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How to prepare for final exams

December 5, 2007, 12:21 pm

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Update 2: There’s a sequel to this article on How to Take a Final Exam.  

Update: Welcome, RateYourStudents readers! If you like this article, be sure to check out my Top 12 Posts list for a further sample.

Posting has been light around here because it’sthe last week of classes, and the run-up to final exams has begun in earnest. This morning I talked with my precalculus class — all freshmen, many of them first-generation college students, about to experience their first real college final exam — about getting ready for our final, which is coming up Monday morning at 8:00 AM. There was the usual discussion of topics, suggestions for review exercises, and so on. But I also included a discussion of the aspects of preparing for a final exam that don’t have to do with the class itself.

I think this aspect of preparing for finals is crucially important and rarely treated with the seriousness it deserves. As I told the students, what good does it do you to study hard and prepare well if you end up oversleeping and missing all or part of the exam, or stay up the whole night before and aren’t at peak condition?

So here are some of the suggestions I gave them:

  • When it comes to studying, start early and start small. Begin reviewing several days out from the final exam and do only short reviews that are meant to refamiliarize you with material you haven’t seen in a while. This is the studying analogue of skimming a book before you read it, or putting primer down on a wall you are going to paint before you paint it. It takes time and a somewhat gentle touch to get your brain ready to assimilate and recall all the stuff it will need to.
  • As you move closer to the final, increase the length and depth of your review. Ramp yourself up into a rigorous review of material gradually but intentionally. By 3-4 days before the final, you ought to be spending significant amounts of time doing significant things each day.
  • The point of reviewing for a final is to see if you understand the key concepts of the course. But how do you know when you understand them? The answer is found out by doing things. If your professor textbook has not already done so for you, phrase each concept that might appear on the final exam in terms of an action verb. For example, it’s not enough in a calculus class to say “Understand the Chain Rule”. Rephrase this as “Calculate derivatives of a function using the Chain Rule”. If you can do that task repeatedly, with confidence and correctness and not a lot of effort, you’re ready.
  • A very important point: The evening before the exam, stop studying. You’re not going to add much to your knowledge that you haven’t done already (assuming you’ve followed my advice above). Also, just like an athlete preparing for a game needs to stop practicing at some point in order to be mentally prepared and relaxed, you need to give your brain a break so that when you hit the exam, you’ll be fresh.
  • The night before the exam, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a good breakfast the morning of the exam. Your brain is part of your body. If your body is strung out from lack of sleep and from having no food (or bad food), then your brain will suffer.
  • Finally, set up multiple redundant alarm systems so that you will be sure to wake up on time for the exam. How many times have I seen students oversleep and miss part or all of an exam? This is totally unnecessary. You probably already have an alarm clock; let that be your primary alarm system. Then, find a secondary alarm that is not part of the same infrastructural system as the primary. For example, if your primary alarm plugs into the wall, get a secondary one that doesn’t. A very good choice for a secondary alarm is your cell phone; figure out how to use the alarm or wakeup call feature of your cell phone and make sure you charge it up the night before the exam. Set the secondary alarm for 5-10 minutes past the primary. Then, set up a tertiary alarm system that is independent of both the primary and secondary. For example, you could ask your mom or dad to give you a call 30 minutes after your primary alarm is set to go off. Or, you could find an alarm clock program for your computer. Or you could even consider wakeup call services such as Telepixie (free) or Snoozester ($3.99/month, and you could cancel after the first month). It’s highly unlikely that a three-level redundant plan for getting a wakeup call at the right time will fail completely to the point that you miss the exam, and it’s easy to make such a thing happen.

I asked my students to visualize themselves coming in to the exam on Monday fully rested, physically and mentally alert, confident that they’d prepared well based on the evidence of correctly-solved problems, and on time and ready to go for the exam. Then I asked them to visualize themselves showing up late, or tired, or hungry, or ill-prepared. Then I asked them which vision they liked better — you know which one they picked — and whether it would be worth the work.

Got any other suggestions? Leave them in the comments.

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