How to prepare for final exams

pumpkin asks: I have my board exams soon and I’m not prepared for them at all. Please give me any ideas how I should manage my syllabus so I can have it done on time.

Hi pumpkin –

To be able to tell you exactly what to study when would require a lot more knowledge than I have – both about your courses and about you.  But I can throw a few recommendations your way.

Let’s assume you have exactly four weeks to prepare for the start of six exams.  And then they will stretch out over three weeks.

First of all, spend the next three weeks working very hard, maybe as hard as you’ve ever worked, to create study lists for every class you have.  In other words, I want you to put all the time you need into making sure that you’ve read all the material, that you’ve worked to understand anything you didn’t grasp (which might include asking questions of other students or teachers), and that you’ve written out everything you’ll need to know for the tests.

Did you note that I said, “written out?”  That’s not the same thing as underlining it in a book.  You will learn better if you actually go through the physical motion of writing (or typing) these facts, just as I only learned how to sit and shake hands by doing them, not by watching other dogs do them.

Okay, so I’m figuring that, after those three weeks, you should have a ton of stuff written out, including everything you need to learn for all your exams!  Then the next step is a lot of work, but fundamentally easier: what you’re going to do next is to memorize, a lot, every night, for four weeks.  At the start, you might want to only work on the subjects of the first two exams.  Then when you finish (passing beautifully) your first exam, start working on the second and third.  And continue working on two subjects at a time, till you finish your second-to-last exam, after which you only need to work on your final test.

Now here’s a hint that can really help you.  I’m going to guess that each exam entails you memorizing something like 200-500 bits of information.  You’ll work lots on them every day and night, but then, the night before an exam, you only work on that subject, and do anything you can to force those facts into your memory (Handsome often likes to make up silly sentences.  For example, if he had to learn the names of the most powerful  five US politicians today, he might come up with the sentence OBKRB “Omar Bradley kicks red basketballs.”  It’s silly, and puts an image in his head, and helps him remember Obama, Biden, Kerry, Reid, and Boehner).

And then, and here’s the important part, when you have all those facts down, go to bed and have a really good night’s sleep.  And when you wake up in the morning, don’t study any more!  Studies have shown that studying after you have slept actually reduces your ability to remember all the facts you learned before you slept.  Your short-term memory of what you studied that morning will overrun what you learned last night!

And yes, pumpkin, this is a LOT of work.  But by breaking it down into this method, I believe you’ll find it easier to tackle.

The real key to it is about the next few weeks – making sure that you understand all the concepts, and can reduce your learning need down to memorizable facts.  Once you’ve done that, I have no doubt that you’ll be able to do fine.

Oh, there is one other thing though.  When you finish that sixth exam, and you walk out of the building, you’re likely to feel exhausted and emotionally drained.  I suggest you plan to do something comforting and wonderful at that time.  If I were a human, I would choose to go out and get a big bowl of tasty ice cream!  But you should pick whatever is going to be best for you.

You certainly will have earned it!




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