Today is the start of the twelfth week at UIC. This is one of the busiest times for the students. The holiday season is kicking off and Thanksgiving break is only a couple of weeks away. Course selections are also coming up. And last but not least, classes are gradually wrapping up, and students are finally gearing up for their first set of final exams. Now, more than ever before you should be referring to your planners and prioritizing and eliminating distractions, catching up on reading cases, making outlines, talking through the issues with classmates, and taking practice final exams.
Students are in anticipation of that giant piece of information that opens up the entire class for them. That gust of insight that gives them exactly what they need to ace the final exams. Alas, it almost never happens that way!
So, what is 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.
Unfortunately, the best of student plans don’t often follow this path. 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 instructional triage as they prepare for their “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”). 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 and cumulative exams? Create a study plan so that you spread out sessions for each exam across however many days are available. It is a better idea to study for one test for a few hours, take a short break, and 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.
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 jeopardize 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 -.
Don’t study in popular places. If you know your pals are going to be studying in the library or the campus center or the coffee shop, don’t go there. Leave the socializing, commiseration, or celebration for after the exams. After all, you have one month to catch up on all the mixing, mingling, and entertaining. 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 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 off. 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 come up with at least some of the questions that will appear in some form on the final.
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 intelligence. I don’t think they are anything to be proud of, either—as an undergrad, I pulled all nighters and regret doing so! Nothing is scarier than when you are at the exam all psyched up to take the tests when your poor exhausted brain decides that it is going to sleep there and then and will shut off! 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. You can always bring a candy bar to the final for a burst of energy mid-test. Exercise during finals week. Take some breaks between rounds of studying—get outside, go for a walk, or a swim, or a jog.
What’s done is done. When you turn in 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.
Good Luck on your Finals,