Exam Prep without Cramming

It’s hard to believe the semester is almost over–only thirteen more class days.  Hopefully, you’ve already started studying for final exams; if not, NOW is the time to begin preparing for final exams so you can avoid cramming at the last minute.  Although cramming may be useful in emergency situations, your performance on a final exam should not be considered an emergency situation.  Why? What happens to us in any emergency situation? A certain amount of panic: hand-wringing, rapidly beating heart, hyperventilation; uncertainty leading to hastily made decisions, hoping you’ve made the right choice, praying for the best outcome. 

Cartoon of student studying for final examsDo you want to treat your grade like an emergency situation? Begin today to prepare for final exams so you won’t have to go into emergency mode two days before that critical final exam that could mean the difference between passing or failing, an A or a B, a C- or a C+. Below are some suggestions for preparing for finals. 

Plan a Study Schedule
This should help you systematically prepare. Set realistic grade objectives for each exam and prioritize your workload. A week’s preparation would be ideal; two to three days would be cramming, especially if you haven’t studied on a daily basis.
Decide which Topics to Cover
If your exam is cumulative, then focus on the unfamiliar material first before reviewing the familiar. If you do not know how much the exam will cover, ask your professor; the more information you gain, the more confident you will feel. Be sure you use active learning methods.
Correlate Lecture Notes with Textbook Readings
Process lecture notes making one summary sheet for each major unit covered, summarizing the information in your own words. Fill in necessary supporting details from your textbook. These summary sheets, one for each major unit, will be the basis for your final review.
Predict Questions
Based upon your summary sheet, predict possible exam questions. Compare and contrast relationships, diagram processes, and write out essays. Apply problems given new conditions. Work problems other than those covered in your homework.
Relax, Remain Positive, and Get Some Sleep
Pulling all-nighters does more harm than good. Get to the exam room with plenty of time to spare. Don’t study your notes until the last minute, and avoid groups of students quizzing each other right before the exam. Their nervous behavior can undermine your confidence.

Help in the Academic Support Center

Study Schedules
If you need some help making a study schedule for finals, drop by the Academic Support Center in Memorial Library.  I’m happy to help you.  I’ve placed printed study schedules on the bulletin board that you may have.  Or if you’ll email me, I’ll send you the file to download to your computer.  

Drop by the office, email me, or use the form on the ASC website to request a tutor.  Tutors are not your study partners–study partners should be your classmates in the class.  What a tutor can do for you is clear up any questions you have about a concept or process or questions you have about the text.  The night before your exam is absolutely NOT the time to request a tutor for the first time. 

As a final word: Don’t depend on hope, prayer, or cramming to succeed on your finals.  Only YOU can prepare for the exam, which is the only thing that will affect your performance on the exam. 

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Apps to Help You Stay Organized

One way to aid your success in college is to stay organized.  The “to-do list” is a great way to stay on top of appointments, due dates for homework and other class-related  assignments or to keep up with important information for papers, classwork, or other stuff you don’t want to forget or lose that you will need at a later time.  The problem, of course, is remembering where you put that list when you need it.  Worry no more; if you have an iPhone, an iPod touch, or an iPad, there’s an app for that. 

The one I use and LOVE for its simplicity is called Workflowy.  You can quickly take notes, make lists, collaborate, brainstorm, and plan.  Being able to store it on the Web rather than on pieces of paper, which I can never seem to locate, or on your computer [I also can rarely remember where I stored them.], and you can access your information quickly and easily.  You’ll be able to remember where it is and open it on your computer.  Even better, you can get an app for your Apple devices so it is MOBILE.  I hate complicated apps and organization programs because it takes more time to learn how to use them than I have to devote to it.  Not with workflowly. Try it and see if it can make your life easier. Did I mention it’s FREE.  You can buy a more powerful version if you think you need more out of the app/website.

The one disadvantage of workflowy is that you can’t set reminders to notify you when something is due.  But there is another free app that will do that for you too. If you need and/or want reminders for your to do list, you will want to use 3do, a reminder app available from the iPhone app store. This app is all about reminders–perfect if you have a hard time remembering when things are due or are always late for your appointments, or forget them altogether.

