How to ace STEM cumulative final exams

academics STEM study schedules study skills
By Emma M.

There’s always at least one course in a semester in which, after 12 weeks of learning new material every lecture, your grade is dependent on your understanding of the whole of the class’s information in the dreaded cumulative final exam

I have experienced many, many, many of these exams as a physics PhD student in my 4th year and think I have finally nailed down how to ace these exams. 

Here, I outline 4 steps to my tried-and-true method for acing cumulative final exams in the STEM fields.

I'll also give you a way to schedule these steps over 1, 2 or 3 days during your finals study period in order to get the most out of your study schedule. 

In an ideal world, you will have 3 days to dedicate at least a few hours of your time to prepping for the exam, so that would be the schedule I would recommend if possible. However, sometimes you don’t have that much time, so I will also provide some variations on how you can still ace one of these exams in a shorter period of time. 

Step 0: Take good notes during the semester.

Taking good notes during lectures throughout the semester can be tedious, but taking good notes regularly will make your studying for cumulative final exams easier and much more fruitful as you have seen and already somewhat digested the material so now when studying you are seeing the material for a second time. 

Step 1: Get the coverage you need

If you followed Step 0 to the letter and did not miss any lectures and have no holes in your notes, you can skip this step. But life happens, so most people do end up missing a lecture or two during the semester! In this case, you will want to fill the holes in your notes by taking thorough notes of whatever lecture material you missed using PowerPoints and lecture recordings with the same level of detail as the other notes you have taken throughout the semester. This will likely be pretty time consuming, but it is important to cover all material. This step may take a few hours depending on the amount of material you are missing. 

Step 2: The Study Guide

Now that you have a full set of notes, you can begin to analyze what is important and what connections can be made between different material presented over the semester. You should now go back through all of your notes, starting from the beginning of the semester and write notes about those notes. I usually call these new notes my “study guide.” These new notes are useful because you are now looking at the material in your old notes with a lot more knowledge on the topics, as you have been taking the class for an entire semester now. In your study guide, you'll want to write down important topics, as well as the questions you still have about these topics. Also, it is excellent to be confused at this stage! Knowing that there are things you are still uncertain about is a sign that you understand the material enough to know what you are uncertain about! For reference, I would expect your study guide to be about 10-15% as long as your full set of lecture notes. So, if I had 50 pages of lecture notes over the semester, I would expect my new collated study guide to be 5-8 pages.

Step 3: Target study

Now that you have your study guide with the semester’s most important information, you can begin to really study the things that you are unsure about. This step must come after creating your study guide (creating your study guide helps you identify your weaker areas). 

Keep your target study list between 5 and 20 topics so that you don't get overwhelmed. I have found the best ways to supplement lecture notes on topics you are still confused on is to watch YouTube videos and walk through example problems. Additionally, talking with other students, a tutor, TAs, and/or your professor on these topics can be very useful at this stage, as you can ask truly specific questions to improve your understanding. 

Step 4: Review

At this point, you have reviewed your lecture notes, compiled a study guide, and prioritized reviewing your weakest areas. Now you can start to review via practice exams and problems provided by the instructor. These problems may still be challenging, but you have a much better foundation now that you have reviewed so much material. One tip for these practice exams is to work through them with your study guide when first starting to do practice exam problems. 

Sample study schedule #1

Day 1: 

Complete step 1 (2-3 hours)

Complete part of step 2 (2 hours)

Day 2: 

Finish step 2 (1-2 hours)

Complete part of step 3 (2 hours) 

Day 3: 

Finish step 3 (2 hours)

Complete step 4 (2-3 hours)

Sample Study Schedule #2 (abbreviated)

Day 1:

Complete step 1 (2-3 hours)

Complete step 2 (3-4 hours)

Day 2:

Complete step 3 (4 hours)

Complete step 4 (2 hours)

Sample Study Schedule #3 (If the exam is tomorrow!)

Day 1:

Complete step 1 (2-3 hours)

Complete step 2 (3 hours) 

Complete step 3 as much as possible

Complete step 4 (2 hours)


Emma is a PhD Candidate in Physics at Columbia University. Previously, Emma completed her undergraduate degree at Providence College and completed two masters degrees at Columbia University.


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