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Tests of the non-standardized kind by Mollie B. '06

Stop thinking about the SAT and start thinking about 18.01!

October 12, 2005

Today I am hijacking Laura’s entry on tests, because a) it’s something to write about on a very cold rainy day, and b) I have some really ridiculous-looking formula sheets to show you.

In the book The Idea Factory by Pepper White, the author (who was a masters student in course 2 at MIT around the time you were born) is told that the most important thing he will learn at MIT is not a collection of facts, but how to think about and solve problems. Although a lot has changed since White was a grad student here, learning how to think is still the most important thing anyone takes away from the Institute.

Hence tests.

In Laura’s entry, Eric asked, “Cool, you guys actually get to use index cards and reference sheets. But do they really help?”

Actually, some tests at MIT go beyond index cards and reference sheets; a lot of my upper-division biology classes are open book and open notes. And it does help, sort of; I think you’d be at a considerable disadvantage if you didn’t have your book and notes, just in case you forgot the structure of an amino acid or the definition of the dissociation constant. On 7.06 (Cell Biology) tests last term, I liked to read the question, circle the salient points, then find the appropriate section of the textbook and quickly review the information I had available.

Generally, though, if you don’t know the material, having a review sheet or a textbook isn’t going to help you much, since tests are timed and must be completed in 50 minutes, or an hour and a half, or however long the class period is. (And believe me, you almost always wish you had extra time.) Still, it’s not like the test is going to say “Refer to pg. 50 of your text and write down the third word in the fourth line”; what they’re testing isn’t your ability to memorize and regurgitate (hence the ability to have a formula sheet/class notes/textbook) — they’re testing your ability to use what you understand about a process to derive something you don’t know. (In many classes, test questions will take the form of an experimental design — “You have a population of cells that has X characteristic. What sort of experiment would you design to find out Y?” For an example, see problem 4 of this 7.03 Genetics test.)

Critically, tests are worth a great deal of your final grade in many subjects. In 7.20 (Human Physiology), Professor Krieger gives 30-page problem sets, but they’re worth exactly 0% of the final grade — they’re completely optional. The final grade in that class is based entirely on your performance on two two-hour tests and a final exam. (Actually, I guess they’re 2.5-hour tests, since students are “highly encouraged” to show up at 8:30 AM — the test officially starts at 9 AM. When professors “highly encourage” you to show up half an hour early — you take the hint! Prof. Krieger brings donuts and muffins, at least.)

So, yes, textbooks help, but no, you’re not going to get an A just because you brought your book.

Ian asked, “Are review sheets/index cards used in all examinations at MIT? or just at freshman level?”

They’re not used in all exams, and actually, I think I use them more as an upperclassman than I did as a freshman. (Back when I was a freshman, when we had to walk uphill both ways in the snow to 77 Mass Ave, we weren’t even allowed to have notecards for 18.01. We were supposed to memorize all the trig integrals. I didn’t want to do it. I think I got a 45%.)

Another thing to wrap your collective heads around is that grades are often lower than you’re used to in high school, both in number and in letter. The 5.60 (Thermo) test I took last Friday, for instance, had an average of 61 and a standard deviation of 14. The range for an A is 72-96 (nobody got a 100), B is 57-71, C is 30-56, D is 25-29, and F is 28 and below. Based on these numbers, a big proportion of the class (probably including me) got a C. C’est la MIT vie.

And now, I present the piece de resistance of my entry: my 5.60 formula sheet, which I made using MathType. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? (I know.) Other formula sheets/information sheets may be perused here.

6 responses to “Tests of the non-standardized kind”

  1. mike says:

    Whoah…where can I get MathType?!

  2. Laura says:

    Am I weird if I think writing review sheets is fun? =)

  3. Robb Carr says:

    http://www.dessci.com/en/products/mathtype/

    Alternative:

    http://www.latex-project.org/

    If you choose to follow the second path, I recommend downloading…

    http://www.gnu.org/software/emacs/emacs.html

    http://www.gnu.org/software/auctex/

    Mathtype is much more accesible and if you do not want to learn the latex syntax it would most likely be better for you. However if you do not want to purchase a copy (I got a copy from school) when your 30 day trial expires Open Source software is an alternative!

  4. Merudh says:

    hey mollie

    how well do you think MITs BCS program is for med school?

    I’m a big bio/science type not engineering type…and I am applying to MIT around the same line you did?

    any tips or comments?

  5. Jessie says:

    Yeah, about that open book thing – a lot of people taking 6.046 think the open book test is going to be easy. And then it eats them alive and spits them back out, because the open book test in that class is famously difficult.

  6. jpsi says:

    Open test is supposed to be difficult… and fast.