December 12, 2014

Skills: Taking Tests

I'm very good at taking tests. I don't just mean I'm smart, or that I'm good at the material, or that I study hard. I mean I'm especially good at the test taking itself. It's an interesting skill to have in the sense that it's been very, very helpful until now. But as I finished my master's degree this month and will be starting my first real job next month, I guess I've outlived most of its usefulness! :) That's funny to think about.

Anyway, why do I have this skill? What does it even mean? And do I have any observations about my own test-taking abilities that others can take away? Hmm. Well, here are some thoughts:

General Advice

1.) Stay calm but focused: In any test, but especially a timed test, you have to find a special place between relaxation and forward motion. If you let the stress get to you, your brain will turn off. This is why, when I play games with short timers, I do terribly. I can't function during the last minute or so because the ticking timer is all I can think about! In a test, however, timed or un-timed, I remain mostly calm. After all, once you enter the testing room, you either know the material or you don't. I find a certain amount of calming comfort in the inevitability of the test itself. So, relax... but don't relax too much. Move forward at a steady pace. Try to be confident that what you know will reveal itself, you just have to let your knowledge flow through you and onto the paper.

2.) Prioritize: When managing time and energy restraints, I will often do all of the easy questions first and get them out of the way, then go to the questions that require more thought but which I know I can do well, and then move onto the hard questions. I save "impossible" questions for last. If I run out of time and don't get to them, well, I probably wasn't going to get them right anyway... and if I had spent longer on them, I might have missed more easy points along the way! This especially applies when the questions of varying difficulty are weighted the same, such as on a multiple choice test. If I am taking a test that does not allow scanning through the whole thing or moving forward and back again, and it is timed, then I will go through limiting the amount of time I spend on each question. On a standardized test, for example, I will often skip a question outright if it looks to be in the "impossible" category, especially if I am still early in the test. On an intermediate or difficult question, I'll do a bit of work, but if it's taking too long, I'll cut my losses, make my best guess based on the work I've done that far, and move on.

Those first two pieces of advice are normally what I tell people going into exams. I think anyone can follow them, or at least try to. The other things that help me are a bit more mysterious and difficult.

Advanced Advice

3.) Learn from/during the test: I'll start off by saying that this is never something you should consider before you are locked into the exam room. Study, study, or you'll dearly wish you had in a few days/hours/whatever! But once you are locked in, if you don't know some of the material AND you have enough time, I find that you can often learn from and during the test. I go through and do all the things I know how to do first, and then when I have time I return to the questions I considered hard or impossible and start trying to work though them the best I can. The thing is that sometimes you can figure things out by the way the test is structured.

Sometimes hints towards finding one answer are revealed elsewhere in the exam itself. For example, on a language exam you may be able to steal grammatical structures, conjugated verbs, vocabulary, etc from the reading and listening sections to use in your writing sections. A science or math exam may ask early on for a definition of a term whose meaning you can deduce from a word problem or graph later in the exam.

If I am close to understanding how to solve a math equation, but not certain, I'll try several different ways until I arrive at a "pretty" answer. If you can't remember if the last operator in the equation is + or -, and trying a + gives you 56.099843 and trying a - gives you 85, I would go with the -. The same goes for multiple choice questions, where if something you partially remember yields one of the possible answers, you might be good to go!

This obviously isn't foolproof, as sometimes answers are messy and sometimes teachers put in cleverly false multiple choice answers or even pretty solutions to false equations to lull people into a false sense of confidence. Still, it's way better than blindly guessing, especially if many questions are asking you to use the same process/equation and you can figure out something that seems to work on one and apply it to the others. If it seems to work on all of them, you probably learned the correct equation at the last possible moment.

4.) Unlock the exam structure: Sometimes you can examine the exam itself -- the layout, the ordering, the multiple choices available, etc -- to understand what exactly it's testing, how it's expecting you to screw up, and, most importantly, what the right answers actually are. This can be hard to do and hard to describe, and sometimes depends on knowing the exam-writer well enough (in a classroom setting) to anticipate how tricky they are on their exams and what types of tricks they like to use.

If the teacher is not very tricky, you can usually tell the correct answer because it will be the median one in varying ways. For example, if I saw the possible answers A.) 1/2  B.) 1/3  C.) 2  D.) 75 on an algebra problem and didn't understand anything else, I would guess A because I would toss out 75 immediately for being a crazy outlier, then reason that A is in between the other two in value, is a fraction like 2/3s of the remaining choices, and is related to 2 in a way that looks suspicious, like if you screw something up you could easily get 2 as the answer instead. If most of the multiple choice answers are whole numbers, for example, you probably want to get a whole number. If most are negative, you probably want to get a negative number. If out of five possible answers there are three negative numbers and three fractions and only one negative fraction, I would probably lean towards the answer being the negative fraction.

