America loves having options. Chocolate or rainbow sprinkles? Guac or salsa? There’s great safety in seeing the answer choices lie right in front of you, especially during college exams. However, at some point in your academic career, you’ll have to ditch the multiple choice answers on a Scantron and craft your own Frankenstein of an essay for subjective grading in the form of the blue book exam. Whether you’re a freshman, a STEM major or a just a lover of the known right and wrong answers, the blue book exam can be a formidable beast. But luckily, with these helpful hints, blue book exams can become less of a beast and turn into a beautiful academic burrito.
Step 1: Throw your High School Study Habits out the Window
Back in the day, when you could still count your academic standing with numbers, tests weren’t that hard. You could go to cross country practice, eat dinner, watch the latest episode of American Idol and then crack open your textbook for an hour or two of studying. You could walk into the test the next day and just recite some facts and dates you memorized. Juliet was a Capulet, the Civil War ended in 1865, the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. In college, exams are much different.
Denise Kozikowski, an academic advisor at the University of Michigan, describes how students tend to try “testing” their study habits from high school with trial and error methods in college to see how they stand. “Ideally, you’ve been implementing strong study habits the entire semester, but you may not know until you see your final grades. That is a very important time to reflect on the reality of your situation. Did you go to class? Do you understand your learning style? Did you study consistently and effectively? Do you need accommodations? Are there personal issues that you need to attend to? These are complicated questions and it may take time to find the answers,” Kozikowski said. Looks like you’ve outgrown those high school study habits more than your 10th grade gym uniform.
Step 2: Shift Your Brain
Instead of viewing your blue book exam as a trivia contest, imagine it as more of a puzzle from your younger years. Dump out all of the pieces, assemble what you know and try to make the gaps connect. Train your brain think beyond the “what” and along the lines of “how” and “why.” “It’s about trying to grasp a larger understanding. It’s more analysis based versus fact recollection. Multiple choice exams are more of an overview, and it’s picking answers in front of you instead of having the answers in your head and trying to piece together something else,” University of Michigan senior English major Lauren Stachew said. While you might find blue book exams challenging, look at them as a creative endeavor. You get to show how much you know about a topic while crafting your own argument in the process. Remember,the answer lies with you and not the scantron machine.
Step 3: Manage Your Stress, but Don’t Throw it Out Completely
For an exam that requires your brain to do more than just recall information, you need to make to sure to take care of yourself and the ol’noggin before the big test. Get enough sleep, eat healthy carbs and for god’s sakes, put down that fourth cup of coffee. As important as it is to relax, don’t feel bad if you feel stressed. Stress is healthy. “We often hear about the negative effects of stress, but stress isn’t always bad. You actually need a certain amount of stress to be at your most productive and optimum performance level,” Kozikowski said. “Think of a time when you were really engaged and excited about an assignment. It may have been challenging, but you were focused, eager to solve the problem and you likely felt that you had the ability to complete the task. This feeling is called self-efficacy. This type of stress is called Eustress, and it’s the good kind of stress.” So before you start panicking about your panic, find the beauty in your concern–like broccoli, the distaste you initially experience can actually help you out in the end.
Step 4: It Takes Time – and that’s ok!
To ace a blue book exam, you have to channel that inner Maria von Trapp–you have to have confidence. Get rid of all of those nagging thoughts: “I’m an engineer” or “I’m a bad writer” or “I’m just a freshman.” Recognize that perfecting your blue book exam takes time. “The good news is that writing is truly a skill, and the more that you practice, the easier and more satisfying it becomes. Think about what it would mean to be able to express your ideas powerfully, without barriers or misinterpretations,” University of Michigan International Studies Professor Greta Uehling said. Yes, during a blue book exam, you’re going to feel David Bowie amounts of pressure, and you most likely won’t have the time to carefully revise your work. The good news is that professors take that into consideration when grading. “Remember that even the most experienced writers make multiple revisions and have numerous drafts before they are happy with their words. Few get it right on the first try,” Uehling said. It might take a few blue book exams before you get that first A, but that’s ok!
So how can you do well on that first blue book? Prepare to think critically. Brace yourself for a challenge. Plan ahead. Believe in yourself. And most importantly, forgive yourself. After all, Chipotle doesn’t pull their burritos prepackaged out of the freezer. Each one is a little different. Take advantage of the creative opportunity and attack the blue beast like you would that burrito bowl.
Order blue books for your exam online and never wait in bookstore lines again.
