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All Crammed Out

Final Exam Tips

It’s May and that means high school students across the state have their sights set firmly on the beach, prom, and all kinds of summer plans. But before students are set free for the summer, they first must make it through an academic rite of passage — final exams.

In many schools, finals and midterms (also known as semester exams) are not just part of the high school experience. They often begin in middle school. Many students have no idea how to adequately prepare for these important tests. Part of the challenge is that study skills and exam prep techniques do not easily lend themselves to a one size fits all approach. Each student has a unique learning style or profile.  What works for your brother or your best friend may not work best for you. Here are suggested techniques to help students review and internalize the large amounts of material that final exams cover.

1. Start Early!

The foremost principle of exam study is to avoid cramming by taking some time to review your course materials well in advance of the scheduled exam.  The earlier you start, the better base you build, and the more you understand what you are up against.

2. Review Your Notes

Just read them straight through.  This first exercise will refresh your memory. If your notes are good, you’re off to a great start. After your initial review, review frequently and highlight the most important information. Color-coding can really help. This will allow you to easily and quickly get the most out of reviewing your notes. After you have done your highlighting, you should review just the highlighted parts over and over again.

Upon your initial review, you may find they provide little help. Don’t lose heart. There are many other ways to get the information you will need to prepare for the exam.

3. Use Outlines and Review Sheets

Many schools require teachers to distribute course syllabi, outlines, assignment sheets, and even exam review sheets. Everything given out by the teacher should be saved and reviewed. If the teacher thought it was important enough to distribute, the student ought to take that as a sign! Review sheets are valuable to all students but especially to those who have less experience at studying for exams. Good teachers have organized their courses and review sheets, outlines, and syllabi can help students group the content into manageable chunks.

If you have no outlines from you teacher, your textbook can serve you well.  Though I believe the best courses are not organized simply by covering a textbook from start to finish, textbooks all have built-in outlines — the table of contents. You can get a very good sense of organization from the chapter names, the headings and sub-headings. You can make your own outline just by using this tool.

4. Review Your Graded Tests and Quizzes

This is an often-overlooked study hint.  When I was a full-time classroom teacher, I taught my students that the tests and quizzes were a good guide to what I thought was important stuff to know. To prove this, I always told them that the final exam would include a few questions that were repeats from their earlier tests. This way, they had an incentive to review and examine their tests to improve their performance. Students who heeded this advice were rewarded because they already knew the answers or the train of thought I was trying to instill in them. (And isn’t that part of the point?)

5. Don’t Spend Too Much Time Re-Reading Your Textbook

Trying to read large sections of your textbook can be a waste of time. Instead, try to identify certain concepts, topics, or pages that you should review. Don’t be shy about using the index and table of contents to help you find the things you need to brush up on.

6. Use Online Resources

You have incredible resources at your fingertips.  Even if your notes are not helpful or you haven’t saved enough handouts or old tests, you can follow hyperlinks or use great resources like, a site that has thousands of short, clear lessons on a range of topics.

7. Get Advice From Your Teacher

Finally, a great way to prepare for exams is to work directly with your teacher. It’s quite likely that he wants you to be successful. Keeping communication open will serve you well, not just for the exam, but also for the grander purpose of school — learning to learn.

Mark Heller is head of school at Academy at the Lakes, a PK3-12th grade independent school that serves students from Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, and Hernando counties. For more information, visit

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