College & Career Planning: Do not be overwhelmed by final exams
December 2, 2012
Janet was a straight “A” student who forgot she was signed up for a class. Somehow, this wonderfully talented and conscientious young lady started this particular course, but as the semester progressed she stopped doing the required readings, and she ultimately stopped attending. On the day of the final, she had a moment of clarity and rushed to campus, but, inexplicably, she couldn’t find the classroom. When she finally did, she hurriedly took her seat, pulled out her pencil and opened the exam book before staring blankly at the questions before her. Then, mercifully, she woke up from her bad dream.Over the years an inner “Janet” has revealed herself in the dreams of countless students across the country as they approach final exams. Like the ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, she presents variations of these visions, and, in the process, awakens insecurity in students as they approach one of the most pivotal points in a school year.Theories abound on what these dreams mean, but the psychological community seems to be fairly united in agreeing that these thoughts are connected to some kind of anxiety which, for students, can be stirred by thoughts about finals. And so in order to tame the “Janet” that may be lurking around the students in your home, consider sharing the following tips that will hopefully bring them greater confidence heading into this period and, in the process, produce a stronger transcript for college. First off, allow me to share as “an insider” that, with rare exception, educators do not write final exams as an elaborate game of “gotcha.” In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Teachers want students to perform well on finals. When a class succeeds, it reflects well on student preparation and teacher preparation. The keys to success in the days leading up to finals are disciplined time management and focused preparation.“You’ll find you have a lot easier time studying if you make extra time for it,” say US News & World Report educator writers Jeremy Hyman and Lynn Jacobs. “Put off any unnecessary social obligations or family commitments. Even a few strategically placed extra hours can make the difference between doing just OK on finals and doing a really great job.”This begins with making a plan. To do this effectively, one should count at least 10 days back from each final to establish an official start date. Once the beginning dates are established, students should eliminate unnecessary commitments and block out time each day to study.In establishing a schedule, Hyman and Jacobs debunk the philosophy of spending an equal amount of time on each class. Instead, they say, “proportion your study time to how hard the final is likely to be and how well you already know the material.”Some students, particularly college students, revert to “all nighters,” often aided by copious amounts of caffeine, energy drinks, etc.. This is not a strategy but rather a desperate measure. Staying up all night and consuming high levels of stimulants does not provide the body the necessary rest and nutrition it needs to perform well. This practice also presents potentially negative consequences for finals on subsequent days.When it comes to the actual preparation, three things are critical: learning what material will be on the test; understanding what type of format will be used; and incorporating some time-tested study techniques. Educators are typically very transparent when it comes to what will be included on a final examination. In the days leading up to finals, they will typically begin to release valuable pieces of information in terms of what the content will look like. This introduction to the final will unveil such important information as to whether or not the material will be cumulatively assessed (e.g. since the beginning of the semester) or if it will cover a particular portion of the course leading up to the final. The process of releasing information will generally lead up to a review session. Attending review sessions is critical, as they frequently include study guides, which are like gold and should be treated as such.Understanding the format and other nuances about the exam is also vital. Will it be an objective assessment? Will it include short answers? Will it be more essay-driven, and will it include any sort of performance component? Additionally, students should know if any sort of assessment aids, such as note cards, outlines, notes, etc. will be allowed. Even if they are not, preparing for a final as if they are permissible is a wonderful technique. This practice is excellent for reinforcing material.Once instructors have shared all that they can, including the format for the exam, I suggest using any number of the following student techniques.The best place to begin studying is by reviewing one’s notes. As a general rule, most test questions come from lectures. The greatest nuggets come in the form of such catch phrases as “You’ll want to know this,” “This could be a final exam question,” or “If I were you, I’d remember this one.” If students have gaps in their notes, this provides a wonderful segue into starting or getting into a study group — as long as they truly study.Another great source of information can be found in old quizzes and or tests that might have been returned. Teachers will often pick selected questions from old assessments. This presents the opportunity for students to make sure they have corrected any previously incorrect responses.When it comes to reviewing from a textbook, students should pay close attention to bolded words and topic sentences in sections that have been covered during the class. For classes where such things as terms, vocabulary words and formulas are important, making flash cards can be very useful in reviewing for a final. Whether or not a student has enjoyed success in a class, it is important to finish the race with perseverance. This is as much a life lesson as it is an academic one.Taking finals may not be anyone’s dream. But with proper preparation, they certainly don’t have to be a nightmare either.• Brian Underwood is the executive director of Sierra Lutheran High School. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.