Useful Standardized Tests?

by adam_strandberg1 min read7th Jul 201415 comments


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When trying to learn something new, it's very useful to have goals not just in terms of reading and absorbing content (i.e. read this physics textbook) but also to have new things that you can do (i.e. be able to solve any momentum transfer problem). "Be able to pass this test" is a more action-y and exciting way to view knowledge acquisition than just "read this book".

Unfortunately, as everyone knows, standardized tests usually suck. But given how many of them there are, there must be some good ones out there- even if the score doesn't tell you as much as you'd like, then at least you can gauge how you're doing by how confusing or difficult it is for you to work through the questions. (I feel like it would be a good idea to work any standardized test you were studying for your own purposes without looking at the multiple choice answers to really test yourself.) For my purposes, I would say that a good standardized test is one such that, if you actually know the material that the test is testing, you can confidently say that you know the field.

I would say that the Physics GRE is probably an example of a good standardized test. I never took it, but I was a physics major as an undergrad, and looking over the questions I can see that it cuts a pretty good swath across the field. If you know enough to answer all those questions and know why your answers are right, then you have a very solid grounding in the field. I, for one, would need to review some stuff I've forgotten if I were to take it for real (namely optics).

For starting to learn new programming languages, a less conventional "standardized" test is solving Project Euler problems in that language.

I'm particularly interested in examples of this for cognitive science and/or neuroscience, since I'm trying to read a lot about those fields and I'd like to know what's expected of someone educated in them. Also there tend to be many fewer resources for workable problems in these fields than in the harder sciences, which I'm more used to.



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I'd say Project Euler is not generally the best way to learn programming languages, since it has a heavy focus on number-theory and in many languages the core reason to learn that language is to apply it towards a particular domain with very different demands (server-side web development, scientific computing, etc).

As far as syntax, most languages have "Koans" now that take you through syntax and standard data structures much more conveniently than a manual.

For starting to learn new programming languages, a less conventional "standardized" test is solving Project Euler problems in that language.

I don't think that's a good test. It ignores a lot of knowledge about APIs that aren't necessary for solving mathematical problems. The Java Programmer Language Certification would be an example of a test for Java.

Is the Java Programmer Language Certification test a good test?

AFAIK, there is really no good standardized exam for neuroscience. Eg, see someone ask the same question and get no replies here:

The old Kandel textbooks used to have questions at the end of at least some chapters, but recent editions do not have them IIRC.

If you're interested in the medical side of things, there's a lot of good practice multiple choice questions you can do for psychiatry and/or neurology, that med students use when preparing for Step I. USMLERx and UWORLD are both good qbanks, but they're fairly expensive and you'll only want a subset of them.

For awhile I was going through CalTech's 100 Questions: , but I only got until #18 or so before my interests change too much to make it worthwhile to continue. (Some of which you can find here:

Please update me if you find anything, since I'd be curious about this too.

The 100 Questions link is really nice- I particularly liked this question: "How random are synaptic events? And why (both from a functional as well as from a biophysical point of view)?" I am not sure why this question hadn't already occurred to me, but I'm glad I have it now.

The second link contains an extra comma at the end.

For high school level knowledge, finding Cambridge International Exams past papers is a fairly good option. The exams are done twice a year, and go back to about 2003 IIRC.

Old math and computing Olympiad problems are good for testing problem solving skills.

Anki is a great way to solve the problem that you are having for topics like cognitive science and neuroscience. If you manage to translate the book you are reading into Anki flashcards and you successfully learn those flashcards you have the knowledge. Anki gives you automatic testing.

What about practical knowledge and skills you might want to practice from those fields? Anki is an excellent substitute for the "short answer" side of standardized testing, but there's more to it than that if you want to apply it, and it's often difficult to find systematic ways to practice such things.

Can you set multiple questions to the same card in Anki? Like, if I wanted to practice something like factoring quadratic equations, would I be able to copy a whole bunch of problems of that type to Anki, and not have each one as an independent card to be memorized?

There no real reason to have multiple problems on the same card. If you want to add 10 problems about factoring quadratic equations don't add 1 card but 10.

That said I have little experience with testing procedural math knowledge via Anki.

One idea: figure out why specifically you want to learn neuroscience (for some project? thing you want to write? question you want to answer?) and then let your learning facilitate the thing you are doing as a test of whether you're learning well or not. (E.g. post an essay about your neuroscience-based conclusions on an online community for neuroscientists and see what they think.) Neuroscience is a bit of a bad fit for this kind of learning by doing though.

That is the general approach I've been taking on the issue so far- basically I'm interested in learning about consciousness, and I've been going about it by reading papers on the subject.

However, part of the issue that I have is that I don't know what I don't know. I can look up terms that I don't know that show up in papers, but in the literature there are presumably unspoken inferences being made based on "obvious" information.

Furthermore, since I have a bias toward novelty or flashiness, I may miss things that blatantly and obviously contradict results that any well-trained neuroscientist or cognitive scientist should know and end up believing something that couldn't be true.

Do you have recommendations for places where non-experts can ask more knowledgeable people about neuro/cog sci? There exists a cognitive sciences stack exchange, but it appears to be poorly trafficked- there's an average of about one posting per week.

There exists a cognitive sciences stack exchange, but it appears to be poorly trafficked- there's an average of about one posting per week.

That's not true. At the moment the rate of new questions is 2.7 per day. That's still low but enough to go there to post your questions.

Just go ahead and ask your questions.

I don't know about neuro/cog sci in particular, but you might try Quora or