“In those moments when you’re not sure the undead are really dead dead, don’t get all stingy with your bullets. I mean, one more clean shot to the head and this lady could have avoided becoming a human happy meal. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.”—Zombieland (2009)
It always seems to be at the end of the semester when a good portion of students finally get around to visiting me during office hours, asking about their scores and inquiring about tactics to be successful on final tests. I guess the reality of the impending end-of-it-all, finally makes grades real. The anxiety among some is palpable.
Just yesterday afternoon, for example, a student in my Introduction to Anthropology class stopped by during office hours to discuss her midterm exam and how she could do better on the final. I wanted to begin by pointing out that the midterm was months ago, and that stopping in earlier would have helped. I’m always happy when anyone visits me during office hours, however, so I was more than willing to review her test and see what feedback I could offer.
Reviewing her exam, I noticed that she had a few points off on most of the essay and short answer questions. She didn’t have many of them entirely wrong, but just didn’t give complete answers. She said she had done the readings, been engaged in class discussions, and had not missed many classes. While I didn’t look at how well she has done on other assignments, her test performance was average at best.
I’ve noticed in recent years that when students who are otherwise prepared perform poorly it is often because they provide incomplete answers. It seems they write only as much as they need to write. It appears that they respond with what they think will be just enough to meet the requirements—running the race just barely clearing each hurdle. Then they stop. They quickly fire off an answer and then poop out. Giving a single shot and then moving on provides no room for error, no margin for mistakes.
This may appear to be a useful survival skill for navigating the chaotic life of an undergraduate. It isn’t. If the shot at the question isn’t perfect, then it isn’t complete. If you’re wrong. You’re dead.
When college undergraduates in my classes ask me for tips to be successful on assignments and tests, I share some of these anecdotal observations with them. I then ask them why in those moments when they are doing assignments or taking tests—the moment when survival really counts—they get stingy with the word counts and conservative with the explanations. Why when it matters most do they just try once and then walk away? Why fire off a simple comment and expand the margins and font sizes until it looks like a hit.
Only after the test do they express regrets. Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda.
A bloody zombie comedy might seem an unlikely place to find wisdom for success in college, but always double tap.