn +5 on the exam; get 90% or better on the study guide to earn +10 on the exam.

What do you do to be your best and have your students do their best at exam time?