Being a 4th year student in the biomedical science program, I’ve been through a lot of finals. Some good, some bad. I’ve learned a lot from those experiences and wanted to share a brief guide on some strategies and tips for doing well on final exams. I’m going to be breaking down my advice into the 4 following sections: pre-studying planning, scheduling, techniques for studying, and stress management. One thing I want to stress is some of the advice I give may not work for everyone, so you don’t have to stress about following it perfectly. If you think a piece of advice will help you, give it a go, and see how it feels.
It can be hard to find the motivation to go through an entire month solely focused on studying. The first thing to start with is to ask yourself why you want to do well on these final exams? Is it to pull a comeback from last semester? Is it to reach certain career goals in the future? Is it for pure satisfaction? Your reason can be just one or a combination of different reasons, and there is no right answer. What matters is finding that push to propel you forward.
Setting goals and calculating grades
It’s important to set goals for your courses in terms of your desired final grade. It gives you a threshold to aim for. Once you know the mark threshold you need to reach to achieve a certain grade, you can plan your study schedule as needed (I’m going to talk about study schedules shortly!). Before final exams, you should have a general idea of how well your classes are going based on the marks you’ve received thus far. Using those marks and the course breakdown in the syllabus, calculate what you have in the class right now along with what mark you need on the final exam to reach your desired goal. For components of the course that you don’t have a mark back for yet such as labs, you can estimate based on what you have so far and add it into the calculation while keeping in mind that it’s somewhat variable. Repeat the calculations for each course.
Having a solid study schedule is by far one of the most crucial parts of final exam prep. When I was in my first year, I went to the Faculty of Science Mentoring Center for some advice on preparing for finals and the mentors there helped me create a final exam study schedule. That study schedule was extremely useful for me and I continue to make them every time exams roll around. It may seem like a waste of time now, but it helps immensely in the long run. The reason is that with a schedule you already have everything you need to do is planned out. Once you have that, all you have to do is follow what you wrote down to do each day and adjust your schedule at the end of the day to match your progress. It also helps to keep track of progress visually and see how far you’ve gotten since the start and how much you have left to do. I definitely recommend finding some time to sit down and properly make a schedule of your own.
Making your own schedule
As a short guide to making a study schedule, I’d suggest compiling a list of all the lectures, and potentially chapters in the book, that are going to be covered on the final. Once you’ve done that and determined how much you need to study for each course to reach your goals, based on your mark calculations, you can start filling in a calendar for when you’re going to be studying which lectures for which courses. Keep in mind that your schedule may need some change and revision and that’s totally normal! It’s supposed to be this way so that your schedule is flexible. However, initially plan to finish your studying a little earlier than expected so that you have some buffer time in case you do need to shift your schedule a bit. In addition to your long-term schedule, I recommend keeping a daily checklist of tasks and crossing them out as you go along. It really helps to keep your goals in front of you and to see your progress.
If you are interested in making your own study schedule for final exams, Kyra, another mentor at the Science Mentoring Center, has created a guide to making a study schedule, stay tuned for that! Additionally, you can always also come down to the Mentoring Center and sit down with student mentors who can help you create a schedule of your own.
Techniques for studying
Before I get started with this section, I’m going to add another disclaimer that everyone learns differently therefore everyone will have different study techniques that work for them. Additionally, some of the techniques may work better for one course and not another due to the type of skills involved in each, so keep that in mind.
With that out of the way, the way I’m going to tackle techniques for studying is to give a few examples of key things that I think are important and then further explain them in depth.
Skimming is the first thing I do when I need to read up on a lecture. Skimming is essentially just a quick read-through of your lecture, and I emphasize quick. You don’t need to memorize or understand small details when skim reading. Instead try to read it like a book so that you understand the plotline. The point of skimming is to understand the main idea to prime you for a more thorough read-through. Additionally, if you don’t understand something when skimming, try highlighting a particular portion of the text or adding a sticky note. That way you’ll know what to focus on for later.
