How to succeed on final exams

Final exams are approaching and things could get a little tougher. No need to panic. Many things have changed during the COVID-19 emergency, including the formats for final exams. One thing that hasn’t changed though, is how your brain processes and retrieves information for a successful exam experience. The following ideas and resources are meant to help you in your quest of becoming a more successful test-taker and perform better on your final exams.

Practicing retrieval

According to Dr. Jeffrey Karpickey, researcher at the Center for Cognition and Learning Lab at Purdue University, if you want to become a better test-taker you should spend more time practicing retrieval techniques:

“We continue to show that practicing retrieval, or testing yourself, is a powerful, robust tool for learning. Our new research shows that practicing retrieval is an even more effective strategy than engaging in elaborative studying.”

You need to review your class content regularly and read your textbooks if you want to perform well on your exams. But those activities alone might not be enough to achieve the highest grade possible. Reviewing notes and reading books become powerful learning tools when combined with self-testing on a regular basis (not just a few hours before your exams).

“Educators, researchers and students are often focused on getting things ‘in memory,’ so techniques that encourage students to elaborate on the material are often popular. But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practicing retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy.”

Self-testing is possible by focusing on questions that you create from your readings and your notes. Quizzing yourself regularly with flash-cards or testing apps is another example of a retrieval technique. Testing sessions could also be implemented by studying with a partner or in a study group (via online meetings if not possible in-person).

This short video from UC San Diego provides practical examples of how to implement retrieval strategies:

Avoid common test errors

Some of the difficulties students face taking tests are related to bad study habits. However, that’s not always the case. Even when you study sufficiently, you can still get a bad grade if you’re not careful enough. Here are some typical mistakes you should prevent when taking exams (from the book Winning at Math by Dr. Paul Naulting):

  • Misread direction errors – these errors occur when you skip directions or misunderstand directions but answer the question or do the problem anyway. To avoid this type of error, read all the directions.
  • Careless errors – mistakes made which can be caught automatically upon reviewing the test. To avoid type of error, watch for simple mistakes carefully as you review the test.
  • Concept errors – mistakes made when you do not understand the properties or principles required to work the problem. To avoid this type of error in the; future, you must go back to your textbook or notes and learn why you missed the problems.
  • Application errors – mistakes that you make when you know this concept but cannot apply it to the problem. To reduce this type of error, you must, learn to predict the type of application problems that will be on the test.
  • Test Procedure errors – mistakes that you make because of the specific way you take tests, such as:
  1. Missing more questions in the 1st-third, 2nd-third or last third of a test. If you find that you miss more questions in a certain part of the test consistently, use your remaining test time to review that part of the test first.
  2. Not completing a problem to its last step. To avoid this mistake, review the last step of a test problem first, before doing an in-depth test review.
  3. Changing test answers from the correct ones to incorrect ones. If you are a bad answer changer, then write on your test “Don’t change answers.” Only change answers if you can prove to yourself or to the instructor that the changed answer is correct.
  4. Getting stuck on one problem and spending too much time. Set a time limit for each problem before moving to the next problem. Rushing through the easiest part of the test and making careless errors. If you do this often, after finishing the test review the easy problems first, then review the harder problems.
  5. Miscopying an answer from your scratch work to the test. To avoid this, systematically compare your last problem step on scratch paper with the answer on the test. Leaving answers blank Write down some information or try at least to do the first step.
  6. Study errors – mistakes that occur when you study the wrong type of material or do not spend enough time studying pertinent material. To avoid these errors in the future, take some time to track down why the errors occurred so that you can study more effectively the next time.

Managing test anxiety

As explained by Dr. Craig Sauchik, from the Mayo Clinic, test anxiety can affect anyone, whether you’re a primary or secondary school student, a college student, or an employee who has to take tests for career advancement or certification. But with the right mindset and effort you can overcome it.

Here are some strategies that may help reduce your test anxiety:

  • Learn how to study efficiently. Your school may offer study-skills classes or other resources that can help you learn study techniques and test-taking strategies. You’ll feel more relaxed if you systematically study and practice the material that will be on a test.
  • Study early and in similar places. It’s much better to study a little bit over time than cramming your studying all at once. Also, spending your time studying in the same or similar places that you take your test can help you recall the information you need at test time.
  • Establish a consistent pretest routine. Learn what works for you, and follow the same steps each time you get ready to take a test. This will ease your stress level and help ensure that you’re well-prepared.
  • Talk to your professor.  Make sure you understand what’s going to be on each test and know how to prepare. In addition, let your teacher know that you feel anxious when you take tests. He or she may have suggestions to help you succeed.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. To help you stay calm and confident right before and during the test, perform relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, relaxing your muscles one at a time, or closing your eyes and imagining a positive outcome.
  • Don’t forget to eat and drink. Your brain needs fuel to function. Eat the day of the test and drink plenty of water. Avoid sugary drinks such as soda pop, which can cause your blood sugar to peak and then drop, or caffeinated beverages such as energy drinks or coffee, which can increase anxiety.
  • Get some exercise. Regular aerobic exercise, and exercising on exam day, can release tension.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is directly related to academic performance. Preteens and teenagers especially need to get regular, solid sleep. But adults need a good night’s sleep, too, for optimal work performance.

Additional video resources: