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Preparing for Final Exam Study Tips

Scott Agnoli

Scott Agnoli

Founder/CEO, Corporate Coach, Author, Speaker, Designer, Marketer

Listen on Apple Podcasts

This past week the Wisdom app launched publicly and I am honored to be one of the Top Mentors on this new platform. The timing of this launch made it easy for me to develop content to talk about because this past week most colleges were wrapping up midterm exams. So, I presented a four-part series of four tips on how to get prepared for their final exams or actually, how to prepare for any test or exam. 

If you would like to listen to the podcast of this blog recap for the four-part series, listen to it here:

In the upcoming weeks, I will be discussing ways to get a good start to many aspects of your life and look forward to having some guests join me to discuss their experiences. 

As you may or may not know, my mission is to assist college students to prepare for success in college and build a foundation for success beyond college when they enter the corporate world. 

Now if you are not a student, keep listening because each tip this week includes how my tip not only applies to students but also to those in the corporate world. So, something for everyone.

HOW TO PREPARE FOR AN EXAM

Preparing to succeed at anything takes preparation, planning, and discipline. You cannot hope to achieve anything overnight. It does not matter what you want to achieve, failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Imagine if you wanted to run a marathon race. You most likely will not be able to finish the race if you do not start to train months ahead of time. It takes a daily training plan executed over a course of time to build the stamina and athletic ability to endure such a race. The training for a marathon is not running a practice marathon two or three days prior to the actual race. It is a cumulative training regiment that includes smaller, shorter, and different types of runs and exercises to be executed consistently. The same goes for learning something new or preparing for an assessment. As I will discuss, studying the night before and cramming is not the way the brain is designed to comprehend and retain information. Check out the tips below to prepare for your exam and get a good start to crushing the exam that may be giving you some anxiety now.

Tip #1: REVIEW

Reviewing your work is the best way to understand your comprehension of the material you have been taught. Reviewing assessments like quizzes, tests, and exams is both basic and rudimentary, but if done correctly, will help you get off to a good start to improve your comprehension and retention. 

Most of you have just wrapped up midterm exams. If you did not have a midterm, you should get together your tests and quizzes from the beginning of the semester until now. Our goal of reviewing is not only to learn what you got wrong but also to retain what you got right. 

So, first, you need to review your exam. When you do you will find your errors fall into 3 categories: 

1) No Idea, you got it wrong because you had absolutely no knowledge of the material so you couldn’t answer the question, this includes guesses to questions you got right by chance. 

2) Thought Wrong, you thought you knew the answer but because you covered so much material and did not comprehend enough of it, you confused the facts and answered incorrectly. 

3) Wrong Way, this applies mostly to Math and Science because these errors occur when your process is wrong. Like using the wrong formula or applying steps in the wrong order to solve the problem or equation. 

With No Idea and Thought Wrong incorrect answer, the process for review is:

  • Get out a notebook or sheets of paper. You need to write, NOT TYPE, these study notes if you want to properly concrete the information you are reviewing in your memory.
  • For every incorrect question, rewrite the question and then next to it or under it, write the correct answer. 
  • Look at the questions you guessed correctly but did not know the answer to, rewrite those down too with the answers. Chances are, if you get a question like that again, it may be worded in a different way and you really want to learn the material, and if you guessed it right this time, it does not mean you will guess right the next time. 
  • When you have handwritten all of the questions that you got wrong, you can get out your computer. 
  • You will then type the questions and answers you wrote down in a Word or Google Doc. 
  • VERY IMPORTANT: After each question and answer, type a sentence that includes the question and answer in a factual statement.

    For Example:
    If the question was: “Who was the King of France during the French Revolution?” And the answer is, “King Louis XVI,” you would type something like the following: “During the French Revolution, the King of France was King Louis XVI,” or “King Louis XVI was the King of France during the French Revolution.”

    This additional step will help you combine the question and answer in such a way that even if the question and answer were reversed or written in a different manner, you would know the material. In this example, if on the final the professor asked the question: King Louis XVI was the king of what country during what significant period, you would be able to answer correctly.

Now for any questions you did the Wrong Way:

  • Find out what you did wrong and find the correct way
  • Write the problem and the correct solution
  • Then find at least 10 examples of that type of problem and write them down. 

Ongoing reinforcement:

  • Retype each question, answer, and sentence and solve one of the 10 examples of each problem you got wrong
  • Repeat every other day until finished. 
  • Set a time limit to finish within 30-45 minutes. Cut out all distractions. Turn off your  phone

Doing this consistently will reinforce the material and allow your brain to absorb all the information. It will provide you with great comprehension and confidence.

Tip #2: CLASS NOTES

You may think taking notes is essentially just writing down everything the professor says, but it is not. The first thing to remember is that you do not have to write every word because you can record it. Most likely you have a smartphone, and if not, you have a laptop or tablet. When you go into a class you should be using these devices to record the class. A lot of students have told me that their schools record classes and the recordings are accessible after the class, this is good too. 

Either way, the first step in taking notes is to record your class

  • Start recording and write down the time at the beginning of your notes for that class
  • Listen to your professor and you are going to write the main ideas in phrase format, not full sentences
  • Create outlines with a topic and supporting bullet points
  • Every 10 or 15 minutes, on the next blank line in your notebook, write down the time in the margin
  • As soon as possible after class,  it is important to rewrite your notes while the lecture is still fresh in your head
  • Find a quiet place to focus then, open your notes to the beginning with headphones on and start listening to the audio recording, essentially listening to class again
  • Your goal is to read through your notes and fill them in with any of the details you missed
  • Use your own words when transcribing your notes, not just writing down what the professor says. Doing so will help you comprehend and absorb the material. Remember you goal is understanding and comprehension, this is how you build long term recall of the information you are studying.
  • Utilize the timestamps you wrote in the margin, as you scan your notes, you will be able to fast forward, pause or rewind as needed to clarify what you wrote or fill in stuff you missed. 

Now that you have all the notes for that class in order, type them up. 

  • Typing the notes will further concrete them in your memory
  • While typing them up, think about what kind of questions a professor may extract from this material for a test question and start a list of practice questions for later review. 
  • Additionally, add any referenced information. For example, if the professor references an external book passage, author or significant fact, research this point and add it to your notes. You will gain a more well-rounded understanding of the topic, if the professor notated it, you should take a minute to understand why they referenced it. 
  • When complete, sometime before the next class, scan your notes to prepare for your class notes. 

Each time you rewrite, type and create questions from that class, you are reinforcing the information in your brain. 

Some professors will provide note packets for class, which is great, but only use these as a starting point, write your own notes in your own words. Do not use your professors notes as a replacement to your own, use them as another point of reference to add to your notes. 

Also, some schools have review sessions where a Teaching Assistant reviews a previous class. Attend this class as the TA may be able to enlighten you to the most and least important information to learn from the class.

Tip #3: STUDY GROUP

So you are sitting in class after getting your midterm exam back and you have decided that if you are going to have any chance of acing the final exam, you need some study buddies. Starting a study group is a great idea as studying with others can help you work more efficiently and have different perspectives of the material you are studying. So, how do you get a group of students together who are focused on the task at hand, and not all sitting around a table scrolling Instagram? You need to take charge. Email a group of classmates to get together and kick off a study group to start studying for the final. Decide on a time that you can all regularly meet.

The rules of the group need to be communicated to everyone either at a first meeting or via email. I like doing it at a first meeting because when you are in person you can gain feedback immediately and arrive at an agreed-upon set of guidelines for the group right away rather than over a lengthy chain of emails.

Here are some basic ground rules you can use as a starting point:

  • Have a goal- Communicate the goal of the study group. It may be obvious, however, stating the fact that the goal is for all of you to work as a team because if everyone does not do their part, the desired outcome of a good grade and understanding of the material, will not be achieved. 
  • Show up prepared- The expectation needs to be communicated is that each person has reviewed their midterm exam, is up to date with all classwork and assignments, and has prepared some practice test questions relative to the areas of the subject matter they need to work on.
  • Bring your problems- Each person should have prepared a list of topics they need to study. 
  • Pick a moderator- One person should act as a moderator. If you are organizing the group, you should take the lead.
  • Agenda- The moderator should set an agenda in order to keep the group organized and efficient 

Ground rules need to be set in order for everyone to be focused on the task and respectful to each other’s time:

  • No phones- put them in a pile at the door and turn them off.
  • Give all your attention to the person speaking
  • No talking over each other
  • Take 10 minute breaks every 45 minutes
  • Always be on time

Example meeting agenda for the first meeting:

  • Meeting starts, ground rules are reviewed and any modifications to the ground rules are voted upon and agreed to. 
  • A quick review (reading out loud) of the chapters or topics to be studied. After each topic or section is read, a simple “yes/no” from the group will determine if that particular topic will be on the list of ones to study.
  • Compile subjects to be covered
  • Each person will be assigned a topic(s) depending on how many topics are to be covered and how many people are in the group. The objective is for each person to have an equal number of topics.
  • Each person is assigned to create a set of practice questions for the topic they are assigned along with answers.
  • Meeting adjourned with expectation that all participants complete the list of practice questions and answers along with a digital copy of just questions which will be emailed to the group prior to the next meeting.

