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Studying up on take-home tests

BY THIS point in the semester, undergraduate life has a certain monotonous rhythm. Each morning, we get up and go to class. For several hours, we sit in a classroom, taking pages of mindless notes. Then we go home and prepare to repeat it all again the next day.

Fortunately, however, only a few more weeks remain before things dramatically will change around here - and I'm not talking about plummeting temperatures and swiftly yellowing poplar leaves. Nope. I'm talking about Finals Week, quite possibly the most gutwrenching interval of any at the University (except, perhaps, when the newest shipment of "pork" arrives at O-Hill).

Maybe you've started studying already, churning out flash-cards with the zest of a hairnetted meat-packer in some nightmarish urban jungle: every word to its definition, every question to its answer, all guts to their respective sausage casings. Maybe you're a model of holy academic rhythm.

Or, maybe, you're a sinner. Like me. I'm not going to lie to you, my faithful audience. I have not yet begun my final exam preparations, nor am I exactly sure when all my exams will occur. I have not touched some of my course syllabi in weeks. The reasoning behind this seemingly slack behavior, however, does not involve personal laziness or procrastination. Interestingly, half my courses for this semester will culminate not in a characteristically frenetic three-hour encounter with a blue book, but with the sacred take-home exam.

The take-home final is an odd academic animal, one whose evolution has yielded several species. The particular breed your professor chooses will affect your exam-taking experience tremendously, from studying techniques to actually taking the final. Much like the elusive caribou, the take-home final may seem innocent, but quickly can get away from you. Before jumping up to congratulate your favorite faculty member for announcing his or her take-home exam, therefore, read the following helpful guide, and beware.

n The final paper. Definitely at the top of the Finals Week food chain. Regardless of the page requirement, completing a paper helps relieve much of the stress from testing periods. Professors usually issue their exam assignments at least a week before the due date, allowing students to manage their time wisely. With a paper, it's possible to create working drafts and revise.

Perhaps most importantly, professors often allow students to choose the topic for discussion. With this method, you can avoid having to write about the minutiae of each reading covered during the semester. At the same time, writing a paper shows your professor that you can dissect a particular issue competently, without making grandiose over-generalizations.

n The timed exam, with notes. This type of take-home seems like a snap, but beware. Since the test has a time limit, the environment in which you take it has to be perfect. I recommend burying yourself in the stacks of Alderman Library to avoid the distractions of dorms or noisy apartments. And watch out for that "open-notes" curveball many professors will throw your way. Most of the time, it is more profitable simply to study as if it were a closed-book exam. You waste valuable test-taking minutes by flipping through pages of notes.

n The open-ended exam. Sometimes disguised as a final paper, this type of exam requires no all-night study sessions, but nevertheless involves painstaking preparation. Usually, this final contains only one or two easy-to-answer questions, such as "Explain the origins of the Civil War." Since you'll have at least a week to finish the test, professors will expect work of a higher quality than they would for an in-class exam. The comprehensive format opens you up to all kinds of professorial scare tactics. Last semester, for example, one of my professors posted his final on the class Web site after the first day's lesson. "You can turn this in tomorrow, if you want," he challenged. As far as I know, no one took him up on this generous offer. The only way to combat the open-ended exam is to get as much information as possible beforehand. Urge your professor to offer guidelines for the exam, so you can avoid surprises.

When approached correctly, the take-home final is a stress-free alternative to conventional exams. The key is to prepare adequately for each type of test, and to get as many hints as possible from the professor involved. Hmmm. Perhaps I should take my own advice and hit the books. Only by getting into the rhythm of academic life can students hope to triumph in the often perilous wilds of Finals Week.

(Kiki Petrosino's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)