Does this sound familiar?
The final exam date has been announced, and you learn what’s going to be on the test: everything. Frozen with dread at the thought of starting on such a huge task, you focus your attention first on some final projects or essays for another class. Those are due sooner, and with weeks to go before the final, you still have plenty of time to study. Unsure how best to start anyway, you put off studying for your finals.
Small academic fires keep popping up, demanding that you deal with them immediately instead of studying for your finals, or maybe personal and extracurricular obligations collide into a perfect storm for your packed calendar.
Suddenly, it’s two days before your first of six finals (all in a row, of course), and you switch into power-studying mode. You push through marathon study sessions, sacrificing your sleep and your mental well-being. Maybe you hobble out of the exam room with your GPA intact, but chances are low that you’ll actually retain much of the material you crammed leading up to the final. You are absolutely spent, but it didn’t have to be this way.
An end to cramming
No one wants to go through that kind of stress, but it’s hard to know what concrete steps you can take to avoid getting stuck cramming for exams. My strategy is simple, but effective: it just involves creating and using a study guide. Having a game plan for how to study can make the difference between stalling because you’re not sure where to start, and being set up to begin reviewing material as soon as the last unit of your course is complete. Whether you’re studying for literature or physics, the same basic strategy will serve you well.
At first, it may seem like you’re giving yourself unnecessary homework with this approach, but the work you put into creating the study guide is actually its secret weapon. Not only will you end up with a handy and succinct document that can guide you through the topics you’ll need to cover in your review, but the task of designing a study guide forces you to thoughtfully survey the material, decide what is important enough to include, and take note of your own potential weak spots.
There are also ways to keep strategic notes throughout the semester that will make it much easier to assemble your study guide at the end of the course. Reflecting about your learning style and experimenting with what works for you will make each study guide you create more tailored and effective than the last. Once you start putting some time into creating your own study guides, you’ll wonder how you ever studied another way.
Keep track of what’s important as you go
First of all, organization will be your best friend when it’s time to look back and review material from the semester or year. It may sound like overkill to start thinking about your study guide when you first get the syllabus, but having a good system in place for organizing your coursework is absolutely key. Your future self will thank you for storing old homework assignments in a folder or binder, keeping classwork and notes organized, and especially keeping handouts from the instructor detailing the topics of a new unit. Keep old quizzes, too: not only do they tell you what was important enough to make it onto a test, but because they’re graded, they also help you identify gaps in your knowledge
Get in the habit of writing questions in your notes, especially if the class is moving too fast for you to address all your questions in real time. This is a great way to flag confusion early on—you may be able to resolve these questions relatively quickly, but if any confusion lingers, you know you won’t lose track of those questions.
Relatedly, be sure to emphasize in your notes anything that you have trouble with the first time around: even if you eventually get a handle on that rhetorical strategy or type of word problem, tricky concepts can easily come back to bite us after lying untouched for a few weeks or months, and you want to organize your notes so that you don’t forget to revisit those trouble spots.
Finally, if you can sum something up or jot down something important while it’s is still fresh in your mind, do it! For example: are you reading five novels over the course of the semester? As you finish each one, make a brief list of important characters, themes, narrative structures, or any other important details you discussed in class. Did you notice an example of your least favorite kind of chemistry problem, solved step-by-step in your textbook? Write down the page number for that example. These are the kinds of things that you can also do at the end of the course, but you’ll save yourself time (and catch more important details) if you can get them done as you go.
The final product: key components of a study guide
Study guides can vary widely by subject, and from person to person as well. As you create your study guide, think about the needs of the subject at hand, but don’t forget to take your learning style into account, too. Consider which of the following components could apply to your situation:
Key information from your notes
Think of this as taking notes… on your notes. Just as you can’t write everything word for word from a chapter you’re taking notes on, you will need to make choices about what information to include in your study guide. This is essentially an act of translation that will help you better retain the material. Mine your notes for key concepts and broad ideas, but also smaller nuggets like important vocabulary or key players.
If you need to remember many dates, names, formulas, or definitions, your study guide can begin as a place to consolidate all that crucial information. Then, experiment with creating some mnemonics to help with memorization. (If you have quite a lot to memorize, such as vocabulary for a language test, you will probably want to work with a set of flashcards—either physical flashcards, or digital ones on a site like Quizlet)
For history exams (or any other subject where you need to keep in mind a detailed historical context) timelines can be a helpful visual way to organize information chronologically
Diagrams and Concept maps
Though they are a clear choice for subjects such as geometry and physics, diagrams can be a powerful tool for a number of subjects. Whether you want to mentally organize the causes and effects of a political revolution, remember the names and locations of the different lobes of the brain, or keep the details of a biological process clear, diagrams are your friend.
If applicable, include some example problems, with notes on how to solve them. This is especially useful for problems you have had issues with in the past. As an added bonus, you can include a reference for where to find additional practice problems.
Anything else you find useful
The more you can experiment with the format of your study guide, the more likely you are to hit upon a strategy that works for you. I once had a Latin teacher that made my classmates and me summarize the Aeneid in a series of detailed (and labeled) doodles, one for each book covered on the AP test. I am not an accomplished cartoonist, but it worked: drawing out each tiny illustration helped me remember the key characters, settings, and plot points.
Final tips (no pun intended)
While creating a study guide turns out to be an effective way to actually start studying, don’t forget to leave enough time to actually use it! It will be most useful if you have ample time to work with it. With the help of your guide, you will know what areas need your attention and you can delve back into specific sections of important chapters, or practice specific types of problems.
Ideally, since you’ll already be reviewing the material while you create your guide, it will be less of a mental hurdle to “begin” studying once it is complete. Try building a study guide for your next final exam, and see if this strategy allows you start sooner and study more strategically, leaving the cramming behind.
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