Regular meeting agenda:

  • Each person comes prepared with their questions/answers to review with the group.
  • Each person should have previously distributed a copy of the questions only to all group members
  • BENCHMARK- Taking turns, each person reads their question out loud. Everyone else mentally answers the question, then the reader reads the answer aloud. 
  • If you got it right, mark it off, if you got it wrong mark it to study. If you kinda knew it, mark it to study.
  • REVIEW WRONG- going around the room, discuss questions you got wrong allowing the group to explain and expand. The more detail you get for each answer from the group, the better you will comprehend and retain it. Write down additional information you get from this discussion.
  • REINFORCE (optional)- Do a round-robin of questions that everyone got right during benchmark as a way to concrete the information in everyone’s head.
  • STUDY- break for the day and go home to study the wrong answers.

Repeat this agenda for all study group meetings. Prior to the final, go back and prepare a full practice exam (or if there is one provided by the professor, use that) and everyone takes the practice test in a room with the same time constraints as the actual exam. Afterward, review it all together with each person taking a turn reading off 5 to 10 questions at a time. 

Additional tips:

  • If there are several topics that are problematic, as a group, schedule office hours with the professor or TA to get clarification.
  • Invite TA to a study session or, as a group, attend a TA moderated final exam review session if one is offered.
  • Plan accordingly. Make sure you give yourself enough time to study as a group and comprehend the information. A minimum timeframe of two weeks and at least 3 study sessions during that time frame should be scheduled. 
  • NO CRAMMING. If you cram for an exam late into the night, your comprehension will be less and if you are excessively tired, the probability of confusing facts is high. 

If you have prepared successfully, the only thing you should be doing before the test is maybe a quick scan of your notes early in the afternoon. Then, get a good dinner, hydrate, get a good night’s rest and have a good breakfast. A brisk walk is always recommended.

Tip #4: NO CRAMMING

When I was in college, I believed that the best method of studying for me was to study all night long the day before an exam. You may also believe that you perform better when you stay up all night cramming for an exam or test. I can tell you from experience that the best result you can hope to achieve from cramming is average at best. But don’t take my word for it, about ten years ago Time magazine did a study that found students who crammed for a test did much worse than those students who repeated a regiment of study and practice testing. 

I know many of you will tell me that you have no time, there is too much material and cramming is an essential part of college life. I cannot disagree with you. But, the truth is that your brain is not made to jam a ton of information into it in a short period of time. Aside from the physiological effects of cramming, like the lack of sleep, bad nutrition, lack of physical activity, your brain can only take so much. 

Cramming will only store so much in your memory and with that, it will only store the information in your short-term memory. It has been scientifically proven that after cramming all night you rapidly forget the information you were trying to memorize. Within hours of cramming about 80% of that information will be gone. The moral of these facts: if you cram, you will need to relearn the information at a later date. So, to avoid double-work, how do we avoid cramming?

Well like any muscle, your brain needs to relax, encounter varied levels of engagement, and take time out to absorb information. The best way to learn anything is in manageable, bite-sized sessions. 

Review, test, rest, and repeat. 

I can tell you that from my sophomore through senior year, I never studied the night before a test or exam. In fact, I usually relaxed and did just about everything else but study. And that was because I was always putting in study time along the way. 

Your body is built to adapt to change slowly over time. As your brain is built to absorb and comprehend information for retention slowly over time. Let me give you an example. Let us pretend that hamburgers are the information you want to learn and you need to eat 100 hamburgers to pass your exam. If you eat 100 hamburgers in one evening, you will get sick and throw them all up. If you eat one or two a day, those hamburgers will stick with you and you will gain the weight of knowledge. 

So what do we need to do? If you want to get a good start to preparing to crush your final exams, you need to start today and build time after every class to review, test, and absorb that information. 

