ATT2: Study Advice to my Students

I posted the following on a forum in my “ANTH202/4B Introduction to Culture” course and realized it might be useful for other people. So I decided to post it here, in the spirit of “Alex’s Teaching Tips.” Some parts are specific to this course and most of it is about the way I teach, but it may still make some sense.

For a tiny bit of context: the midterm is tomorrow. Through the first part of the semester, I’ve tried to give other kinds of tips. This post was meant as a way to put things in perspective. I sent it to a forum called “Mid-Term Preparation.”

Someone asked for advice on exam prep. It’s a bit late for this and I want to be fair to everyone in the same way, so I’ll answer with a general forum post. At other points, I was (and will be) able to give customized advice, based on a student’s needs. But this is generic advice about preparing for an exam in one of my courses.
I’m actually somewhat torn about this. Some of you may feel even more overwhelmed while others may find this reassuring. Yet because I get the impression that it can be useful to a number of people, I’m posting this anyway.

First note that, if you’ve been doing your work and following advice I’ve already been giving you (say, by starting from the most general to the most specific or by focusing on links across the material), you probably have nothing to worry about. The exams aren’t ways to trick you but to assess your understanding of the material. There won’t be questions about specific details of the “Which anthropologist is credited with” kind. Wouldn’t make sense for an exam. Fairly useful in a self-administered quiz, not so cool on a midterm.

But, if you still worry, here are a few notes. My purpose here is to get you to “think like a cultural anthropologist,” not to make sure everyone gets high marks. But it’s clear that those who are able to think like a cultural anthropologist are also the ones who typically receive high marks on exams in a cultural anthropology course.

So, a bit more of a “procedural” advice, keeping in mind that we’re all far along in the process…

You all have, in fact, already started your exam preparation, even if you didn’t sit down to review material for the exam. The work you’ve put into the material should pay off. Keep that in mind.

So, at this point…
Go back to “the big picture,” before even glancing at any of the material. The “What have you learnt?” question. Focus on the most obvious things. It’s no secret that the course is about culture so you can think about what you now know about culture. Take notes, either in your head or in writing. Part of this should help you notice that you did learn a fair deal. This can be done quickly and almost effortlessly. You’re not trying to recreate the course in your mind. You’re just trying to pick what was most salient, what struck you. Chances are that those things are related to what’s important to understand.

Then, go through concentric circles, from the most general to the most specific. Think about the structure of the first part of the semester (class meetings and book chapters), first without any material then more specifically with the course material. You can use yesterday’s slides, for this. They’ve been reposted in a variety of formats and, though they don’t contain anything that new, they may be a useful summary.

After that, use any of your own material. If you’ve been posting journal entries in order to assess your own contributions, now may be an appropriate time to go back through them to put the course material in context. These entries weren’t meant as a study tool and that’s part of the reason they can be useful. If you’ve been taking notes while working with the book, look at these notes. Same thing with notes you may have taken in the classroom. Or anything about teamwork and individual exercises!

I would not advise you to go through the podcast recordings, at this point. Even at double-speed, it’d take you way too much time to listen to all of them and it might confuse you. But if there’s something you locate in your notes which seems like it has been discussed in class at a specific moment in time, you may be able to quickly retrieve this discussion from a podcast recording. Not something everyone is necessarily very good at, but it can be done. (Since I listen to a lot of podcasts, I’m pretty efficient at this. But it does require some practice and/or a specific type of memory.)

I also don’t advise you to take the self-quizzes, at this point. It’s very useful when you’re first learning about some concepts and you want to make sure you were paying enough attention while working with a given chapter. But it puts way too much emphasis on details and rote learning to be helpful just before an exam. At the same time, if you’ve taken those quizzes in the past and have some way to see what was unclear to you at that time (i.e., where you made mistakes), you can use this as a way to focus. As long as it’s not about details.

Using multiple-choice questions for Chapter 2 as an example… (Again, if you never took this quiz, do not take it now!)

If questions you got wrong, at the time, were about “Annette Weiner’s re-study of the Trobriand Islands” or about the indigenous group studied by Napoleon Chagnon, you shouldn’t worry about them. There will not be questions like these on the exam and it just means that these parts of the material were unclear while you were working with that chapter. No biggie. Moving on.
On the other hand, if what you got wrong was about a definition of rapport, it might be useful to look at why you got it wrong. Not because it’s so important as a concept but because you should be able to find the correct answer by elimination.
The question about the AAA’s code of ethics is also a good example, even though there won’t be negative questions on the exam and it sounds as if it’s asking about details on the AAA. If you really understood what ethics in cultural anthropology is about, it’s quite likely that you’ll know what the right answer is without knowing the first thing about the AAA (no, I don’t mean the US equivalent of the CAA wink).
One way to put it is that it’s about “common sense.” If you miss such a question, though, it’s not because you lack “common sense.” It’s that yours differs from the kind of anthropological thinking we’re talking about. In fact, with that ethics question, I could imagine a sociology student choosing “Be open about who you are and why you’re there” as what the AAA’s code does not include because there are very well-known cases where sociologists aren’t advocating this kind of transparency (even though informed consent is now a requirement in any study done with human subjects, including sociology). There are even anthropologists who have concealed their identities and we’ve talked about this in class. But I think it should be obvious from the classroom and textbook material that cultural anthropologists do seek informed consent from people with whom we work.
This part is all about those who did take the self-quizzes in the past. But I think it also helps you understand what the exam is about.

A final approach, which can still be taken at this point…
In the past, I’ve been telling you about finding links between issues and concepts. It’s still good advice, especially if you use it as a way to get yourself thinking about broader issues or if it helps you notice that you do, in fact, understand most of these. The list of glossary items is useful, in this case. Pick two items at random and, in your head, think about what you might say on their relationships to one another.
Now, this may not be for everyone either. Some of you may get lost in this while others do it “in their sleep.” That’s why I list it last.
Doing the exercise myself, using the slides from yesterday (using QuickView on my Mac, not even opening the file): “horticultural” and “negative reciprocity.” There’s an obvious link, there, but I’ll actually go toward something a bit more involved, for demonstration purposes. Horticulturalism is what we call a “subsistence strategy” and negative reciprocity has to do with “economic anthropology.” So I’m thinking about the relationships between “means of production” (in this case, how we get our food) and means of distribution (how we share resources across members of a group). It’s pretty much a “textbook case” of the kind of holistic approach Omohundro explained with the puzzle pieces. In this case, it’s about links between what we’ve called “infrastructure” and social structure. So you can quickly go very far. Or stick with what’s obvious (that both have to do with goods or that either is typical of a certain set of cultural contexts).
Again, this kind of stretch isn’t for everyone, at this point. If you try it and find it too difficult, skip it. As with physical training, not everyone can benefit from every exercise.

I very sincerely hope that this helps at least a few people and that it doesn’t have a negative effect on anyone.