Do the words FINAL EXAMS send chills of dread down your spine? Do you become paralyzed by stress around exam time?  Perhaps you are contributing to the stress by being ill-prepared for exams.  Stress is our brain’s way of sending us a message to “get on the ball,” to tend to business in other words.  Your brain is telling you it’s time to prepare for finals. If you don’t heed the message and don’t prepare, the negative thoughts, the fear, the stress level will continue to rise.  That pesky old brain won’t shut up about it.  To make those negative thoughts and your panic go away, you need to start preparing for finals today. You can calm your brain’s fears about finals by being prepared for each exam.  Stress will be replaced by confidence.

You’ve heard of method acting; this is method studying, a method you can use to improve your memory and performance on those final exams, or any exam.

THE METHOD

STEP ONE: ORGANIZE
To be accomplished this week for every class—look through all your course materials—your lecture notes, the professor’s handouts, study guides, note cards, reading notes. Organize them—chronologically is one method, by subject is another way.  Make sure you have all the necessary study material. Compare with your classmates to see if you’re missing anything or need to fill in gaps in your notes.  Get copies of those missing items.  Mark important passages in your text with sticky notes so you can find them quickly when you study.

STEP TWO: LEARN WHAT YOU DIDN’T LEARN EARLIER IN THE SEMESTER
If your exam is cumulative [will cover 14 weeks of material], think of it in these terms: If you have a “C” average going into the final you have not learned 30% of what you will need to know for the final. You can’t review something you’ve never learned, and you have to learn it for the final. This is why you have to start early.  Learning takes time; it is not an overnight or two-day process, particularly for 14 weeks of material.

Review your earlier tests to determine and list what you didn’t learn earlier. Review the notes and the text on those items on your list. If it’s math, redo the homework assignments and work more problems. Make a list of questions you have and topics you are not clear on and meet with either your professor or a tutor to clarify them.

If your exam will cover only the material since the last exam, think of it in these terms: if you have a “C” average going into the final, your past method of studying has resulted in your learning only 70% of the material.  If you want to perform at a higher level, you need to use a new method. What can it hurt to try my suggested method? 

STEP THREE: PRIORITIZE THE INFORMATION ACCORDING TO IMPORTANCE

All information is not equally important. Separate information [what you need to learn] into what will surely be on the exam from what may be on the test. Doing so will assure that you get the greatest reward for the study time invested. Additionally, taking the time to prioritize the information will help you see how the material is interrelated.

It’s important that you understand that most college courses have two underlying goals:

  1. To convey conceptual knowledge. This means learning the body of information presented in the course—mastering key concepts, understanding theories, understanding how the theories try to explain certain data and observations, learning key definitions or formulas, and memorizing important facts.  The purpose of the textbook is to convey this conceptual knowledge. Hence, the importance of reading your textbook.  A chemistry text, for example, is packed with what you need to know to follow the class lectures, do well on the exams, and most importantly, understand how chemists think about, label, and measure the physical world.
  2. To convey procedural knowledge. The professor’s second goal is for you to learn the discipline’s distinctive ways of thinking about the world by applying your conceptual knowledge to new problems. Consequently, not only do you need to learn the basic concepts of a course, but you also must learn how experts in the discipline (psychologists, chemists, biologists, sociologists, linguists, etc.) ask questions and conduct inquiry. In essence, your professor wants you to “do” their discipline rather than just study it. They want you to think like an accountant, or a political scientist, or an anthropologist, not merely study accounting, political science, or anthropology.

Some information is the foundation for other information (conceptual knowledge) and is almost guaranteed to be on the exam.  Making connections between chapters or seeing how the lecture relates to the text helps your brain organize and sort the information and recall it on the test, as does reviewing the information each week and/or every day.  If you forget one detail but understand “the big picture,” you can make a more educated guess.  Remember, the important thing is to be able to apply the information. 

STEP FOUR: LEARN AND REVIEW THE MATERIAL IN ORDER OF PRIORITY
Start studying what you think will be the hardest final exam—the one you have the most information to learn—NOW.  Begin studying by learning the information you identified as “will surely be on the exam.”  Then move on to what you are reasonably sure will be on the test, and finally, learn what you think may be on the test.

It takes time and repetition to commit large amounts of information to memory. It doesn’t miraculously occur over night, in two days of study, or even in a week.  I’ll admit there are those exceptional students who can cram the night before a test and do very well, but most people cannot. If you wait until just before finals to begin preparing, you’ll get one or all of the following results that you do not want:

  1. Your brain will be working inefficiently, trying to learn too much material in too short a time.
  2. You will not remember what you tried to learn in such a brief time period.  I hear this all the time from students in my office, “I knew it cold the night before, but when I got in the test I couldn’t remember anything.”
  3. Your stress level will soar when you realize you have too much to do and learn in a very short period of time.
  4. The probability of your not getting the result you want (an excellent grade on the final and in the course) is greatly increased by your failure to prepare for all your exams.

This advice is meant to help you understand that you can “study smarter, not harder.” If you create a plan—a method—and follow it, you’ll be able to go to sleep at a reasonable time the night before your finals and sleep well, knowing that you are well-prepared for tomorrow’s exams.

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