Faculty Friday – How to ace your final exams

So I’m a college professor, which means I serve on committees to keep the university running, I do research to advance understanding in my field, but mostly I teach classes.

Here at Elon, it’s very soon final exam time. We are on a later clock than most schools, so sorry if this is too late for you.

People try a lot of different ways to learn new things, but there are two ways I’ve found are highly effective. I encourage them to do one or the other by essentially letting my students think they can cheat, when in fact I am really helping them study.

In any theoretical class (where you learn about content, not a particular skill), I offer my students what I call their “Faustian bargain.”

They can pick my giving them a superset study guide, which will include a superset of essay questions. I might give them 25 essay questions, then there will be 4 on the exam and they will write 3. The students love this because it gives them a sense of control over the process – essentially, they know exactly what will be required of them. I use it because it encourages one of the keys to successful learning: repetition. Many of the students will form study groups and divide up the questions to write answers, then come back before the test to teach each other the material. Others will write all of the answers for themselves. Both work well. Others will ignore it completely. Not usually the best strategy, but people make choices.

They can also pick the cheat sheet option. Depending on how complex the class is, they use an index card of various sizes or even an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet. They can write whatever they want on it, at any size they wish. I saw a suggestion from another faculty member that you require cheat sheets to be handwritten, which I think I will do in the future. The beauty of the cheat sheet is that it requires you to filter the information. Not everything can make it on to a card, so you have to be selective. One of the ways that you do that is by chunking – taking a single piece of information that helps you remember several others. For example, if you remember your childhood home phone number, it’s because those 7 or 10 numbers are remembered with the concept Mom. This works for events that happened on a particular date, properties of a geometric figure and more. Chunking takes advantage of another way to learn – by building connections between pieces of information. Making a cheat sheet requires chunking, which helps you learn.

One could argue that by bringing in a cheat sheet, I am not sure my students have memorized everything. I think that’s ok. When I started this post, I couldn’t remember the term for chunking. But I did remember that the idea came from an article by George Miller about the magical number 7, which was what he found was the number of unrelated things a person can hold in working memory at once (and is the reason phone numbers are 7 digits). A quick search of “George Miller” and “magical” gave me the information. When you literally have the Internet in your pocket now, remembering ways to get to the information you want is good enough a lot of the time.

How to actually ace your exams

  • Use repetition. Study for all your exams in rotation so you are seeing concepts multiple times for shorter periods
  • Find ways to link related concepts. Whenever possible, apply what you have learned to a real problem. If you are learning literary terms, find examples in literature. If you are learning to code, code something that works.
  • Chunk. Mnemonics work for a reason, so use them where you can.

Learn more:

Make sure you get enough sleep. Fancy scientific explanation of the impact of sleep on memory.

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