Two articles suggest effective strategies when it comes to preparing for mid-terms and finals:

Making a Study Calendar

Create a two week calendar on a single sheet of paper. You can draw it by hand or use Google calendar or other program (making a table in Word or Excel, for example). The calendar should be for the week of finals and the week prior. Ideally, students would start their preparation even earlier, but those may not be the students who most need our help!

• Write in the exams on the days they are scheduled.
• Write in any other major assignment due dates.
•Write in scheduled tutoring and study groups.
•Write in any important events that would restrict study time: sports events, family events, can’t-miss television (this would be a good time to employ your video recorder instead), etc.

It seems a bit strange to say, but this might be enough for some students. Many students resist this sort of “calendaring” and will realize significant benefit from just going this far. This amount of advance planning may be the limit of their personal tolerance right now. For others, variations on the following may be useful:

• Write “Study Spanish” the night before the Spanish exam, and do the same for all other exams. You have to study the night before!
• You need to study more than that! Using pencil, not pen, write “Study Spanish” two more times preceding the exam. Ideally, that will not be three nights in sequence, but rather there will be at least one study session planned days in advance.
• Now there should be some patterns evolving. Is it realistic that you will study for three exams on one night? Do you need to back one of those study sessions up a day or two to get a balanced schedule? Should you delete one “Study English” and substitute an additional “Study Math?”
• Make a list of study tasks for each class. For example: Make vocab flash cards, study vocab flash cards, review old tests, organize class notes, etc. You can plug these into your calendar or keep separate lists for each exam.
• What about the weekend? Are you counting on having it free, or is that a good time for you to study? It’s easy to say you’ll do it, but for others it is not really likely. Be realistic: you’ll need at least one day off for your sanity.
• Feeling pressured? Perhaps it will useful for you to specifically schedule your free time and recreation on this calendar, too.
• A quick review in the morning can be a great boon before an exam. Don’t overlook this in your schedule. “The morning of” is a perfect time to go over memory-intensive items. For some, just before going to sleep is a good time to review things you hope to commit to memory.
• Cross off the days as they pass. It feels good. _

Taking Advantage of the Textbook

“Go over it.”

That’s the most common answer to our frequent query, “How do you plan to study for this test?” It’s no wonder that one of the most frequent tutoring referrals goes something like, “She does fine on her homework, but she never does well on tests.”
When asked what “Go over it means,” many students have a vague answer. “You know, read the chapter over again” is something we often hear, most often from students who never really read the chapter in the first place but just looked up answers when questions arose. What are the chances they are going to read it “again” the night before the test?

Obviously, students should read the chapter, though the truth is that many do not. It may be because they have planned their time poorly, because they were overconfident in their knowledge, because they are unable to efficiently read and/or comprehend the text, or for other reasons. Whatever the reason and regardless of “fault,” these students need constructive guidance in how to use their text as a study guide, especially when they have the motivation created by impending finals.

Students need to practice the power of previewing and reviewing in their books, notes, and other resources. Previewing—looking in advance at the organization of the material, reading and thinking about subheadings and captions—helps create a mental “filing cabinet” where relevant details and concepts can be “filed” in ways that help a student retrieve the knowledge at the time of the test. Careful reading, and even re-reading (if skill and time allow), fills in the details. Reviewing the material may work best when it is quick and repeated: go back over the captions right after you read the chapter to help cement the knowledge, review the prior chapter for just a few minutes before starting the new one in order to put things in greater context, or re-read a single section that might have seemed confusing but will clarify other sections once understood.

There is more to reading than just reading, a fact that many students tend to overlook. It is important to practice active reading strategies that include highlighting, making margin notes, taking outline style or graphic style notes, making predictions and summarizing, and others to aid in understanding and retention. When possible, purchasing texts so you can write in them, or photocopying particularly important sections may be helpful. Alternate online sources can sometimes be located, and many students can benefit from text-to-speech technology to allow them to listen to text instead of just reading.

Students also need to learn and practice many specific skills to make the most of that staple of the classroom, textbooks. Teachers are often most focused on the content within, and students don’t get a lot of direct instruction and practice in the skills. As tutors, we understand the stress of exam time, but we also find it a time that many students are most receptive to figuring out just how to be a better student. If we allow enough time, students can focus on how to study, not just on “what will be on the test.”

© Mark A. Carey, M.A., and Kaulele Education Services, Inc. 2009