Overcoming test anxiety to pass Launch School’s RB109 written assessment
As I wrapped up studying for the first Launch School course, RB101, in mid-July 2020, I then began studying for the written assessment for that first course. In this article, I’ll share the tips I used to pass the written exam. Your mileage in the course may vary, but the tips below are what worked for me.
I was nervous and anxious about taking this first assessment as it’s the first assessment in the Launch School program. Hopefully, the detailed steps I followed below will help future students be prepared enough to pass the exam. With sufficient preparation, I believe test anxiety can be mitigated enough to ace the exam.
Note: Launch School divides the assessments into separate course numbers from the actual course where new material is introduced. When RB109 is mentioned below, it is referencing the two assessments for the first course, RB101.
Create a Google Doc file to store notes
The first thing I did in mid-July was to create a Google Doc specifically for notes around the RB109 assessments. This Doc became a loose collection of tips and hints picked up along the way while studying for assessment.
As I was reading through the written assessment’s official study guide, I made sure to take notes and add them to the Doc. I also made myself a to-do list to read all of the relevant articles and blog posts on the topics mentioned in the study guide.
I then read every single blog post I could find from other Launch School students who had blogged about their experiences in the RB109 assessments. For current students, when logged into the Launch School site, you can click on the “Sharing” tab to find the posts. You can then search the page using Command+F/Control+F with terms like “RB109” to make it easier to find relevant posts.
I added any hint or tip I came across from the blog posts to my Doc for the assessment notes. Anything that seemed even mildly or slightly relevant, I added to the Doc. This included not just info from the study guide and blog posts on what concepts to study, but also tips and tricks on what to expect on the exam, and also how to prepare for the assessment.
My notes file came in handy as I then had a centralized location for all the different study tips I had collected. This made it easy to quickly re-read all of the study tips multiple times throughout my assessment preparation without having to re-open dozens of different blog posts.
The notes file was also extremely useful to quickly re-read the positive thoughts and gain positive reenforcement from other students whenever I was feeling anxious about the exam and/or particularly overwhelmed with exam preparations.
Having a good cheat sheet is necessary
After reading all of the blog posts and the Launch School study guide, I then created another Google Doc to serve as my cheat sheet for the exam. The RB109 written exam is open-book but it’s also time-limited to three hours. It’s important to have a good cheat sheet to reference during the exam so you don’t have too long to spend reading through the official Ruby documentation during the exam. During the exam, you may have time to read the Ruby docs for a question or two, but certainly not for 20+ questions.
In the cheat sheet, I enabled Google Doc’s outline feature so I could quickly click around to different concepts. You can enable the outline feature by clicking “View” in the Docs toolbar, then clicking “Show Document Outline” to enable:
I divided the cheat sheet into sections based on each concept. Each section started off with a heading, which is useful as the headings are what show up in the outline’s sidebar. An example heading would be for Ruby’s “Select” method. Under each heading, I then explained the given topic with as much detail and precision as I could.
The goal of the cheat sheet is so you don’t have to worry about putting the concepts in your own language during the exam. You’ll have your hands full answering the questions as-is, without having to worry if you’re properly explaining how a method is called, etc.
Find a good Markdown tool
Based on Juliette Sinibardy’s excellent recommendation, I found the free tool Typora to be extremely helpful as it’s not a web application but instead is a desktop application that you can download locally to your machine. It’s fairly lightweight and easy to work with. This is helpful to quickly create and save new files in markdown.
The answers for the written assessment must be submitted using markdown, so using a tool like Typora made it easy to get used to typing my answers on the practice problems in markdown format. I made a folder in Dropbox where I store all my files and could quickly create new markdown files in Terminal (one file per practice problem).
Use Christian Larwood’s practice problems
Launch School student Christian Larwood made an excellent Google Doc containing practice problems for the exam. The Doc can be found in his blog post here (it’s worth reading the whole post!). This is a great reference to know approximately the types of questions that you will come across on the RB109 written exam.
I recommend going through the entire Doc and solving each practice problem. Don’t worry about timing yourself on your first run-through of the problems. Instead, focus on answering each problem as detailed and thorough as possible. Break down the code and explain what is happening in the equation line-by-line. This will help you get used to thinking logically about what is happening on each line of the code.
