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Saturn from Voyager 2 Astronomy 161:
An Introduction to Solar System Astronomy
Prof. Richard Pogge

How To Study for the Ast161 Final Exam

Autumn Quarter 2007 Edition

The Final Exam is a comprehensive exam, covering all lectures and assigned readings. It will be in the same format as the in-class exams, but will be twice as long (100 questions). The final will be worth 30% of your course grade, or equivalent to 2 in-class quizzes in weight.

In giving you back your in-class exam results, I also make sure you get your original test sheets so you can use them to help study for the final. The most common question I get is how to best use them for this purpose.

Look at the problem this way: in 10 weeks this course consists of 46 lectures covering a wide range of topics that the book needs nearly 400 pages to cover. Attempting to start from scratch, reading the notes from day 1 until the last day of class during the weekend before finals week is a hopeless task.

So, what should you do?

Below I describe a study method that many past students in my classes would swear by.

Using the Exams as Study Guides

  1. Get out your original test sheets and erase any marks you made. Start with the first exam, since that happened the longest time ago.

  2. Put the answer sheet for the exam out of sight.

  3. Take the test using a blank sheet of paper with numbers 1-50, writing the answers a,b,c,d,e as required.

  4. If you find a question where you simply don't know the answer, don't guess!, Instead write "Don't Know" and move on to the next question. This is the most important part of the exercise: identifying what you don't know.

  5. When you've done all 50 questions, retrieve the answer sheet and grade the test.

    Here's what to look for while you are "grading" your quizzes using the answer sheets:

    1. The questions you got right are the topics you already know well, and are your lowest priority for studying.

    2. The questions you got wrong are the subjects you need to study. Do not memorize the right answers!, this accomplishes nothing because you learn nothing, and memorizing the answer to a question that won't be on the final is just a waste of time (the final is not just a repeat of questions from the quizzes). Instead, look up the topic covered by the question in the notes or book, and try to understand first why your answer was wrong, and second why the right answer is correct.

    3. Where you wrote "Don't Know", these are the topics you most need to study. Again, memorizing the answer is worse than doing nothing, you need to go into the notes and book so you can understand why the right answer is correct: simply "knowing" without "understanding" is bad.

      If after doing this you're still stuck, consult with me or the TA for an explanation, we're always happy to assist.

  6. Repeat this process for each of the 4 in-class exams
The idea is to use the exams to help you focus your efforts on the things you most need to brush up on. Use the quizzes to reduce the problem to the things that need studying, and leave the things you know alone. In the end you'll spend less time studying, but use that time much more effectively.

You will notice that I haven't said anything about the homework assignments. This is because the problems given in the homeworks, while certainly related to what you will be expected to know on the exams, are of a different nature. Their main benefit comes by having worked the problems during the quarter. It would be good, however, to review the homeworks and make sure you could still do the problems if you had to. My general advice is that if any of them don't make sense, look up the corresponding questions on the exams, and then study the exam versions of the same questions. Please remember that the homework problems, by design, are usually much more involved problems than I would ever ask on an exam.

How NOT to study...

The above describes what I think is effective, efficient studying for an information-rich course like this. The flip side is that there are bad and even counterproductive ways to study.

Cramming

I strongly urge that you NOT "study hard", which for most people means trying to cram as much stuff into your head as possible in the days before the final. This advice runs counter to all the instincts you have learned since grade school, but my experience is that most people are taught the wrong way to study (if they are taught at all). You know a lot more than you think. Re-taking the quizzes and working out the answers for those you got wrong by using the notes to guide you will be enough work as is, and it is effort focussed on exactly what you need to sharpen up on for the final.

Why is cramming a bad idea? The way think of it is that you already have most of the information you need in your head already: after all, you just spent the last 10 weeks of the quarter putting it there (provided, of course, you came to class regularly). The goal before the final is to sift through this knowledge and find out the things that you don't know as well as you should (the questions you didn't get right or didn't know), and then concentrating your limited study time on those areas of weakness. Re-taking the in-class quizzes as practice quizzes is the best way to do this.

Flash Cards

I remember flash cards from grade school, they tried to use them to teach us the multiplication tables in math. This is OK if the goal is to "memorize the times tables", but you don't truly understand multiplication until you know how it works, at which point the flash cards become irrelevant. The only time I ever found flash cards to be helpful was when learning to speak German where they helped to learn new vocabulary quickly. Now that is a place where memorization is essential.

In this class, bulk memorization of vocabulary or disconnected facts is detrimental for the most part, and thus flash cards are generally useless. Despite what you may have been taught after years of public education, flash cards are rarely useful in science classes. Not convinced? If you use flash cards, try this. Take one of your in-class exams and the set of flash cards you used to study for that exam, and go through your cards one by one and make two piles: one of cards that if you had been have them with you during the test would have given you the right answer to a question actually asked, and another pile of cards that contained information that was not used (i.e., even if you had the card with you it wouldn't have helped). Every student of Astronomy 161 or 162 who has done this exercise has found the "not used" pile is a lot bigger than the "would have helped" pile. In most cases, maybe 4 or 5 cards are of any use. Not a good percentage for a 50 question test.

Good Luck!


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Updated: 2007 November 15
Copyright Richard W. Pogge, All Rights Reserved.