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Thoughts On Learning

6 things you can do RIGHT NOW to make final exams less stressful.


I have some frustrating news. I'm sorry to say, but finals will come again.

The semester is just underway. Before we get too far away from last semester, now is an excellent time to think about your finals performance and how you can use that to make this semester SO MUCH better.

There is a better way to prepare for finals, if you start now!


Wouldn't it be great if you could go into this semester's finals feeling well prepared. You wouldn't have to dread the teacher's or professor's reminder about the final project or the announcement of the final exam.

Instead you would know that a bunch of small actions you started taking right now made your finals way easier. In fact, you could go to bed early nearly every night of finals week - no all-nighters, no waking up in a cold sweat at 3am realizing you forgot to study a math topic or to write the last paragraph of your paper.


How can you make it easy right now?

The first step is to figure out exactly what you did the last time. Here's how:

1) Set aside about 30 minutes. Take out a piece of paper or a new page in a Google doc for each of your classes last semester. Now be brutally honest with yourself. What exactly did you do to prepare for the final in this class? Set a timer for 5 minutes and write non-stop on this topic. As you think about your finals performance, here some questions to get you started: What worked for the test? What did you do that was pointless? What would you definitely repeat the next time? Don't try to organize your thoughts, just get as much out of your head and down on paper as you can.

2) Give yourself a day or two and come back to your page. Now you can organize your thoughts into 3 columns: GOOD, NEUTRAL, and BAD. Take what you wrote in the last exercise and place each of your actions into one of these categories. If you think of other actions you did during finals, like watched too much Bob's Burgers instead of studying, add those to your lists as well.


What will you do next time?

3) Say YES to the GOOD actions that worked! See how you can incorporate those same behaviors into the work that you're doing right now! For example, if you found practice exams were especially helpful to you on the math exam, how could you use your homework as your own 'practice exam' for an upcoming quiz or test?

4) Say NO to the BAD actions that were ineffective. This allows you to not only do less, but also to try new things. What should you try? Start with....

5) The NEUTRAL items. Were these neutral because you did them wrong? What could you change about them to make them better. Not perfect, just a little bit better. Test them on your next homework or quiz. If you can make the action work, keep it. If not, get rid of it.

And one critical action you can take RIGHT NOW!

6) Studying is about only two things - the right actions and the right materials. If you're studying the wrong stuff or it's horribly disorganized, the studying will not go well. Start RIGHT NOW to organize your class work, homework, quizzes and tests using what one productivity guru calls, "begin with the end in mind."† Find out what you can about the final exam or paper and use that end goal to organize your current material so that it's easy to manage (because you're doing it right now) and quick (because it's much smaller pieces). For example:

  • Old Tests - Keep track of your tests as you progress through the semester. Combine them with any practice problems you found helpful.
  • Class Notes - Pull out and combine class notes that are applicable to a project or final paper. Organize them by topic and they can be rearranged as you tackle the assignment.
  • Reading Notes - Use your reading annotations to glean material for final assignments. A good strategy is to use 3x5 card to write the book page and the idea or thought you want to capture. Give each card a meaningful topic heading so that you can combine or mix-and-match topics for your assignment.


Ultimately you want to start thinking about your preparation from the beginning of the semester. Who wants to do twice or three times the work later on? Not me! Anticipate what you need or what you think will be useful or thought provoking and set it aside so that when it's time to start studying or writing you can jump right in.


PS - DO NOT worry about your system being perfect. Just start somewhere. You can't improve a process or system that you haven't even tried yet.


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† Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.

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