Helping Your Student Prepare for Final Exams

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by Eric Moschella 
Director of Academic Support, Office of Success Programs

There are few things more stressful and intimidating for students than final exams. The thought of being responsible for everything covered in a course during an entire semester and the pressure of having to demonstrate that knowledge in a couple of hours can send students into a state of frenzy. To make matters worse, exams come at a time when many students are ready for, and desperately need, a break. Fortunately most students navigate this hectic and stressful time very well. There are however, some ways that students and parents can make this difficult time more productive and less stressful.

Let’s start with students:

Planning: The most effective way to minimize stress and maximize learning is through careful planning. Many students will wait until the week before exams to start planning how they will study. This approach will almost always result in feelings of being overwhelmed. Students should start studying for their cumulative final exams at least a month before the actual exam date. This is accomplished through a process of organizing study times and materials into categories such as “new” and “review.” By setting aside study time and distributing learning, students can literally begin preparing for final exams much earlier in the semester, and have significantly less studying to do at the end of the semester!

Think “big picture”: Most cumulative final exams will focus on integrating all of the base knowledge covered throughout the semester (i.e. conceptual understanding) not just remembering facts. On many final exams, understanding the relationships is as important as knowing all of the factual “parts”. Make sure you understand not only the facts but also the practical application.

Make lists: It is helpful to break down course material and make lists of what needs to be studied, along with allotting fixed amounts of time (1-2 hours/ session) to study. Prioritizing what needs to be studied and checking off when you are finished creates the sense of accomplishment and allows students to check their progress.

Seek help early on: Everyone wants a tutor, teaching assistant, or professor to help them the week before the final. As the saying goes, “timing is everything.” Students should not wait until the last minute to begin exam preparations and to find the help they need. Everyone’s schedule is full at the end of the semester, and there is little time to learn new things. The student who seeks help throughout the semester when questions arise will have a big advantage come finals week.

Know your grades and be realistic: Knowing where you stand can help you prioritize and plan. Being realistic will keep disappointment to a minimum. Students should talk with faculty, advisors, and their parents to be sure they are making good decisions about their academics.

Eat, sleep, and be merry: Well, maybe not too merry, but a little fun will do you good. Make sure you are taking care of yourself. Diet and sleep habits will make a difference in your academic performance, almost as much as your studying.

Parents may have the most difficult and stressful role in navigating the final exam season. As parents, you know and understand all of the tips mentioned above, but now you watch from the sidelines. There are however, some tactics you can practice to help your student:

Help them understand what learning is: Memorizing facts is wonderful, but at the college level it is important they understand conceptual ideas and connections between them. Encourage them to focus on understanding more than just the “how,” but also the “why” and “what if.”

Ask questions that cause reflection: You know your student best. Ask them questions about how they could do better. What do they need to change? What is working? What is not? You may know the answer, but until they arrive at the same conclusion through their own processing, advice will be of little help. Remember to focus on the positive.

Listen: They may just need to vent. They want you to understand what they are going through, but they will typically want to solve the problems they are having themselves. Sometimes just hearing what they have to say - without giving advice - can be encouraging and motivating to your student.

If you have concerns about your student’s well being during this time, remember there are a variety of resources available on campus for your student, and encourage them to take advantage of all the support Georgia Tech has to offer. Remind them they don’t have to do it alone!



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