To: My Students
From: Your Professor
Re: Studying for Finals
The end of the semester is rarely pretty. You’re tired; I’m tired. You’ve got a zillion things to get done—ditto for me. You’ve also got grades hanging in the balance to be decided by how you perform on the final exam. The pressure is on, and it’s not just this course. It’s all of them.
I’d like to offer some advice on how to prepare for these last tests. Am I hearing groans? But the suggestions I want to offer are evidence based and have repeatedly been shown to improve performance on exams. In other words, they work! And there’s more good news. Most of what the research recommends isn’t all that hard to implement.
I know you’ve got your own ways of studying. You’ve used them for years. They work for you. But maybe some other approaches work better. You’ll never know if you don’t try them.
Start with a game plan. Think about sports and how there’s a game plan based on what a team needs to do to beat the next opponent. The same applies to a game plan for studying. What do you need to review? What don’t you understand? What’s mixed up in your mind?
Be realistic. There’s one week before the exam. How much time can you devote to studying—not how much you’d like to—but what’s reasonable? Then make a schedule of those practice sessions, and yes they should be thought of as practice sessions.
Prepare across several days. Teams don’t lounge around and then have one marathon practice the day before the game. But that’s exactly the approach some students take. They cram and jam a bunch of course content into their heads in the hours before the exam, hurry to the test, and hope a lot of it doesn’t leak out on the way. Cramming is a short-term fix. It only works if the test questions ask for definitions and details you can memorize. When you have to apply the content or demonstrate that you understand what concepts mean, then cramming is pretty much a bust. For every kind of exam, studying for shorter periods of time across several days works better—no arguments unless you’ve tried it.
Don’t just go over, get into. Research consistently shows that just going over your notes or rereading what you’ve highlighted in the text isn’t the best strategy. I know—I can hear your objections. It may feel like it’s working. When you keep rereading something, it starts to look familiar, and that can make you think you know it. However, just because you know where the words are on the page or you remember the specific class when a concept was discussed doesn’t mean you understand what they mean. The better strategy is to get into your notes; don’t just recopy them; deal with them. Do you understand what you’ve written? If not, is there material in the text you can consult? Can you talk with someone in the class? And don’t forget, you can always come see me during office hours. I will re-explain what you’re finding unclear or confusing.
Test yourself. This strategy is more work, but it’s more effective than getting fixated on answers. Think about questions. Look at a set of notes, and ask yourself what the test question might be on that material. Write down your question, and develop a strong response. During your next study session, write out your answer again, only this time without the aid of your notes or the text. Students are better at predicting exam questions than they think they are. How many tests have we had in this course? You know the kinds of questions I ask. What’s going to be on the exam? Questions! Make them part of your study time.
Mix it up. The content on the exam doesn’t come to you in the order it was presented in class or covered in the text. It’s mixed up, and that’s how you ought to study it. Jump around in your notes and the text. Do different kinds of problems during every study session.
Believe in yourself. Your brain is plenty big enough to handle any question I might toss at you. You’ve just got to get the information stored in a place where you can retrieve it. Build connections between the new material and what you already know. Short-term memory is like a sponge—once it gets full, it drips. If you truly understand something, it’s much less likely to leak out.
I’m not going to wish you good luck because doing well on exams isn’t a matter of luck. It’s the result of using good study strategies. So, breathe deeply, and set yourself about the task of preparing.