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End Games: Preparing Well for Final Exams

Some strategies for 11th hour exam prep

Across the country, the end is near—the end of the spring semester and the academic year, that is (although today is tax day—yipes!). Soon seniors will be taking part in the pageants of graduation exercises and then leave the campus Edens they have known so well for four or so years to begin new lives. Underclassmen and women will head home or for other places for summer travel, work, rest, study, or some combination thereof. Soon campuses will go from lively to languid as the slower, quiet pace of summer sets in before the cycle begins again. But before all these academic routines take place, another ritual must be tackled: studying for final exams.

I'm often asked variations on this theme: “What’s the best way to prepare for a final exam?” The reasonable answer is actually rather straightforward: Attend class regularly, participate often if the option is available, read everything, and study the course material steadily from the beginning of the semester. That way, at the end, all you are doing is reviewing what you already know. That’s all, folks. The truth is not out there—it’s right here.

Unfortunately, the best laid student plans don’t often follow this trajectory. Life, desire, bright and shiny distractions, romance, jobs, and all kinds of other pressures intervene. So here, in the 11th hour, are a few suggestions for students to do some last minute pedagogical triage as they prepare for their aptly named “finals.”

Know where you stand in a class. You should know more or less what your grade is up to now. When I say that, I also mean factoring out wishful thinking (e.g., “Although I’ve not earned an ‘A’ on any test in this class this semester, I think I can get one on the final if I just study a little bit more”) and divine intervention. Be as objective as you can about your grade. If you don’t know where you stand—and in my experience, a surprising number of students have no clue—go see your professor or teaching assistant now to find out.

Plan your study time. How many final exams will you have? When are they scheduled? Are they comprehensive exams (everything covered during the semester is fair game)? Create a study plan so that you spread out sessions for each exam across however many days are available. I think it is a better idea to study for one test for a few hours, take a short break, then switch to studying for another test, and so on. Cramming for one test only before taking is usually not a good idea because you lose focus and interest after several hours. Mix it up a bit.

But modify your study time based on where you stand. If you know, for example, that you have a solid grade in one class and that how you do on the final is not apt to imperil the grade, then study less for it. Use the extra time now available to prepare for an exam in a class where you are more concerned about how you will do (i.e., you want to pass!) or where your grade is borderline, say, between a C+ and a B -.

If necessary, then, satisfice. The late Herbert Simon—a polymath psychologist, computer scientist, and economist, among other things—noted that our rationality is bounded, that is, as decision makers, we don’t often know or have access to all the information we need in order to make the best or optimal decision. Sometimes “close enough” or a “reasonably sure thing” is just that. If you think extra study for one exam (say, calculus) is likely to lead to a better final grade outcome than extra study for another (economics, for example, was my own personal Waterloo—they don’t call it the dismal science for nothing), then hedge your bets and focus more study time on the former. Note that I am not advocating that you abandon studying for a course if you are doing poorly in it—again, you want to pass.

Don’t study in popular places. If you know your pals or posse are going to be studying in the library or the campus center or the coffee shop, don’t go there. You can socialize and commiserate or celebrate when the exams are done. Social support is nice, but not when it eats into the time you need to read, think, and study key concepts that will be on the exams. Study groups, too, are only a good idea if you are meeting for a specified amount of time (e.g., an hour or two) and amiable chit-chat is brief at the start. If you think the group is going to spend too much time shooting the breeze or cursing the faculty, skip the meeting and study on your own.

Put yourself in the professor’s place. As you study, ask yourself this question, “If I were Dr. X, what sort of questions would I ask on the final? What are the key ideas in the course? What’s most important?” This mental exercise can often pay dividends. As I tell my students, I can’t ask about everything we learned and don’t want to, anyway. So, what ideas should I ask about that are representative of the course? Reviewing with these kinds of questions in mind is likely to help you happen on at least some of the questions that will appear in some form on the final (and in any case, thinking about a course’s main points won’t hurt you).

Take care of yourself. All nighters are a waste of time—they make you more tired and they certainly aren’t going to improve your well-being or mental acumen. I don’t think they are anything to be proud of, either—I did one as an undergrad and I am still trying to get those unnecessarily lost hours of sleep back. So, get a good night’s sleep before a test. Eat before an exam—not too much—and don’t skip breakfast, especially if you have an early morning exam. A professor I admired during college always encouraged his students to bring a candy bar to the final for a burst of energy mid-test—not a bad idea. If you can, exercise during finals week. Take some breaks between rounds of studying—get outside, meet a friend, go for a walk.

What’s done is done. When you turn it a test, forget about it for the time being. You can’t change anything once you finish the test. Focus on preparing for your next exam. If there is no next exam, then go do something fun—or get some rest or sleep. Don’t ruminate about grades—if need be, there will be time for that later.

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