Another very popular organization app is reQall. With this app you can record your to-do lists, shopping lists, and any other tasks.  Note I said record, which makes it easier and quicker to complete your lists.  Tasks can be grouped by due dates and organized into categories [e.g. school, work, personal], and you can share reminders with friends and family if you have a wireless connection.  You can choose how to receive your reminders: email, text, or push reminders.  An added advantage is that you can link the app to your Outlook or Google calendar.

If you are constantly forgetting important appointments or losing important information [the notes you took for your research paper or group project for example], give one of these apps a try.  If you would like some human help with time management skills, make an appointment to meet with me in the Academic Support Center in Memorial Library.

University Etiquette 101: How to Deal with your Professors

Mystery solved: Click on the link to read this excellent article from the Huffington Post on how to interact with your professors successfully.


In a world as fast-changing and full of information as our own, every one of us — from schoolchildren to college students to working adults — needs to know how to learn well. Yet evidence suggests that most of us don’t use the learning techniques that science has proved most effective. Worse, research finds that learning strategies we do commonly employ, like rereading and highlighting, are among the least effective.

(MORE:How to Use Technology to Make You Smarter)

The scientific literature evaluating these techniques stretches back decades and across thousands of articles. It’s far too extensive and complex for the average parent, teacher or employer to sift through. Fortunately, a team of five leading psychologists have now done the job for us. In a comprehensive report released on Jan. 9 by the Association for Psychological Science, the authors, led by Kent State University professor John Dunlosky, closely…

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Find your Inner Tyrannosaurus Rex


The T Rex

I sometimes wonder if I’m the only person on campus without an Android or iPhone.  A recent blog I read pushes me one step closer to joining the revolution of application-driven phone users.  Don’t think of me as a dinosaur unwilling to try the latest in technology. I was a member of the first wave of the revolution, for I owned a Palm phone, the original platform for phones that went beyond just using a phone for making phone calls. I could surf the web, sync my email, calendar and contacts, play games, and read books from my Palm.  Admittedly, it was a Brontosaurus, large, cumbersome, small-brained, compared to today’s tyrannosaurus rex the carnivorous behemoth iPhone that destroys everything in its path.  I give Apple credit; they recognized the marketing potential for combining a phone and a computer—think iTunes—and created a system to rake in the dollars.  And in usual fashion with Apple, it was “COOL, HOT, RAD,” whatever the latest slang is for the smartest thing on the market.  I do admit to being behind on the latest slang, so insert the latest term for “the bomb” in the previous sentence. Just as the iPhone was Apple’s response to the Palm Phone, the Android is Verizon’s attempt to corner some of this huge market. Android is an unfortunate product name in my opinion. Check out the definition of android: a robot or some other type of synthetic organism designed to look and act like a human—interpretation: second best, not as good as the original, an attempt to replicate something superior. I would have named it the Raptor for the Velociraptor, which means ‘swift seizer,’ that nasty little dinosaur made famous in the Jurassic Park movies. Now that’s a take-no-prisoners kind of branding.

The Raptor

If you’re using your Android or iPhone only to make calls, text, check your email, and download music, you haven’t recognized their full potential; you’re still in the dinosaur age. These new app-driven phones can increase your productivity according to blogger and web publisher Abhijeet Mukherjee.  In his Top 12 iPhone Apps That’ll Increase Your Productivity,  he recommends twelve apps that can improve your output. Though most of them are geared toward those already in the “real world” of business, three of them will help the average college student be more productive. Simplenote  and Evernote are apps for taking notes and keeping them organized on your iPhone or iPod Touch. Can’t seem to remember meetings or when things are due? ReQall can organize your reminders and keep you aware of what you need to do at the right time. I would suggest you look for an app for speech-to-text to save time, but Jott, the one he recommends in his posting, has terrible reviews.  Evidently it has been bought by a new company and is languishing from inattention from its new owner.  I guess the new owner bought out the competition.

