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Acing Your Final Exams

Acing Your Final Exams

An Interview with Academic Success Expert, Lesley Martin

If you’re anything like me, you’re a podcast junkie. I’m talking Serial, This American Life, Stuff You Missed in History Class… you name it. I first heard Henry Roediger, author of Make it Stick, speak on an American RadioWorks podcast. He said that students often study in a way that helps them remember just enough information to pass a test (cramming), but not in a way that really puts the information into our long term memories.

I spoke with Lesley, Academic Success Coach and founder of Class Tracker, about her thoughts on this idea and asked how students could avoid doing that this year, what with finals coming up and everything. Here's what she had to say! 

Alex: Hi Lesley! Thanks so much for sitting down with me today. I know you’re busy coaching tons of students for finals, so I’m sure our readers will appreciate your expertise!

Lesley: Not a problem! I’m happy to help.

Alex: So, Lesley. What would you say is the solution to this problem we’re facing: prepping, or more like cramming, for tests? Students have so much going on in and out of school… how can we train ourselves to study and retain information better?

Lesley: It’s more simple than you think. Spend as much time (or more) testing yourself as you do reviewing. The best way to learn something new is to practice getting that information out of your brain rather than focusing on getting it in.

Alex: Could you explain that a little?

Lesley: Sure! In other words, students often spend their time practicing what I call “understanding” rather that practicing “knowing.” Understanding the material is often what happens when you hear something, read something or see something or do something for the first or even second time. It could be that you hear a lecture in class and take notes, or watch a youtube video to learn about mitosis. These kinds of activities help you to put things into your brain. Students think that if they highlight or re-read notes this will help them to memorize the information. This just creates an “illusion of mastery”.  Students only discover once they practice the material without notes or cues in front of them whether they actually know or don’t know the material.

Alex: So, you need to spend more time testing yourself so that you will better understand what materials need further review and practice. Got it.  

Lesley: Testing helps move the information from your short to long term memory. Cool, huh?

Alex: Ok so now we know what kind of studying works best. We still have tons of finals coming up, and each final is different. How do you recommend we “play” the test? I mean, how do we make sure we’re prepped for taking the actual test. I know some people identify as “bad” test takers. What would you say to them?

Lesley: Ideally you want to test yourself in the way that you will be assessed. If the test asks you to memorize information and be able to recall it from you memory (rather than from a list of some sort) then flashcards are your friends. As you go through your stack, be sure to put your cards into piles of “got it” and “don’t got it” so you can focus your practice on the material you don’t now as well. This goes back to what we were just talking about, regarding retention.

If you are being asked to explain concepts (i.e. causes of World War I), write it out or say it out loud (to someone with an answer key) and then check to make sure you got it all.

If you have a math test, go back over your past quizzes and homework and redo problems you didn’t get right. Also look for additional problems to practice in your textbook book or online.

If you need to practice verb conjugations in another language, set up a blank table and fill it out (without looking) for each verb or tense you are learning and then check your work.

One of the best ways to know that you really know the material is when you teach it to someone else (could be a study group or even your dog or cat) without notes. What you quickly find out is what you know or what you don’t know!

Pro tip: It’s best to space out study sessions over multiple days over a week rather than cramming it all in one night before. The brain has the capacity to remember information on a short term basis but without doing activities that practice getting it out that information will quickly disappear. This means that when it comes to the test, your brain may or may not have stored that information and while you remember reviewing it the night before you draw a blank.

Alex: That’s all so helpful, thanks!

Lesley: No problem!

Alex: Ok, Lesley. Before we finish up. If you could just give us, in a nutshell, your top three tips for studying… what would they be?

Lesley: Well, everyone is different. But, generally, I recommend starting early, mixing it up, practicing a lot, and getting plenty of sleep. … Ok, I know that isn’t really three. But sleep is very important!

Alex: I know I don’t get nearly enough sleep…

Lesley: Most of us don’t, but it’s so important for information retention! Which is why we’re here today.

Alex: Would you mind elaborating a bit on some of these tips?

Lesley: Sure! Ok. So first, start early. Most of the kids I coach like to cram everything in at the last moment. Current research shows that the best way to learn something is to review the material multiple times over the course of a week or two rather than all at once for many hours. So rather than planning one 3-hours study session for history, it’s more effective to set up three 1-hour sessions over the course of a week. Definitely use a great student planner to keep track of your study plan, too.

Second, mix it up! It’s good for the brain to review material and then practice it in random order so that you learn how to recognize the problem and pick the best solution. If you are using flashcards, mix up the order. If you are using study guides, review the information randomly rather than chronologically or the order of the guide. Also, it’s good to mix up subjects as well: rather than focusing for four hours on one topic, spend an hour each on four different topics.

Third, get some sleep! This is so important, and often gets overlooked. Sleep is when the brain processes and prunes the information needed for the next day’s exam. It’s a necessary part of the learning process. Teenagers and young adults need between 8 and 9 hours of sleep. Make sure you’re getting your full night’s rest!

Alex: Wow, thanks so much Lesley! This has been so helpful. I can’t wait to share this information with our Class Tracker community!

Lesley: Absolutely! I love helping students succeed. It’s why I do what I do.

Thanks for reading, Class Trackers! Keep studying! And good luck on finals!!


Want to find out more about what helps people learn?

Listen to this 13-minute podcast interview of Peter Brown, author of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.

Listen to this 60-minute podcast on the "Science of Smart" to learn more about how the benefits of bilingual education, how tests are powerful learns for learning and how variation is the key to deeper learning.