Remember (Sorry to be preachy): It takes two to learn and it is likely your professor is not an ogre (but never rule out this possibility). For now take a chance. A good question from you during class would be welcome. If you have any other kind of problem or concern, discuss it with your instructor before or after class or during office hours. Communicate your concern. In the meantime, do your job. Learn to listen critically, develop skills in taking notes, develop good study habits.
Remember University Guidelines: Three hours of out-of-class study for each hour of class. That means that a three-hour class will cost twelve hours a week. Minimum. Smart students spend significantly more.
2. Syllabus & Notes? If you have done the reading and attended lecture you may want to take a glance at the syllabus (it has lecture titles and reading assignments, etc.) and, to the discerning reader, it has a pattern. Now ask yourself: What is the big deal? What are the themes, the major questions the course and readings ask? Make an outline. If you have a study sheet the task is simpler: Review your notes and required readings. Make outlines for each study question. You may wish to organize a study group to discuss the questions and potential responses. But perhaps you should have done that earlier.
3. Cool! A study sheet! If you have a study sheet in hand and you have reviewed your lecture notes, the next job is to review them again focusing on what the question asks you to do. To be sure, you will have to write something. But what? First, as a rule, the more intelligent prose you write the better. The logic is simple: Ten good pages are better than three good pages. But not so fast. Quality is always the key. If your name is Abe you might be able to write classic prose on an envelope. Alas, most of us do not write with the power and simplicity of President Lincoln. Think before you write. Remember the old apology: 'Sorry I wrote a ten-page letter, I didn't have time to write two.' Good writing is succinct. As a rule it is re-written writing. But you have only one shot with an in-class essay! To be on target aim to be prepared.
4. Preparation: That means getting your thoughts organized in order to write clearly. Your essay should have good organization. As Aristotle suggested: A Beginning; A Middle; An end. If 'The Philosopher' and 'Master of Those Who Know' does not impress you (he is, after all, just another dead guy) recall the standard issue of the United States Army:
i. Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em;
ii. Tell 'em;
iii. Tell 'em what you told 'em.
Writing a Blue Book Examination is the academic equivalent of going to war, well, anyway, defending something worthwhile. Boy Scout or Big Green: Be Prepared.
5. What to include? If your thoughts are organized, what do you include in your essay? In general be specific. A good essay has a thesis: It says in simple sinewy prose: I will argue that.... A good essay uses carefully selected examples. Like a good poem or a good piece of science or a good historical argument memorable essays make a general claim supported by specific examples. The general and abstract are grounded in the particular and concrete. Make a general claim; organize your essay with clear arguments; support your arguments with thoughtfully selected examples.
Time is short. Because time is short your essay should show economy of expression. Make it lean and to the point. Truth is simple. Your reader can usually distinguish pepper corns from mouse droppings, so keep fertilizer to a minimum. Grab the bull by the horns, butt heads with issues. Writers kid themselves more often than they fool their readers.
6. Be simple, direct, detailed. With Democritus 'Don't speak at length, speak the truth.' Fifty minutes is short, thirty minutes is twenty minutes shorter. So you must select in advance what you judge worthy of our time. In preparing for the essay you must select and that means you are interpreting. You must make your own evaluation of all that stuff. You must find (create for yourself) an interpretation, a critical position, that you can defend. That requires sound argument and solid evidence. Good writing should have a thesis; clearly stated objectives; a clear structure; careful use of evidence, and appropriate 'telling' examples to illustrate and support your claims.
To be even more specific, be specific. Remember the basic charge: In general, be specific. The most common comments on Mid-Term Exams include the following: Be Specific; Explain; Give Examples; Too Vague. The most common mistake in writing essays is ignoring, overlooking, or giving only short notice to major issues, concepts, or historical figures. Your essay must be balanced. So, look at the syllabus. Consider where the greatest amount of time, effort, and emphasis has been placed. If we have spent several hours talking about Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Parmenides, Zeno, Democritus, et alia, do not be content to talk about 'the Greeks'. Be specific. These Greeks have names. Mention them specifically, explain their views. Similarly, if we spend days talking about what the Egyptians and the Babylonians observed in the heavens, for heaven's sake be specific about what they observed -- eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, oppositions, risings and settings, that there was some very specific interest in Venus (why?), that there were specific developments with place value notation, with the 24 hour day, the 365 day year, etc. In general, be specific. Finally, notice on the syllabus that we have spent the bulk of our time on Aristotle and Ptolemy. Their views are important. Did they think the same way about nature and knowledge? Can you write a Mid-Term Essay without mentioning them? Think about balance and proportion when you prepare.