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Monday Master Class: How to Peform a Post-Exam Post-Mortem

February 4th, 2008 · 17 comments

Dweck’s Chemistry StudentsPostmortem

In her recent book, Mindset, Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck describes a study that followed a group of college students through a difficult pre-med chemistry course. As is common with pre-med courses, most of the students did poorly on the first exam. The real division occurred after those first low grades were returned. Some students got spooked. They assumed the low grade indicated lack of ability. As the semester continued they compensated by increasing their study hours, but not changing how they studied. Their resentment for the subject grew. Their grades, alas, did not.

The second group had a more optimistic mindset. They went back and examined what went wrong on the first exam, made some fixes to their study habits, and then continued with their improved strategy. Not only did they score better on the subsequent exams, but they were all around more happy with the pre-med program in general.

The Rosetta Stone

If you look past the big-“c” Conclusions of this study, you’ll find a tactical gem buried in the narrative — a piece of study advice I’ve been promoting for years: the best guide for how to study for a class is the first exam.

Think about this for a moment. The first exam reveals the exact relationship between the material presented in class and the type of questions that you’ll be asked to answer about it. After your get your first exam back, you have, in essence, been granted the Rosetta Stone for your class. You now know exactly how to study for the exams that follow.

The details work as follows…

The Post-Exam Post-Mortem

After you get back your first exam, set aside 15 or 20 minutes to soak up its lessons and adjust your habits accordingly. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What did I do right? What note-taking and study strategies served you well on the exam?
  2. What was a waste of time? Which strategies took up time but did not help?
  3. What did I miss? Where were you caught off guard? What type of question were you not prepared for? What type of material did you miss in your review?

Next, lay out, in detail, the rules for the study system that you’ll follow for the remainder of the semester. Make sure this system includes the tactics you listed in your answer to (1) and excludes the tactics mentioned in your answer to (2). (This sounds obvious, but many students get so comfortable with certain study rituals that they have a hard time abandoning them, even after they’ve identified them as not helping.)

Most important, think hard about your answer for (3). Then ask yourself what’s the most efficient habit you could add to your study arsenal that would fill in those gaps. Add this to your system.

Case Study: MIT Kicks Me in the Ass…Then I Kick Back

In an old Monday Master Class article, originally posted in July, I walk through the tale of a post-exam post-mortem that saved my ass here at MIT. Here’s the bullet-point summary (see the original post for more detail):

  • I studied hard for a course in distributed system design. The course relied on academic papers, several per week, that we reviewed in class. I used quiz-and-recall to make sure I knew the main structure, pros, and cons, of each of the systems studied.
  • Then the test came. I froze on the first question. It was asking for nitty-gritty details; i.e., what would happen to this performance plot if 5% of the processors failed? My high-level quiz-and-recall questions had not prepared me for these down in the dirt detailed prompts. The clock was ticking…
  • I didn’t know how to answer these questions. So I did poorly. Afterwards, it took me about an hour of pacing to wear off the negative energy of the experience. Later that same day, I sat down and began to tweak my study system. I asked myself what went wrong. And then looked for answers.
  • By the end of the day, I had a new strategy. For the remainder of the semester, I would focus on the tables and graphs included in the papers we reviewed. If I could do a quiz-and-recall lecture on each of these figures — explaining what it showed and why — then I should understand the correct level of detail for the subsequent exams. Better yet, this system was efficient. These figures, it turns out, capture all the salient details of the paper. They provided natural, targeted questions for learning the right level of material.

It turned out that I wasn’t the only student to do poorly on that first exam. Most of them, however, did not adjust their study habits for the final, and ended up doing poorly there as well. In comparison, my strong final grade, plus strong problem set performance, earned me an “A.”

Trust Your Conclusions

A good percentage of the e-mails I get from students are instigated by a bad exam. They are worried that they are in danger of taking a turn for the worse academically. I love these e-mails. Having completed one exam makes the polishing of your study system easy. It’s hard to guess how to best study at the beginning of a class. But once you have some feedback you can get specific.

Let your first exam guide you. Learn its lessons, and those that follow will go much more smoothly. And if you can, avoid taking the grad-level distributed system design course at MIT. It’s tough.

17 thoughts on “Monday Master Class: How to Peform a Post-Exam Post-Mortem

  1. Julian says:

    I think that’s also my major critique of your system. Actually I love the idea (that’s why I stick here) and all, but I just couldn’t really apply it yet, because I am afraid I lose all the details and (I think I’ve already mentioned it somewhere in the comments) I somehow think that my examns tend to be focused on details. And let’s be honest, the Q-R-method is rather weak for details, but it strength lies in key ideas etc.

  2. Study Hacks says:


    What sort of classes are you talking about here?

  3. Julian says:

    It doesn’t really work well with economics, math, and politics and linguistics is a tough one too. But I’ve just applied it to American Cultural Studies and it seems to work prety well, learning the things is much less painfull. The problem is still: details. But you can work out the details as well, it’s just more work as you have to create more questions that have a greater degree of detail.

  4. Study Hacks says:


    Two things worth noting. Quiz-and-Recall is for non-technical courses. For technical courses, like math, and economics, I suggest a mega-problem set based approach. For non-technical courses, the details are captured in the evidence portion of the Q/E/C format. If the details are important, raise your standards for how much of the supporting evidence you have to provide in answering a question.

  5. What about subjects that only run over one semester, and the exam at the end is the last one? This is how Australian universities work.

  6. Study Hacks says:

    What about subjects that only run over one semester, and the exam at the end is the last one? This is how Australian universities work.

    See the advice in my recent post titled “The Definitive Guide to Acing Your Schedule” — it’s for exactly this situation (preparing for the first test of a semester).

  7. D. says:

    Thanks for publishing this. While I realized that my tests are good indicator of what classes will be like, I never thought about taking the step ahead and putting it into practice!

  8. Sarah says:

    this approach works very well! I used this approach for my first maths test earlier this semester earlier this week, and while there wasn’t enough time to implement the new approach effectively for my 2nd maths test last Thursday (yesterday) I can already tell the difference. At my uni we can get free maths help, and I finally went. By using this approach to my exam, I was able to learn all the maths formulas I didn’t understand for my first test in 2 days plus some of the new material since :D. It truly works. 😀

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