If your prof records lectures, it may be a good idea to re-watch the lecture. It can help to pick up pieces of info that you missed or to emphasize certain points that the prof is making. It’s not always necessary to watch a podcast but I just want to point out that it’s a pretty useful resource that can come in handy.
The idea of active learning is to get you to participate in the learning process in a way that isn’t passive. Passive learning would be just reading through the notes/textbook or watching a podcast. Active learning strives to get you more engaged with the material. Here are some examples of active learning techniques.
- Flashcards: Flashcards allow you to test yourself on the material in a quasi-exam-like setting and better prepares you for recall when the real deal comes up.
- Writing a quick summary: Summaries let you recall the main information in a lecture to once again test yourself on how well you know that material. Writing summaries in your own words helps to frame the material differently in your own mind in a way that benefits your own understanding and it also helps you nail down the main idea.
- Practicing teaching the material: By imagining an imaginary audience in front of you, you too can be a real-life prof! This technique is similar to summarizing in that you can explain things in your own words.
Other examples of active learning can include making your own long answer questions, drawing diagrams, practicing problems, etc.
The exam is made by the professor
Another big tip for preparing for an exam is to try and and find out what type of questions your prof may ask and how they want them answered. Except in some cases, it is most likely your prof that makes the exam, and not the textbook, and not the prof of the other section. To understand your particular prof’s methods, you can do a few things as follows:
- you can go ask your prof directly to explain what they are looking for in answers
- you can look at the marking scheme and practice exam if there is one
- you can ask older students who may have taken the course before (the science mentors!) for their opinions
You are not limited to this list and whatever you do, try to understand the way your prof thinks. Moreover, if your prof gives out any practice problems, make 100% sure use those to study, especially practice exams. These are gold as they come straight from the source itself.
This tip may seem commonplace but it’s important to remember who is making the exam. The same course taught by two different profs can have very different evaluations and expectations and this is something to consider.
Finals season is more of a marathon than a sprint. Your mental health is crucial, and it is important to not burn yourself out and to leave some gas in the tank for later. Here are some tips on how to manage your stress during finals.
- Take scheduled breaks: The key here is to schedule your breaks and to not overindulge. It’s a balancing act. If you take no breaks, you burn out. If you take too many breaks or your breaks are too long, you may not achieve your studying goals. You need to take a break to unwind from the stress and scheduling. Timing your breaks makes sure you’re not procrastinating studying. If you start slowly disciplining yourself to take scheduled and timed breaks, over time it becomes a lot easier and can help majorly with productivity and maintaining your mental wellbeing. Some suggestions for quick breaks include drinking tea, reading a chapter in a book, or going to the gym for a quick workout.
- Eat healthy meals and stay away from too much caffeine: One of the worst things you can do to your body during finals is to indulge in unhealthy food. A nice mac and cheese dinner doesn’t take time to make and may temporarily feel good but eating KD every night isn’t the best for your health. Additionally, too much caffeine can make you feel worst and isn’t productive to studying.
- Get some good sleep: Many studies have shown that a lack of sleep before being tested on something adversely affects your recall. Studying all night might seem to be productive, but it can become counterproductive if you’re not getting enough sleep.
To conclude, I’m going to summarize what I wrote about.
- Find your motivation
- Determine your goal for each course and calculate the marks you need on the final exam to reach your goal for the course
- Break down your material and make an exam study schedule that’s flexible
- Try some different learning techniques and incorporate active learning into your studying
- The prof writes the final. Practice finals, midterms, and assignments, anything from the prof is GOLD
- Make sure to take care of yourself because the healthier you are, the better your mind will work
There’s much more that I wish I could write but I want to keep this advice relatively simple. If you have any questions about anything final exam related, you can always come down to the Faculty of Science Mentoring Center located in STEM Complex room 203. We are more than happy to address your questions and to provide any advice that we have on preparing for final exams.
I hope this was helpful and good luck on your finals!
Ash, Biomedical science student