No. 5:  The Rule of Practice

     If you want to do well on anything, a sport, a game, or whatever, you practice.  Similarly, if you want to do well on my exams, you practice. Sounds simple.  The question is, though, what do you practice?  You practice whatever it is you're going to have to do on the exam.  

     In my courses, I emphasize memorizing the basic facts, structures, events, and principles, and using them to apply what you're memorized, usually when I've manipulated or changed some aspect, or in a completely new situation.  You could memorize everything in my lectures and the book, and still fail the exams. You have to both remember the important things and apply them to new situations.  Either one alone is not going to help you much.  

So to do well, you need to practice recalling what you've memorized,  AND  
you need to be able to apply that knowledge to something new.  

For the memorizing, I prefer the 'folded list' [Instructions for Folded Lists as a pdf file] method.  There are other methods that I don't personally like as well, but that might work for you.

OPTIONAL EXAMPLE--Imagine that you're a student in a course of mine, and I tell you that you're going to have a test on basketball next Monday. So, you go home and memorize the rules and strategy of basketball. Then on Monday you arrive ready for the test, and I hand you a basketball. Your test, I say is a game of basketball.  How well will you do?  Sure, the rules and strategy are certainly important, but if you've never practiced basketball, you're going to fail.

    In my classes, virtually every question makes you take something you've memorized and asks you to transfer it to something new.  A typical question mentions some structure, event, or principle, and then tells you that something is changed, or that you're in some new situation.  For an answer, you have to predict what would or would not happen.  I would never ask you simply for a definition of DNA or a gene.  Instead, I might ask you to predict what would happen to your cells if your body had too little of one of the four nitrogenous bases, or if a gene duplication had given you an extra copy of some gene.

    You may THINK that you can answer these questions just because you've memorized the material.  And you may THINK that in our hypothetical basketball game that you could easily shoot a basket.  You might even be right, if you had unlimited time to think or shoot.  However, you'll probably have only a minute or two for each exam question, and in a game you'll get only one shot at a time (if you're lucky!).  If you've practiced well, that's enough time.  If not, you'll run out of chances.

     So, find out what you'll need to do on the exams, and practice those skills.  Practice THOSE skills, not just what's easy for you.

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Last updated  12/1/2009
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology