Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My Last Exams Ever (Hopefully)

This week I've been very busy with my written comprehensive exams.  These exams are one of the last PhD requirements I have to worry about before the thesis proposal defence.  After this, I don't think I'll ever have to write an exam again (certainly not as a student, anyway).

Day 29: Studies
Day 29: Studies by -Snugg-

How these are run seems to differ school to school, and even more between disciplines.  For our School of Computer Science, we have to choose three topics - one major and two minor - and know these topics at a fourth year undergraduate level.  Then we have a two or three hour written exam on each of them, followed by a one hour oral once they are all graded.  The oral is usually used to ask the student questions on areas they didn't do as well on in the written portion, making it a second chance of sorts.

My topics are human-computer interaction, computer vision, and computer graphics.  I chose graphics as my major area even though it's the area I know the least about - I figured I might as well take the opportunity to force myself to learn it! All of these topics should be handy in my research area of educational games and augmented reality.

These exams are a little different than exams in regular courses.  It's much easier to prepare for an exam based on lectures you've attended because you get a good sense of what the key information is during class.  For the comprehensives (or comps for short), I have to know an entire textbook or two, and guess what's important myself.  This takes a lot more work, but even the process of deciding what's important helps you understand the material better, so it's not all bad.

Here's the process I've been following to prepare.  I've only had one exam so far, but it went well, so it seems to be a good strategy.  The two minor topic exams are open book, and the graphics one is closed book with one cheat sheet allowed.
  • As I read through the textbook, I make notes on plain white sheets of paper in a binder.
  • I use colourful pens to write my headings so I will be able to skim them quickly and easily.
  • I periodically add page numbers to the side to make looking up more detail as easy as possible.
  • To make the graphics cheat sheet, I am going through my notes and picking out the most important things to remember.  During the first pass, I am not worrying about the page limit.
  • I'm using LaTeX to type out my cheat sheet since there is a lot of math (especially matrices) to capture.
  • Once the cheat sheet is done, I will see how long it is, and decide what information can be dropped.  This will be partially based on what I think I can remember on my own.
  • I'm planning on having a little "teaching session" with my husband tonight or tomorrow where I will try to explain as many of the basics to him as possible.  He's done a graphics course before but doesn't remember much, making him a good candidate for this activity.
 What do you do to prepare for exams? Is there anything that worked really well, or that didn't?


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