At the end of 2018

As 2018 draws to a close, I wanted to share a couple of personal thoughts from the year: one related to success/failure and the other on resolutions, which I’ll cover first.

Following tradition, I often make several informal New Years’ resolutions, usually involving health/fitness goals. My level of success in keeping these resolutions tends to also be traditional: stick with it for 2-3 weeks then forget about it. Last year I realised my problem is that I usually make too many resolutions, and I make resolutions that are not realistic given all my other constraints. Therefore, at the start of 2018, I made just one resolution: keep a daily record of my activities.

The format I chose for this daily record was a Google Drive spreadsheet (for easy multi-device access), with columns for various things I want to be aware of and try to improve in some way: bed time, wake time, diet related items such as fruit and vegetable intake, alcohol, time spent reading (for work), exercise, quiet time in the mornings, and so on. I’m proud to say that I kept my resolution every single day. The time commitment was low (1-2 minutes before bed), and it quickly had a positive impact on the goals of previous years.

My spreadsheet included fixed rows providing the mean so far for most columns. This was a useful guide throughout the year. I had some vague goals and the data allowed me to perform “course corrections” as the year progressed. Towards the end of the year, it got harder to affect the means, but this almost became a challenge: e.g., “can I shave just 2 minutes off my average bed time before the end of the year?”. A quick bit of programming provided me with some further data analysis tools for some interesting insight into daily/weekly patterns throughout the year: for some reason I went to bed latest on Wednesdays on average (probably cramming lecture prep)!

My resolution for 2019 is to continue, but now I have some more clear goals in mind. I also have a new set of columns. Some information wasn’t that useful, and there are other things I want to improve that are easily measured and tracked. These items can now be easily integrated into the whole process. Recently, I also realised that I could include a quick micro-journal (a couple of summary sentences about the day), which I would like to continue in 2019. As someone who has struggled to keep up daily routines and disciplines, I have found this all immensely helpful. I did not see an improvement in every column, but it did improve some markedly. I’d recommend this technique highly to anyone.

Lastly, a thought on failure. As the year draws to its end, I’ve been thinking about my successes and failures in 2018. It’s always easy to focus on the failures, especially in academia where there are often many. This year has certainly had many difficulties and disappointments, along with some successes. The thing that is so pernicious about failure is that it is hungry and it will devour as much as you let it devour. Instead, we have to try to integrate the failure into our selves positively, in a way that strengthens, in a way that teaches and informs. Otherwise, we will just let failure swallow up the rest of our success, energy, drive, creativity, joy, and everything else. So at the end of the year, I’m trying to dwell less on the existence of the failures, but more on what they’ve taught me for the future and what might emerge out of the ashes. That’s the only way forward, otherwise failure wins and eats everything else up.

So, happy new year! See many of you in 2019. I hope you have a great start to the year. I’m looking forward to travelling to Lisbon shortly for POPL 2019 where I will be giving a tutorial on the Granule project joint with Harley Eades and my student Vilem Liepelt.

Exam advice

Part of my job is to give advice to my undergraduate students about exam technique and preparing for exams. I was always quite nervous about exams “back in the day”, and I put a lot of effort into revising and planning. In retrospect, I think I enjoyed these times: I have many happy memories of long days and evenings studying with my friends (whose presence and encouragement made it a lot more palatable).

This year, I decided to serialise my advice and put it online in case it can be of any help or inspiration to others either taking exams, or giving exam advice. I’m sure I can think of more advice, so I made it a GitHub “gist” so I can revise it whenever more advice pops into my head.

(by Dominic Orchard, School of Computing, University of Kent, 2018)

Disclaimer: this advice is non exhaustive, and every piece of advice might not suit you. At least, I hope it helps you to think about how you can develop your own strategy for exam preparation.

My top tip is to see exams as formative rather than purely about assessment. This is an opportunity to force yourself to learn a topic deeply, which will then benefit you in the future, rather than a box ticking exercise to get a fancy piece of paper at the end. This will orient your attitude to maximising your potential.

Exams are hard. They occupy a short space of time in your whole life but they can have a big impact on the rest of it, so make the most of them. Study well and study wisely.

Exam preparation

  • Make a schedule ahead of time, planning backwards from your exams; revisit and edit this plan often (e.g., once or twice a week).

  • For every module, make a list of things you don’t understand and a list of things you aren’t fully comfortable with.
    As you go along you will likely need to add to these lists, but then you will know exactly what
    to focus on. You also get the satisfaction of moving items from the first list to the second, and eventually crossing
    them out. The aim is to understand what you don’t understand: to know what you don’t know.
    Then you can make a plan for fixing that.

  • Find a system that works for you in terms of study length, number and duration of breaks, where to study,
    who to study with. Mix different forms of revision: reading, writing, talking, drawing, coding, listening, watching.
    If lecture videos are available, this can be a very useful resource.

  • Group study can be great: you can teach each other, and having to teach something helps you to learn it better.
    But sometimes you need time alone as well to consolidate. You might plan revision sessions with friends where you each take it in turns to teach a particular topic.

  • Past papers are worth doing, but don’t obsess over them: it’s hard to draw conclusions about future exam questions from them. However, they do usually provide a good guide on the format of the exam, which you can use to calculate how many minutes you should be spending per mark (for example).

  • Get your hands on as many relevant example problems as possible (e.g., from the lectures, class work, textbooks) and work through them all, noting down any tough spots you find particularly difficult.

  • Get lots of sleep, exercise, and eat well. Consider dropping/reducing caffeine and alcohol.

In the exam

  • Read through the paper first and briefly plan your time. Consider how many minutes on average you should spend per question or per mark.

  • Some exams will have a choice between questions: consider carefully which one you think you will perform best at (this might involve sketching some ideas of the answers in a rough book).

  • Read and re-read questions carefully.

  • If something is unclear to you about the question, state any assumptions you make in your answer.

  • Consider the mark awarded for a question and whether your answer provides enough detail to match the marks (e.g., an answer for a 5 marks question will need a lot of more justification and detail than a 1 mark question).

  • Where possible, check and verify your work. Think about how you can do this in the case of formal/mathematical/technical questions.

  • If you need to use the toilet and its becoming distracting, ask the invigilator if you can go. Its better to spend 3 minutes on a bathroom break than to loose concentration due to being distracted.

  • Use all the time you have. If you find you have extra time, go back and check and recheck your answers. Consider adding more detail to some answers. Make sure you have adhered to the exam requirements such as numbering and location of your answers.

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