Examinations serve several purposes, the foremost of which is to inform the examiner regarding the amount of knowledge possessed by the student. In discovering this, two methods may be employed; first, to test whether or not the student knows certain things, plainly a reproductive exercise; second, to see how well the student can apply his knowledge. But this is not the only function of an examination. It also shows the student how much he knows or does not know. Again the examination often serves as an incentive to harder work on the part of the student, for if one knows there will be an examination in a subject, one usually studies with greater zeal than when an examination is not expected. Lastly, an examination may help the student to link up facts in new ways, and to see them in new relationships. In this aspect, you readily see that examinations constitute a valuable device in learning.
But students are not very patient in philosophizing about the purpose of examinations, declaring that if examinations are a necessary part of the educational process, they wish some advice that will enable them to pass examinations easily and with credit to themselves. So we shall turn our attention to the practical problems of passing examinations.
Our first duty in giving advice is to call attention to the necessity for faithful work throughout the course of study. Some students seem to think that they can slight their work throughout a course, and by vigorous cramming at the end make up for slighted work and pass the examination. This is an extremely dangerous attitude to take. It might work with certain kinds of subject-matter, a certain type of student-mind and a certain kind of examiner, but as a general practice it is a most treacherous method of passing a course. The greatest objection from a psychological standpoint is that we have reason to believe that learning thus concentrated is not so permanently effective as that extended over a long period of time. For instance, a German course extending over a year has much to commend it over a course with the same number of recitation-hours crowded into two months. We already discussed the reasons for this in Chapter VI, when we showed the beneficial results coming from the distribution of impressions over a period of time.
Against cramming it may further be urged that the hasty impression of a mass of new material is not likely to be lasting; particularly is this true when the cramming is made specifically for a certain examination. As we saw in the chapter on memory, the intention to remember affects the firmness of retention, and if the cramming is done merely with reference to the examination, the facts learned may be forgotten and never be available for future use. So we may lay it down as a rule that feverish exertions at the end of a course cannot replace conscientious work throughout the course. In spite of these objections, however, we must admit that cramming has some value, if it does not take the form of new acquisition of facts, but consists more of a manipulation of facts already learned. As a method of review, it has an eminently proper place and may well be regarded as indispensable. Some students, it is true, assert that they derive little benefit from a pre-examination review, but one is inclined to question their methods. We have already found that learning is characteristically aided by reviews, and that recall is facilitated by recency of impression. Reviewing just before examination serves the memory by providing repetition and recency, which, as we learned in the chapter on memory, are conditions for favorable impression.
A further value of cramming is that by means of such a summarizing review one is able to see facts in a greater number of relations than before. It too often happens that when facts are taken up in a course they come in a more or less detached form, but at the conclusion of the course a review will show the facts in perspective and will disclose many new relations between them.
Another advantage of cramming is that at such a time, one usually works at a high plane of efficiency; the task of reviewing in a few hours the work of an entire course is so huge that the attention is closely concentrated, impressions are made vividly, and the entire mentality is tuned up so that facts are well impressed, coordinated and retained. These advantages are not all present in the more leisurely learning of a course, so we see that cramming may be regarded as a useful device in learning.
We must not forget that many of the advantages secured by cramming are dependent upon the methods pursued. There are good methods and poor methods of cramming. One of the most reprehensible of the latter is to get into a flurry and scramble madly through a mass of facts without regard to their relation to each other. This method is characterized by breathless haste and an anxious fear lest something be missed or forgotten. Perhaps its most serious evil is its formlessness and lack of plan. In other words the facts should not be seized upon singly but should be regarded in the light of their different relations with each other. Suppose, for example, you are reviewing for an examination in mediaeval history. The important events may be studied according to countries, studying one country at a time, but that is not sufficient; the events occurring during one period in one country should be correlated with those occurring in another country at the same time. Likewise the movements in the field of science and discovery should be correlated with movements in the fields of literature, religion and political control. Tabulate the events in chronological order and compare the different series of events with each other. In this way the facts will be seen in new relations and will be more firmly impressed so that you can use them in answering a great variety of questions.
Having made preparation of the subject-matter of the examination, the next step is to prepare yourself physically for the trying ordeal, for it is well known that the mind acts more ably under physically healthful conditions. Go to the examination-room with your body rested after a good night's sleep. Eat sparingly before the examination, for mental processes are likely to be clogged if too heavy food is taken.
Having reached the examination-room, there are a number of considerations that are requisite for success. Some of the advice here given may seem to be superfluous but if you had ever corrected examination papers you would see the need of it all. Let your first step consist of a preliminary survey of the examination questions; read them all over slowly and thoughtfully in order to discover the extent of the task set before you. A striking thing is accomplished by this preliminary reading of the questions. It seems as though during the examination period the knowledge relating to the different questions assembles itself, and while you are focusing your attention upon the answer to one question, the answers to the other questions are formulating themselves in your mind. It is a semi-conscious operation, akin to the "unconscious learning" discussed in the chapter on memory. In order to take advantage of it, it is necessary to have the questions in mind as soon as possible; then it will be found that relevant associations will form and will come to the surface when you reach the particular questions.
During the examination when some of these associations come into consciousness ahead of time, it is often wise to digress from the question in hand long enough to jot them down. By all means preserve them, for if you do not write them down they may leave you and be lost. Sometimes very brilliant ideas come in flashes, and inasmuch as they are so fleeting, it is wise to grasp them and fix them while they are fresh.
In writing the examination, be sure you read every question carefully. Each question has a definite point; look for it, and do not start answering until you are sure you have found it. Discover the implications of each question; canvass its possible interpretations, and if it is at all ambiguous seek light from the instructor if he is willing to make any further comment.
It is well to have scratch paper handy and make outlines for your answers to long questions. It is a good plan, also, when dealing with long questions, to watch the time carefully, for there is danger that you will spend too much time upon some question to the detriment of others equally important, though shorter.
One error which students often commit in taking examinations is to waste time in dreaming. As they come upon a difficult question they sit back and wait for the answer to come to them. This is the wrong plan. The secret of freedom of ideas lies in activity. Therefore, at such times, keep active, so that the associative processes will operate freely. Stimulate brain activity by the method suggested in Chapter X, namely, by means of muscular activity. Instead of idly waiting for flashes of inspiration, begin to write. You may not be able to write directly upon the point at issue, but you can write something about it, and as you begin to explore and to express your meagre fund of knowledge, one idea will call up another and soon the correct answer will appear.
After you have prepared yourself to the extent of your ability, you should maintain toward the examination an attitude of confidence. Believe firmly that you will pass the examination. Make strong suggestions to yourself, affirming positively that you have the requisite amount of information and the ability to express it coherently and forcefully. Fortified by the consciousness of faithful application throughout the work of a course, reinforced by a thorough, well-planned review, and with a firm conviction in the strength of your own powers, you may approach your examinations with comparative ease and with good chances of passing them creditably.