5.) Trust your intuition: When all else fails, if you have a weird feeling that the answer is A, go with A. Sometimes our brains are tapping into resources we aren't even aware that they have access to. I sometimes jokingly call this "magic understanding power," and the more you read, the more general knowledge you accumulate, etc, the more often this will happen to you.

6.) Combine all of the above:

One of my favorite examples of "cheating" on an exam was when I took a German placement test in my sophomore year. I was pretty far through the exam and the questions had gotten pretty difficult. Suddenly they seemed to get suspiciously easy again. I had to fill in the blank of a sentence with the correct verb form, multiple choice. Now, I recognized most of the verb forms, and thought one of them would fit the sentence, but it seemed too easy to be that far along in the test, and there was also the matter of the strange, strange sentence. *Unlocking the exam structure* At the time, I didn't know that German had different verbal moods, but I knew Spanish did, and it seemed to me that the sentence was set up awkwardly so as to force the subjunctive mood. *Trust your intuition* Therefore, I picked the verb form I did not recognize, hoping that German did indeed have subjunctive, I was currently being asked to use it, and the unrecognized verb form was in the subjunctive mood. I became convinced that I was right when the next few questions followed the same pattern and had similarly strange verb forms as possible choices. *Learn from/during the test* I got 100% on that exam despite having never before learned the subjunctive mood in German.

Examples in action:

Now, this is not an exam but a language learning website called Babadum, which gives you games to learn and practice words in various foreign languages. While playing it, I became aware of some of the above processes going on in my head. I don't know very much French, and could probably only produce 5-10% of these words on my own, but going through at a quick pace I have gotten 80-85% of the answers correct. How? A few different ways.

Some I just know, like écrire - to write.

Some are easy to guess for an English speaker, like le bracelet - bracelet. You can usually trust your instincts on these, though the occasional "false cognate" is possible, especially if taking an exam that was created by a person with the intent to try to trip you up. As Babadum is automated and multiple-choice, false cognates are very unlikely to pose a problem.

Only slightly harder are words like sceptre and bobine, which require you to know and think about the English words scepter and bobbin, which we don't use every single day.

Now we move into the harder category of words that don't look like their English equivalents, but which we can guess based on semantically related cognates. The possibility of error goes up, but far more often than not our guesswork still pays off.

With le dentifrice, I saw "dent" as in dental and guessed that the word meant toothpaste. Yup!
With le pneu, I thought about 'pneu'matic tires and guessed tire. Yup!

Then there are words that you can guess by knowing some Latin, another Romance language, or perhaps some very high level English vocabulary, such as castor, meaning beaver. In my case, a lot of words are in this category because I already speak Spanish.

Another trick is to use process of elimination. If you know the French words for two or three of the wrong choices, you can make a very good guess as to what the correct answer is! The same goes for elimination based on other factors. I know that an -er or similar ending and a lack of article in French usually means I am looking at a verb, and I can usually tell which pictures are depicting verbs. Therefore, while I don't know what éternuer means OR what exactly is going on in the upper right picture, I am able to guess that they go together because the upper left and bottom right drawings don't look like verbs at all, and the bottom left is only possibly a verb, but the upper right drawing is almost certainly a verb and so is the word in question. Likewise with "les" marking a plural noun and these slippers being the only plural item in sight...

And finally we get to the words that are pure guesswork... or are they? Even when I don't think I know the word at all. I sometimes have a strong intuition about it and generally have a success rate of about 50%, or twice what chance would predict. Sometimes it just -sounds- right... I may be drawing on subconscious memories of Latin, Spanish, or some passing exposure to French, or merely on universal sounds and onomatopoeic tendencies. Either way, I've learned to trust my intuition.

Nothing is worse than second-guessing yourself and then realizing your first, impulsive guess was right after all... and yet that, too, happens frequently. Sometimes I find that I do better on these guesswork questions the faster I am going and the less attention I am paying!

La sucette means pacifier: I thought the -ette sounded cute, and suc- reminded me of sucking and something sweet and comforting.

 Why is cobaye hamster? Is that even a hamster? No idea. It just felt right.

Come on, puits just sounds like a well. Right?

October 14, 2014


I'm thinking about posting more here. But I'm also thinking about making the blog private. If you would be interested in reading once this becomes private, email me at and I can add you to the private list. I'm going to leave this up for a while first to give anyone interested the chance.

