How to prepare for final exams


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.


Filed under Education, Higher ed, Student culture, Teaching

16 responses to “How to prepare for final exams

  1. Some psych experiments have shown that every time you review material, you are more likely to remember what you have reviewed in addition to retaining the material for longer periods of time. By this token, shouldn’t you spend the day before (and maybe even the following morning) reviewing? I do understand the reason for taking a break, but I think the benefit of continued study outweighs this reason.

  2. I’m aware of those psych studies, but I think final exams are an exception to the rule. A final exam is like playing in the Super Bowl — an intense and draining experience. I think — though I have no data to back it up — that the sheer amount of energy that a final exam forces you to expend makes it better to shore up your reserves by resting than it does to review one more time.

    Certainly a calm, general review shortly before the exam probably wouldn’t be overly taxing, and in fact that’s probably what I would do — a final once-over just to make sure everything is in place, like the warmup before the big game. And also it’s important to remember that every person is different — some people might be at risk of forgetting it all if they stop studying for even a moment, and so on.

  3. Good post to help with da anxiety!
    Keep on mugging.

  4. I don’t know. I like a lot of your suggestions, but I think final-exam preparation is largely a matter of personal preference. I know that if I didn’t cram right up until the minute before the final, I would do substantially worse on all my exams.

  5. SA

    Just coming across your blog. Looks great. From my experience (and will again go through in May as I’m probably going back to school in January) the sleep part is the most important. It doesn’t do you any good if you missed part of the exam from oversleep or while taking the exam you’re feeling sleepy. It only impairs you more. And I can’t emphasis enough, from the first day of class TAKE GOOD NOTES! Yes, you’ll have to review the information from the beginning of the semester, but it won’t be as hard. You’ll be able to remember the information rather quickly and it’s a lot easier than reading chapter after chapter in the textbook.

    Also, my Pre-Cal prof gave us extra math problems, calculations, etc. while we went through the subject matter. Even if you did them during that time it helps so much to do them again. Going through the work jogs your memory.

    Good luck to your students on their exam on Monday!

  6. if i can’t use my fingers, i can’t study.

  7. spark0plug

    Good pointers! I also believe that chocolate helps in retaining a lot of stuff in your head and should be taken during review. : )

  8. @ Sparkplug. I’m certain I wouldn’t do anywhere nearly as well without chocolate!

    Personally, time allowing, I prefer to review the review. I’ll start several days ahead of time and work on a portion of the material. The next day, I’ll review what I’ve already reviewed (more quickly) and then move on to another chunk. And so on.

    It seems to help, at least with the identification-explication type exams I have as an English major.

  9. Sparkplug/Lyrical fool — I consider chocolate to be part of the “good breakfast” I was talking about.🙂

  10. Well, I need to learn an entire semester’s worth tonight for an exam tomorrow afternoon. Screwed? Maybe, maybe not.

  11. Pingback: How to take a final exam (part 1) « Casting Out Nines

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  13. i really like wat u have written but i have a few questions what if u are studying but when the finals/exams come, u forget wat u have learned? or will they come back to u when u are writing it?
    and if u follow all of these steps will u do good on ur final/exams???

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  15. it is of no use jst a wastage of time

  16. my exam r just 5 days to not feeling to start studying.every time i start studying i get bored then ll lisiten to music thinking to start after 5 min but it no use.i study for 10 min the waste time for 30min 0r me wt to