Brontosaurus dinosaur

One of the most important skills you learn in college is time management. Those who don’t learn to make time for everything they have to do each week fall hopelessly behind, and by this time in the semester, they are in full blown PANIC mode.  Not having enough time to devote to the papers and projects they have due and not being able to begin studying for finals because they have papers and projects due, their grades suffer from their failure to plan ahead.  Take advantage of the tremendous number of phone apps available for improving your productivity. Be a T Rex, not the Brontosaurus lumbering behind. Learning to use time-saving apps while in college will prepare you for when you have a job and a family–when your time will be even more precious than it is now. And if anyone would like a good deal on a first generation Palm phone, give me a call.

The Curve of Forgetting

 The Curve of Forgetting illustrates why cramming for any exam is not the smartest way to study.  When you walk into class on Day 1, you know 0%, but by the end of the lecture, you know 100% of what you know.

If you do nothing–don’t look at the notes again or think about, read or discuss the information with anyone else—you will forget 50% to 80% of what you learned by Day 2.  Why you ask? Because the brain constantly records information it receives—temporarily–everything from a conversation with your mother to the lyrics from the latest Glee episode you viewed. If the input is inconsequential or it never crosses your mind again, the brain will discard it as unimportant.  After all, the brain can’t store everything that bombards it, so the brain is constantly filtering what it sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells, deciding what to keep and what to discard.

By Day 7 you remember very little of that lecture if you haven’t reviewed it.  By Day 30, “forget about it,” you may remember as little as 2% – 3% of that lecture.  No wonder when you start reviewing all the class notes from all the lectures that will be covered on the exam, it’s as if you’ve never seen or heard this stuff before.  I hope you gave yourself enough time to relearn all this information.

You can combat this doom and gloom scenario and turn the learning curve around.  By repeating and/or reviewing those lecture notes frequently, you can instruct your brain to file this information into your long-term memory rather than the garbage heap.  The more you review the information, the less time it will take your brain to recover the information when you need it—duh, on the test.

Change the Curve of Forgetting to the Curve of Remembering

Within 24 hours of the lecture, if you spend ten minutes reviewing–rewriting your notes, rereading the text for example—you can raise the curve to almost 100% again (the orange line in the above graph). On Day 7 it will take you only five minutes to recall the information, again raising the curve to almost 100%.  If you review every week, by Day 30 it will take your brain only two to four minutes to report back the information.

Obedience school dogs sit obediently while a cat runs in front of them

Do you have the discipline?

Think you don’t have time to review every day? I would tell you that you can’t afford not to review every day, for without reviewing frequently, you’ll need to spend 40 – 50 minutes re-learning each hour of lecture notes.  Do the math.  Do you have that much time to devote to cramming for the test? Rarely does cramming result in storing information to long-term memory.  You merely memorize information; you don’t learn it; you may not be able to apply it (And that’s what your professors want you to do on the test.). Why leave something so important to chance? 

A general  “rule of thumb” is to devote thirty minutes or more every weekday and one-and-a-half to two hours every weekend reviewing for each course.  Ask those students you consider “the brains” in the class what they do to get those A’s they seem to garner so easily.  I’ve asked them myself.  With very few exceptions, those students have study habits very similar to the one recommended. 

What can it hurt to try a new method?  I always tell students who are doing poorly in their classes, that if they continue with the same habits, they will have the same results.  Reviewing on a regular basis will definitely reap rewards: you will begin to understand the material and be able to retain it. If you realize you don’t understand the information, take action immediately to understand it.  Contact me about getting a tutor, meet with the professor and ask for help, ask someone in your class to explain it to you.  Learn it as you go is my motto.  The night before the exam is definitely not the time to be looking for help. 

In my last two posts, I’ve urged you to get organized and begin your review for final exams.  Did you create your study schedule and begin your serious quest to perform well on your final exams?  If you haven’t started preparing for finals yet, maybe these facts will resonate with you: finals are a mere two-and-one-half weeks away; the last day of class is April 29; the first day of finals is May 2. Today, April 13, was the last day to withdraw from class.  It’s time to get serious!

How to Study for Final Exams

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.


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.

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? 


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. 

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.