At most universities, classes are now over. Your assignments are handed in. You don’t have to get out of bed for that nasty 8:30 am class. And your first final exam isn’t for two weeks.
With all this free time on your hands, you:
a.) party like it’s 2010;
b.) sleep until noon then spend the rest of the day watching TV shows on your laptop in bed; or,
c.) hit the books.
(Hint: this isn’t one of those trick multiple-choice questions, where the obvious-sounding answer is the wrong one.)
As much as you feel that you deserve a break (and you probably do), stay focused for just a couple more weeks before shifting into the somnolence of turkey time. Organizing your time effectively now will ensure you get the mark you deserve after working your butt off all semester.
For some students, exam period can be incredibly stressful. (Breathe deeply and read our column on stress). Studying thoroughly and efficiently, not wasting time on unimportant material and developing a test-taking strategy are the three keys to doing well on your exam. And knowing you did everything you could to prepare, you should be able to sleep soundly the night before the big test day.
Many students think that the more time they spend studying, the better the mark they’ll get, but that isn’t necessarily true; you’ll better retain material if you study in a larger number of smaller chunks of time, rather than cramming studying into a couple of 12-hour sessions in the two days before the exam. So, before you throw yourself into studying, pause to make a study plan. There are a finite number of hours between now and your exam, so you need to budget your time accordingly.
First, review your course outline and any notes you took on what your professor said about the exam and try to identify what material you will most likely be tested on. You won’t be able to reread every page of your text and redo every assignment, so focus first on the topics that you know will be on the test (your professor will often give hints during class as to what you should be studying) and plan to put more time into the areas in which you struggled during the semester. Once you have a good idea of what you need to know, group the material into four or five shorter study sessions over a week or so.
While you’re busy studying for your next exam, don’t forget about your other courses. One of our favourite books about improving academic performance is Professors’ Guide to Getting Good Grades in College by Lynn F. Jacobs and Jeremy S. Hyman. They advise students to plan their time strategically. “Sort and allocate your study time based on what sort of grade you’re getting in each course and where you think your study resources can be most profitably deployed,” Jacobs and Hyman write. They warn against starting with the first scheduled test, the easiest course or the material you like best.
Instead, they suggest budgeting time according to three factors:
1.) Figure out how much prep time each test really requires and don’t waste time studying for a course in which there isn’t that much to prepare or reviewing material that you’re already up to speed on.
2.) Plan to spend significant time on the courses that are most important to you. A course might be important because it is related to your major, is a prerequisite or is something you are particularly interested in.
3.) Also devote a large chunk of your time to the courses you dislike or are not doing well in. You’ve got to think about your GPA when planning your study time.
And remember, planning what you’re going to spend time on necessarily demands that you decide what not to spend time on. You can’t do everything, so be smart about how you manage your energy.
When scheduling, Jacobs and Hyman also advise aligning the proportion of your study time with what the material will be worth on the exam. “[Jacobs] typically gives tests with both a slide identification and an essay section,” they explain. “The slides are worth 20 per cent and the essays 80 per cent. Given this fact (and Lynn is open about it), anyone with half a brain would spend about 20 per cent of his or her time going over the slides, and about 80 per cent preparing sample essay questions.”
Make sure that you tailor your studying not just to the material, but also to the type of exam. If your prof doesn’t divulge the type of exam in class, make use of her office hours and ask. The style of the test—multiple choice, short answer, essay question—should inform your style of study. For instance, if you know there will be an essay question on the exam, you should prepare yourself with tidbits of information you can use to make a compelling argument. Also, if you can get your hands on one, a copy of an old exam for the course can be a huge help.
Resist the urge to reread whole sections of your text or rewrite notes you’ve already taken. Remember that you’ve completed the class part of your course, so don’t just repeat what you’ve already done. Reviewing your notes is all fine and good, but studying is really all about practice. Make sure you are rehearsing completing actual questions. In a math course you want to practice completing problems, not just memorize equations, but this doesn’t just apply to math; for history class you should practice writing about the topics you will be tested on. This may seem obvious, but many students make the mistake of equating simple memorization to studying.
Studying with others can be helpful, but make sure that you are choosy about who you team up with. Puzzling through problems with someone at the same level as you can be a great way to think about the material from a new perspective, and articulating the material to someone else will help you internalize it and be able to write about it with clarity. But beware the study leech; studying with someone who knows way less than you can rapidly turn into an unpaid tutoring session.
And remember, if your science fiction nerd teacher asks on your exam what the meaning of life is, it is 42.