I recommend answering each question using a markdown tool as you’ll need to answer the questions in markdown on the written assessment. Because Typora is a desktop application, I created 25–30 different markdown files in a folder, one file for each question, numbered based on the question’s order of appearance in the list of practice problem Doc.
It’s probably a good idea as well to have tools like a code editor (I use Sublime Text) and Terminal open to quickly test the code while solving the problems. Irb will come in handy!
Each time I came across a new concept in the list of practice problems, I added the concept to my cheat sheet. After making sure I wrote up a good, detailed explanation of the code, I then added some of the specific language explaining the code to the cheat sheet.
Practicing coding under pressure
After finishing my first, untimed run-through of the practice problems, I then did a second run-through of the problems. On this second round, I timed myself to see how long it took me to answer each question. I then recorded the completion time for each question in a notes file.
My goal was to be able to explain what is occurring line-by-line in each practice problem in about 4–6 minutes. Any question that took me about 9–11 minutes or longer, I knew I needed to spend more time reviewing the concepts to hopefully increase my speed of answering.
Having a detailed cheat sheet, organized by concepts, helped speed up my response time dramatically. During the assessment, there will be between 20–25 questions and you’ll have three hours to complete and submit the exam. By increasing your speed answering each question during the practice phase, you will have more time to review your questions before your test needs to be submitted.
On the exam, you won’t need to explain what is occurring on each question line-by-line. On most of the questions, you will simply be asked what is occurring on a specific line or why the output of the code is what it is. But, I felt that being able to explain the entire problem line-by-line was a good way to be prepared to be asked a question on any specific part of the problem. It’s also good to practice the level of detailed, meticulous writing necessary to pass the exam.
Attend the live study sessions!
The Launch School TAs hold frequent study sessions held each week. I recommend attending at least one to get a feel for the exam before taking it. It’s also a great place to ask the TA questions about what to expect, as well as to meet other students who are at the same level in Launch School that you’re in.
For students preparing for the written exam, the TA hosting the study session will ask you to describe a practice problem out loud line-by-line. This will be a little nervewracking at first, but this is a great chance to learn exactly the level of detail required to pass the written assessment. Take detailed notes on the feedback the TA gives, as well as any tips you pick up from other students.
Overcoming test anxiety
It’s been twelve years since I was a college student, graduating in December 2008, so it’s been a very long time since I was studying for an exam. On top of that, doing well in Launch School is very important to me. Both of these facts led me to have a decent amount of test anxiety before taking the written assessment.
Because the RB109 written assessment is our very first assessment in the Launch School program, students at this point in the program don’t have too much mentally to base the assessment on (other than the helpful advice of other students and the TAs). This lack of previous assessment experience also caused me a bit of anxiety as I didn’t have the experience to help set my expectations.
To overcome my anxiety I had to reframe my thoughts for success. I told myself that part of the anxiety comes from a fear of failure, and the greatest way to reduce the chances of failure is by being extremely prepared. The previous sections of this article are all of the specific, concrete steps I took to make sure I was prepared as much as possible.
While I was still nervous before starting the exam, my confidence increased during the exam as I was able to answer more and more questions. If I got stuck on a question, I simply made a note of the question number and moved on to the next question, and made sure to go back later and answer the skipped question before submitting the exam.
One good part about the RB109 written exam is that you can schedule and take the exam at your convenience. So if there is a day where you’re particularly not feeling ready or your stress is too high, you can simply wait a little longer until you’re mentally ready to go.
Given my stress levels and anxiety before taking the exam, never in a million years did I think I would actually pass the written assessment on the first try, but I did. Being extremely diligent, thorough, and prepared by following the steps outline above helped me tremendously. It helped make the exam much less difficult than it would’ve been had I not been so prepared.
In the end, I spent 114 hours studying for the written assessment between mid-July to when I took the exam on Labor Day, 2020. This after spending 410 hours on the RB101 course from January to mid-July 2020. And while this may seem like a long time to spend just on the first Launch School course, I was making sure that I was putting in the work learning the fundamentals of the Ruby programming language. As Launch School founder Chris Lee says often, one can never spend too much time on the fundamentals. Be patient and put in the work and you’ll be able to ace the test just like I did!
Originally published on my personal blog where I write more frequently: https://www.westonludeke.com on September 11, 2020.