Studying what’s really important

It's midterm season at CMC. When teachers ask "Which material would you like me to cover again?" for the review session before the midterm, students choose topics poorly, in my opinion. They want to choose the topic that maximizes the following: Importance of Studying Topic = (Difference between How Much I know & How Much I should Know) * (Proportion of exam score based on this material). Unfortunately in my experience students don't consider the final term, what's likely to be on the exam, and pick only the most difficult or obscure topics to cover in the review, unless they can successfully play the game of "What's going to be on the exam?" and get the teacher to concede that some topics will not be covered (and if you are one of the students who plays this game, know that I despise you). This skews impressions of how hard the class is, students' later perceptions of the class, and also what material students spend their time and energy focusing on (beware teachers!). The key is to maximize the above difference; make sure you know every 20-point question pat on a 100-point exam. The problem is that the teacher is simultaneously trying to maximize total student learning and the differences between students' performance on the exam (for ranking purposes). The weights on these values will determine the ultimate shape of the exam; they probably have big enough incentive to offer one question on a really difficult subject, to differentiate the students. As long as the other students are focusing on the extremes, you are in good shape if you can get the main topics down 100%. Of course if you're going for an A, you need to have a great grasp of everything but if you're shooting for a B you shouldn't be spending much time on the extreme cases.

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