November 19, 2013

The Basics

I know I never really write here anymore. I guess I just produce so many footprints in emails and articles and assignments and more formal blogs that I'm all out of words. Or maybe I've just grown passed the age and time of wanting to write everything down in a bizarre, semi-private, semi-public space. But here I am, so here's what's up:

- My parents are getting divorced, and it's not pretty.
- I've somehow ended up in grad school.
- I'm not sick of Columbia, Missouri but I am kind of sick of writing about (and photographing, and recording, and editing) Columbia, Missouri.
- I'm not sick of living poor, but I am kind of sick of being poor. I love my shoebox apartment and paying my own rent/utilities/tuition/food money but I'm kind of sick of mooching and knowing I couldn't handle my dentist bills, my car insurance, etc on my own yet.
- I'm finally ready to enter the ordinary human workforce, at least for a few years (and then I can always reevaluate and if I'm bored or miserable, try something else.)
- But first, I have to get through a year of grad school classes and a thesis/project.
- For my thesis/project, I'm doing something really unusual: a journalistic-style ethnography of the Faroe Islands.
- So now I'm trying to learn Faroese and everything about the Faroes.
- Everything else is kind of feeling like a distraction.
- Friends/family are a welcome distraction (but still kind of a distraction).
- Classes and work are not-as-welcome distractions. ;)
- Life is good and peaceful and the world is beautiful.
- This fall was the most beautiful ever. I say that a lot, but this time I think I mean it.
- If this is to be farewell to Missouri, then it has been a good farewell. 

July 01, 2013

Missouri Summer

The leaves were long, the grass was green
The Queen Anne's Lace tall and fair
And in the glade a light was seen
Of a thousand fireflies shimmering

We crossed over a gate, walked along a high rocky ridge and down into a river vale, frightened a flock of deer, sat on an old railway bridge looking down at the river.

Nights like this I think I love Missouri too much to ever leave it.

June 28, 2013

Groceries and a Heart Split in Two

Time for summer foods, away with the heavy curries. But now my heart is torn between the sunny flavors of the Mediterranean and the light fresh delights of a Scandinavian summer...

So of course I buy:

- Hummus
- Olives
- Pita Bread
- Italian Bread
- Chevre
- Tomatoes
- Salmon
- Sour Cream
- Fresh Dill
- Tiny Shrimp
- New Potatoes

May 26, 2013


Becoming an adult is a curious mixture of happy and sad events, mundane accumulation of experience and dramatic accumulation of experiences. In a way I've grown from winter camping in Norway, from canyoning in Spain, from mastering the German public transit system like any native. And I've grown from the day to day tasks of paying rent, and filling prescriptions, and studying, and balancing, and I'm actually looking forward in a way to staying in this summer and working and saving. And in a way I've grown from graduation, from that beautiful 17th of May, from standing underneath the Miyajima gate, from watching the Missouri river freeze. And I've grown from fights and heartbreaks and what's going on right now.

And then there are moments, checkpoints where you realize things have changed a lot, and you make real choices for yourself beyond what you could have imagined before. When you 'casually' book a last minute plane flight no one told you you needed to take, which won't be easy and won't be fun, but it's the right thing to do and in a way, it's where you need to be.

And you realize things have changed quite a lot. And half of you says its good, and half of you says its bad but it really doesn't matter, it's just inevitable. Because childhood had its charms but also its chains, and we can't just live in a fairy land of fjords and fjells and fantasy forever. The process is painful. But there are always beautiful moments. To think only of the good or the bad is a mistake. Don't forget, you had sad days, even in paradise. Don't forget there was joy, even in the darkness. There will always be people to be there for you, and there will always be people who let you down. Sometimes, usually even, they are the same people. With some of them I'd like to say that I passed the love, passed the pain, passed the poison and now I see it all clearly, but we always think we see clearly from the place we're standing, don't we? And you see, they don't realize how inconsistent they're being, because they are, all of them, consumed by their own infinite complexity - just as I am. It's a weird sentient thing.

And choices are still ahead, and they stretch wider and wider as all the old structures, restrictions, safety nets are all breaking down. Funny how its the same things in life that hold us close, keep us safe, keep us down. And when they start to break down, wear out, fall away you start to see the world in that sort of terrible beauty they always called sublime, and realize that, really, all that's stopping you is the frailty of your body and the inflexibility of your mind.

May 22, 2013


Everything is open
Nothing is set in stone
Rivers turn to ocean
Oceans tide you home

Home is where your heart is
But your heart had to roam
Drifting over bridges
Never to return
Watching bridges burn

And you really didn't think it would happen
But it really is the end of the line
So I'm sorry that you turned to driftwood
But you've been drifting for a long long time

- Driftwood, Travis