In my university, as well as many others around the world, undergraduate Economics exams can often be quite challenging – necessarily so, given that this is higher education. My question is – how can I meet this challenge?
A common source of frustration after exams is that “these questions were so different from what we did in class!” Over the past few semesters, I’ve come to realise that a difficult Economics exam question is difficult because it challenges the assumptions with which we learnt the central concepts and/or introduces external conditions which makes it difficult to directly apply how we learnt it in class.
For instance, just as a very simple example, in intermediate microeconomics, while we may have learnt how to solve for the optimal basket for a consumer who has a Cobb-Douglas utility function, in exams we could be “suddenly” thrown a scenario where the consumer’s utility function is now a minimum (min) function when we have not seen a min function before. Given the necessary scaffolding so that we know how a min function works, we are expected to solve for the optimal basket.
Another example: in introductory Econometrics, the topic on "estimation" focused on estimating mean, variance etc...(typical stuff). In exams, we were asked to estimate a cumulative distribution function i.e. P(X<=x). While we had learnt distribution functions quite extensively, we were never asked to estimate it in class.
In some ways the above examples are over-simplified, but the point is to illustrate a few ways “typical” questions could be tweaked to be challenging.
So my question is – how do I study Economics more skilfully so that I can be able to face up to these sorts of questions during the exam? Alternatively, how do I truly understand the concepts so that I can answer the question no matter how it’s tweaked – in a realistic amount of time under exam conditions. I can’t possibly compile a list of all permutations and combinations of how the question might deviate from the typical examples – that would be too inefficient, especially since the “assumption challenging condition” could come totally unexpectedly. Students are often advised to “truly understand” the concepts – but I have not heard enough on how this can be achieved. How can I do this?