Learning, or more importantly, comprehension and retention happen when we take the time to review, understand, and practice the things we learned. Small bits of information, over long periods of time. I know you may be carrying 15 or more credits, but there is plenty of time in the day to set aside 30 to 60 minutes for review. Remember, you are in college, your job is to learn and that takes the dedication of time. Cramming is not the answer and will be toxic to your health and grades. 

I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you about how these techniques worked for you and your classmates. Remember to visit getagoodstart.com to subscribe for updates and get alerted for live events. Be sure to follow me on social media and thank you for taking time out of your day to listen to me. I hope you find my talks helpful and if you have any comments or questions, please email me at scott@getagoodstart.com

BLOG SUPPLEMENT! FOR CORPORATE EMPLOYEES:

TIP #1 – REVIEW

You may have just created a report for a meeting, done a presentation or performed some sort of important measurable task. Your grade is the feedback you receive from peers and your manager. That feedback may not be automatically given to you. You need to be proactive in gathering this feedback. Ask for feedback from those who you created the report for, or who attended your presentation. 

Ask these three questions:

  1. What do you think I did well?
  2. What are things I could have done better? 
  3. What would be something I could have done to take this task to the next level? 

Getting this kind of feedback will prepare you to knock it out of the park next time. The important thing to remember when asking for feedback is that the answers you may get may not be the answers you were expecting. Feedback that is good or bad needs to be accepted in a professional manner. You are asking for honest feedback, do nothing but listen and document the feedback so you have the information to understand and improve.

Tip #2 – NOTE TAKING

You can apply some of the same techniques discussed with students when taking notes at business meetings. However, one big difference is, you want to make sure you ask if it is okay if you record the meeting. Then follow the same process of notating main topics and supporting bullet points. While your purpose for taking notes in a business meeting is to document and not necessarily comprehension, notating important information like assigned tasks, who is doing what, and who is attending the meeting are important. After the meeting, you should transcribe your handwritten notes and ensure to list a purpose of the meeting and the assigned follow up items. Having this sort of detailed account of a meeting can help you with follow up and progress reports for projects that may be covered in the meeting. Keeping meeting notes like this will make you the “go to” person when managers are seeking information. In addition, keeping notes in this manner and then typing them up will help you with what was discussed and it will be less likely for you to have to refer to your notes.

Tip #3 STUDY GROUP (MEETINGS)

Planning a study group is very similar to running a corporate meeting of any kind. Follow these simple steps and you will find your meetings will be well attended, focused, results oriented. 

The most important thing about meetings, only hold one if you have a good reason. Typically, you need a meeting to resolve a problem so that you can get all the players around the same table and come to a resolution quickly.

Start with a clear objective for your meeting – only one objective. If you want to be known as an efficient meeting host, keep your objective to one topic and meeting time to no more than an hour. Meetings should only be utilized when other means of collaboration would not be effective. 

  • Create a clear agenda. An example of one may include stating the objective, benefits of a resolution, proposed solutions, assigning tasks, and then next steps.
  • Select the participants for the meeting carefully, make sure you invite the right people who can contribute unique perspectives and may be able to offer solutions.  
  • Next, Prior to the meeting, Email the agenda with an objective to each participant and require them to come prepared with at least one proposed solution to the problem. The more ideas participants come to the meeting with, the better and faster the meeting will go. Also, use the 5 minute rule. Ask participants to arrive ready for the meeting 5 minutes early and let them know you will ensure the meeting finishes 5 minutes early.
  • Arrive prepared. Assign someone to take notes or record the meeting.
  • Everyone takes a turn offering their solution to the problem.
  • Solutions are voted on as what may be the best, most viable solution. 
  • Tasks are assigned, follow-ups are scheduled and the meeting is adjourned. 

Follow up and follow through are the most important part of a meeting. Reporting out to all participants after the meeting as to the progression of the solution and ultimate resolution gains buy-in from everyone. 

Tip #4 – NO CRAMMING

If you are in the corporate world, you may be asking, what is comparable to cramming in the workplace? Well, waiting until the last minute to write a report or whipping together a powerpoint an hour before you need to present it. You may find yourself having to scramble for information or worse, find out the sources you need to get the information are unavailable at the last minute when you need them. Your lack of preparation will be transparent to everyone including your manager. 

So, when you are assigned a task at work:

  • Start working on it immediately. 
  • Do a little each day. 
  • Budget your time. 

You will be able to avoid pitfalls like having to wait for someone else to provide you with the information you need, forgetting something for your task, or even worse, silly grammatical or spelling errors because you took no time to proofread your work or garner feedback from others.

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