Preparing for Finals

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Eric J. Moschella
Director of Academic Support, Office of Success Programs

The end of a semester is often a confusing time for students. On one hand, they are ready for a break from a long and challenging semester. On the other hand, final exams are quickly approaching and represent the final hurdle that can sometimes mean the difference between celebration and disappointment. In an effort to give students (and parents) some piece of mind, I offer the following advice to help lessen the stress and anxiety associated with final exams and increase the likelihood of a successful end of term.

The time is NOW: All too often students wait to the last minute to study for finals. “Dead week” is when many students believe they can catch up with readings, homework problems, or difficult concepts they may have missed or been unsure of during the semester. Beware; “Dead week” is anything but dead. Faculty and TA’s are extremely busy during this time. Grading, reports, writing exams, and an influx of students with questions about the final make for a very busy week. Tutoring centers across campus often see the highest number of participants during this time. The result is that many support venues become overrun with panicked students. During this same time I often get calls from anxious parents saying, “My student needs help. They are not doing well in their courses, can you help them?” The reality is that during the final week in the semester there is little that I, or anyone, can do to help. Students should start preparing now for finals, not during the week prior to finals.

Distribute learning: Students who distribute their learning will retain more information and feel less stressed. I often ask students why, if they are going to study 12 hours for an exam, they wait until the last 12 hours before the exam to start their study? The answer is pretty common, “I am too busy with other things.” Many students with whom I have worked often view their time in terms of days. They look at deadlines that are only a few days out and try to accomplish large tasks in short time periods. With this short-term perspective, everything becomes urgent and leaves no room for error. The slightest disruption in the “plan” often leads to anxiety and stress.

However, students who take a longer view of their semester, maybe several months out, can distribute their learning for multiple courses over several sessions. A 12-hour review for calculus is best done in two hour sessions spread over 2-3 weeks, not the night before. A well distributed study plan will reduce stress and increase learning retention while allowing time to set priorities and find help for challenging concepts well in advance of the exam.

Know your ABC’s: Setting priorities can be challenging for students especially when everything seems to be important. To help ease the process of setting priorities, students should segment tasks into “A” ,“B”, and “C” categories. “A” items are those that cannot wait because some action must be taken immediately. “B” items are important tasks that need to be completed, but are less urgent. “C” tasks are things that are not critical and can be done as time permits. Students who have never consciously set priorities may feel overwhelmed at first. I remind students that if they do not consciously make choices about establishing priorities, the choices will be made for them. Students can effectively combat feelings of being overwhelmed or helpless if they begin to take control of the situation. It is often helpful for students to make an ABC to-do list for a week that has already happened to help alleviate the stress about making the “wrong” choices.

The last thing to remember before finals which is often overlooked yet very important: Know what you don’t know. Sometimes students are so focused on planning for improvement in the future that they fail to learn from the past. As part of any review plan for a comprehensive final exam, it is crucial to keep track of the things they don’t yet understand. As the semester progresses, I encourage students to write down exam problems they did not answer correctly, homework problems with which they needed help, and chapters in the text they did not understand. These lists are great resources for when the student goes to visit the instructor during office hours, or seeks tutoring assistance. They are also the beginning of a great review checklist. When students can answer the problems correctly, they can move on to the next one. Finally, faculty and tutors greatly appreciate students who have thoughtful questions prepared for discussion.

The Office of Success Programs has many resources that can assist students on their path to academic success. In November, there will be a series of workshops in the residence halls on preparing for final exams. Encourage your student to check with the Residence Advisor (RA) or Peer Leader (PL) for more details.


  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created By: Rachael Pocklington
  • Created: 11/01/2009
  • Modified By: Fletcher Moore
  • Modified: 10/07/2016

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